UC Berkeley astronomers detect radio bursts from distant galaxy, raise extraterrestrial questions

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Berkeley SETI Research Center/Courtesy

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UC Berkeley astronomers have detected 15 fast, high-energy radio bursts from a mysterious source across the universe.

The bursts were detected by Breakthrough Listen, an initiative headquartered at UC Berkeley that aims to find evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence and civilization. The 15 bright, brief millisecond-long radio impulses detected by Breakthrough Listen originated from a source called FRB 121102. FRB 121102 is located in the constellation of Auriga, in a dwarf galaxy 2.5 billion light-years away, according to Andrew Siemion, director of Berkeley SETI Research Center and the Breakthrough Listen Initiative.

These 15 new radio bursts are the first of their kind to exhibit multiple, repeating signals at such high frequencies, making them a rarely observed phenomenon, according to Vishal Gajjar, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Berkeley SETI Research Center who discovered the bursts.

“Most of the observations of this source was done at 1,400 megahertz. We did observations at 4,000 to 8,000 megahertz,” Gajjar said. “The kind of frequency range we covered with this source was unique, and absolutely only our backend can provide that kind of sensitivity and frequency coverage in the world right now.”

By utilizing various forms of advanced software and instrumentation, including 32 parallel running computers and two of the world’s largest radio telescopes — Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia and Parkes Telescope in Australia — researchers at UC Berkeley were able to acquire high-precision data to detect the extragalactic origin of fast radio pulses.

With its advanced equipment and $100 million funding, the initiative is uniquely able to conduct the most comprehensive search for extraterrestrial signals in outer space “which others can’t do,” according to Gajjar.

The 15 pulses were detected within five hours, and 500 terabytes of data were collected during the observation. After undergoing scrutiny and certain “checks and balances,” the pulses were deemed real signals and not man-made interferences, such as those from satellites and mobile phones, Gajjar said.

Theories have emerged that these repetitive bursts can be linked to the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence, but scientists at Breakthrough Listen speculate that the signals are simply a common natural phenomena.

“We don’t understand it right now,” Gajjar said. “We don’t know what kind of natural processes give rise to the emissions that we see. It can be a neutron star, it can be a black hole, but it certainly is unlikely to be E.T.”

The properties of FRB 121102 have yet to be fully examined, so there are still many open questions, according to Casey Law, assistant project astronomer in the UC Berkeley department of astronomy.

“It is very important that we accurately characterize the natural astrophysical background if we want to identify artificial sources, and understanding FRB 121102 is a critical step in that process,” Siemion said in an email.

Mariah De Zuzuarregui covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @mdezuzuarregui.

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