The Mystery of the Intergalactic Radio Bursts

Scientists have discovered a new class of cosmic energy in outer space — nearly 10,000 bursts of radio waves popping off every day — but where they come from and how they occur are still a mystery

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Dr Jon Heras /Science Photo / Corbis

Illustration showing the absorbance of electromagnetic waves by the Earth's atmosphere.

It’s a recurring theme in astronomy: observers see a blast of energy out in the cosmos, scratch their heads in confusion for a while, and finally uncover the existence of something entirely surprising and new. It happened with the quasars (now known to be gigantic burps from black holes swallowing hot gas), the pulsars (fast-spinning neutron stars sending out blips of radio noise hundreds of times every second), and even the Big Bang itself, first seen as a stream of microwaves slamming into Earth from all directions, nearly 14 billion years after the event itself.

Now it may be happening again. Back in 2007, astronomers detected a burst of radio noise, lasting maybe a second or so, the cause of which was totally unclear. There was reason to suspect it came from beyond the Milky Way, and must be extremely powerful to be visible at all. But it never repeated, and neither did a second, similar blast seen in 2011, making it very tough to puzzle out what was going on. Maybe both events were just some sort of rare fluke.

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But a new paper in Science makes that seem very unlikely. Using the giant Parkes radio telescope in Australia, astronomers have recorded four more of these mysterious bursts, and when the scientists extrapolated across the entire sky, they concluded that perhaps 10,000 of these blasts are popping off every day, all over the heavens. “It’s still a mystery what they are,” says lead author Dan Thornton, of the University of Manchester, in the U.K. “But at least it’s not a mystery that they exist.” In fact, Thornton and his co-authors claim that the observations reveal what he calls a “new cosmological population” of energy blasts, whose true nature is unknown.

At the time of the first observations, back in 2007, there was some talk that the original burst might have come from inside the Milky Way. There was a way to test that proposition: radio outbursts generally come in a range of frequencies — channels, essentially, like those on a radio dial. As they speed through the empty spaces in our galaxy, the waves run into loose electrons that linger between the stars. The electrons slow the radio waves down a bit, with the lowest-frequency waves slowing the most. A radio burst that was emitted in a fraction of a second might be received over a longer period, depending on how far the burst had been traveling, and through what part of the Milky Way.

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The first and second bursts were indeed spread out, or dispersed, this way, and the first, especially, seemed to be too dispersed to have originated in our own galaxy. But the second was marginal, leaving astronomers stuck. The four new blasts, however, were unmistakable. “The dispersion is so high,” says Thornton, “that from what we know, they could not have come from the Milky Way.”

Instead, he says, he and his co-authors estimate that whatever is sending out these radio bursts is located between five and10 billion light-years away — a substantial fraction of the way out to the edge of the visible universe.

(MOREMeet the Itsy-Bitsy, Teeny-Weeny Galaxy)

So that’s the “where” of the mystery, but nobody has a good idea yet about the “what.” Some of the possibilities of the blasts cause include: evaporating black holes (something predicted by Stephen Hawking), or giant black holes eating neutron stars. Or, writes Cornell astronomer James Cordes, tantalizingly, in a commentary also appearing in Science, “they could represent an entirely new class of source.”

The only way to figure it out is to follow up on the radio bursts with observations by visible-light, X-ray and other telescopes to try and get a glimpse of whatever’s going on from another perspective. That’s how astronomers figured out the inner workings of gamma-ray bursts, which turned out to be a special kind of exploding star — and just as with gamma-ray bursts, it will be important to do those follow-ups quickly. “We discovered these events about a year after they happened,” says Thornton, by which time any lingering visible or X-ray glow from the triggering event would long since have faded. “But now we’re working on real-time alerts.”

If those can be organized — and given the fact that one of these blasts probably goes off about once every second around the clock — it might not be long before pulsars, quasars, gamma-ray bursts and other blasts of cosmic energy welcome a new cousin to the family.

