You know what’s fun? Mysteries. Here’s one: fast radio bursts. Astronomers have been detecting mysterious one-time signals from across the sky. What’s causing them? Nobody knows for sure, but the search is on to get to the bottom of them.
When astronomers first noted the detection of a Fast Radio Burst (FRB) in 2007 (aka. the Lorimer Burst), they were both astounded and intrigued. This high-energy burst of radio pulses, which lasted only a few milliseconds, appeared to be coming from outside of our galaxy. Since that time, astronomers have found evidence of many FRBs in previously-recorded data, and are still speculating as to what causes them.
Thanks to subsequent discoveries and research, astronomers now know that FRBs are far more common than previously thought. In fact, according to a new study by a team of researchers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), FRBs may occur once every second within the observable Universe. If true, FRBs could be a powerful tool for researching the origins and evolution of the cosmos.
As noted, FRBs have remained something of a mystery since they were first discovered. Not only do their causes remain unknown, but much about their true nature is still not understood. As Dr. Fialkov told Universe Today via email:
“FRBs (or fast radio bursts) are astrophysical signals of an undetermined nature. The observed bursts are short (or millisecond duration), bright pulses in the radio part of the electromagnetic spectrum (at GHz frequencies). Only 24 bursts have been observed so far and we still do not know for sure which physical processes trigger them. The most plausible explanation is that they are launched by rotating magnetized neutron stars. However, this theory is to be confirmed.”
For the sake of their study, Fialkov and Loeb relied on observations made by multiple telescopes of the repeating fast radio burst known as FRB 121102. This FRB was first observed in 2012 by researchers using the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, and has since been confirmed to be coming from a galaxy located 3 billion light years away in the direction of the Auriga constellation.
Since it was discovered, additional bursts have been detected coming from its location, making FRB 121102 the only known example of a repeating FRB. This repetitive nature has also allowed astronomers to conduct more detailed studies of it than any other FRB. As Prof. Loeb told Universe Today via email, these and other reasons made it an ideal target for their study:
“FRB 121102 is the only FRB for which a host galaxy and a distance were identified. It is also the only repeating FRB source from which we detected hundreds of FRBs by now. The radio spectrum of its FRBs is centered on a characteristic frequency and not covering a very broad band. This has important implications for the detectability of such FRBs, because in order to find them the radio observatory needs to be tuned to their frequency.”
Based on what is known about FRB 121102, Fialkov and Loeb conducted a series of calculations that assumed that it’s behavior was representative of all FRBs. They then projected how many FRBs would exist across the entire sky and determined that within the observable Universe, a FRB would likely be taking place once every second. As Dr. Fialkov explained:
“Assuming that FRBs are produced by galaxies of a particular type (e.g., similar to FRB 121102) we can calculate how many FRBs have to be produced by each galaxy to explain the existing observations (i.e., 2000 per sky per day). With this number in mind we can infer the production rate for the entire population of galaxies. This calculation shows that an FRB occurs every second when accounting for all the faint events.”
While the exact nature and origins of FRBs are still unknown – suggestions include rotating neutron stars and even alien intelligence! – Fialkov and Loeb indicate that they could be used to study the structure and evolution of the Universe. If indeed they occur with such regular frequency throughout the cosmos, then more distant sources could act as probes which astronomers would then rely on to plumb the depths of space.
For instance, over vast cosmic distances, there is a significant amount of intervening material that makes it difficult for astronomers to study the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) – the leftover radiation from the Big Bang. Studies of this intervening material could lead to a new estimates of just how dense space is – i.e. how much of it is composed of ordinary matter, dark matter, and dark energy – and how rapidly it is expanding.
And as Prof. Loeb indicated, FRBs could also be used to explore enduring cosmlogical questions, like how the “Dark Age” of the Universe ended:
“FRBs can be used to measure the column of free electrons towards their source. This can be used to measure the density of ordinary matter between galaxies in the present-day universe. In addition, FRBs at early cosmic times can be used to find out when the ultraviolet light from the first stars broke up the primordial atoms of hydrogen left over from the Big Bang into their constituent electrons and protons.”
