Repeated and unexplained radio pulses from deep space have led astronomers to consider some intriguing possibilities.
On August 26, 2017, the Breakthrough Listen program detected a number of fast radio bursts (FRBs) originating from the ‘repeater’ object FRB 121102, located about three billion light years away. Astronomers observed 21 FRBs in total, all within one hour.
This was strange as, according to Breakthrough Initiatives (who run the Breakthrough Listen program), most FRBs occur “during just a single outburst.”
“In contrast,” they say, “FRB 121102 is the only one to date known to emit repeated bursts.”
Both the “frenzied activity” of the radio bursts and the elusive nature of their source led to even bigger questions: Could the FRBs be the result of extraterrestrial technology? As Berkeley News reported at the time:
“Possible explanations for the repeating bursts range from outbursts from rotating neutron stars with extremely strong magnetic fields – so-called magnetars – to a more speculative idea: They are directed energy sources, powerful laser bursts used by extraterrestrial civilizations to power spacecraft…”
Now, over a year later, we have a new twist in the story of FRB 121102. UC Berkeley PhD student Gerry Zhang and his team used a machine learning algorithm, known as a “convolutional neural network,” to review the original August 2017 data.
What they found was staggering: A total of 72 other fast radio bursts that were not originally detected by astronomers.
This brought the number of FRBs to 93, and revealed more information about the nature of FRB 121101. For example, they found that “the pulses are not received with a regular pattern.” That said, many questions still remain.
“Whether or not FRBs themselves eventually turn out to be signatures of extraterrestrial technology, Breakthrough Listen is helping to push the frontiers of a new and rapidly growing area of our understanding of the Universe around us.”
Perhaps Berkeley News was right. Imagine a popular extraterrestrial space port billions of light years away. Ancient now, a trade hub. Each time a ship blasted off into space with its “powerful laser burst” engines, it sent an FRB our way, to be observed by Earth astronomers three billion years later.