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144 comments
Black
Black

Jun 1, 2013

Hon. Paul Hellyer - Minister of National Defense has Testified knowing of 4 Alien races actively visiting Earth - America is taking it serious they have set up Congressional hearing So why spend all that money investigating Intergalactic Radio Bursts when they can look it up in an Alien Library ------3 books per person and must be returned in one light year - seems reasonable

justpassinthru4u
justpassinthru4u

it could be intergalactic reruns of the Lawrence Welk Show in real space time ... my grandmother would get excited about that, be sure to publish the channel and times.

polaris01usa
polaris01usa

Insignificant compared to the power of the Force.

MikeLombardi
MikeLombardi

Perhaps it is the cylons persuing the Battlestar Galactica? Or the death star exploding?

johnwfletch
johnwfletch

All stories about any kind of radio transmissions received from space should always begin with a disclaimer in capitals that the signals are believed to be natural and not from aliens. Otherwise you'll get all these wild speculations from all the the scientifically  ignorant out there.

HarryDangler
HarryDangler

So I guess worrying about my loss of privacy, on a grand scale, and our soon to be US Stasi state is meaningless, in the grand picture.

SuperHappy
SuperHappy

Would somebody please answer the damm phone?

bdby
bdby

Don't worry people we have a secret weapon on our side should the aliens decide to visit us.  It is called the IRS  !!!  Once they place a lien on your property they will chase you to the ends of the galaxy undeterred to collect.

BaronVonDoughiestahl
BaronVonDoughiestahl

They are simply Extraterrestrial Intergalactic Spacecraft popping in and out of wormholes as they travel thru the stars ...

MikeLand
MikeLand

We watch your historical moving images and listen to audio transmissions from long ago.  We see the bursts of radiation coming from parts of your planet that cannot be natural.  We will not visit you until you can cease the hostilities on your planet.  If you do not stop it, we will be forced to send wave motion charged particle beam in next transmission.

RickFromTexas
RickFromTexas

Clearly these are messages from highly advanced aliens telling us all not to vote republican and to do away with Islam.

lowcountry
lowcountry

People believe a lot of things.  Now if they would just read and believe the BIble.  What a history book!

Rick_Day
Rick_Day

I for one, welcome our Klingon OverLords.


Heghlu'meH QaQ jajvam

SuzanneRice
SuzanneRice

I just hope it's not Klingons or Romulons!  :)

SimonTheGreat
SimonTheGreat

It's a burst from a set of B.B. Kings music.

PaladinSF
PaladinSF

The universe is not only queerer than we imagine. It is queerer than we CAN imagine.

JDS Haldane

DavidD'Champ
DavidD'Champ

We'll probably end up watching someone else's old episodes of I Love Lucy. 

GreenPower
GreenPower

Echoes of the 6 day creation story.

tyretiberiustrez
tyretiberiustrez

Earth has radio signals that radiate about 100 light years in all directions... that is 186,000 miles per second for 100 years!  So does it seem so ridiculous that we might be picking up some old alien version of 'I Love Lucy' here on Earth?  If you think we're alone, you are in for one big shock my brothers and sisters!

ewimperialx
ewimperialx

Its signals from our future selves sending back a message of utmost importance..

Tomsooners
Tomsooners

Look at like this, the universe is a giant garden salad. Take that salad and throw it out in your front yard, and the big rabbit of time will come along and eat it! Eventually.

khatking
khatking

@johnwfletch how is it ignorant to believe in intelligent alien life? Evolution is a scientific fact, Billions of stars in each of the trillions of galaxies is a scientific fact, and it is scientific fact that 1 in 5 sun-like stars has an earth-like planet, so It is more ignorant to believe that Earth is the only planet in the universe with intelligent life

StephenSwain
StephenSwain

@HarryDangler Not so fast.  If those tyros had their way, you'd never have heard this story.  It, too, would have been suppressed.  It's not that they want to know what you are saying, feeling, and thinking, it's that they want to guide, direct, warp and shape that reality to turns us all into automatons.  Automatons, so their thinking goes, are far easier to control.  And this is all about control, not security or safety.  Those things are merely the pretext painted all over the mask to convince us we should be docile and submissive.  Are you feeling sheepish?

