In 2016, Russian-Israeli billionaire Yuri Milner launched Breakthrough Initiatives, a massive non-profit organization dedicated to the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI). A key part of their efforts to find evidence of intelligent life is Breakthrough Listen, a $100 million program that is currently conducting a survey of one million of the nearest stars and the 100 nearest galaxies.
In keeping with their commitment to making the results of their surveys available to the public, the Listen team recently submitted two papers to leading astrophysical journals. These papers describe the analysis of Listen’s first three years of radio observations which resulted in a petabyte of radio and optical data, the single largest release of SETI data in the history of the field.
Right, magnetars. Perhaps one of the most ferocious beasts to inhabit the cosmos. Loud, unruly, and temperamental, they blast their host galaxies with wave after wave of electromagnetic radiation, running the gamut from soft radio waves to hard X-rays. They are rare and poorly understood.
Some of these magnetars spit out a lot of radio waves, and frequently. The perfect way to observe them
would be to have a network of high-quality radio dishes across the world, all
continuously observing to capture every bleep and bloop. Some sort of network
of deep-space dishes.
Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) have become a major focus of research in the past decade. In radio astronomy, this phenomenon refers to transient radio pulses coming from distant cosmological sources, which typically last only a few milliseconds on average. Since the first event was detected in 2007 (the “Lorimer Burst”), thirty four FRBs have been observed, but scientists are still not sure what causes them.
With theories ranging from exploding stars and black holes to pulsars and magnetars – and even messages coming from extra-terrestrial intelligences (ETIs) – astronomers have been determined to learn more about these strange signals. And thanks to a new study by a team of Australian researchers, who used the Australia Square Kilometer Array Pathfinder (ASKAP), the number of known sources of FRBs has almost doubled.
Since they were first detected in 2007, Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) have been a source of mystery to astronomers. In radio astronomy, this phenomenon refers to transient radio pulses coming from distant sources that typically last a few milliseconds on average. Despite the detection of dozens of events since 2007, scientists are still not sure what causes them – though theories range from exploding stars, black holes, and magnetars to alien civilizations!
The detection of FRB 180725A was announced online in a “Astronomer’s Telegram” post, which is intended to alert the astronomical community about possible new finds and encourage follow-up observations. The detection of FRB 180725A is very preliminary at this point, and more research is needed before its existence as an FRB can be confirmed.
As they stated in the Astronomers Telegram announcement, the radio was signal was detected on July 25th, at precisely 17:59:43.115 UTC (09:59.43.115 PST), and at a radio frequency of 400 MHz:
“The automated pipeline triggered the recording to disk of ~20 seconds of buffered raw intensity data around the time of the FRB. The event had an approximate width of 2 ms and was found at dispersion measure 716.6 pc/cm^3 with a signal-to-noise ratio S/N ~20.6 in one beam and 19.4 in a neighboring beam. The centers of these, approximately 0.5 deg wide and circular beams, were at RA, Dec = (06:13:54.7, +67:04:00.1; J2000) and RA, Dec = (06:12:53.1, +67:03:59.1; J2000).”
Research into Fast Radio Bursts is still in its infancy, being a little more than a decade old. The first ever to be detected was the famous Lorimer Burst, which was named after it discoverer – Duncan Lorimer, from West Virginia University. This burst lasted a mere five milliseconds and appeared to be coming from a location near the Large Magellanic Cloud, billions of light years away.
So far, the only FRB that has been found to be repeating was the mysterious signal known as FRB 121102, which was detected by the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico in 2012. The nature of this FRB was first noticed by a team of students from McGill University (led by then-PhD Student Paul Scholz), who sifted through the Arecibo data and determined that the initial burst was followed by 10 additional burst consistent with the original signal.
In addition to being the first time that this Canadian facility detected a possible FRB coming from space, this is the first time that an FRB has been detected below the 700 MHz range. However, as the CHIME team indicate in their announcement, other signals of equal intensity may have occurred in the past, which were simply not recognized as FRBs at the time.
