New flashes from outerspace inspire scientists to debate old theories

By Alina Hachigian

 Looking up at the stars, have you ever wondered what’s really out there? Scientists ask themselves the same question. In order to probe deeper into the obscurities of outer space, researchers have been tracking data on the puzzling phenomena called FRBs or fast radio bursts to broaden their knowledge of the great unknown.     

These FRBs are generally described as short radio waves, or flashes of light, which last for a fraction of a second. They originate billions of light years away although their specific place of origin remains unknown.    

This past winter, a particularly peculiar FRB was picked up by scientific instruments. The real intrigue of this event lies in the FRB’s repetitive nature, a quality that has never before been associated with these occurrences.    

Although scientists have known about the phenomenon of FRBs for years, this new behavior has cast doubt on previous theories that FRBs are caused by supernovas or pulsars.

Theron Carmichael, a graduate student studying exoplanets and binary star spectroscopy, is currently immersed in new research about FRBs in his work at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. He said that while FRB research leads to some logical explanations about the origins of these bursts, he described the event last December as “mysterious.”

Since some scientists believe a fast radio burst to originate from a one-time event like a supernova, it is surprising to see a repeating burst from the same location,” Carmichael said.

Many scientists have created theories regarding why an FRB would act in such a way, stirring up many different schools of thought. One of the most creative and wild proposals is that these bursts came from sailing aliens.

Dr. Manasvi Lingam, a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, is one of the scientists who have made a case for this theory.

“I believe it is likely that these FRBs arise from some natural astrophysical phenomena, such as pulsars. But, having said that, there are some unresolved mysteries concerning FRBs that cannot be explained easily through natural phenomena. Hence, it is important to keep an open mind, free of prejudice, and explore the possibility of an artificial origin,” he said.

Whether or not these bursts come from within or without our own galaxy was greatly contested up until pretty recently.

“For nearly 10 years, there were a lot of mysteries concerning FRBs such as even their place of origin, i.e. whether they originated within the Milky Way or from outside it,” Lingam said. “A couple of months ago, astronomers finally succeeded in proving that one particular FRB does indeed arise from a small (dwarf) galaxy 3 billion light years away.”

This FRB that Lingam is specifically referring to circles back to the same one that sparked a multitude of different hypotheses this past December. This FRB is now not only curious as a result of its repetitions but also important because its place of origin was able to be tracked.

“This has vitalized the field since we now have more information about the source,” Lingam said.

Now that scientists know this detail about where exactly some FRBs come from, more research can be done to try and understand these places billions of light years away. However, in terms of the search for life, scientists generally collectively agree that the search should start within our galaxy.      

“Since life as we know it needs liquid water, the strong possibility that water exists beneath the surface of Jupiter’s moon, Europa, or somewhere on Mars, makes the solar system an excellent place to focus our search for life,” Carmichael said.

With the technology available today, this search for life has become even more promising. But in terms of FRBs and the greater space arena, Lingam said that the long-standing question still remains.

“If we can understand how and why they are being produced (either artificially or naturally), it can help resolve one of the big unsolved current mysteries of astrophysics,” Lingam said.

Ever since the Cold War, nations have been enthralled in space affairs. Starting in the mid-1940s, competition was the main motivator for space exploration. Whereas now, the incentive stems from genuine curiosity about the unknown.

The incentive for space exploration in the United States seems to stem greatly from genuine curiosity about the unknown.This honest thirst for knowledge is what led to the creation of a myriad of theories concerning various aspects of space. Recently, major interest has rekindled around the hypotheses regarding radio waves specifically ones called fast radio bursts, or FRBs.