Coming from far beyond the galaxy, an extremely energetic blast of radio waves has been snared by astronomers lying in wait. Lasting for just a few thousandths of a second, the burst is the first of an enigmatic class of objects to be observed in real-time, astronomers report today in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Called fast radio bursts, these extreme pulses of energy last for just a fraction of a second. They’ve confounded astronomers – who have no idea what they are – since West Virginia University’s Duncan Lorimer spotted the first burst in 2007. At the time, it appeared as though the beam of radio waves had traveled roughly 3 billion light-years before colliding with Earth.
Then, on May 14, 2014, Swinburne University’s Emily Petroff spotted a fast radio burst in the act of blasting. She and her colleagues determined the signal came from as far as 5.5 billion light-years away and was mildly polarized, suggesting a magnetic field somewhere near its origin has aligned the waves in particular directions.
Petroff was looking at these bursts, using an array of telescopes to monitor the zone. There is no easily identifiable astrophysical source, such as supernovas or long gamma-ray bursts.
Scientists don’t yet know how to explain them. Some of those theories mentioned in this blog include colliding black holes or neutron stars, evaporating primordial black holes, imploding neutron stars, or enormous flares erupting from magnetic neutron stars, called magnetars.
Some news outlets are stepping right out and calling it potential alien communication: Mystery ‘alien’ radio signal picked up in space – Telegraph. NPR had reported on similar bursts detected last year. I don’t think that the alien communication idea is getting much traction.