Those mysterious fast radio bursts are back in the science headlines, as new research suggests they may be a sign of alien life or the source of power for alien spacecraft. But what are they, and is it really possible they could be fueling extraterrestrial spaceships light years away from us?
According to Scientific American, it was in 2007 when fast radio bursts, or FRBs, were first discovered in the form of a quick, yet powerful radio emission in space whose source was not clear at the time. Still, scientists were amazed at how fast the bursts were, lasting less than five milliseconds, or less than five thousandths of one second, in other words. As the bursts are picked up by radio telescopes, that accounts for the second part of the name, while the final part comes from the fact that the signals “disappear as quickly as they appeared,” with no solid explanation behind the phenomenon.
If we were to include the first FRB discovered in 2007 by West Virginia University astrophysicist Duncan Lorimer, there have been 18 fast radio bursts discovered in the last decade. But while it’s easy to define what they are, scientists haven’t quite found out why they take place, and where they come from.
Earlier this week, a new study from a team of Harvard University researchers was published, offering a rather peculiar, yet interesting explanation for FRBs. According to the Christian Science Monitor, there have been many previous theories for the origin of these bursts, with some scientists theorizing that they may come from an “exotic type of neutron star.” But the new study suggests that they may be a sign of alien life, one that comes from an “artificial origin,” in the words of co-author Avi Loeb of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
“Fast radio bursts are exceedingly bright given their short duration and origin at great distances, and we haven’t identified a possible natural source with any confidence. An artificial origin is worth contemplating and checking.”
Together with co-author Manasvi Lingam, Loeb took into account what would be required to artificially generate fast radio bursts, what the bursts would suggest about whatever machine or craft had made them, and most of all, why it would be a worthwhile idea to look into the origin of FRBs. The researchers believe that if one were to assume that the device is solar-powered and water-cooled, the apparatus emitting the beams would need to have a radius two times larger than Earth’s.
“The beam emitter is an object akin to a planet; more precisely, it lies fairly close to the boundary between super-Earths and mini-Neptunes,” the researchers opined.
The Christian Science Monitor noted that the Harvard researchers’ theory is quite a “compelling” one because they had gotten the above estimates through two separate types of calculations, one for the required area a solar panel would need to be to gather enough energy from the sun or its equivalent, and another for the amount of water that would ensure the emitter doesn’t overheat. As such, both Loeb and Lingam believe they have enough proof to support their hypothesis that fast radio bursts come from artificial sources, and may hint at alien life being out there.
But why would aliens use these bursts to communicate with us, assuming the theory is correct? Loeb and Lingam believe that this may be a “call for help” from another civilization, or a means for this civilization to promote its own technology. Still, they added that these are merely “beacon” theories that cannot be tested or sufficiently proven, and that it may be more likely that FRBs are powering “light sails” – gigantic alien spacecraft they believe may weigh as much as ten aircraft carriers and measure hundreds of feet long.
The thought of a giant-sized light sail being powered by fast radio bursts, or alien life using these bursts to communicate with us is quite an “exotic” one, as many have noticed. And while Swinburne University of Technology professor Matthew Bailes, who co-discovered the first FRB in 2007 with Duncan Lorimer, sees the new Harvard paper as a “delightful thought experiment,” he also told the Washington Post that it may actually be an “unknown natural phenomenon” at work, as opposed to an artificial one.
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