Deep-space radio waves 'heard' at opposite points on Earth

Anomaly no more? Radio observatories in Australia and Puerto Rico have both now picked up brief bursts of radio waves from beyond our galaxy.

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A magnetar could be the source of the brief bursts. NASA

A brief burst of radio waves from deep in space has now been picked up and "heard" by astronomers on opposite sides of the Earth.

Before you SETI enthusiasts get too excited, it's important to note that there's little reason to believe that the bursts -- only a tiny fraction of a second in duration -- come from E.T. The source of the enigmatic signal could be from an evaporating black hole or perhaps merging neutron stars.

Until recently, so-called "fast radio bursts" had only been detected by the Parkes radio telescope in Australia -- leading to speculation the Australian telescope was actually picking up pulses from or near Earth. But last week, an international team of astronomers published details on its discovery of similar split-second radio waves picked up in 2012 by the huge Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico. Picking up similar FRB at a second location goes a long way toward validating the existence of the pulses, and it could help astronomers determine where these deep space radio waves are coming from.

"Our result is important because it eliminates any doubt that these radio bursts are truly of cosmic origin," Victoria Kaspi, an astrophysics professor at McGill University and principal investigator for the pulsar-survey project that found the radio waves, said in a release. "The radio waves show every sign of having come from far outside our galaxy - a really exciting prospect."

With the bursts being so fast, no one is seriously suggesting that the source is some extremely fast-talking distant alien race. Instead, other mind-bending objects like a magnetar -- a kind of neutron star with an extremely powerful magnetic field -- or colliding neutron stars or shrinking black holes could be acting as intergalactic transmitters.

According to a release from the Max Planck Institute, the finding also confirms that these distant bursts of radio waves are more common than what's been heard. While the bursts have rarely been detected, only a tiny amount of the sky has been observed for a limited amount of time so far. Using the little bit of data available, it can be inferred that cosmic radio bursts occur 10,000 times a day across the entire sky.

I like to think of these radio waves as the cosmic equivalent of the many Mexican radio stations that inevitably dominate the AM dial during a midnight drive through rural America. Seeking through the AM dial in the dark and picking them up momentarily is not unlike the tiny cosmic bursts from another galaxy if you're not fluent in Spanish -- we know there's more of them out there and we only have a vague idea of where they're coming from.

Unless, that is, it turns out that a distant magnetar has actually been responsible for transmitting all those great rancheras and mariachi tunes all these years, which would bode well for making contact. Gotta love any intergalactic object that understands the value of a great horn section.

 

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