Since humans first began looking at the night sky, we’ve wondered at what might be out there. For early civilizations, the sky was a source of stories, of myths, and navigation.
For more recent civilizations, the sky has been a source of wonder and exploration, as we’ve begun voyaging out beyond our planet, slowly learning more about the planets beyond ours. From earth, as our science advances, we learn more about the galaxies and universe that surrounds us.
And part of that exploration has been listening to the sounds of space, including the sounds of gravitational waves and more. Included in the things scientists hear are something we refer to as fast radio bursts (FRBs). These radio chirps are the result of quick flashes of energy, since nicknamed “cosmic whistles,” which—even though they may only last milliseconds—may be signs of energy bursts as great as 500 million times our Sun’s energy.
Until recently, the sum total of these cosmic whistles has been 20 or so sources of FRBs. Now, though, the Breakthrough Listen initiative has detected 15 more cosmic whistles, all originating from the same place: FRB 121102. FRB 121102 was already of particular interest, as it was the only cosmic whistle ever noted for more one detectable pulse.
There’s not much we know about FRB 121102. For instance, we know it’s somewhere in a dwarf galaxy about 3 billion light years away, but we still have no idea what’s causing the cosmic whistles. Stranger yet, the new bursts of sound were at frequencies significantly higher than any previously detected, around 7 GHz.
While the Breakthrough Listen initiative was designed to search for intelligent life, we need to caution that the sounds themselves prove nothing. Breakthough Listen notes the sounds may be ““directed energy sources used by extraterrestrial civilizations to power spacecraft.”
It’s just as likely, though, that there may be a wholly different explanation, such as a supermassive black hole, for the sounds.
As Harvard theoretical physicist Avi Loeb told New Scientist, however, the strangeness of the new signal, and it’s high frequency, may actually help make it easier to explain. “Previously, we thought there wasn’t much emission at high or low frequencies, but now it looks like there is,” he said. “It’s twice as high as the typical frequency that was previously claimed for this repeater.”
As we learn more, we’ll keep you posted.