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Search for fast radio bursts enters a new era

CHIME antenna
One of the radio antennas of the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment, or CHIME, spreads out beneath the night sky near Penticton, B.C. (CHIME Photo)

A new radio telescope in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley has detected 13 new sources of mysterious extragalactic phenomena known as fast radio bursts, including the second known source of repeated bursts.

And the experiment is just barely getting started.

The Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment, or CHIME, picked up the radio signatures of the bursts over the course of three weeks in July and August, while the telescope was in its pre-commissioning phase and running at only a fraction of its design capacity.

Fast radio bursts, also known as FRBs, are powerful spikes of radio emissions that emanate from galaxies beyond our own Milky Way and last for mere milliseconds. Only 60 FRB sources have been detected, including the 13 announced today.

“Their origin is still unknown,” said the University of British Columbia astronomer Deborah Good, one of the co-authors of two papers about the detections published today by the journal Nature.

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AI helps SETI sleuths find more radio bursts

AI seeking ET
Researchers used artificial intelligence to search through data from a radio source, capturing many more fast radio bursts than humans could. (Breakthrough Listen Illustration / Danielle Futselaar)

Researchers at Breakthrough Listen, a multimillion-dollar campaign to seek out signals from alien civilizations, still don’t know exactly what’s causing repeated bursts of radio waves from an distant galaxy — but thanks to artificial intelligence, they’re keeping closer tabs on the source, whatever it turns out to be.

A team led by Gerry Zhang, a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, developed a new type of machine-learning algorithm to comb through data collected a year ago during an observing campaign that used the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia.

The campaign focused on a radio source known as FRB 121102, located in a dwarf galaxy sitting 3 billion light-years away in the constellation Auriga. Astronomers have observed plenty of fast radio bursts over the past decade, each lasting only a few milliseconds. Only FRB 121102 has been found to send out repeated bursts, however.

A number of theories have been proposed to explain the bursts, ranging from interactions involving magnetized neutron stars and black holes to deliberate signaling by advanced civilizations.

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Alien hunters track strange radio bursts

Green Bank Telescope
Intriguing signals have been picked up via West Virginia’s Green Bank Telescope. (NRAO Photo)

Breakthrough Listen, a $100 million initiative aimed at stepping up the search for alien signals, says it’s picked up an intriguing series of 15 fast radio bursts emanating from a dwarf galaxy 3 billion light-years away.

It’s way too early to claim that the signals from the galaxy, which hosts a radio source known as FRB 121102, constitute the kind of evidence sought for decades by researchers specializing in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI.

But Breakthrough Listen’s researchers say that possibility can’t yet be ruled out.

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