Two astronomers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) said late last week (September 21, 2017) that they’ve now have estimated how many fast radio bursts, or FRBs, should be occurring over the entire observable universe. Their work indicates that at least one FRB is going off somewhere every second, and, therefore, it seems to contradict an earlier, more speculative study from CfA that fast radio bursts might be evidence of advanced alien technology. First detected in 2001, fast radio bursts are very mysterious. Astronomers have detected several dozen FRBs in the sky, but they still don’t know what causes these rapid and powerful bursts of radio emission.
Anastasia Fialkov and Avi Loeb of CfA are theoretical astrophysicists. They work with the laws of physics and powerful computers to understand the observations of astronomers. To make their estimate of the number of FRBs firing across the observable universe, Fialkov and Loeb assumed that FRB 121102, a fast radio burst located in a galaxy about 3 billion light-years away, is representative of all FRBs.
FRB 121102 has produced repeated bursts since its discovery in 2002. Armed with the observational evidence from this FRB, Fialkov and Loeb were able to use the tools of astrophysical theory to project how many FRBs might be firing across the entire sky. They got the answer of one FRB, somewhere, every second. Fialkov, who led the study, said:
If we are right about such a high rate of FRBs happening at any given time, you can imagine the sky is filled with flashes like paparazzi taking photos of a celebrity. Instead of the light we can see with our eyes, these flashes come in radio waves.
In the time it takes you to drink a cup of coffee, hundreds of FRBs may have gone off somewhere in the universe. If we can study even a fraction of those well enough, we should be able to unravel their origin.
While their exact nature is still unknown, most scientists think FRBs originate in galaxies billions of light years away. One leading idea is that FRBs are the byproducts of young, rapidly spinning neutron stars with extraordinarily strong magnetic fields. In March 2017, however, Loeb was co-author on another published paper from CfA suggesting that fast radio bursts might be leakage from planet-sized transmitters powering alien interstellar probes in distant galaxies. Loeb at that time said:
An artificial origin is worth contemplating and checking.
The new estimate of the rate of FRB’s firing across the whole universe appears to be part of their process of checking that speculation, which now, in this new light, seems unlikely.
Bottom line: New theoretical work from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) indicates at least 1 fast radio burst, or FRB, going off somewhere in our universe every second.
Read more: Alien seekers report 15 more fast radio bursts from FRB 121102
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.