'Repeating' radio waves from deep space baffle scientists

An artist's conception of a type of neutron star called a magnetar

An artist's conception of a type of neutron star called

(The fact that it repeats gives them a good chance of spotting it again.) They hope that tracing the radio signal back a known visible object may reveal what produced it. While these fast radio bursts (FRBs) are likely the result of black holes or strongly magnetized neutron stars, some say they could be evidence of far-flung alien life.

Out in the depths of space, there are radio signals that astronomers don't understand. "Knowing that there is another suggests that there could be more out there", Ingrid Stairs, CHIME researcher and an astrophysicist at the University of British Columbia, said in a news release. Whatever they are, CHIME's initial detections suggest that the $13 million radio telescope will be a powerful tool for tracking down more of the bursts. The latest entry, CHIME (for Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment), has only just been built, but its builders started having it do science while still under construction.

An artistic visualization of a neutron star, which is one of the possible sources for FRBs. A minority of observers considered the possibility of an alien spaceship, BBC News reports.

They found that one of the FRBs was repeating. Scientists are still debating whether repeating FRBs come from the same source as the one-time flashes, or instead represent a distinct type of event. They last less than a millisecond before they disappear, according to National Geographic.

"This signal processing system is the largest of any telescope on Earth", the researchers said in a communique.

"One of those 13 fast radio bursts that we found is a repeating burst, it has shown up on many days since those initial observations, and this is only the second repeating fast radio burst ever found", Stairs explains.

"When these bursts happen once only, it's really hard to figure out what created them", Cherry Ng, with the University of Toronto, told The Verge.

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The detection by CHIME of FRBs at lower frequencies means some of these theories will need to be reconsidered. That's about twice as close as the other repeater, FRB 121102.

"Whatever the source of these radio waves is, it's interesting to see how wide a range of frequencies it can produce".

"FRBs were an unexpected mystery".

The two sets of repeating bursts would help scientists understand what distinguishes repeating signals from single bursts, their source, and also watch out for future radio bursts.

At distances of billions of light years it's obviously very hard to test any of these theories, but detecting more FRBs, especially those that have a habit of repeating, could bring us closer to an explanation.

Since then, CHIME has been at its maximum capacity, and it is expected to detect many more of the enigmatic pulses now that it is fully operational.

"It just seems completely inconceivable that there could be that many different alien civilisations all deciding to produce the same kind of signal in the same way - that just seems highly improbable".

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