“Additional FRBs have been found since FRB 180725A and some have flux at frequencies as low as 400 MHz,” they wrote. “These events have occurred during both the day and night and their arrival times are not correlated with known on-site activities or other known sources of terrestrial RFI (Radio Frequency Identification).”
As a result, this most-recent detection (if confirmed) could help astronomers shed some additional light on what causes FRBs, not to mention place some constraints on what frequencies they can occur at. Much like the study of gravitational waves, the field of study is new but rapidly growing, and made possible by the addition of cutting-edge instruments and facilities around the world.
Three times in October, 2017 researchers turned a powerful radar telescope near Tromsø, Norway towards an invisibly faint star in the constellation Canis Minor (the small dog) and beamed a coded message into space in an attempt to signal an alien civilization. This new attempt to find other intelligent life in the universe was reported in a presentation at the ‘Language in the Cosmos’ symposium held on May 26 in Los Angeles, California.
METI International sponsored the symposium. This organization was founded to promote messaging to extraterrestrial intelligence (METI) as a new approach to in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). It also supports other aspects of SETI research and astrobiology. The symposium was held as part of the International Space Development Conference sponsored by the National Space Society. It brought together linguists and other scientists for a daylong program of 11 presentations. Dr. Sheri Wells-Jensen, who is a linguist from Bowling Green State University in Ohio, was the organizer.
This is the second of a two part series about METI International’s symposium. It will focus on a presentation given at the symposium by the president of METI International, Dr. Douglas Vakoch. He spoke about a project that hasn’t previously gotten much attention: the first attempt to send a message to a nearby potentially habitable exoplanet, GJ273b. Vakoch led the team that constructed the tutorial portion of the message.
Message to the stars
The modern search for extraterrestrial intelligence began in 1960. This is when astronomer Frank Drake used a radio telescope in West Virginia to listen for signals from two nearby stars. Astronomers have sporadically mounted increasingly sophisticated searches, when funding has been available. The largest current project is Breakthrough Listen, funded by billionaire Yuri Milner. Searches have been made for laser as well as radio signals. Researchers have also looked for the megastructures that advanced aliens might create in space near their stars. METI International advocates an entirely new approach in which messages are transmitted to nearby stars in hopes of eliciting a reply.
The project to send a message to GJ273b was a collaboration between artists and scientists. It was initiated by the organizers of the Sónar Music, Creativity, and Technology Festival. The Sónar festival has been held every year since 1994 in Barcelona, Spain. The organizers wanted to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the festival. To implement the project, the festival organizers sought the help of the Catalonia Institute of Space Studies (IEEC), and METI International.
To transmit the message, the team turned to The European Incoherent Scatter Scientific Association (EISCAT) which operates a network of radio and radar telescopes in Finland, Norway, and Sweden. This network is primarily used to study interactions between the sun and Earth’s ionosphere and magnetic field from a vantage point north of the arctic circle. The message was transmitted from a 32 meter diameter steerable dish at EISCAT’s Ramfjordmoen facility near Tromso, Norway, with a peak power of 2 megawatts. It is the first interstellar message ever to be sent towards a known potentially habitable exoplanet.
The target system
The obscure star known by the catalogue designation GJ273 caught the attention of the Dutch-American astronomer Willem J. Luyten in 1935. Luyten was researching the motions of the star. The star caught his attention because it was moving through Earth’s sky at the surprising rate of 3.7 arc seconds per year. Later study showed that this fast apparent motion is due to the fact that GJ273 is one of the sun’s nearest neighbors, just 12.4 light years away. It is the 24th closest star to the sun. Because of Luyten’s discovery it is sometimes known as Luyten’s star.
Luyten’s star is a faint red dwarf star with only a quarter of the sun’s mass. It caught astronomers’ attention again in March 2017. That’s when an exoplanet, GJ273b, was discovered in it’s habitable zone. The habitable zone is the range of distances where a planet with an atmosphere similar to Earth’s would, theoretically, have a range of temperatures suitable to have liquid water on its surface. The planet is a super Earth, with a mass 2.89 times that of our homeworld. It orbits just 800,000 miles from its faint sun, which it circles every 18 Earth days.
