Weird signals from space may be stranger than sci-fi

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Apr 4, 2017, 9:27 AM EDT (Updated)

When it comes to explaining some of the most bizarre mysteries in space, you might be tempted to say “aliens,” even though most scientists don’t even orbit around that possibility (unless you’re this guy)—but Mansavi Lingam and Abraham Loeb just went there.

Lingam, of Harvard University, and Loeb, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, have come to a far-out conclusion about the source of fast radio bursts (FRBs) in space. These rare signals, whose source is still unknown, are ultra-fast radio pulses that typically last for milliseconds but blaze with radiation intense enough to rival a hundred million suns. No individual FRB looks like anything previously observed or has ever been repeated. What the two scientists suggest is that they might be emitted from the giant radio transmitters that power extragalactic species’ spaceships.

We examine the possibility that fast radio bursts (FRBs) originate from the activity of extragalactic civilizations,” say Lingam and Loeb in a paper scheduled to be published in Astrophysical Letters. “Our analysis shows that beams used for powering large light sails could yield parameters that are consistent with FRBs.”

Their theory seems to make sense. Transmitter beams supposedly push alien starships forward on their journeys into the unknown and shoot through the vastness of space. Galactic rotation in the area where the beams originate (it is assumed they are generated elsewhere to power the spaceship) is thought to occasionally cause them to sweep over Earth and produce an FRB. Rocket science even gives these conclusions a backbone. Confronted with the problem of extra fuel adding extra mass to a spacecraft, scientists are now considering the possibility of separating the fuel from the craft much like sunlight is used to power a solar sail. Focused light beams that exert enough pressure to power the spacecraft through blastoff and beyond is an even more sci-fi solution.

How an FRB (dark curved line) appears among pulsar survey data.

Aliens, if you ask Lingam and Loeb, could be using this technology on an astronomically larger scale. They believe E.T.s just use the radio end of the electromagnetic spectrum rather than the visible light required in the solar sail scenario. If they did employ the power of light from a distant star, it would have to be enough to cover a planet at least double the size of Earth that, like our planet, was far enough from its star to maintain liquid water on the surface. Propulsion beams would be able to produce enough energy to power a craft of up to a million tons at around the speed of light. Could this mean a starship full of Klingons is coming for us?

While nothing in Lingam and Loeb’s research went against the laws of physics, we also need to remember that the laws of physics theoretically allow a science fiction encyclopedia’s worth of strange phenomena that never actually come into being. FRBs are most likely emitted by something in space that is just as weird if not even weirder. Think magnetars, which are incredibly dense neturon stars with insanely strong magnetic fields, or an unusual type of black hole that forms when a superdense star collapses under its own gravity. Even the radio signals from pulsars were once thought to be signals from extraterrestrial radio beacons.

Whatever is really behind these cosmic bursts of power, the truth is out there.

(via The Economist)

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