Eclipse’s, Florence and Extraterrestrial Pulse’s? Oh my!

Courtesy Photo

Courtesy Photo

There has been so much exciting astronomical activity over the past month.  First, we had the astounding privilege to see the total solar eclipse in August.  Millions of spectators watched the eclipse as it showcased across the United States as the phenomenon went from the west coast to the east coast.  A first in the US in 99 years! (I was excited just typing that).  Then Florence passed by on Sept. 1.  Good ol’ Florence, a 2.7-mile (4.4-kilometer) asteroid, passed by Earth at about 18 Earth-Moon distances.  ‘Phew, that was pretty close.’  So close in fact, that a small telescope was able to spot it.    

However, unbeknownst to us regular people, before Florence made her appearance on Sept. 1, scientists discovered something far more exciting and interesting. Breakthrough Listen, an initiative to find signs of intelligent life in the universe, discovered 15 brief but very strong radio pulses.  The radio pulses derived from a mysterious and repeating source - FRB 121102 - deep across the universe.  

On August 28, Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center and of Breakthrough Listen program, informed the astronomy community to the high frequency activity via an Astronomer’s Telegram (sounds like a scene from Deep impact, intense).  

Radio bursts are fast but they are short bright pulses of radio emissions from distant but largely unknown sources.  However, FRB-121102 is the only one known to repeat.  Over 150 high-energy bursts have been observed coming from the dwarf galaxy, which is 3 billion light years away.

“Bursts from this source have never been seen at this high a frequency,” said Siemion.   

Researchers explained that the repeating bursts could possibly range from outbursts from rotating stars with extremely strong magnetic fields called magnetars. A more theoretical idea is that they are directed energy sources, which are powerful laser bursts, used by extraterrestrial civilizations to power space crafts, similar to Breakthrough Starshot’s plan, which will use powerful laser pulses to propel a nano-spacecraft to Earth’s nearest star, Proxima Centauri.  I for one hope it is the later of the two; it's just something about being closer to the reality of Star Trek that is so satisfying to me. 

“As well as confirming that the source is in a newly active state, the high resolution of the data obtained by the Listen instrument will allow measurement of the properties of these mysterious bursts at a higher precision than ever before,” said Breakthrough Listen postdoctoral researcher, Vishal Gajjar, who discovered the increased activity.

But keep in mind fellow readers, when the recently-discovered pulses left their host galaxy,  our solar system was less than 2 billion years old!  There was hardly any life on Earth, only single-celled organisms.  It wouldn't be until another billion years before multi-cellular life began to evolve.  

But, if it is extraterrestrial’s sending a signal, knowing that they sent it 2 billions years ago, this would most likely mean that they are far more advance than our civilization currently is.  And with our current technology, it would probably take another 2 billion years just to let them know that their pulses’s were actually heard.  

However, Siemion stated that whether or not fast radio bursts turn out to be signatures of extraterrestrial technology, Breakthrough Listen is helping to push the frontiers of a new and rapidly growing area of our understanding of the universe around us. 

Wishful thinking but yet, very exciting wouldn’t you agree?