New telescope detects 'hundreds' more mysterious radio bursts from space

Map of pulses - D. Champion
Map of pulses - D. Champion

A new telescope has detected 'hundreds' of mysterious radio bursts from space, prompting a string of theories about where they're coming from that run from the mundane to the astonishing.

Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) are very short but very intense pulses of radio waves which were first discovered in 2007.

Lasting as little as a fraction of a millisecond, they are thought to travel to Earth from other galaxies far out in the universe, and could be coming from other civilisations, according to Harvard scientist professor Avi Loeb.

A programme called the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment, or CHIME, has used a radio telescope in British Columbia to observe 535 new FRBs in just 12 months between 2018 and 2019, the first results show.

The powerful digital signalling processor works at about seven terabits per second - equivalent to a few per cent of the world's internet traffic.

CHIME Telescope
CHIME Telescope

Team member Kaitlyn Shin, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said: "Before CHIME, there were less than 100 total discovered FRBs. Now, after one year of observation, we've discovered hundreds more.

"With all these sources, we can really start getting a picture of what FRBs look like as a whole, what astrophysics might be driving these events and how they can be used to study the universe going forward."

The brief beacons have been spotted in various and distant parts of the universe - as well as in our own galaxy and register in the radio band of the electromagnetic spectrum.

But Prof Loeb, who was not part of the study, does not want us to rule out the possibility that these beams are coming from other life forms.

Writing in American Scientist, Prof Loeb said: “It’s a long shot, but could at least some of these energy blasts from across the universe come from extraterrestrial civilisations?”

The professor, who says “it would be arrogant to think we're alone in the universe” argued that “a powerful radio beam could be used for military purposes or might be generated to push a light sail and launch a massive cargo close to the speed of light.

“This sounds like an unrealistic ambition for our own civilisation. But despite what many of us might have heard from our parents, we might not be the smartest kids on the block after all,” he added.

The findings, which were presented at the virtual American Astronomical Society Meeting come as the US government is preparing to release its much anticipated report into UFOs.

It has been claimed that the analysis of 120 UFO sightings over the last two decades has found no evidence of alien origins but could not rule it out.

Senior government officials briefed on the report told the New York Times they were increasingly concerned the sightings could be Chinese or Russian hypersonic aircraft.

Meanwhile, astronomers are still trying to figure out exactly how and from where the FRBs are being produced.

Mapping showed the bursts were evenly distributed in space.

The degree to which each beam is dispersed can reveal how much gas it passed through and the distance it has travelled from its source.

The bursts fall into two distinct categories - those that repeat, and those that don't.

Scientists identified 18 FRBs in the former, while the rest appear to be one-offs.

As the telescope detects more, the scientists plan to pin down exactly what kind of phenomena could generate such ultrafast signals.

Ms Shin, a PhD student, said: "With large numbers of FRBs, we can hopefully figure out how gas and matter are distributed on very large scales in the universe.

"So, alongside the mystery of what FRBs are themselves, there's also the exciting potential for FRBs as powerful cosmological probes in the future."

Other theories as to the origins of the bursts include young neutron stars with an exceedingly strong magnetic field, called magnetars, which explains their extraordinary radio brightness, according to Prof Loeb.

"However, if the FRB source is not a neutron star, then there is another interesting possibility: its companion could be a sunlike star," he added.

"An orbital period of 157 days around the sun would mimic a planet with an orbital radius that is halfway between Venus and Mercury. If the FRB source emits a pair of beams in opposite directions, 157 days would correspond to half of the orbital period—in which case the orbital radius would be similar to that of the Earth around the sun.

"This is an intriguing regime, consistent with the FRB signal originating from a transmitter produced by a technological civilisation based on a planet in the habitable zone around a sunlike star."