Telescopes in Australia have picked up a huge number of unexplained signals coming from deep in space.
According to researchers, the number of ‘fast radio bursts’ – bright flashes of radio waves from outer space that are picked up on Earth – have nearly doubled.
The recent signals are the closest and brightest of the radio bursts that have ever been seen.
Fast radio bursts are blasts of incredible energy, equivalent to the amount released by the sun in 80 years, that last for just a few milliseconds, before disappearing, and come from an unknown source.
Dr Ryan Shannon, from Swinburne University of Technology and the OzGrav ARC Centre of Excellence, and lead author of the study said, as per the Independent:
We’ve found 20 fast radio bursts in a year, almost doubling the number detected worldwide since they were discovered in 2007.
Using the new technology of the Australia Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP), we’ve also proved that fast radio bursts are coming from the other side of the Universe rather than from our own galactic neighbourhood.
Some people have suggested the radio bursts are from extra terrestrial intelligence, while scientists from Harvard University suggested they could be from transmitters used to push objects or ships across the universe.
Others have suggested they could be generated by black holes or stars colliding with one another.
The new examples of the radio flashes, however, provide scientists with more opportunities to study the phenomena.
Dr Shannon added:
Each time this happens, the different wavelengths that make up a burst are slowed by different amounts.
Eventually, the burst reaches Earth with its spread of wavelengths arriving at the telescope at slightly different times, like swimmers at a finish line.
Timing the arrival of the different wavelengths tells us how much material the burst has travelled through on its journey.
And because we’ve shown that fast radio bursts come from far away, we can use them to detect all the missing matter located in the space between galaxies – which is a really exciting discovery.
The number of new radio flashes detected is thanks to new technology being used on the telescopes, allowing them to have a bigger field of vision across the sky.
Co-author of the study, Dr Jean-Pierre Macquart, from the Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), said that the bursts travel for billions of years, occasionally passing through clouds of gas, before reaching Earth.
Scientists are hoping to use the new equipment to pinpoint the source of the flashes more precisely. If they are able to do so, and if they are able to attribute them to one galaxy in particular, scientists will be able to understand more about their origin and why they are created.
The flashes should also be able to allow scientists to understand more about the early universe, as the blasts would have occurred a long time ago, before their signal reached Earth.
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Charlie Cocksedge is a journalist at UNILAD. He graduated from the University of Manchester with an MA in Creative Writing, where he learnt how to write in the third person, before getting his NCTJ. His work has also appeared in such places as The Guardian, PN Review and the bin.