Astronomers intercept mysterious repeating radio signals from space

James Marshall
January 10, 2019

The majority of scientists believe they are generated by powerful astrophysical phenomena like black holes.

And if CHIME was able to make these detections before it was even fully up and running, the researchers are hopeful that the new radio telescope will help them find answers about these mysterious signals.

Before CHIME began to gather data, some scientists wondered if the range of radio frequencies the telescope had been created to detect would be too low to pick up fast radio bursts.

'Knowing that there is another suggests that there could be more out there.

The repeating FRB was one of 13 bursts picked up in two weeks by CHIME, a radio telescope built by a collective of scientists from UBC, McGill University, University of Toronto, the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and the National Research Council of Canada. "And with more repeaters and more sources available for study, we may be able to understand these cosmic puzzles-where they're from and what causes them", said Ingrid Stairs, a member of the CHIME team and an astrophysicist at UBC.

Among the 13 bursts of fast radio waves, known as FRBs, was a very unusual repeating signal, coming from the same source about 1.5 billion light years away.

But this is only the second one that has been found to repeat.

Over a period of three weeks last summer the team detected 13 of the flashes using a new type of radio telescope, the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (Chime).

The CHIME team believes this scattering is indicative of powerful astrophysical objects at the source of the bursts.

Artist's impression of the active galactic nucleus shows the supermassive black hole at the center of the accretion disk sending a narrow high-energy jet of matter into space, perpendicular to the disc in this image by Science Communication Lab in Kiel Germany, released on July 12, 2018. "But it has to be in some special place to give us all the scattering that we see".

This has led some to speculate they could be anything from stars colliding to artificially created messages.

They include a neutron star with a very strong magnetic field that is spinning very rapidly, two neutron stars merging together, and, among a minority of observers, some form of alien spaceship. The first was discovered in 2007.

But it was so temporary and seemingly random that it took years for astronomers to agree it wasn't a glitch in one of the telescope's instruments.

This intervening material blurs the signal from the cosmic microwave background (CMB), the left over radiation from the Big Bang. Some scientists had anxious that the range of frequencies it can pick up would be too low for it to receive the FRBs - but it found far more than expected, and scientists expect it to identify even more.

In 2017 Professor Loeb and Harvard colleague Manasvi Lingham proposed that FRBs could be leakage from planet-sized alien transmitters.

The FRBs discovered were omitting unusually low frequencies, with previously detected FRBs having frequencies around 1,400 megahertz and the new discoveries bellow 800 MHz.

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