Repeating, mysterious fast radio burst in deep space is truly strange

10 Jan 2019

Image: © sanee/

Astronomers are more than a little excited with the second ever detection of a repeating fast radio burst in deep space.

Nothing intrigues an astronomer more than a deep space mystery, and now a team of 13 researchers from Canada has stumbled on one of the biggest mysteries around.

The University of British Columbia team using the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) radio telescope revealed the discovery of a repeating fast radio burst (FRB) – whereby incredible amounts of energy are emitted for just a few milliseconds.

Containing the power of approximately 500m suns, the burst is highly significant because it is only the second repeating one ever discovered, the first being discovered by the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico in 2012.

Publishing its findings to two different papers in Nature (here and here), the team said this latest repeating FRB was one of 13 new bursts detected in the space of just two weeks in the summer of 2018. While most FRBs have been spotted at wavelengths of a few centimetres, the latest FRBs were detected at wavelengths of nearly a metre.

The alien debate

Unlike typical FRBs that come and go, the discovery of a repeating FRB is vital to increasing our understanding of them, as we are able to train our radio telescopes towards them to study them further. In the meantime, the researchers believe they may be able to find 1,000 more FRBs by the end of the year.

“[We now know] the sources can produce low-frequency radio waves and those low-frequency waves can escape their environment, and are not too scattered to be detected by the time they reach the Earth,” said Tom Landecker of the CHIME team. “That tells us something about the environments and the sources. We haven’t solved the problem, but it’s several more pieces in the puzzle.”

Because of their intensity in energy and mysterious origins, claims that they could be alien in design continue to be suggested. While quite unlikely, an intense beam of light reaching Earth from deep space sounds similar to a recent suggestion from MIT researchers regarding contact with distant civilisations.

The proposal put forward by James Clark was that if a high-powered laser up to 2MW in power was focused through a 30- to 45-metre telescope, it would produce a beam powerful enough to stand out from the intensity of the sun.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic