News & Politics

Researchers Puzzled by Strange Radio Signals Coming from Outer Space

Fast radio bursts (FRBs) are basically just rapid pulses of radio signals, first noticed in 2007. They’ve been a mystery ever since, primarily because while scientists don’t think E.T. is trying to phone home, they’re not sure quite what they are.

Last year, an FRB was discovered that repeated. This gave experts a chance to really study the bursts and possibly determine their origins. In August of 2017, this burst went into overdrive. Researchers from all over the world tuned in via radio telescopes to listen. Experts from the University of Amsterdam, Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy, and the Breakthrough Listen team, as well as a handful of others, presented their findings at the American Astronomical Society’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

It seems the bursts are embedded in large magnetic fields, something like those that surround black holes. However, because of the power and duration of the signal, scientists believe it to be something a good bit smaller. In this case, a neutron star.

A neutron star is basically the small, dense, collapsed core of a star. This is unlike anything the researchers have seen before, but they think an unusual combination of factors is causing the signal to be projected outward.

In their paper, they wrote, “The bursts may therefore come from a neutron star in such an environment or could be explained by other models, such as a highly magnetized wind nebula or supernova remnant surrounding a young neutron star.”

UC Berkeley postdoctoral fellow Vishal Gajjar told, “At this point, we don’t really know the mechanism. There are many questions, such as, how can a rotating neutron star produce the high amount of energy typical of an FRB?”

While the FRBs are fascinating, it doesn’t sound like something someone would want to get up close and personal with, according to Shami Chatterjee, senior research associate in astronomy at Cornell University. “If we had one of these on the other side of our own galaxy — the Milky Way — it would disrupt radio here on Earth, and we’d notice, as it would saturate the signal levels on our smartphones.” She added, “Whatever is happening there is scary. We would not want to be there.”

So, no aliens?

Probably not, though researchers can’t completely dismiss the possibility. “We can not rule out completely the E.T. hypothesis for the FRBs in general,” Gajjar noted.

That said, the possibility is very, very unlikely.