FAST RADIO BURSTS: UNKNOWN ASTROPHYSICS? OR MESSAGES?August 18, 2015
This one you may not have heard about, and yet, given the news trends I've been blogging about this week, and following the patterns of what all of you are sending and sharing in terms of articles, this has certainly been a "space and technology" week. In any case, Mr. S.D. shared this article concerning possible transmissions coming from deep space, which scientists are calling Fast Radio Bursts. As one might guess, I have my own high octane speculations about it, but before we get to those, one must first have a glimpse of what's causing all the fuss behind the scenes:
The essence of the story is very simple:
The signals have been given a name: fast radio bursts, or FRBs. They last just a few milliseconds but they're incredibly powerful, with the energy equivalent to what the sun releases in a month. Ten of these bursts have been detected since 2001, the most recent of which was captured live in 2014 at the Parkes Observatory in New South Wales, Australia.
The brevity of the bursts is particularly unusual because it means their source has to be extremely small, hundreds of kilometers across at most. And because they exhibit such a high pulse dispersion — a measure of the distance between the arrival of higher frequency waves within the signal compared to lower frequency waves — scientists believe they come from very far away, possibly another galaxy entirely.
All 10 of the bursts detected so far have dispersion measures that are multiples of a single number: 187.5. That's the mathematical regularity that is hard to shake off. The breakdown of the pattern implies five sources for the bursts all at regularly spaced distances from Earth, billions of light-years away. Scientists have calculated this to be a five in 10,000 probability of a coincidence. In other words, not likely.
So either these radio waves represent some yet undiscovered celestial event, or they are being produced by some kind of technology. In other words, if they do have a technological origin and they aren't being generated by us, that means they could be signals from an extraterrestrial intelligence. Yep, that's right: aliens.
If the radio bursts do turn out to be beacons from extraterrestrials, which is a possibility that can't be ruled out, then there are some exciting but scary scenarios to consider. FRBs would not be easy messages to send. The amount of energy required to send such powerful bursts from another galaxy is hard to fathom. Such alien technology would be far more advanced than anything we can imagine, with the ability to harness power equivalent to the sun.
In other words, any face-to-face encounter with such a civilization may not end well for us, if they turn out to be hostile.
Ultimately, scientists will need more evidence before any firmer conclusions can be drawn about the origin of these FRBs. More of the signals will need to be detected, for instance, just to establish that they do all represent a consistent pattern. With only 10 signals to work with currently, the sample size isn't very large. It's difficult not to be electrified by the possibilities, however.
"There is something really interesting we need to understand. This will either be new physics, like a new kind of pulsar, or, in the end, if we can exclude everything else, an ET," said Michael Hippke of the Institute for Data Analysis in Neukirchen-Vluyn, Germany. "When you set out to search for something new you might find something unexpected."