This exoplanet was chosen because of its proximity to Earth, and because it is visible in the sky from the transmitter’s northerly location. Because GJ273b is relatively nearby, and radio messages travel at the speed of light, a reply from the aliens could come as early as the middle of this century.
The message carried aboard each Voyager spacecraft was encoded digitally on a phonographic record. It was largely pictorial, and attempted to give a comprehensive overview of humans and Earth. It also included a selection of music from various Earthly cultures. These spacecraft will take tens of thousands of years to reach the stars. So, no reply can be expected on a timescale relevant to our society.
In some ways the GJ273b message is very different from the Voyager message. Unlike the Voyager record, it isn’t pictorial and doesn’t attempt to give a comprehensive overview of humans and Earth. This is perhaps because, unlike the Voyager message, it is intended to initiate a dialog on a timescale of decades. It resembles the Voyager message in that it contains music from Earth, namely, music from the artists that performed at the Sónar music festival.
The message consists of a string of binary digits—ones and zeros. These are represented in the signal by a shift between two slightly different radio frequencies. The ‘hello’ section is designed to catch the attention of alien listeners. It consists of a string of prime numbers (numbers divisible only by themselves and one). They are represented with binary digits like this:
The message continues the sequence up to 193. A signal like this almost certainly can’t be produced by natural processes, and can only be the designed handiwork of beings who know math.
After the ‘hello’ section comes the tutorial. This, and all the rest of the message, uses eight bit blocks of binary digits as the basis for its symbols. The tutorial begins by introducing number symbols by counting. It uses base two numbers like this:
The tutorial then proceeds to geometry using combinations of numbers and symbols to illustrate the Pythagorean theorem. It eventually progresses to sine waves, thereby describing the radio wave carrying the signal itself. Finally the tutorial describes the physics of sound waves and the relationships between musical notes.
Besides the numbers, the tutorial introduces 55 8-bit symbols in all. It provides the instructions that aliens would need to properly reproduce a series of digitally encoded musical selections from the Sónar Festival.
During its journey of 70 trillion miles, the message is sure to become corrupted with noise. To compensate, the tutorial was transmitted three times during each transmission, requiring a total of 33 minutes to transmit. The entire transmission was repeated on three separate days, October 16, 17, and 18, 2017. A second block of three transmissions was made on May 14, 15, and 16, 2018.
Each transmission included a different selection of music, with the works of 38 different musicians included in all. You can hear recordings of all this music at the Sónar Calling GJ273b website.
The rationale behind the message
Current and past SETI projects conducted by astronomers here on Earth assume that advanced aliens would make things easy for newly emerging civilizations by establishing powerful beacons that would broadcast in all directions at all times. Thus, SETI searchers generally use the same sort of highly directional dish antennae often used for other research in radio astronomy. They listen to any one star for only a few minutes, searching each one in turn for the beacon.
Unlike the always-on beacons imagined as the objects of Earth’ SETI searches, the Sónar message was only transmitted for 33 minutes on each of three days, and on only two occasions. Vakoch admits that “our message would likely be undetected by a civilization on GJ273b using the same strategy” favored by beacon searching SETI researchers on Earth.
However, some researchers have called traditional SETI assumptions and strategy into question, and studies of alternative search technologies have already been conducted. Vakoch notes that “we humans already have the technological capacity, and need only the funding, to conduct an all-sky survey that would detect intermittent transmission like ours”.
A larger problem is that the message was directed at just one planet. Although GJ273b orbits within its star’s habitable zone, we really know little what that means for whether the planet is actually habitable, or whether it has life or intelligence. Earth itself has been habitable for billions of years. But it has only had a civilization capable of radio transmissions for a century.
Vakoch conceded that “The only way we will get a reply back from GJ273b is if the galaxy is chock full of intelligent life, and it is out there just waiting for us to take the initiative. More realistically, we may need to replicate this process with hundreds, thousands, or even millions of stars before we reach one with an advanced civilization that can detect our signal”. METI International aims to conduct a design study for such a large scale METI project in hopes that funding will materialize from governmental or other sources.