The “Dark Age”, which occurred between 380,000 and 150 million years after the Big Bang, was characterized by a “fog” of hydrogen atoms interacting with photons. As a result of this, the radiation of this period is undetectable by our current instruments. At present, scientists are still attempting to resolve how the Universe made the transition between these “Dark Ages” and subsequent epochs when the Universe was filled with light.
This period of “reionization”, which took place 150 million to 1 billion years after the Big Bang, was when the first stars and quasars formed. It is generally believed that UV light from the first stars in the Universe traveled outwards to ionize the hydrogen gas (thus clearing the fog). A recent study also suggested that black holes that existed in the early Universe created the necessary “winds” that allowed this ionizing radiation to escape.
To this end, FRBs could be used to probe into this early period of the Universe and determine what broke down this “fog” and allowed light to escape. Studying very distant FRBs could allow scientists to study where, when and how this process of “reionization” occurred. Looking ahead, Fialkov and Loeb explained how future radio telescopes will be able to discover many FRBs.
“Future radio observatories, like the Square Kilometer Array, will be sensitive enough to detect FRBs from the first generation of galaxies at the edge of the observable universe,” said Prof. Loeb. “Our work provides the first estimate of the number and properties of the first flashes of radio waves that lit up in the infant universe.”
“[W]e find that a next generation telescope (with a much better sensitivity than the existing ones) is expected to see many more FRBs than what is observed today,” said Dr. Fialkov. “This would allow to characterize the population of FRBs and identify their origin. Understanding the nature of FRBs will be a major breakthrough. Once the properties of these sources are known, FRBs can be used as cosmic beacons to explore the Universe. One application is to study the history of reionization (cosmic phase transition when the inter-galactic gas was ionized by stars).”
It is an inspired thought, using natural cosmic phenomena as research tools. In that respect, using FRBs to probe the most distant objects in space (and as far back in time as we can) is kind of like using quasars as navigational beacons. In the end, advancing our knowledge of the Universe allows us to explore more of it.
In July of 2015, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner announced the creation of Breakthrough Listen, a decade-long project that would conduct the largest survey to date for signs of extra-terrestrial communications (ETI). As part of his non-profit organization, Breakthrough Initiatives, this survey would rely on the latest in instrumentation and software to observe the 1,000,000 closest stars and 100 closest galaxies.
Using the Green Bank Radio Telescope in West Virginia, the Listen science team at UC Berkeley has been observing distant stars for over a year now. And less than a week ago, they observed 15 Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) coming from a dwarf galaxy located three billion light-years away. According to a study that described their findings, this was the first time that repeating FRBs have been seen coming from this source at these frequencies.
To clarify, FRBs are brief, bright pulses of radio waves that are periodically detected coming from distant galaxies. This strange astronomical phenomena was first detected in 2007 by Duncan Lorimer and David Narkovic using the Parkes Telescope in Australia. To honor their discovery, FRBs are sometimes referred to as “Lorimer Bursts”. Many FRB sources have been confirmed since then, some of which were found repeating.
The source known as FRB 121101 was discovered back on November 2nd, 2012, by astronomers using the Arecibo radio telescope. At the time, it was the first FRB to be discovered; and by 2015, it became the first FRB to be seen repeating. This effectively ruled out the possibility that repeating FRBs were caused by catastrophic events, which had previously been theorized.
And in 2016, FRB 121102 was the first FRB to have its location pinpointed to such a degree that its host galaxy could be identified. As such, the Listen science team at UC Berkeley was sure to add FRB 121102 to their list of targets. And in the early hours of Saturday, August 26th, Dr. Vishal Gajjar – a postdoctoral researcher at UC Berkeley – observed FRB 121102 using the Green Bank Radio Telescope (GBRT) in West Virginia.
