Super low-frequency space signal has scientists mystified

Contributed by
Aug 8, 2018

A low-frequency signal picked up from the depths of space by a Canadian radio telescope last month has scientists intrigued, and trigger-happy extraterrestrial enthusiasts even daring — probably prematurely — to use the A-word.

The mysterious signal, which science refers to as a fast radio burst (FRB), was detected July 25 by a telescope at the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) in British Columbia. The telescope has only been online for a few months, and the significance of this particular FRB pickup isn’t that it exists in the first place (they’ve been detected before) — rather; it’s the signal’s perplexingly super-low-frequency signature.

At 580 MHz, the signal (which has been given the memorable name of FRB 180725A) rings out at almost 200 MHz lower than any similar frequency that’s been detected to date, according to Patrick Boyle of McGill University, credited with the discovery.

What exactly is an FRB? Well, that’s part of the speculation-spawning mystery. Astrophysicists can describe the bursts’ characteristics, but they still can’t explain how they occur — although they appear to agree that it takes something phenomenally powerful to create and throw the signals.

An FRB is a “high-energy astrophysical phenomenon of unknown origin detected as a bright radio pulse lasting a few milliseconds on average,” according to the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC). “The exact origin and cause of FRBs is uncertain, they are found in parts of the sky outside the plane of the Milky Way galaxy and are thought to be extragalactic.”

Only about two dozen of the events had been reported before the CHIME telescope went live; now, researchers expect the detentions to occur with much greater frequency. Scientists do believe FRBs are common, “with estimates suggesting these events arrive at Earth roughly a thousand times per day,” according to RASC.

Previous theorizing about the source of FRBs in general attributes their possible origins to everything from dying black holes to hyperactive neutron stars to — at least in theory — intelligent life. 

In reality, the newness of the CHIME telescope’s data collecting endeavor may point out the scientific community’s relative ignorance of a previously-undocumented phenomenon more than it reveals anything about signs of exploding stars, aliens, or anything else — at least while the data’s still this fresh. So while the source of the bursts remains enigmatic, it’s probably not a stretch to say they aren’t new harbingers of an imminent E.T. invasion.

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