AndyClark
AndyClark

@RickFromTexas  Nope, they started bringing pot (ooops i mean medical mj, hahahah) into heaven and what we are seeing is thousands of giant Bic Lighters firing up the bongs.  

andrewthree
andrewthree

@lowcountry Amen. The Bible explains why this world is the way it is. And it shows us the answer to our problems: Jesus!

AndyClark
AndyClark

@lowcountry Which version of the bible and which translation/language?  Most of it makes no sense other than what you read into it, a lot like a horoscope only more vague and irrelevant.  

RickFromTexas
RickFromTexas

@lowcountry Yeah, right. The gospels weren't written by their "authors", weren't written while Jesus was alive, and weren't written in the language Christ spoke, aramaic. The bible didn't even exist as a book until 300 years AD!

And you call that history?

shmindrake
shmindrake

@lowcountry How did you select the Bible to believe, from among all the many religious texts people believe around the planet?

shmindrake
shmindrake

@aurorainiceland Highly charged electrons from the solar wind are driven by the Earth's polar magnetic fields to an area called the "magnetosphere", where the electrons collide with oxygen and nitrogen atoms, emitting visible light.

RickFromTexas
RickFromTexas

@Rick_Day Kent Brockman said the same thing about the giant ant overlords when Homer Simpson went into orbit.

Kaplah!

StephenSwain
StephenSwain

@SimonTheGreat With help from Buddy Guy, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Eric Clapton, and "your heavenly band full of angels who are coming to set me free"....  They're in it, too.

StephenSwain
StephenSwain

@tyretiberiustrez 586,569,600,000,000 miles is that distance.  That's five hundred eighty six trillion, five hundred sixty nine billion, six hundred million miles, roughly the equivalent of the circumference of the US debt.

shmindrake
shmindrake

@tyretiberiustrez Any radio signals generated by any powers we can yet imagine harnessing would, after radiating outward over a distance of 100 light years, be undetectable against background noise.

TracyJohnson
TracyJohnson

@HarryDangler   Yes, in the grand picture nearly everything you worry about is nearly meaningless to everyone but your inner-most family.

AndyClark
AndyClark

@andrewthree @lowcountry  Christianity is and always was a Death Cult.  It is the only religion that worships a dead person and his execution device.  Jesus is NOT God.  All the other Western religions believe GOD is the answer... Jesus IS the problem, this endless notion that one human was special in any way is so twisted and obviously bogus.  You do not know who Jesus was, only what you are told and it changes over the centuries, even over the decades as his hair is kept up-to-date for example.  Your parents told you about the tooth fairy, santa claus, and jesus.  All three are bogus but after being so burned on the first two.... you cling to it.

StephenSwain
StephenSwain

@RickFromTexas @lowcountry No, but the letters and the Gospels were collected as oral tales from the Get-Go.  Don't believe all the ignorant blather that you read.  God is not dead.  He is not on vacation in Mexico.  And he doesn't need Obama or Putin or Frau Merkel's help.  He just needs you to remain in planeta skeptica the rest of your mortal existence.

AndyClark
AndyClark

@RickFromTexas @lowcountry  Jesus was a 'Roman Trick' to continue their empire that was based on war, taxation, humiliation, etc.  He certainly was not tall and white with tastefully updated hairstyles.  He most likely was a half-black war rape baby, the Romans (then and now) loved watching that stuff. Sorry but that is well recorded history.  There was an "Old Testament' written mostly in Aramaic, the "New Testament" looks like a Corporate Policy Manual that is added to and changed whenever it benefits those in power at the time.  Religion is the sale of the afterlife.  It is the world's first and most enduring 'intellectual product'.  

StephenSwain
StephenSwain

@GiovanniC.Hynson @andrewthree If your fame had persisted, pretty much unbroken, for two thousand years, and people worshipped you 24/7/365 x 2013, and miracles were attributed to you all the time, would you consider yourself a failure?  Think on that.  Why are you so negative, GiovanniC with the face of a Vietnamese or Cambodian woman, or maybe an American Indian.