Using the Digital Backend instrument on the GBRT, Dr. Gajjar and the Listen team observed FRB 121102 for five hours. From this, they accumulating 400 terabytes of data in the entire 4 to 8 GHz frequency band which they then analyzed for signs of short pulses over a broad range of frequencies. What they found was evidence of 15 new pulses coming from FRB 121102, which confirmed that it was in a newly active state.
In addition, their observations revealed that the brightest of these 15 emissions occurred at around 7 GHz. This was higher than any repeating FRBs seen to date, which indicated for the first time that they can occur at frequencies higher than previously thought. Last, but not least, the high-resolution data the Listen team collected is expected to yield valuable insights into FRBs for years to come.
This was made possible thanks to the Digital Backend instrument on the GBRT, which is able to record several GHz of bandwidth simultaneously and split the information into billions of individuals channels. This enables scientists to study the proprieties and the frequency spectrum of FRBs with greater precision, and should lead to new theories about the causes of these radio emissions.
So even if these particular signals should prove to not be an indication of extra-terrestrial intelligence, Listen is still pushing the boundaries of what is possible with radio astronomy. And given that Breakthrough Listen is less than two years into its proposed ten-year survey, we can expect many more sources to be observed and studied in the coming years. If there’s evidence of ETI to be found, we’re sure to find out about it sooner or later!
And be sure to check out this video of the Green Bank Telescope and the surveys it allows for, courtesy of Berkeley SETI:
Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) have puzzled astronomers since they were first detected in 2007. These mysterious milliseconds-long blasts of radio waves appear to be coming from long distances, and have been attributed to various things such as alien signals or extraterrestrial propulsion systems, and more ‘mundane’ objects such as extragalactic neutron stars. Some scientists even suggested they were some type of ‘local’ source, such as atmospheric phenomena on Earth, tricking astronomers about their possible distant origins.
So far, less than two dozen FRBs have been detected in a decade. But now researchers from the Australian National University and Swinburne University of Technology have detected three of these mystery bursts in just six months using the interferometry capabilities of the Molonglo Observatory Synthesis Telescope (MOST) in Canberra, Australia. In doing so, they were able to confirm that these FRBs really do come from outer space.
“Figuring out where the bursts come from is the key to understanding what makes them,” said Manisha Caleb, a PhD candidate at ANU, and lead author of a new paper. “While only one burst has been linked to a specific galaxy we expect Molonglo will do this for many more bursts.”
The unique long and narrow configuration of MOST provides a huge collecting area of about 18,000 square meters for a very large field of view, about 8 square degrees of the sky. In an effort to boost the capabilities of this telescope for hunting for the elusive FRBs, MOST has been upgraded and reconfigured, with the ultimate goal of localizing the bursts down to an individual galaxy.
Caleb produced software to sift through the 1,000 terabytes of data produced by MOST each day, and that allowed her and her team to make the three new FRB discoveries.
They determined the three new FRBs really were from space because the events were well beyond the 10,000 km near-field limit of the telescope, which ruled out local (terrestrial) sources of interference as a possible origin.
Caleb and her team wrote in their paper that they also demonstrated with pulsars that a repeating FRB seen with MOST has the potential to be localized quite precisely, which is “an exciting prospect for identifying the host,” they wrote.
So far, however, just one FRB has repeated, and although Caleb and her team were able to observe the area of each of the new FRBs for several hours, (105 hours following FRB 160317, 43 hours on FRB 160410 and 35 hours on FRB 160608) they found that “no repeat pulses were found from any of the FRB positions.”
But with the nature and source of these FRBs still being highly debated, the capabilities of MOST and an Australian collaboration called BURST provides the most promising hope for determining what FRBs truly are. The BURST project will perform deep FRB searches with MOSTS’s wide field-of-view and nearly constant single pulse searches of the radio sky. You can read more about the project here.
The extremely energetic events that we see out there in the Universe are usually caused by cataclysmic astrophysical events and activities of one sort or another. But what about Fast Radio Bursts? A pair of astrophysicists at Harvard say that the seldom seen phenomena could, maybe, possibly, be evidence of an advanced alien technology.
