unidentified radio bursts from space

Scientists analyzing radio bursts from space have discovered a
strange pattern that suggests the signals may be of an artificial
nature. Some scientists have been open to the idea that the radio
signals are a possible extraterrestrial beacon, and this new data does
not rule out that possibility.

In a paper posted on the Cornell University Library website,
Michael Hippke of the Institute for Data Analysis in Neukirchen-Vluyn,
Germany, and John Learned at the University of Hawaii in Manoa
discovered that the dispersion measures of the signals are multiples of
the number: 187.5.Table from the FRB paper showing information on their dispersion measures, who found them and at which telescope. (Credit: Michael Hippke, John Learned, and Wilfried Domainko)

What does that mean? Well, from what I understand, scientist use the
dispersion measure to help them figure out how far a signal came from.
Higher frequencies travel faster than lower ones, so by measuring the
difference in time the frequencies of the signal are received- the
dispersion measure – they can get an idea of the distance traveled.

In this case, the dispersion measures seem to indicate an artificial
origin. Hippke and Learned write: “We estimate the likelihood of a
coincidence as 5:10,000.”

“If the pattern is real,” Learned told New Scientist, “it is very, very hard to explain.”

The signals in question are called fast radio bursts (FRBs), and have
been recorded since 2001. Only one, in 2014, was detected real-time as
it happened. The others were discovered by sifting through recorded data
from telescopes. There have now been 11 FSBs recorded in total.

Duncan Lorimer, Professor of Physics and Astronomy, West Virginia University. (Credit: West Virginia University)

In a recent Huffington Post blog by Seth Shostak,
senior astronomer for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
(SETI) Institute, he explains that it was sifting through data from
telescopes that lead to the discovery of the FRBs in 2007. Shostak says
that Duncan Lorimer discovered the brief “flashes” of radio energy using
a telescope in Australia.

According to former director of the SETI Institute Jill Tarter,
“beacon from extraterrestrials” has always been considered one of the
weird possibilities for the origins of the FRBs.

Tarter told New Scientist, “These have been intriguing as an
engineered signal, or evidence of extraterrestrial technology, since
[they] first [were] discovered.”

In an FAQ on the signals posted on New Scientist, they
point out that there are many possible natural origins of radio signals
from space. However, they also note that the possible natural sources
“don’t account for the fast radio bursts’ pattern according to any
physics we know now.”

In the conclusion to their paper, Learned and Hippke write that if
the natural sources are ruled out, “an artificial source (human or
non-human) must be considered.”

Hippke tells the New Scientist, “there is something really
interesting we need to understand. This will either be new physics, like
a new kind of pulsar, or, in the end, if we can exclude everything
else, an ET.”

“When you set out to search for something new,” he says, “you might find something unexpected.”

However, Shostak points out in his blog, there is one more thing we
need to rule out before jumping on the ET band wagon. He writes, “In the
case of the FRBs, one possible explanation — still not ruled out — is
positively prosaic: They could be some type of man-made interference
that only seems to be coming from deep space.”

The New Scientist article also speculates that there may
still be terrestrial answers. They write, “It’s also possible that the
telescopes are picking up evidence of human technology, like an unmapped
spy satellite, masquerading as signals from deep space.”

The Parkes radio telescope in Australia. All but one of the 11 FRB signals was recorded using this telescope.