Scientists searching the universe for signs of alien life detected a burst of 15 radio signals, all taking place in the space of five hours. All 15 signals also came from a galaxy about three billion light years away.
What's beyond the stars?
These radio signals, called fast radio bursts (FRBs), are some of the strangest things that happen in outer space. FRBs are powerful signals, but they're gone almost as quickly as they appear, lasting for only a few milliseconds. There have been a number of theories to explain what causes these bursts, like black holes and, of course, extraterrestrial life.
So far, scientists have detected about two dozen FRBs. One such FRB is called FRB 121102, which is the only FRB that scientists have observed to repeat. Breakthrough Listen, a collaborative program between multiple countries that seeks out signals from possible extraterrestrial civilizations, has focused its resources on observing FRB 121102.
The location of FRB 121102's host galaxy [Image by Gemini Observatory/AURA/NSF/NRC]
The source of FRB 121102 is somewhere in a faraway dwarf galaxy. Though FRB 121102 has sent multiple signals in the past, scientists haven't detected repetitions this frequent ever before. Just two 30-minute scans revealed the 15 signals coming from the same mysterious source.
“Bursts from this source have never been seen at this high a frequency,” says Andrew Siemion, director of the Breakthrough Listen program. Five hours of observation using the Green Bank Telescope, which was pointed at FRB 121102, rendered about 400 terabytes of data. The Green Bank Telescope can record several gigahertz of bandwidth at a time
Back in 2016, it took 83 hours of observation over six months just to detect all of nine signal bursts from FRB 121102. This shows how concentrated and rapid the latest signals are. It's possible, therefore, that FRB 121102 is in a heightened state of activity. Researchers also found that these latest bursts are at a higher frequency than previous signals.
The nature of the signals and the rapid succession of signal bursts may give researchers an idea as to what the nature of the source is. So what could it be? Is it a black hole? A quasar? Alien life? We may be closer to knowing what the source of these signals could be.
The telescope used to study FRB 121102 [Photo by Thomas R. Fletcher/Alamy Stock Photo]
If intelligent life is indeed behind these signals, what are the signals for? Estimates say that the signals outshine the total luminosity of the entire galaxy they come from. If aliens are indeed behind the signals, then they're likely doing something big
Of course, aliens should be the first and foremost possibility we consider when it comes to things like this. There are other plausible explanations that we'd need to rule out before we can seriously begin considering an alien civilization as the source of the signals. It's also possible that if intelligent life were indeed the source of the signals, we weren't their targets. Researchers agree that the signals left their galaxy a million years before even the simplest multi-cellular organisms existed on Earth.
Nonetheless, alien life or no, the source of the signals is probably something significant.
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