Are aliens reaching out? Astronomers detect 5 new fast radio bursts from over 4 billion light years away

Fast radio bursts (FRBs), the enigmatic astronomical phenomena, have generated unparalleled excitement in recent years. These fleeting and intense flashes of light, observed in the radio spectrum, manifest spontaneously and unpredictably in space.

Speculated to emanate from sources such as black holes, neutron stars, or even extraterrestrial civilizations, FRBs typically last from a fraction of a millisecond to a few seconds before disappearing without a trace.

Scientists have recently reported the detection of five fresh FRBs utilizing the upgraded Westerbork Synthesis Radio Telescope in the Netherlands.

Remarkably, three of these FRBs penetrated our neighboring Triangulum Galaxy, a spiral galaxy situated approximately 2.73 million light years away, as they traveled through space to reach Earth.

Although the new FRBs were initially detected in 2019, it is only now that they have been described in a recent paper authored by an international team led by Joeri van Leeuwen from the University of Amsterdam.

The team’s paper states, ‘Fast radio bursts (FRBs) must be powered by uniquely energetic emission mechanisms.’ The researchers have uncovered five new FRBs, a noteworthy addition to the approximately 100 previously published at that time.

Although FRBs are not visible to the human eye as they are radio waves, they are not rare. These mysterious bursts originate from various directions in the sky, leaving scientists puzzled about their origin.

One leading hypothesis is that FRBs could be emitted by neutron stars, which are the incredibly dense remnants of massive stars that pack the mass of our sun into a small city-sized region. However, some scientists have also proposed the intriguing possibility that FRBs could be artificially created by intelligent beings.

In 2017, researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics suggested that FRBs could be signals from distant alien transmitters powering interstellar probes, an idea supported by Professor Avi Loeb at the time.

The energy emitted by a single FRB is estimated to be 10 trillion times the annual energy consumption of the entire human population. These bursts are so powerful that radio telescopes can detect them from over four billion light-years away.

However, studying FRBs is challenging due to their unpredictable nature, as their occurrence in the sky is unknown in advance.

Furthermore, each FRB typically lasts only a millisecond, although a longer-lasting FRB lasting three seconds was discovered last year, which was 1,000 times longer than the average duration.

To detect these fleeting radio pulses, researchers depend on ground-based telescopes strategically positioned across the globe, ready to capture the elusive nature of FRBs whenever they occur.

A team of astronomers has successfully upgraded the radio telescope array at Westerbork with a cutting-edge supercomputer called the Apertif Radio Transient System (ARTS).

Located on the site of a former World War II Nazi detention camp, Westerbork features 14 dishes, each measuring 82 feet (25 meters) in diameter. The upgrade has dramatically improved the array’s vision, likened to a transformation from that of a fly to an eagle, as stated by the team.

Study author Eric Kooistra from the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy explained that the complex electronics required for this upgrade were not readily available for purchase, and the system was mostly designed in-house by a large team of researchers, resulting in a state-of-the-art machine that is now one of the most powerful in the world.

With the integration of the ARTS supercomputer, the radio telescope array at Westerbork can now continuously combine the images from 12 dishes to create high-resolution images over a vast field of view.

Unlike before, when radio telescopes could only provide rough estimates of the location of Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs), ARTS enables experts to accurately pinpoint the exact location of FRBs, marking a significant advancement in our ability to study these mysterious cosmic phenomena.

As Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) travel through space and pierce other galaxies before reaching Earth, the electrons in those galaxies, which are typically invisible, can distort the FRB signals.

The ability to track these elusive electrons, along with their associated atoms, is crucial as the majority of matter in the universe is dark and our understanding of it remains limited.