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More mysterious radio signals heard in deep space, and scientists are still baffled

Published Oct 10th, 2018 8:02PM EDT
fast radio bursts
Image: ESA/Hubble & NASA; acknowledgment: Judy Schmidt

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Humans love staring at images of distant galaxies snapped from high-powered telescopes, but sometimes listening instead of looking can yield even more tantalizing hints at what lies beyond.

For years now, mysterious radio signals beaming through space have puzzled scientists. Called Fast Radio Bursts (or FRBs for short), these bizarre bursts of energy have no known cause, and only a handful of proposed explanations. Now, a new study published in Nature describes the discovery of over a dozen new instances of FRBs, but we’re no closer to spotting whatever it is that’s creating them than we were before.

FRBs are confounding for researchers for obvious reasons. Hearing a blast of radio energy from a spot in the sky with no clear cause has to be mighty frustrating, but by cataloging each instance of these bursts, we may eventually creep closer to a suitable explanation.

In this latest round of research, scientists led by Ryan Shannon of the Swinburne University of Technology in Australia used data from Australia’s ASKAP dish network to search for evidence of new FRBs. As explains, the team has already uncovered 20 FRBs, with 19 of them being totally new.

As for what is actually causing these strange bursts from different points in space, scientists have only guesses. Most FRBs are one-time events, but when they repeat, like FRB 121102 (which has reared its head time and time again), it gives researchers plenty of ammunition to form a hypothesis.

Some of the more plausible theories include stars collapsing or coming within close proximity to a black hole. As the star is torn apart, it may create these massive blasts of energy and fling it out into space. These events may be happening billions of light years away but are still strong enough to be detected here on Earth when the energy finally reaches us.

Nobody knows for sure, so for now we’ll just have to wait and listen.