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Astronomers Listen in On Strongest Known Deep Space Radio Signal

Astronomers at the Parkes Observatory in Australia have observed the brightest fast radio burst known to science. The signal was detected first on March 1st, then again on March 9th and 11th, with the March 9th signal breaking the record for strongest known deep space radio signal. All three of the signals have a high signal-to-noise ratio and their orientation is not thought to be vulnerable to interference from terrestrial sources – meaning they have a powerful, localized origin. Scientists recently detected a “rapid fire” burst coming from a separate radio source just a few months ago. Could this strange pattern of radio bursts lend credence to the theories that these signals might be attempts at intergalactic communication?

While it’s far too tempting to believe (or maybe just hope) that these signals could be transmissions sent by distant alien civilizations, astronomers are much more cautious. The prevailing theory of many astronomers at the moment is that these radio bursts are caused by neutron star emissions or perhaps released by stars with powerful magnetic fields being ripped apart by black holes. Still, there is much room for speculation given how little we actually know about FRBs. Will astronomers ever crack the mystery of these unexplained deep space radio signals?

A radio telescope at the Parkes Observatory.

A radio telescope at the Parkes Observatory.

Unfortunately, we’ve only known about these fast radio bursts for ten years or so, and their rarity and unpredictability means data is scarce; only 33 confirmed FRB sources are currently known to astronomers. Even if these new signals didn’t break the record for signal strength, the detection of three separate fast radio bursts in one month is pretty unusual on its own. Could this have been an attempt at getting our attention? It surely worked.

However, it could also be that astronomers are merely getting better at detecting and identifying them, and all the recent attention FRBs have gotten means astronomers are likely searching for them much more carefully. Still, every new discovery puts us closer to discovering the truth of these mysterious radio signals. Which most likely will be a banal astrophysical phenomenon which further beats into our caveman skulls the fact that we’re desperately alone out here in the vacuum of space.