Alien Signals Have Been Discovered in FRB 121102
A few weeks ago, a series of high-energy, fast radio bursts, or FRBs were picked up coming from a dwarf galaxy, roughly three billion light years from us. Now, scientists and astronomers across the world are training their telescopes on this galaxy to try to figure out the source of these FRBs. And while many are quick to claim that it’s probably not an alien signal from an advanced extraterrestrial civilization, all of the evidence still allows for that possibility, while the common assumptions of documented, cosmic phenomena continue to fall short.
Fast Radio Bursts
This isn’t the first time we’ve picked up signals from this galaxy, now known as FRB 121102; the first burst came in 2012, followed by a couple more in 2015. Last month, a series of 15 signals was detected, which would have left the dwarf galaxy when there were only single-celled, micro-organisms inhabiting Earth. At this point in time, the civilization would be several billion years old or have perished long ago.
If it was an ancient alien civilization that was responsible for the FRBs, scientists think that it is likely that the signals are the product of a reflective sail powered by a transmitter, potentially twice the size of Earth. Reflective solar sails are a concept in which a parachute-like sail is attached to a small spacecraft, and used to catch photons shot in its direction, to propel it. The signals that have been picked up are short, millisecond-long bursts making the hypothesis that they are fired photons all the more compelling.
Research in this technology is actually being funded by Russian billionaire, Yuri Milner. Milner’s project, Breakthrough Starshot, intends on developing meter-long sails to send thousands of miniature space probes to Alpha Centauri, the closest star to us, about 4 light years away. Milner’s plan intends on developing a laser, about half a mile in length, that would shoot waves of photons at “ultra-light nanocrafts” attached to these sails, theoretically allowing them to travel at roughly 20 percent light speed. However, one obstacle that must be overcome is figuring out how to keep them from crashing into things and burning up, including space dust. But Milner’s not the only one investing in this technology; everyone’s favorite avuncular, science personality, Bill Nye, is also in the process of developing one of these photon sails.
This technology, or something like it, is what SETI project researchers believe could be causing those FRBs; photons shot from a radio transmitter, twice the size of Earth, that left 3 billion years ago. Meanwhile, Milner and Mark Zuckerberg are funding a team led by Stephen Hawking in conjunction with the University of California Berkeley’s SETI project, that picked up these signals. The venture is called Breakthrough Listen, and its goal is to find proof of intelligent, extraterrestrial life in the universe. Unsurprisingly, the team of scientists on Milner’s project have been excited by the recent transmissions received from FRB 121102.
“Perhaps some ancient intelligent species was clued in to the emergence of life on our planet and knew that a signal sent would reach us just as we were becoming technologically sophisticated for the first time.” – Dr. Vishal Gajjar, Breakthrough Listen Initiative
But those who don’t like to entertain the idea that the source of the fast radio bursts could be of extraterrestrial origin, say that they are likely coming from a rapidly rotating celestial body, like a magnetar or quasar. Originally, the bursts were thought to be the product of a massive, one-time cosmic event like the formation of a black hole from the collision of two neutron stars, but the recurrence of the bursts over the years negates that theory. Other theories have posited that it could be the result of matter being sucked into a black hole, but it seems like with all of our research on black holes, we would have experienced this phenomenon before, having trained telescopes on areas where black holes have been found. And while most scientific stalwarts have rejected the ETI hypothesis, there hasn’t yet been a solid practical explanation.
These bursts are powered by a source with an output 500 million times the power of the sun in the milliseconds in which they are shot. The bursts area also said to have a strange alignment that no one has yet to explain. Now, many of the world’s most powerful satellites have been focused on the dwarf galaxy, awaiting more radio bursts to study and find an answer to. The Arecibo observatory in Puerto Rico, Parkes Observatory in Australia, as well as the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia are all paying close attention to FRB 121102.
Some are concerned that focusing all of our energy on this galaxy might prevent us from catching other signals, but it’s hard for astronomers to ignore something new that they can’t explain. Will it turn out to be evidence of an advanced extraterrestrial technology, or another aspect of some beautiful cosmic phenomenon? Either result is fascinating.