Roughly half a century ago, Cornell astronomer Frank Drake conducted Project Ozma, the first systematic SETI survey at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia. Since that time, scientists have conducted multiple surveys in the hopes of find indications of “technosignatures” – i.e. evidence of technologically-advanced life (such as radio communications).
To put it plainly, if humanity were to receive a message from an extra-terrestrial civilization right now, it would be the single-greatest event in the history of civilization. But according to a new study, such a message could also pose a serious risk to humanity. Drawing on multiple possibilities that have been explored in detail, they consider how humanity could shield itself from malicious spam and viruses.
To be fair, the notion that an extra-terrestrial civilization could pose a threat to humanity is not just a well-worn science fiction trope. For decades, scientists have treated it as a distinct possibility and considered whether or not the risks outweigh the possible benefits. As a result, some theorists have suggested that humans should not engage in SETI at all, or that we should take measures to hide our planet.
As Professor Learned told Universe Today via email, there has never been a consensus among SETI researchers about whether or not ETI would be benevolent:
“There is no compelling reason at all to assume benevolence (for example that ETI are wise and kind due to their ancient civilization’s experience). I find much more compelling the analogy to what we know from our history… Is there any society anywhere which has had a good experience after meeting up with a technologically advanced invader? Of course it would go either way, but I think often of the movie Alien… a credible notion it seems to me.”
In addition, assuming that an alien message could pose a threat to humanity makes practical sense. Given the sheer size of the Universe and the limitations imposed by Special Relativity (i.e. no known means of FTL), it would always be cheaper and easier to send a malicious message to eradicate a civilization compared to an invasion fleet. As a result, Hippke and Learned advise that SETI signals be vetted and/or “decontaminated” beforehand.
In terms of how a SETI signal could constitute a threat, the researchers outline a number of possibilities. Beyond the likelihood that a message could convey misinformation designed to cause a panic or self-destructive behavior, there is also the possibility that it could contain viruses or other embedded technical issues (i.e. the format could cause our computers to crash).
Article 6 of this declaration states the following:
“The discovery should be confirmed and monitored and any data bearing on the evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence should be recorded and stored permanently to the greatest extent feasible and practicable, in a form that will make it available for further analysis and interpretation. These recordings should be made available to the international institutions listed above and to members of the scientific community for further objective analysis and interpretation.”
As such, a message that is confirmed to have originated from an ETI would most likely be made available to the entire scientific community before it could be deemed to be threatening in nature. Even if there was only one recipient, and they attempted to keep the message under strict lock and key, it’s a safe bet that other parties would find a way to access it before long.
The question naturally arises then, what can be done? One possibility that Hippke and Learned suggest is to take a analog approach to interpreting these messages, which they illustrate using the 2017 SETI Decrypt Challenge as an example. This challenge, which was issued by René Heller of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, consisted of a sequence of about two million binary digits and related information being posted to social media.
In addition to being a fascinating exercise that gave the public a taste of what SETI research means, the challenge also sough to address some central questions when it came to communicating with an ETI. Foremost among these was whether or not humanity would be bale to understand a message from an alien civilization, and how we might be able to make a message comprehensible (if we sent one first). As they state:
“As an example, the message from the “SETI Decrypt Challenge” (Heller 2017) was a stream of 1,902,341 bits, which is the product of prime numbers. Like the Arecibo message (Staff At The National Astronomy Ionosphere Center 1975) and Evpatoria’s “Cosmic Calls” (Shuch 2011), the bits represent the X/Y black/white pixel map of an image. When this is understood, further analysis could be done off-line by printing on paper. Any harm would then come from the meaning of the message, and not from embedded viruses or other technical issues.”
However, where messages are made up of complex codes or even a self-contained AI, the need for sophisticated computers may be unavoidable. In this case, the authors explore another popular recommendation, which is the use on quarantined machines to conduct the analysis – i.e. a message prison. Unfortunately, they also acknowledge that no prison would be 100% effective and containment could eventually fail.