Fast radio bursts (FRBs) are short-lived radio pulses that last only a few milliseconds. It’s been assumed that they have some astrophysical cause. Fewer than 2 dozen of them have been detected since their discovery in 2007. They’re detected by our huge radio telescopes like the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, and the Parkes Observatory in Australia. They’re extremely energetic, and their source is a great distance from us.
The two astrophysicists, Avi Loeb at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and Manasvi Lingam at Harvard University, decided to investigate the possibility that FRBs have an alien technological origin.
“Fast radio bursts are exceedingly bright given their short duration and origin at great distances, and we haven’t identified a possible natural source with any confidence. An artificial origin is worth contemplating and checking.” – Avi Loeb, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
I’ll Take ‘Alien Signals’ For $200 Alex
Loeb and Lingam began by calculating how much energy would be needed to send a signal that strong across such an enormous distance. They found that doing so with solar energy requires a solar array with an area twice the surface area of Earth. That would be enough energy, if the alien civilization was as close as we are to a star similar to our Sun.
Obviously, such a massive construction project is well beyond us. But however unlikely it sounds, it can’t be ruled out.
The pair also asked themselves questions about the viability of such a project. Would the heat and energy involved in such a solar array melt the structure itself? Their answer is that water-cooling would be sufficient to keep an array like this operating.
Their next question was, “Why build something like this in the first place?”
I’ll Take ‘Alien Spacecraft Propulsion Systems’ For $400 Alex”
The thinking behind their idea is based on an idea that we ourselves have had: Could we power a spacecraft by pushing on it with lasers? Or Microwaves? If we’ve thought of it, why wouldn’t other existing civilizations? If another civilization were doing it, what would the technology look like?
Their investigation shows that the engineering they’re talking about could power a spacecraft with a payload of a million tons. That would be about 20 times bigger than our largest cruise ship. According to Lingam, “That’s big enough to carry living passengers across interstellar or even intergalactic distances.”
If FRBs are indeed the result of an alien propulsion system, here’s how it would work: Earth is rotating and orbiting, which means the alien star and galaxy are moving relative to us. That’s why we would only see a brief flash. The beam sweeps across the sky and only hits us for a moment. The repeated appearance of the FRB could be a clue to its alien, technological origin.
The authors of the study outlining this thinking know that it’s speculative. But it’s their job to speculate within scientific constraints, which they have done. As they say in the conclusion of their paper, “Although the possibility that FRBs are produced by extragalactic civilizations is more speculative than an astrophysical origin, quantifying the requirements necessary for an artificial origin serves, at the very least, the important purpose of enabling astronomers to rule it out with future data.”
There are other interpretations when it comes to FRBs, of course. The others of another paper say that for at least one group of FRBs, known as FRB 121102, the source is likely astrophysical. According to them, FRBs likely come from “a young, highly magnetized, extragalactic neutron star.”
Lurking behind these papers are some intriguing questions that are also fun to ponder.
If the system required a solar array twice the size of Earth, where would the materials come from? If the system required water-cooling to avoid melting, where would all the water come from? It’s impossible to know, or to even begin speculating. But a civilization able to do something like this would have to be master engineers and resource exploiters. That goes without saying.
Why they might do it is another question. Probably the same reasons we would: curiosity and exploration, or maybe to escape a dying world.
For about 10 years, radio astronomers have been detecting mysterious milliseconds-long blasts of radio waves, called “fast radio bursts” (FRB).
While only 18 of these events have been detected so far, one FRB has been particularly intriguing as the signal has been sporadically repeating. First detected in November 2012, astronomers didn’t know if FRB 121102 originated from within the Milky Way galaxy or from across the Universe.
A concentrated search by multiple observatories around the world has now determined that the signals are coming from a dim dwarf galaxy about 2.5 billion light years from Earth. But astronomers are still uncertain about exactly what is creating these bursts.
