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Scientists hear dozens of mysterious radio signals beaming through space

Published Sep 11th, 2018 1:13PM EDT
frb 121102
Image: NASA

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Gazing into space with a high-powered telescope can produce some pretty impressive findings. Scientists regularly discover the presence of far-off worlds by staring at distant stars and waiting for planets to pass in front of them, and telescopes like Hubble have been sending back stunning images for decades. So, high-powered mechanical “eyes” are indeed great, but what about ears?

One of the most mysterious things ever heard in space is a phenomenon called a Fast Radio Burst. FRBs are absurdly powerful blasts of energy that seem to come out of nowhere, but astronomers have been hearing them so regularly that there must be an explanation. Now, one of the most active signal sources of these bizarre radio bursts has gotten a closer look, and it’s even more active than anyone thought.

FRB 121102 is a location deep in space that is producing FRBs at a steady rate. The blasts, which last just a fraction of a second each, are impossible to forecast, but because this particular spot in the sky has produced so many in the past it’s easy for astronomers to assume that more might be coming. Most FRBs are one-time blasts that hit Earth and are never heard from again. FRB 121102 is different in that it keeps pumping out radio energy at totally random intervals.

In a new research effort by the Breakthrough Listen project at the University of California, Berkeley, scientists have combed through all the data from this particular FRB and discovered that a whole bunch of bursts were actually missed. A whopping 72 new fast radio bursts were discovered in the data, which was fed through an advanced algorithm that returned the surprising results. The AI-aided discovery helps to cement FRB 121102 as one of the most peculiar features of our neck of the universe.

“This work is exciting not just because it helps us understand the dynamic behavior of fast radio bursts in more detail, but also because of the promise it shows for using machine learning to detect signals missed by classical algorithms,” Andrew Siemion, a principal investigator with the Breakthrough Listen project, said in a statement.

As far as what’s actually causing these bursts, nobody really knows. The location where the signals are originating is thought to be as far as 3 billion light years away, which makes it incredibly hard to study. Some theories — such as black holes tearing apart stars or even intelligent alien life searching for others — will likely remain entirely theoretical for a long, long time.