Such signals have been a source of confusion for scientists since they were first discovered in 2007, as up until now, none of the fast radio bursts studied had exhibited any sort of steady tempo.
This new phenomenon, however, changes all of this as it emits a specific pattern, blasting out around one to two radio bursts per hour for four days and then going silent for just over 12 days. The cycle then repeats on the 16th day, suggesting something is controlling them.
Duncan Lorimer, an astrophysicist at West Virginia University in Morgantown and co-discoverer of the first fast radio burst, said, as per Science News:
This is very significant. It’s potentially going to take us in an interesting direction to get to the bottom of these repeaters.
The bursts were recently traced to a spiral galaxy nearly 500 million light-years away from Earth when astrophysicists discovered the pattern using data from the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment – or CHIME – radio telescope in British Columbia.
One possible explanation for the way this particular fast radio burst is repeating its cycle could be that it’s orbiting something else, such as a star or a black hole. In that case, the 16-day cycle might reveal how often the star or black hole is pointed towards the Earth.
Alternatively, stellar winds from a companion might periodically boost or block the radio pulses, which might also explain why not every 16-day cycle produces bursts.
Either explanation implies that repeating fast radio bursts might come paired with something else, although Dongzi Li – an astrophysicist at the University of Toronto – and colleagues aren’t ready to rule out stand-alone objects.
While the team of scientists might not know exactly what is causing the fast radio bursts, they are ruling certain possibilities out – i.e. aliens.
If it were an alien beacon I would think it would emit more quickly, because a 16-day period is not efficient for communication. Imagine getting one signal every 16 days – it would take forever to get a message.
So that’s a relief, at least.
Future scans of the spiral galaxy might help astronomers come closer to solving this mystery, narrowing down the possible explanations for the repeated fast radio bursts.
Let’s hope that’s the case!