Subscribe to receive SETI Institute news weekly in your inbox.

Newest FRB Could Be A Rosetta Stone

Newest FRB Could Be A Rosetta Stone


The Canadian CHIME radio telescope deserves a prize as the best astronomical Easter egg collector of the past several years.

Recently, this unusual-looking instrument, located in the forested hills of southern British Columbia and known as the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment, added to its list of accomplishments by finding yet another Fast Radio Burst (FRB) source.  Many dozen FRBs have been uncovered since the first was found in 2007.  But despite this imposing collection, we still don’t know what these strange objects are.

Clearly, something taking place in the far depths of the cosmos is burping radio waves into space.  The fact that FRBs for which we know the distance are far away – millions or billions of light-years – indicates that whatever they are, they’re pretty rare.

Could they be the result of colliding black holes, or neutron star smashups?  These were attractive ideas when FRBs were first found because of the large amounts of energy such cosmic head-ons would release. Sadly, they became less appealing once astronomers found FRB’s that burp more than once.  Black holes and neutron stars are reluctant to back up and slam into one another again.

So what are FRBs?  All sorts of explanations are floating through the academic atmosphere, including the suggestion that they could be signals from intelligent beings in a galaxy far, far away.  It’s been a persistent puzzle for a dozen years, but the latest CHIME FRB might put us on the path to finding a solution.

In particular, this discovery, genially named FRB 180916J0158+65 (its date of first observation and position on the sky), has several beguiling properties: (1) It repeats – only one of three FRBs with this helpful attribute.  Because it is seen again and again, astronomers can dedicate telescope time on large instruments to zero in on its precise location.  The repetion of FRB 180916 etc. is very regular, approximately 16.35 days – and after each of these bursts, it also shoots short radio emissions into space about once an hour for four days.  (2) The source of the FRB is about 500 million light-years’ distant.  That’s a fair piece.  Looking in this direction, we can see a face-on spiral galaxy, but precisely where in that galaxy the FRB is located is hard to determine.

Could it be that such radio bursts are caused by aliens trying to either get in touch or simply make their presence known?  Don’t bet on it.  The FRBs for which we know a distance are all over the sky – and are separated by billions of light-years.  That means that any alien memo instructing others to all make the same type of short transmissions to the cosmos would arrive  billions of years apart. A coordinated response seems … unlikely! And this is even aside from the fact that it’s impossible to put very much information in a short radio burst – Even less than you could stuff into a bottle thrown into the ocean.

But here’s the thing.  This FRB repeats every 16 days, and that suggests that something in orbit is causing its outbursts.  Maybe some exotic star encircling a black hole, or the reverse.  It could be that, much as the Rosetta Stone provided key information for decoding the hieroglyphics, this newest member of the cosmic bestiary may unlock an understanding of what FRBs actually are.

Recent Articles