“This scenario resembles the Oracle-AI, or AI box, of an isolated computer system where a possibly dangerous AI is ‘imprisoned’ with only minimalist communication channels,” they write. “Current research indicates that even well-designed boxes are useless, and a sufficiently intelligent AI will be able to persuade or trick its human keepers into releasing it.”
In the end, it appears that the only real solution is to maintain a vigilant attitude and ensure that any messages we send are as benign as possible. As Hippke summarized: “I think it’s overwhelmingly likely that a message will be positive, but you can not be sure. Would you take a 1% chance of death for a 99% chance of a cure for all diseases? One learning from our paper is how to design own message, in case we decide to send any: Keep it simple, don’t send computer code.”
Basically, when it comes to the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, the rules of internet safety may apply. If we begin to receive messages, we shouldn’t trust those that come with big attachments and send any suspicious looking ones to our spam folder. Oh, and if a sender is promising the cure for all known diseases, or claims to be the deposed monarch of Andromeda in need of some cash, we should just hit delete!
A Japanese telescope has produced our most detailed radio wave image yet of the Milky Way galaxy. Over a 3-year time period, the Nobeyama 45 meter telescope observed the Milky Way for 1100 hours to produce the map. The image is part of a project called FUGIN (FOREST Unbiased Galactic plane Imaging survey with the Nobeyama 45-m telescope.) The multi-institutional research group behind FUGIN explained the project in the Publications of the Astronomical Society of Japan and at arXiv.
The Nobeyama 45 meter telescope is located at the Nobeyama Radio Observatory, near Minamimaki, Japan. The telescope has been in operation there since 1982, and has made many contributions to millimeter-wave radio astronomy in its life. This map was made using the new FOREST receiver installed on the telescope.
When we look up at the Milky Way, an abundance of stars and gas and dust is visible. But there are also dark spots, which look like voids. But they’re not voids; they’re cold clouds of molecular gas that don’t emit visible light. To see what’s happening in these dark clouds requires radio telescopes like the Nobeyama.
The Nobeyama was the largest millimeter-wave radio telescope in the world when it began operation, and it has always had great resolution. But the new FOREST receiver has improved the telescope’s spatial resolution ten-fold. The increased power of the new receiver allowed astronomers to create this new map.
The new map covers an area of the night sky as wide as 520 full Moons. The detail of this new map will allow astronomers to study both large-scale and small-scale structures in new detail. FUGIN will provide new data on large structures like the spiral arms—and even the entire Milky Way itself—down to smaller structures like individual molecular cloud cores.
FUGIN is one of the legacy projects for the Nobeyama. These projects are designed to collect fundamental data for next-generation studies. To collect this data, FUGIN observed an area covering 130 square degrees, which is over 80% of the area between galactic latitudes -1 and +1 degrees and galactic longitudes from 10 to 50 degrees and from 198 to 236 degrees. Basically, the map tried to cover the 1st and 3rd quadrants of the galaxy, to capture the spiral arms, bar structure, and the molecular gas ring.
The aim of FUGIN is to investigate physical properties of diffuse and dense molecular gas in the galaxy. It does this by simultaneously gathering data on three carbon dioxide isotopes: 2CO, 13CO, and 18CO. Researchers were able to study the distribution and the motion of the gas, and also the physical characteristics like temperature and density. And the studying has already paid off.
FUGIN has already revealed things previously hidden. They include entangled filaments that weren’t obvious in previous surveys, as well as both wide-field and detailed structures of molecular clouds. Large scale kinematics of molecular gas such as spiral arms were also observed.
But the main purpose is to provide a rich data-set for future work by other telescopes. These include other radio telescopes like ALMA, but also telescopes operating in the infrared and other wavelengths. This will begin once the FUGIN data is released in June, 2018.
Millimeter wave radio astronomy is powerful because it can “see” things in space that other telescopes can’t. It’s especially useful for studying the large, cold gas clouds where stars form. These clouds are as cold as -262C (-440F.) At temperatures that low, optical scopes can’t see them, unless a bright star is shining behind them.
