AI Finds 72 New Fast Radio Bursts From Unknown Source in Universe


By: Gaia Staff  |  September 14th, 2018

Remember those repeating Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) discovered by astronomers a year ago? The flashes of light some believed could be evidence of an advanced extraterrestrial intelligence? Well, if you’re memory needs jogging look here. But now scientists have used an AI algorithm to discover 72 new FRBs beamed in our direction from that same location in the universe.

It was about this time last year when astronomers picked up a series of light flashes from FRB 121102, sparking excitement and debate as to what exactly was being recorded. And while it wasn’t the first time they recorded bursts like these, this particular source was the first repeating FRB ever discovered.

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Was it a black hole beaming highly energized radiation? A pulsating neutron star or magnetar? Or the one possibility everyone is secretly hoping for: laser flashes emitted from an advanced alien civilization to propel space probes?

If the latter possibility sounds fantastic, it is – but in reality, we humans are currently in the process of developing that exact technology. In fact, a program known as the Breakthrough Initiative, founded by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and the late Stephen Hawking, is developing solar sails for space probes that would be propelled by lasers shot from Earth or an orbiting satellite, subsequently creating our own FRBs that would continue their course into the cosmos.

And it was this program’s sister project Breakthrough Listen, which employed an algorithm, known as a convolutional neural network, to find more bursts. But instead of using expensive observatory resources and aiming a telescope back at FRB 121102, the Breakthrough Initiative asked it’s AI to scour existing data collected from that source to find previously undetected FRBs. And as it turned out, there were quite a few.

But why hadn’t scientists and astronomers already combed through that data, you might ask, especially considering a discovery of this magnitude. Not when there’s 400 terabytes to sift through – that’s a job only AI can tackle efficiently.

“Not all discoveries come from new observations. In this case, it was smart, original thinking applied to an existing dataset. It has advanced our knowledge of one of the most tantalizing mysteries in astronomy.” – Pete Worden, Executive Director of the Breakthrough Initiatives

The bot found 72 new instances adding to the 21 previously recorded bursts from that single source. And what makes these bursts so intriguing is that they don’t occur in regular or predictable oscillations like a rapidly rotating star or something orbiting a star would. Instead there are fluctuations in activity – sometimes FRB 121102 is quiet, other times it’s manic.

Clearly, there’s something strange happening at FRB 121102. And of course, we’re not saying it’s aliens, but…

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