“These radio flashes must have enormous amounts of energy to be visible from that distance,” said Shami Chatterjee from Cornell University, speaking at a press briefing at the American Astronomical Society meeting this week. Chatterjee and his colleagues have papers published today in Nature and Astrophysical Journal Letters.
The patch of the sky where the signal originated is in the constellation Auriga, and Chatterjee said the patch of the sky is arc minutes in diameter. “In that patch are hundreds of sources. Lots of stars, lots of galaxies, lots of stuff,” he said, which made the search difficult.
The Arecibo radio telescope, the observatory that originally detected the event, has a resolution of three arc minutes or about one-tenth of the moon’s diameter, so that was not precise enough to identify the source. Astronomers used the Very Large Array in New Mexico and the European Very Large Baseline Interferometer (VLBI) network, to help narrow the origin. But, said co-author Casey Law from the University of California Berkeley, that also created a lot of data to sort through.
“It was like trying to find a needle in a terabyte haystack,” he said. “It took a lot of algorithmic work to find it.”
Finally on August 23, 2016, the burst made itself extremely apparent with nine extremely bright bursts.
“We had struggled to be able to observe the faintest bursts we could,” Law said, “but suddenly here were nine of the brightest ones ever detected. This FRB was generous to us.”
The team was not only able to pinpoint it to the distant dwarf galaxy, co-author Jason Hessels from ASTRON/University of Amsterdam said they were also able to determine the bursts didn’t come from the center of the galaxy, but came from slightly off-center in the galaxy. That might indicate it didn’t originate from a central black hole. Upcoming observations with the Hubble Space Telescope might be able to pinpoint it even further.
What makes this source burst repeatedly?
“We don’t know yet what caused it or the physical mechanism that makes such bright and fast pulses,” said said Sarah Burke-Spolaor, from West Virginia University. “The FRB could be outflow from an active galactic nuclei (AGN) or it might be more familiar, such as a distant supernova remnant, or a neutron star.”
Burke-Spolaor added that they don’t know yet if all FRBs are created equal, as so far FRB 121102 is the only repeater. The team hopes there will be other examples detected.
“It may be a magnetar – a newborn neutron star with a huge magnetic field, inside a supernova remnant or a pulsar wind nebula – somehow producing these prodigious pulses,” said Chatterjee. “Or, it may be a combination of all these ideas – explaining why what we’re seeing may be somewhat rare.”
Guests: Dr. Michelle Thaller, the assistant director for Science Communication at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. From 1998 to 2009 she was a staff scientist at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center, and later Manager of the Education and Public Outreach program for the Spitzer Space Telescope, at the California Institute of Technology.
We’ve had an abundance of news stories for the past few months, and not enough time to get to them all. So we’ve started a new system. Instead of adding all of the stories to the spreadsheet each week, we are now using a tool called Trello to submit and vote on stories we would like to see covered each week, and then Fraser will be selecting the stories from there. Here is the link to the Trello WSH page (http://bit.ly/WSHVote), which you can see without logging in. If you’d like to vote, just create a login and help us decide what to cover!
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Very recently, a team of scientists from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) achieved an historic first by being able to pinpoint the source of fast radio bursts (FRBs). With the help of observatories around the world, they determined that these radio signals originated in an elliptical galaxy 6 billion light years from Earth. But as it turns out, this feat has been followed by yet another historic first.
In all previous cases where FRBs were detected, they appeared to be one-off events, lasting for mere milliseconds. However, after running the data from a recent FRB through a supercomputer, a team of scientists at McGill University in Montreal have determined that in this instance, the signal was repeating in nature. This finding has some serious implications for the astronomical community, and is also considered by some to be proof of extra-terrestrial intelligence.
FRBs have puzzled astronomers since they were first detected in 2007. This event, known as the Lorimer Burst, lasted a mere five milliseconds and appeared to be coming from a location near the Large Magellanic Cloud, billions of light years away. Since that time, a total of 16 FRBs have been detected. And in all but this one case, the duration was extremely short and was not followed up by any additional bursts.
