Jan 11, 2019 I Brett Tingley

Astronomers Find Another Mysterious Repeating Deep Space Radio Burst

It’s a little odd sometimes tracking headlines and stories for several years. You get a sense of history being written in real time as each new discovery or breakthrough adds to an ever-growing picture that something big could be happening. That’s been the case with the discovery and study of several mysterious fast radio bursts (FRB) detected in deep space over the last few years. These anomalous signals are unlike anything we've found in space to date, and astronomers are still working to identify what these radio signals may be. Will one of these fast radio bursts turn out to be the first-known attempt by an alien civilization to communicate with planet Earth? Could we be witnessing history in the making?

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The first fast radio burst FRB) was discovered in 2007. Since then, dozens of other FRB sources have been located - but not identified.

Maybe. They’re likely just the random products of big spinning balls of weird gasses and metals and junk, as with nearly all other space-y phenomena. And technically we're always witnessing history in the making. That doesn’t mean we should quit searching for FRBs and analyzing them, though. All we need is one, just one signal to prove once and for all that we’re not alone out here in the soul-crushing emptiness of space. Is that too much to ask?

To that end, astronomers using the new Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) telescope has been searching for fast radio bursts in the few months it’s been in operation, and already the instrument has detected 13 new FRBs including the FRB signal with the lowest frequency in August 2018. Even more exciting, one of those new signals appears to repeat according to a report published in Nature, making it the second-known repeating fast radio burst in history.

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The CHIME Pathfinder telescope in British Columbia.

Repeating FRBs are radio signals which re-appear at the same location in the sky, making them one of the most intriguing mysteries in astrophysics. If some distant alien civilization was attempting to communicate with us using radio waves, that signal would likely repeat just as this rare type of FRB does. This particular new signal has been seen to repeat at least five separate times. Deborah Good, an astronomer at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, says her team is “very excited” about studying this signal in greater detail as more data is gathered.

One day, one of these signals could turn out to be the first evidence of first contact. Could this new repeating signal be the one? Stay tuned.

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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