Fast radio bursts (FRBs) are a phenomenon of astrophysical proportions. The origins of these high-energy, fleeting radio pulses remain murky at best, as they confuse leading scientists and invigorate conspiracy theorists since they were first discovered in 2007. 10 years later, in the present, their mysterious nature seems to be growing as astronomers from the Breakthrough Listen project observed a stream of FRBs emerging from a galaxy roughly three billion light-years away.
These researchers were able to do this by using the massive Green Bank Telescope which, located in West Virginia, is the largest, fully-steerable telescope in the world. This discovery, known as FRB 121102, was first detected in 2016 and is currently the only FRB observed repeating. This has allowed researchers to zero in on its originating galaxy, despite the months of researchers fearing they’d lost the signal entirely, “We feared that our opportunity to study it has passed…This new detection suggests that FRB 121102 is coming back into an active state and will be easier to study how and what is producing these powerful bursts,” said Casey Law of UC Berkely. This repetition is really what makes this observation so notable.
So where is this FRB storm really coming from? What is the driving force behind these demonstrations of high-energy release? There is no scientific conclusion regarding their cause, but scientists do have a few clues, and since FRB 121102 seems to be a repeating pulse, in an identified galaxy, there’s a good chance researchers will have a shot at fully studying the phenomenon.
Such FBR “storms” are nothing new; Shami Chatterjee of Cornell University stated that “we’ve seen ‘burst storms’ before, including last August through September when the Very Large Array came up empty, empty, empty, and then boom, there it was at every session.” But the occurrence of this most recent “storm” stirred up questions, “Are we more likely to see bursts during particular seasons, when the lensing geometry lines up just so? This is as yet wild, wild speculation—people apologizing for bringing it up—but who knows.”
There is much speculation on the origins of these FRBs. All that is concretely known is that they come from galaxies far, far away and most likely originate from sites with particularly strong magnetic fields. But, because of the mystery that surrounds them, many suspect that their origins could be alien in nature. Many might be imagining tall, humanoid, grey beings with big eyes shooting out radio pulses many light-years away. But such fantastical theories of potentially alien FRB-origin is probably indulgent hyperbole to the researchers hoping to one day identify the source(s).
In the words of Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center, “We agree with the majority of the astronomical community that the likelihood of ET being involved in this source is low, but the source is nevertheless very mysterious…We know, without a doubt, that the universe is capable of giving rise to technologically capable life. We would be remiss as scientists to exclude this possibility a priori,” or before empirical evidence. Despite this hopeful open-mindedness, other scientists are looking towards antimatter and other points of uneasy understanding that might explain this phenomenon.
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