Aliens, cosmic phenomena or humans? Astronomers are puzzled as to what the true origins are of a series of so-called Fast Radio Bursts (FSBs) detected eleven separate times over the past decade.While media reports this month have focused on how radio astronomers have pinned down the source of one type of radio signal known as perytons emanating from lowly microwave ovens right here on Earth, the mystery and excitement over FRBs has only deepened.
“People are now largely convinced that perytons are local signals. Yet the microwave oven does not explain all,” said co-author of the new study and astronomer John Learned from the University of Hawaii in Manoa.
“This is why we put our hypothesis out there… to test it in a scientific manner. When we see new data we will know better.”
Since 2001 radio telescopes have been picking up these rare bursts that last only a few milliseconds but are thought to be generated by some kind of source that releases as much energy as the sun and is no more than a few hundred kilometers across. Evidence in the past has also indicated that they may have emanated way outside of our galaxy—possibly as much as three to four billion light years away.
The latest addition to the mystery is a team of scientists who have identified 11 FRBs over the years, and who say that the signals appear to fit a mathematical pattern that just doesn’t seem to be explainable by any kind of ordinary astrophysics we know of.
While theories bandied about so far have included everything from colliding neutron stars, evaporating black holes and even our own satellites mimicking a distance source, even the most provocative explanation of alien civilizations however have not been ruled out.
To determine the distance to these pulses astronomers use something called a dispersion measure, the dispersion in time it takes low and high frequencies of radio waves generated by the mysterious sources to arrive at Earth. The more time that separates the arrival of these two signals the farther away the unknown object is thought to be from our planet.
What has left astronomers scratching their heads however is that it seems the time dispersion measured in each case appears to be multiples of exactly the same number, 187.5.
The chance this line-up is pure coincidence is estimated to be 5 in 10,000, making this phenomenon quite a challenge to explain away.
There is a possibility that these FRBs are caused by some unknown natural source, but the team does conclude that it could also very well be of an artificial source. Maybe an undisclosed military satellite perhaps? Or ET technology?
Mathematically coded messages from extraterrestrials—as in encoded messages in pi or prime numbers—have long been speculated by astronomers and have even made it to Hollywood (any fans of the film Contact starring Jodie Foster out there?).
But this wouldn’t be the first such excitement over a weird radio signal received by radio telescope.
Back in 1977 the Ohio State Big Ear Telescope picked up a very strange 72 second long signal dubbed the Wow! signal by the astronomer at the time that circled the printout identifying it as such.
So are we alone in the universe, or are there other advanced civilizations out there capable of communicating?
Some leading scientists believe that life might be quite common across the universe, with some figuring as many as tens of thousands of technologically-advanced civilizations.
Thanks to ground based and space telescope surveys of the night sky, planets beyond our solar system are being discovered at an ever increasing rate and current estimates are that our Milky Way alone may be home to a billion Earth-like worlds. We are also finding that the basic ingredients of life, such as water and organic molecules, appear to pepper our solar system.
So the odds are in favour that at least simple, microbial life might be widespread across our Milky Way. However technological civilizations, according to some radio astronomers who have been listening for decades, may be quite rare simply because if they were common, we would have probably picked up their signals by now. Or perhaps there are simply no chatterboxes out there, and everyone is too shy to speak up.
In terms of these weird fast radio busts however, while astronomers don’t rule out the possibility that they could by ET calling, it likely is a very remote outside chance only and most likely is caused by something less exotic.
“At this moment, I still would place money on an anthropogenic origin…. but not much money,” said Learned.
“If they really are cosmological objects however… then they would seem to be something new and no doubt important, but what I do not know.”