A burst of radio signals has been detected originating from a known repeating Fast Radio Burst (FRB). The signal was found by the Breakthrough Listen project, which scours the skies looking for signs of intelligent life.
FRBs, which are brief, bright bursts of radio waves that come from distant galaxies, were first detected by the Parkes Observatory in Australia in 2007.
In 2012, they were observed coming from an object in a dwarf galaxy three billion light years away, labelled FRB121102.
However, in 2015 a second set of emissions was seen coming from the same object.
In 2016, the repeating burst was the first FRB to have its location defined to such precision that its host galaxy could be identified.
Prior to that second burst, it was thought that these mysterious signals were the result of the catastrophic destruction of some celestial object.
If this were true however, there would not have been a repeated burst.
On 26 August 2017, UC Berkeley Postdoctoral Researcher Dr. Vishal Gajjar observed FRB 121102 using the Breakthrough Listen backend instrument at the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia.
The observations detected 15 FRBs coming from the object.
By continuous monitoring of the repeating FRBs such as these, researchers hope to better understand what causes the repeated bursts, and the origin of FRBs in general.
Already, these precise readings have garnered new information by showing that FRBs emit at much higher frequencies than previously observed.
One possible explanation for the bursts is that they are caused by spinning neutron stars with strong magnetic fields.
However, Breakthrough Listen monitors FRBs for a more exotic explanation: that FRBs are signs of an intelligent alien race.
The Listen project was set up in 2015 by the Breakthrough Initiative to observe nearby stars and galaxies, looking for signs of alien intelligence and technology, though the data taken during this search has also helped scientists to better understand our Universe.
But even if the signals do originate from alien life, there’s little hope of contact.
Even if we sent a message today, we’d have to wait six billion years for an answer, longer than the life span of our Sun.