A group of researchers have detected 15 new, fast radio bursts, coming from a distant galaxy. They are arising from one mysterious, repeating source known as FRB 121102, the only known repeating source at present.
FRBs are perhaps some of the universe’s strangest occurrences. They are brief powerful signals that flash from distant but unknown spaces for milliseconds before vanishing. They have been attributed to everything, from black holes to extra-terrestrial intelligence. Due to its brevity, and because radio telescopes can just watch a small region of the sky at a time, only about 2 dozen FRBs have ever been detected. Of those, only one has been observed to repeat: FRB 121102.
Scientists recognised this source of repeating burst last year, residing in a dwarf galaxy about 3 billion light years from Earth. Very little is still known about the phenomena, including how exactly the bursts are being sent to Earth.
Researchers with the Breakthrough Listen project, a $100 billion search for signs of intelligent life in the universe, detected the new messages from FRB 121102.
Since then, astronomers have been pointing telescopes at the same galaxy, trying to see more of the bursts and understand them. It is hard to know when or where the bursts will come from, so the repeating galaxy has become an important and reliable way of spotting them.
It was previously thought that there was not much emission at high or low frequencies. However, these signals were at twice higher frequencies than any FRB seen before. Despite still being unclear what that implies for these elusive events, researchers hope that it will help narrow down the field of possible explanations. The newfound burst will enable scientists to see more of what is actually happening out there than ever before.
A higher range of frequencies could make repeating FRBs easier to recognise. This is crucial because the current efforts to explain them have just a single source to work from. But, it also adds another layer of weirdness which could make the mechanism creating FRBs even more difficult to pin down. Scientists had initially been concerned that the bursts might not actually be coming from space, and were actually a misinterpreted signal from Earth. But recent work demonstrated that the messages were extra-terrestrial.
The bursts appear to line up in a peculiar alignment and often originate from the same part of space, leading some to propose that they could be intentional, rather than the result of physical events in space. Others have theorized that the bursts could actually be a message from aliens that are being ignored.
What are they then? The truth is that there is currently no good or reliable explanation for them. For this, as with so many things in science, it seems only time will tell.