Even at these extremely low temperatures, there are chemical reactions occurring. This produces molecules like carbon monoxide, which was a focus of the FUGIN project, but also others like formaldehyde, ethyl alcohol, and methyl alcohol. These molecules emit radio waves in the millimeter range, which radio telescopes like the Nobeyama can detect.
The top-level purpose of the FUGIN project, according to the team behind the project, is to “provide crucial information about the transition from atomic gas to molecular gas, formation of molecular clouds and dense gas, interaction between star-forming regions and interstellar gas, and so on. We will also investigate the variation of physical properties and internal structures of molecular clouds in various environments, such as arm/interarm and bar, and evolutionary stage, for example, measured by star-forming activity.”
This new map from the Nobeyama holds a lot of promise. A rich data-set like this will be an important piece of the galactic puzzle for years to come. The details revealed in the map will help astronomers tease out more detail on the structures of gas clouds, how they interact with other structures, and how stars form from these clouds.
Since the 18th century, astronomers have been aware that our Solar System is embedded in a vast disk of stars and gas known as the Milky Way Galaxy. Since that time, the greatest scientific minds have been attempting to obtain accurate distance measurements in order to determine just how large the Milky Way is. This has been no easy task, since the fact that we are embedded in our galaxy’s disk means that we cannot view it head-on.
To do this, the team relied on a technique first applied by Freidrich Wilhelm Bessel in 1838 to measure the distance to the star 61 Cygni. Known as trigonometric parallax, this technique involves viewing an object from opposite sides of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, and then measuring the angle of the object’s apparent shift in position. In this way, astronomers are able to use simple trigonometry to calculate the distance to that object.
In short, the smaller the measured angle, the greater the distance to the object. These measurements were performed using data from the Bar and Spiral Structure Legacy (BeSSeL) Survey, which was named in honor of Freidrich Wilhelm Bessel. But whereas Bessel and his contemporaries were forced to measure parallax using basic instruments, the VLBA has ten dish antennas distributed across North America, Hawaii, and the Caribbean.
With such an array at its disposal, the VLBA is capable of measuring parallaxes with one thousand times the accuracy of those performed by astronomers in Bessel’s time. And rather than being confined to nearby star systems, the VLBA is capable of measuring the minuscule angles associated with vast cosmological distances. As Sanna explained in a recent MPIfR press release:
“Using the VLBA, we now can accurately map the whole extent of our Galaxy. Most of the stars and gas in our Galaxy are within this newly-measured distance from the Sun. With the VLBA, we now have the capability to measure enough distances to accurately trace the Galaxy’s spiral arms and learn their true shapes.”
The VLBA observations, which were conducted in 2014 and 2015, measured the distance to the star-forming region known as G007.47+00.05. Like all star-forming regions, this one contains molecules of water and methanol, which act as natural amplifiers of radio signals. This results in masers (the radio-wave equivalent of lasers), an effect that makes the radio signals appear bright and readily observable with radio telescopes.
This particular region is located over 66,000 light years from Earth and at on opposite side of the Milky Way, relative to our Solar System. The previous record for a parallax measurement was about 36,000 light-years, roughly 11,000 light years farther than the distance between our Solar System and the center of our galaxy. As Sanna explained, this accomplishment in radio astronomy will enable surveys that reach much farther than previous ones:
“Most of the stars and gas in our Galaxy are within this newly-measured distance from the Sun. With the VLBA, we now have the capability to measure enough distances to accurately trace the Galaxy’s spiral arms and learn their true shapes.”
Hundreds of star-forming regions exist within the Milky Way. But as Karl Menten – a member of the MPIfR and a co-author on the study – explained, this study was significant because of where this one is located. “So we have plenty of ‘mileposts’ to use for our mapping project,” he said. “But this one is special: Looking all the way through the Milky Way, past its center, way out into the other side.”
