By Walt Bonner
Eleven fast radio bursts from space seem to follow a strange mathematical pattern, according to a new study – and it has researchers scratching their heads.
According to study co–authors Michael Hippke of the Institute of Data Analysis in Neukirchen-Vluyn, Germany, and John Learned of the University of Hawaii in Manoa, the bursts– which were first detected in 2001 – all had dispersion measures that were integer multiples of the same number: 187.5. “The astronomers that found [the bursts] have not seen such things before and do not understand them,” Learned told FoxNews.com.
Nobody knows what causes fast radio bursts, known as FRBs. They only last a few milliseconds, and only one so far has been captured live (by the Parkes Telescope in Australia last year). Though the bursts release just as much energy in a few milliseconds as the sun does in a month, their brevity indicates that the source must be small, with estimates being several hundred miles across at most.
Researchers use dispersion measures, which records how much “space gunk” the burst has passed through, to estimate the distance an FRB has travelled. For instance, a low frequency FRB will have more gunk on it, indicating a longer trip, whereas a high frequency FRB will be cleaner, indicating it came from closer to Earth.
The fact that all of the FRBs’ dispersion measures are integer multiples of 187.5 has, according to Hippke and Learned’s team’s calculations, a 5 in 10,000 chance of being coincidental. The dispersion measures also indicate that their origin is relatively close to Earth, but unlikely from within our own galaxy.
There are numerous theories on where these bursts came from, including speculation that the messages are from extraterrestrial intelligence. To the scientific community, however, this theory doesn’t really hold water, and is seen as more of a last resort only after all other avenues have been exhausted.
“We think these are likely from some very energetic process, like a burst from a high magnetic field neutron star or energy released [when] two neutron stars merge,” Professor Maura McLaughlin of the West Virginia University Center for Astrophysics explained. “The thing that made people think they were possibly from ETs was a recent paper that showed that one fundamental property is quantized in a way that wouldn’t be expected if the signals were naturally occurring. However, I imagine that correlation will totally go away once more are discovered.”
Learned himself is dubious of an alien source as well, noting that he and Hippke only noted the dispersion measures’ “peculiar” pattern, and that they may even be coming from Earth. “We are now leaning more towards a terrestrial, anthropogenic interpretation,” he said. “At this point I would place my money on some sort of governmental satellite, not a natural phenomena, but I would not bet much. More data, which reportedly [is] being analyzed but which we have no insider information about yet, will be most interesting and refute or confirm our hypotheses.” He also noted that he’d only look to an ETI interpretation once all other possibilities have been eliminated.
As for McLaughlin, she believes there’s no way the FRBs could be messages from aliens, as the signals are very broadband and emitted over a wide range of radio frequencies. “It would take a LOT of energy for an alien civilization to produce these bursts – they’d need to harness the energy of many, many suns – and there’s no real advantage for communication to send a signal over such a large bandwidth.”