Because of their short duration and one-off nature, many scientists have reasoned that FRBs must be the result of cataclysmic events – such as a star going supernova or a neutron star collapsing into a black hole. However, after sifting through data obtained by the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, a team of students from McGill University – led by PhD student Paul Scholz – determined that an FRB detected in 2012 did not conform to this pattern.
In an article published in Nature, Scholz and his associates describe how this particular signal – FRB 121102 – was followed by several bursts with properties that were consistent with the original signal. Running the data which was gathered in May and June through a supercomputer at the McGill High Performance Computing Center, they determined that FRB 121102 had emitted a total of 10 new bursts after its initial detection.
This would seem to indicate that FRBs have more than just one cause, which presents some rather interesting possibilities. As Paul Scholz told Universe Today via email:
“All previous Fast Radio Bursts have only been one-time events, so a lot of explanations for them have involved a cataclysmic event that destroys the source of the bursts, such as a neutron star collapsing into a black hole. Our discovery of repeating bursts from FRB 121102 shows that the source cannot have been destroyed and it must have been due to a phenomenon that can repeat, such as bright pulses from a rotating neutron star.”
Another possibility which is making the rounds is that this signal is not natural in origin. Since their discovery, FRBs and other “transient signals” – i.e. seemingly random and temporary signals – from the Universe have been the subject of speculation. As would be expected, there have been some who have suggested that they might be the long sought-after proof that extra-terrestrial civilizations exist.
For example, in 1967, after receiving a strange reading from a radio array in a Cambridge field, astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell and her team considered the possibility that what they were seeing was an alien message. This would later be shown to be incorrect – it was, in fact, the first discovery of a pulsar. However, the possibility these signals are alien in origin has remained fixed in the public (and scientific) imagination.
This has certainly been the case since the discovery of FRBs. In an article published by New Scientistsin April of 2015 – titled “Cosmic Radio Plays An Alien Tune” – writer and astrophysicist Sarah Scoles explores the possibility of whether or not the strange regularity of some FRBs that appeared to be coming from within the Milky Way could be seen as evidence of alien intelligence.
However, the likelihood that these signals are being sent by extra-terrestrials is quite low. For one, FRBs are not an effective way to send a message. As Dr. Maura McLaughlin of West Virginia University – who was part of the first FRB discovery – has explained, it takes a lot of energy to make a signal that spreads across lots of frequencies (which is a distinguishing feature of FRBs).
And if these bursts came from outside of our galaxy, which certainly seems to be the case, they would have to be incredibly energetic to get this far. As Dr. McLaughlin explained to Universe Today via email:
“The total amount of power required to produce just one FRB pulse is as much as the Sun produces in a month! Although we might expect extraterrestrial civilizations to send short-duration signals, sending a signal over the very wide radio bandwidths over which FRBs are detected would require an improbably immense amount of energy. We expect that extraterrestrial civilizations would transmit over a very narrow range of radio frequencies, much like a radio station on Earth.
But regardless of whether these signals are natural or extra-terrestrial in origin, they do present some rather exciting possibilities for astronomical research and our knowledge of the Universe. Moving forward, Scholz and his team hope to identify the galaxy where the radio bursts originated, and plans to use test out some recently-developed techniques in the process.
“Next we would like to localize the source of the bursts to identify the galaxy that they are coming from,” he said. “This will let us know about the environment around the source. To do this, we need to use radio interferometry to get a precise enough sky location. But, to do this we need to detect a burst while we are looking at the source with such a radio telescope array. Since the source is not always bursting we will have to wait until we get a detection of a burst while we are looking with radio interferometry. So, if we’re patient, eventually we should be able to pinpoint the galaxy that the bursts are coming from.”
In the end, we may find that rapid burst radio waves are a more common occurrence than we thought. In all likelihood, they are being regularly emitted by rare and powerful stellar objects, ones which we’ve only begun to notice. As for the other possibility? Well, we’re not saying it’s aliens, but we’re quite sure others will be!