In the coming years, Sanna and his colleagues hope to conduct additional observations of G007.47+00.05 and other distant star-forming regions of the Milky Way. Ultimately, the goal is to gain a complete understanding of our galaxy, one that is so accurate that scientists will be able to finally place precise constraints on its size, mass, and its total number of stars.
With the necessary tools now in hand, Sanna and his team even estimate that a complete picture of the Milky Way could be available in about ten years time. Imagine that! Future generations will be able to study the Milky Way with the same ease as one that is located nearby, and which they can view edge-on. At long last, all those artist’s impression of our Milky Way will be to scale!
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.
Astronomers have been listening to radio waves from space for decades. In addition to being a proven means of studying stars, galaxies, quasars and other celestial objects, radio astronomy is one of the main ways in which scientists have searched for signs of extra-terrestrial intelligence (ETI). And while nothing definitive has been found to date, there have been a number of incidents that have raised hopes of finding an “alien signal”.
In the most recent case, scientists from the Arecido Observatory recently announced the detection of a strange radio signal coming from Ross 128 – a red dwarf star system located just 11 light-years from Earth. As always, this has fueled speculation that the signal could be evidence of an extra-terrestrial civilization, while the scientific community has urged the public not to get their hopes up.
In the course of looking at data from stars systems like Gliese 436, Ross 128, Wolf 359, HD 95735, BD +202465, V* RY Sex, and K2-18 – which was gathered between April and May of 2017 – they noticed something rather interesting. Basically, the data indicated that an unexplained radio signal was coming from Ross 128. As Dr. Abel Mendez described in a blog post on the PHL website:
“Two weeks after these observations, we realized that there were some very peculiar signals in the 10-minute dynamic spectrum that we obtained from Ross 128 (GJ 447), observed May 12 at 8:53 PM AST (2017/05/13 00:53:55 UTC). The signals consisted of broadband quasi-periodic non-polarized pulses with very strong dispersion-like features. We believe that the signals are not local radio frequency interferences (RFI) since they are unique to Ross 128 and observations of other stars immediately before and after did not show anything similar.”
They also conducted observations of Barnard’s star on that same day to see if they could note similar behavior coming from this star system. This was done in collaboration with the Red Dots project, a European Southern Observatory (ESO) campaign that is also committed to finding exoplanets around red dwarf stars. This program is the successor to the ESO’s Pale Red Dot campaign, which was responsible for discovering Proxima b last summer.
As of Monday night (July 17th), Méndez updated his PHL blog post to announced that with the help of SETI Berkeley with the Green Bank Telescope, that they had successfully observed Ross 128 for the second time. The data from these observatories is currently being collected and processed, and the results are expected to be announced by the end of the week.
In the meantime, scientists have come up with several possible explanations for what might be causing the signal. As Méndez indicated, there are three major possibilities that he and his colleagues are considering:
“[T]hey could be (1) emissions from Ross 128 similar to Type II solar flares, (2) emissions from another object in the field of view of Ross 128, or just (3) burst from a high orbit satellite since low orbit satellites are quick to move out of the field of view. The signals are probably too dim for other radio telescopes in the world and FAST is currently under calibration.”
Unfortunately, each of these possibilities have their own drawbacks. In the case of a Type II solar flare, these are known to occur at much lower frequencies, and the dispersion of this signal appears to be inconsistent with this kind of activity. In the case of it possibly coming from another object, no objects (planets or satellites) have been detected within Ross 128’s field of view to date, thus making this unlikely as well.
Hence, the team has something of a mystery on their hands, and hopes that further observations will allow them to place further constrains on what the cause of the signal could be. “[W]e might clarify soon the nature of its radio emissions, but there are no guarantees,” wrote Méndez. “Results from our observations will be presented later that week. I have a Piña Colada ready to celebrate if the signals result to be astronomical in nature.”
And just to be fair, Méndez also addressed the possibility that the signal could be artificial in nature – i.e. evidence of an alien civilization. “In case you are wondering,” he wrote, “the recurrent aliens hypothesis is at the bottom of many other better explanations.” Sorry, alien-hunters. Like the rest of us, you’ll just have to wait and see what can be made of this signal.