Looped Radio Signal 500 Million Light Years Away Baffles Astronomers

16-day loop of fast radio bursts raises questions

By Jonny Lupsha, News Writer

Scientists have detected the first reliable radio signal pattern in space, CBS News reported. The transmission broadcasts from a galaxy half a billion light years away. Can radio astronomy catch up and solve the mystery?

Silhouette of radio telescopes with sunset background
Electromagnetic interference (EMI) can be problematic for radio telescopes at observatories stationed around the globe, as it can block detection of radio transmissions from deep in space. Photo by TebNad / Shutterstock

According to the CBS News article, previous radio signals coming in from space have been delivered at random intervals, making this steady, repeating pattern very unique—not to mention that its origin has yet to be determined. “A mysterious object in a galaxy 500 million light years away is confusing scientists with its signals,” the article said. “It appears to be transmitting signals that reach Earth in a repeating, 16-day pattern, but researchers have no idea why.”

The signals it broadcasts are known as fast radio bursts, or FRBs. CBS News said that the source “sends out bursts that last for four days before stopping for 12 days and then repeating.” Radio astronomy can answer questions involving dark matter, the origins of life, how galaxies are formed, and more. What can it tell us about this mystery transmission?

Radio On

Radio astronomy involves studying outer space by detecting radio waves at different frequencies and determining what they mean about the universe. It also offers exciting possibilities about extraterrestrial life.

“Here on Earth we produce a lot of radio noise—a lot of radio emission,” said Dr. Felix J. Lockman, Green Bank Telescope Principal Scientist at the Green Bank Observatory. “If there’s intelligent life on planets around other stars, they may be just as noisy. Perhaps we could eavesdrop.”

Dr. Lockman explained that several radio telescopes are dedicated specifically to searching for radio signals from intelligent life on other worlds. Although we have no way of gauging their odds of success, the search continues. So why bother?

“We know that there are more planets in the Milky Way than stars, and most of them are billions of years older than Earth,” he said. “If life was common, then most everyone else has a billion-year head start.”

Given this, other planets may have been sending radio signals out for hundreds of millions of years that are just now getting to us.

Who DAREs Wins

With all the radio signals we make on Earth—from wi-fi to GPS, from AM/FM radio to key fobs that unlock our cars—how can we sift through our own noise and listen for extraterrestrial radio waves at all?

“There is a proposal to send a small radio telescope into orbit around the Moon to make radio observations using the Moon as a shield,” Dr. Lockman said. “The project is the Dark Ages Radio Explorer, or DARE for short. It would operate in the 40-120 megahertz range looking for signals from extremely redshifted hydrogen—hydrogen heated by the first generation of stars that were formed in the universe, just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang.”

In order to “use the Moon as a shield,” DARE would only search for radio signals when it was on the far side of the moon, literally blocking Earth’s radio signals from interfering with its search.

A major puzzle has just landed in scientists’ laps. However they solve it, radio astronomy has a bright future.

Professor Felix Lockman

Dr. Felix J. Lockman, Ph.D., contributed to this article. Dr. Lockman is the Green Bank Telescope Principal Scientist at the Green Bank Observatory, a facility of the National Science Foundation. He did his undergraduate work at Drexel University and received his Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

About Jonny Lupsha, News Writer 483 Articles
Jonny is a freelance writer and novelist who lives in Sterling, Virginia. He has written for The Great Courses since 2017 and enjoys studying the courses as much as writing about them. Contact Jonny at lupshaj@teachco.com