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We Just Got a Radio Signal From Another Galaxy, Scientists Say

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Jan 9, 2020

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An artist’s rendering of CSIRO’s Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) radio telescope detecting fast radio bursts in ‘fly’s eye mode.’ Image Credit: OzGrav, Swinburne University of Technology

Scientists have detected a radio signal from another galaxy that resembles the Earth’s Milky Way in shape and environment. The source could be an undiscovered natural phenomenon or alien life; they don’t know yet. 

The latest radio signal is the fifth time scientists have observed what they call a fast radio burst (FRB) — quick, powerful blasts of energy in the form of radio waves hurtling through the universe, which last for only a few milliseconds and could be coming from practically anywhere in space. This is partly why it’s difficult to trace the source of the latest FRB, since it disappears before scientists can get a proper read. 

“Identifying the host galaxy for FRBs is critical to tell us about what kind of environments FRBs live in, and thus what might actually be producing FRBs,” Sarah Burke-Spolaor, co-author of the paper describing the new FRB, published in Nature and assistant professor of physics and astronomy at West Virginia University, in the U.S., said in a statement. This time around, scientists located the source location of the FRB, named FRB180916, a mere half-a-billion light-years from Earth — six times closer than the last FRB scientists could locate and the nearest one yet.

While FRBs have been detected numerous times, tracking down their source also is difficult because of the limitations of scientists’ telescopic equipment, and the relatively unknown nature of FRBs, such as the different wavelengths at which the burst could be traveling. The first time scientists could locate an FRB was in 2012; they named it R1, noticed it intermittently emitted almost 30 bursts and came from a dwarf galaxy (a small galaxy constituting only a few billion stars; Milky Way has 200-300 billion stars) three billion light-years away. 


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The same process, however, wasn’t effective for subsequent FRBs, which scientists concluded could be because they stopped emitting frequent bursts, had a different nature undetectable by humans yet, or came from another source or galaxy. “Just because you don’t see anything at this time with this telescope doesn’t mean there’s nothing to see,” Jason Hessels, of the Netherlands Institute of Radio Astronomy, who was involved with discovering and locating FRBs (including the latest one), told NewScientist.

His colleague, Leon Oostrum added, “The main goal, in the end, is to find out what these things are, but for now, the more information we have, the more questions we have.”

The alien theories, however, can safely abound. When scientists were able to trace another FRB in mid-2019, astrophysicists Manasvi Lingam of Harvard University and Abraham Loeb of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics had said “it could be extraterrestrial civilizations using these beams to power large light-sails, which use lasers and microwaves as spacecraft ‘engines,’” News18 reported

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Written By Rajvi Desai

Rajvi Desai is The Swaddle’s Culture Editor. After graduating from NYU as a Journalism and Politics major, she covered breaking news and politics in New York City, and dabbled in design and entertainment journalism. Back in the homeland, she’s interested in tackling beauty, sports, politics and human rights in her gender-focused writing, while also co-managing The Swaddle Team’s podcast, Respectfully Disagree.

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