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Weird radio signals may have even freakier source than aliens

Astronomers have picked up mysterious fast radio bursts from a source far across both space and time, and now scientists say it's a good thing we're nowhere nearby.

Danielle Futselaar/Breakthrough Listen

Strange radio signals coming from deep space probably aren't aliens, but instead may come from something far more powerful and exotic. 

Scientists first identified so-called "fast radio bursts" (FRBs) -- radio signals from deep space lasting mere milliseconds -- about a decade ago and have picked them up a few dozen more times since. Last year, astronomers announced the discovery of FRB 121102, the first FRB signal that repeats, making it possible to study the signal and its origins.


The Arecibo radio telescope with an artist's rendition of a fast radio burst. 

D.Futselaar/B.P. Irwin/D. van de Water/Shutterstock

In August, the repeating signal started going hyperactive, and powerful radio telescopes at Puerto Rico's Arecibo Observatory and the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia tried to tune in. Researchers from the University of Amsterdam, Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy and Breakthrough Listen team, among others, shared resulting new details about the alien signals at the American Astronomical Society's annual meeting in Washington, D.C. Wednesday and in a paper that's the cover story for this week's issue of the journal Nature.

The new data indicates the source of the bursts is embedded in strong magnetic fields, like those around a massive black hole. But the bursts are short, ranging from 30 microseconds to 9 milliseconds in duration, indicating the source could be something much smaller, like a neutron star, which is the very small and very dense collapsed core of a large star that's left over when it dies. 

Researchers have never quite seen anything like it, but theorize that some combination of exotic cosmic phenomenon may explain the awesome power source required to propel the bursts across the universe.

"The bursts may therefore come from a neutron star in such an environment or could be explained by other models, such as a highly magnetized wind nebula or supernova remnant surrounding a young neutron star," the paper reads.  

Another possibility is a young magnetar, a neutron star with an especially large magnetic field, throwing off the bursts.

"At this point, we don't really know the mechanism. There are many questions, such as, how can a rotating neutron star produce the high amount of energy typical of an FRB?" UC Berkeley postdoctoral fellow Vishal Gajjar of Breakthrough Listen and the Berkeley SETI Research Center said in a statement.

Whatever it is, it's a good thing we're about 3 billion light-years away from it. In a flash lasting less than a millisecond, the source of the bursts radiates the same amount of energy as the total output of our sun for a whole day.

"If we had one of these on the other side of our own galaxy -- the Milky Way -- it would disrupt radio here on Earth, and we'd notice, as it would saturate the signal levels on our smartphones," said Shami Chatterjee, senior research associate in astronomy at Cornell University. "Whatever is happening there is scary. We would not want to be there."

Of course, there's also the very remote possibility that the fast alien signals are from actual advanced aliens. 

"We can not rule out completely the E.T. hypothesis for the FRBs in general," Gajjar said.

There's no mention of aliens in the study published Wednesday, but Breakthrough Listen's mission is to look for intelligent life beyond Earth. It hopes to get a complete sample of all known FRB sources to check for unusual patterns or signals -- "any kind of information-bearing signal emitted from their direction that we don't expect from nature," Gajjar added.

Expect to hear more on FRB 121102 and other fast radio bursts in the coming months. Meanwhile, on the very, very off chance this is a signal from a super-ancient extraterrestrial civilization, you'll want to listen to the below sounds of FRB 121102 converted to audible tones since they may represent the first message received from aliens (but is probably really just the vibrations of some cosmic cataclysm). 

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