Fast radio bursts are millisecond-long flashes of radio waves, recorded using enormous radio telescopes. Since their discovery in 2007, fewer than 20 have been detected. The bursts last only the briefest of moments, but they can generate as much energy as 500 million suns.
There is no generally accepted explanation for the mysterious astrophysical phenomena. One theory is that they are caused by the collision of very dense objects such as merging black holes or neutron stars.
However, a new study from scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics proposes that the bursts might be coming from giant planet-sized transmitters in galaxies billions of light-years away.
“Fast radio bursts are exceedingly bright given their short duration and origin at great distances, and we haven’t identified a possible natural source with any confidence,” one of the researchers Avi Loeb explained. “An artificial origin is worth contemplating and checking.”
Scientists are fairly certain that fast radio bursts are coming from a distant galaxy, travelling billions of light years to reach our telescopes. The Harvard team examined the feasibility of creating a radio transmitter strong enough for detection across such vast distances.
Loeb and his colleague Manasvi Lingram found that if the transmitter were solar-powered, a device twice the size of Earth would be able to produce the bursts.
Their theory for why any form of life would go to the trouble of building such an enormous machine was that it could be used for powering ‘solar sails’ on a colossal spacecraft. Published in Astrophysics, the paper argues that such a craft could carry living passengers across interstellar or even intergalactic distances.
The researchers admit their theory is speculative, but say that fast radio bursts are so confounding to astronomers that any possible explanation is worth exploring.
Asked if he really believes that the radio bursts are caused by aliens, Loeb replied: “Science isn’t a matter of belief, it’s a matter of evidence. Deciding what’s likely ahead of time limits the possibilities. It’s worth putting ideas out there and letting the data be the judge.”
— SmithsonianObs (SAO) (@saoastro) March 9, 2017