Is This Fast Radio Burst a Sign of Aliens or Something Else?

JANUARY 15, 2018

Fast radio bursts (FRB’s) produce a vast amount of energy in a small fraction of a second, but one source of this bizarre phenomenon have some people questioning if these pulses are the product of an intelligent extraterrestrial civilization. One source named FRB 021102 delivers this energy in a repeating pattern, emanating from a dwarf galaxy approximately six billion light years from Earth. This is the only one of these sources known to display a repeating pattern, which has now been observed 15 times out of more than 200 recorded bursts.

Breakthrough Listen, a group of researchers searching for signs of extraterrestrial life, examined the phenomenon in excruciating detail. Radio waves coming from this distant object are nearly totally polarized, suggesting that if they are a natural phenomenon, they may be produced within a powerful magnetic field, like that surrounding a black hole or a particular type of rapidly-rotating neutron star called a magnetar.

“At this point, we don’t really know the mechanism. There are many questions, such as, how can a rotating neutron star produce the high amount of energy typical of an FRB?” said Vishal Gajjar of Breakthrough Listen and the UC Berkeley SETI Research Center.

University of California Berkeley researchers question how these powerful emissions are nearly completely polarized, vibrating along just a single plane. The most likely explanation would be that the energy seen coming from FRB 021102 is created within a powerful magnetic field.

“Whether or not fast radio bursts 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,”  Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center and of the Breakthrough Listen program, explained.

Elliptical galaxies are roughly football-shaped, and the one which is the home of FRB 021102 sits approximately 3,000 times further away from Earth than the Andromeda Galaxy, our nearest galactic neighbor.


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