In the search for life outside of our galaxy, astronomers are always listening for radio signals that could serve as potential breadcrumbs for a major cosmic discovery.
One sound that scientists listen for are “cosmic whistles,” which are also known as fast radio bursts (FRBs) and are relatively rare. For the first time ever, a powerful FRB has been pinpointed to a galaxy three billion light-years away, which now raises the question: who, or what, is it emanating from?
Cosmic whistles like FRB 121102 only last for a few milliseconds but can “generate as much energy as 500 million suns,” as Futurism reports.
A research team led by Shami Chatterjee of Cornell University’s Department of Astronomy discovered the signal two years ago using a global network of telescopes and was able to pinpoint its location using all 27 satellites at New Mexico’s Very Large Array radio observatory, the Gemini optical telescope, and a network of European telescopes.
There are theories that FRBs are the result of colliding neutron stars, but Chatterjee explained to National Geographic that because the signal appeared to be repeating, it could not be explained by a cataclysmic event.
And things got interesting when Chatterjee and the team began their observations. “This repeating fast radio burst was not a very frequent repeater,” the researcher said, adding that it then inexplicably went into “hyperdrive” and started repeating once and hour.
Scientists have the where, but so far they only have theories about the who/what.
The dwarf galaxy where the FRB appears to be coming from contains a “supermassive black hole,” which may be the source of whistles (plasma dripping into jets of matter being pulled at the speed of light by the black hole’s powerful gravity).
Other theories are that the bursts are the remnants of a supernova, or that it is an object releasing energy as it orbits the black hole.
“The honest answer is that we don’t know,” said Chatterjee, “but those are the three classes of models that we have right now that could be viable.”
A fourth option? Maybe that dwarf planet three billion light-years away is occupied by more than just a black hole.