Last year, SOFREP reported on an unusual celestial anomaly that have left some experts wondering if it may be the first proof of an extra-terrestrial civilization: the first ever repeating fast radio bursts, originating in a dwarf galaxy some 3 billion light years away.
Fast radio bursts aren’t entirely uncommon in the universe, but what makes this instance so unique is that it repeats, denoting either some intelligence at work, or a natural phenomenon that allows for the signal to blink on and off and a regular rate. While each of those theories have their supporters, most within the scientific community tend to lean toward undiscovered natural phenomena, barring undeniable proof of something more exotic. Scientists have been studying these bursts, which carry the nondescript moniker FRB 121102, since they were discovered in 2012, but it wasn’t until recently that they grew in acclaim – as the more we seem to learn about them, the stranger they seem to be.
Scientists now believe these bursts are releasing a “monstrous” amount of energy – which should come as no surprise seeing as they need to travel a distance so vast the human brain can barely comprehend just to reach our sensors, but just how powerful is still pretty incredible. According to the latest data, it would seem that these fast radio bursts are unleashing as much energy per millisecond as our sun does in an entire day.
That’s not all scientists have figured out since last we heard about the strange radio bursts coming from FRB 121102. According to data collected over the past year, the radio bursts are coming from an area of the faraway galaxy that has an incredibly strong magnetic field. The bursts themselves have also revealed some new information, including that they appear to be polarized and actually travel up into a higher frequency that ever previously recorded.
FRB 121102 was already unique because it repeats; now, the huge Faraday rotation we have observed singles it out yet again. We’re curious as to whether these two unique aspects are linked,” said Daniele Michilli, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Amsterdam and ASTRON, the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy.
Faraday rotation is the term used to describe the way radio signals twist as they pass through a powerful magnetic field. By measuring the degree in which the waves are twisted, experts can extrapolate the severity of the field in which they travel through. The question remains, however, what could be causing such a significant magnetic field? Currently, scientists have only two possible explanations: the source is either extremely close to a very powerful black hole or comes from within a similarly powerful nebula.
Each of these theories has issues however. Scientists aren’t currently confident that a black hole massive enough to cause these magnetic fields could exist inside a dwarf galaxy. If it does, it would be unlike anything else we’ve ever seen in the known universe. The idea that it’s coming from a nebula also doesn’t quite jive with current scientific understanding, as FRB 121102’s neighborhood is about a million times brighter than the incredibly bright Crab Nebula in our own galaxy.
Using the data collected, scientists believe the source of the signals is incredibly tiny by comparison to these massive expanses of space: if their calculations are right, these bursts are coming from a source only about six miles across. In other words, a celestial body only about as large as the distance from your house to the local coffee shop is somehow powerful enough to unleash signals exponentially more powerful than our entire sun. According to some experts, that is just about the right size for an incredibly dense neutron star… but based on the power output, even that doesn’t seem to make much sense.
“We can not rule out completely the ET hypothesis for the FRBs in general,” said University of California, Berkeley, postdoctoral fellow Vishal Gajjar of Breakthrough Listen and the Berkeley SETI Research Center. The “ET hypothesis” he speaks of is short for “extraterrestrial hypothesis.” SETI is a research organization tailored specifically for the search for alien life. They aren’t the only ones considering an alien source, however. Even Harvard is thinking it over.
Fast radio bursts are exceedingly bright given their short duration and origin at great distances, and we haven’t identified a possible natural source with any confidence,” said Harvard professor Avi Loeb in a press release. “An artificial origin is worth contemplating and checking.”
Despite a number of breakthroughs regarding the strange phenomenon originating in deep space, experts still have more questions than answers at this point. Some may find that frustrating, but at least one of the researchers tasked with its investigation seems pleased by FRB 121102’s apparent unwillingness to reveal its secrets.
It’s a mystery,” said Cornell University astronomer Shami Chatterjee, one of the co-authors of a study on the findings published Wednesday in Nature. “I say that as if I am disappointed, but let’s be real — there is nothing like a good mystery to try to figure out. And this is such a tantalizing mystery, and as time goes on we’re getting more clues.”
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons