Scientists zoom in on fast radio bursts, the most mysterious signals in space
Nobody knows what causes fast radio bursts — brief, bizarre radio-wave beams that emit more energy in a fraction of a millisecond than the sun does all day. Scientists just got closer than ever to the source of one of these enigmatic signals.
On Dec. 25, 2016, in a space of about half an hour, the telescope at Arecibo witnessed more than a dozen bursts. “We called it our Christmas present,” said Jason Hessels, an astrophysicist at the University of Amsterdam and a co-author of the new research.
Breakthrough Listen, a $100 million initiative to search for extraterrestrial intelligence, also has taken an interest in FRB 121102. In a fanciful paper published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters this year, a pair of Harvard theorists suggested a solar-powered alien craft could explain the bursts. Breakthrough's observations at the Green Bank Telescope revealed no extraterrestrial voyagers, but astronomers did find the same signatures of intense magnetism observed at Arecibo.
If astronomers are able to find more repeaters and track down their sources, she continued, they will open up a rare new window on the universe — particularly the murky expanse beyond the Milky Way. As FRBs traverse the dark spaces between galaxies, they interact with the diffuse material in those regions and carry a record of that interaction down to earth.