Last year a very rare celestial detection has occurred. Scientists have directly traced an incredibly intense, blindingly bright burst of radio waves — known as an FRB — back to its home galaxy. Surprisingly, this impressive cosmic radio flasher has somewhat humble origins, according to three new studies detailing the findings.
This set off an explosion of highly speculative yet lowly informed news. Accounts of close encounters of all kinds hit the media sphere. So many conclusions and proclamations were made in the favour of a signalling extraterrestrial intelligence. E.T. was the assumption by many many people. Other people made claims of a second mini big bang.
Known as F.R.B. 121102, originated about 3 billion light-years away from Earth, from inside a dwarf galaxy — a collection of stars much smaller than large galaxies like the Milky Way. F.R.B. stands for “Fast Radio Burst.” These flickers of light were just discovered in 2007, and although they last for just a fraction of a second, they release more energy than our entire sun will radiate in 10,000 years. Eighteen FRBs have been detected, but scientists estimate that one of these bursts occurs somewhere in the sky about once every 10 seconds. FRBs have been observed several times in the past decade, and there has been lots of debate about their possible source – galactic or extragalactic (inside or outside our galaxy). This latest event has been observed from three different locations, allowing astronomers to make a good guess at its source.
It comes from a highly unlikely source. The fact that FRB 121102 originated from a dwarf galaxy was a bit unexpected, said Cees Bassa, an astronomer at the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy (ASTRON).
“We were not sure what to expect, but I think the whole team was surprised to see that our exotic source is hosted by a very puny and faint galaxy,” Bassa said in a statement from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany (where some of the co-authors are based).
The repeated appearance of FRB 121102 could also offer clues to its origin.
This effect fits certain parameters of a neutron star. If the flashes are caused by a neutron star, they might be expected to occur regularly. Spinning neutron stars that radiate beams of light are known as pulsars, and they appear to flicker on and off because of a lighthouse effect: The beam sweeps across Earth as the pulsar spins, moving in and out of view with a regular frequency. Astronomers are now studying FRB 121102 with radio, optical, X-ray and gamma-ray telescopes to search for clues. That narrows down the possible causes. Top guesses lean towards it being a magnetar. It is a fast-spinning neutron star with a strong magnetic field) or a jet from a supermassive black hole.
The more exotic of the possibilities are two other classes of extreme events are also known to occur frequently in dwarf galaxies: long-duration gamma-ray bursts, or very bright flashes of high-energy light, and superluminous supernovas, or very bright exploding stars.
It comes down to the fact that it is way too early to make any firm conclusions about what the source of this immense energy wave.
We must give it time and let the ladies and gentlemen with the telescopes finish what they are doing.
It won’t be a new big bang. That’s a screwy idea put about by semi-educated reporters. You can safely ignore that. Comparing a faint whisper in a telescope to all the energy there ever was is a complete misapprehension of the scales involved.
I would be very surprised if it were an artificial event, as any civilization producing a signature large enough to be seen across intergalactic distances would surely be in the process of causing some cataclysm they had no hope of surviving. I do hope that isn’t the cause. It would be unutterably sad if our only evidence for extraterrestrial life was it extinguishing itself.
I am reasonably certain this is a natural, or physical, event of some kind. If natural, it still amounts to a cataclysm, as before, because of the magnitude. That is not a good thing for any nearby life, of course.
But, if it is an artificial emission, we should be very afraid. We should hope and pray to all our deities that the intelligence that can create such energy bursts is one that we never encounter. The level of energy we are discussing is what is released in a fraction of a second. In that fraction of time, more energy is expelled than our entire Sun will radiate in 10,000 years.
This would be in the grasp of a Type #3 civilization on the Kardashev scale of galactic intelligence. This is a civilization that can harness the power of galaxies of stars. Our puny human civilization does not even rank on this scale. We are less than zero. This civilization will have no more in common with us than we do to viruses. This disparity could conceivably even be greater than that.
I would bet that they have no idea we are here at all. Our bubble of radio waves we have emitted with all technology is infinitesimally small. Only a few thousand of systems have been a washed in our hyper-weak radio signals. That may sound bleak but it is not. It is a great thing. Because all conventional wisdom could point to a hyper-intelligence that would not distinguish us from background dirt.
It really could be no other way.
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