It’s a good week to be a space enthusiast. Not only did the highly-anticipated and stunning photos of the deep reaches of universe taken by the James Webb Space Telescope come through, astronomers have also detected a mysterious radio signal from deep space that sounds like a beating heart.
These radio signals are known as Fast Radio Bursts, and this particular one is called FRB20191221A and is, reportedly, an extremely rare form of FRB because it’s repeating at a rapid rate.
It’s also the longest-lasting FRB ever detected, with a three-second duration, almost 1000 times faster than an average FRB.
“It was unusual,” noted Daniele Michilli, astrophysicist of the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research and one of the authors of the paper published on the subject, “Not only was it very long, lasting about three seconds, but there were periodic peaks that were remarkably precise, emitting every fraction of a second—boom, boom, boom—like a heartbeat. This is the first time the signal itself is periodic.”
In case you didn’t know, FRBs are some of the most fascinating cosmic mysteries. They are extremely powerful bursts of radiation in radio wavelengths that flare across intergalactic space in a very short span of time. Within this time, the FRB emits as much energy as 500 million suns.
In the case of FRB20191221A (not the easiest name to call out on the fly), bursts of high intensity radiation have been detected to occur between the three second window, something that has never been seen before in a fast radio burst. The first FRB was detected in 2017.
This new FRB was detected by the highly advanced Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) radio telescope.
The astronomers haven’t been able to pinpoint the source but have discovered that it lies several billion light years away from Earth. Sadly, they have also confirmed that chances of this signal coming from an alien life force are very slim. The experts suspect it is the work of a radio pulsar or a magnetar, both of which are types of extremely dense, rapidly spinning, collapsed cores of giant stars.
“There are not many things in the universe that emit strictly periodic signals,” recorded Michilli, “Examples that we know of in our own galaxy are radio pulsars and magnetars, which rotate and produce a beamed emission similar to a lighthouse. And we think this new signal could be a magnetar or pulsar on steroids.”
The reason why this new discovery has excited astronomers, despite it not being an indicator that there are aliens out there, is that these signals can be used as an astrophysical clock. The frequency of these bursts, and how they change as the source of origin moves away from Earth, could be used to measure the rate at which our Universe is expanding.
“This detection raises the question of what could cause this extreme signal that we’ve never seen before, and how can we use this signal to study the universe,”writes Michilli, “Future telescopes promise to discover thousands of FRBs a month, and at that point we may find many more of these periodic signals.”