They crossed 3 billion light-years to reach us. On September 9th, a team of Berkley University scientists working on the Breakthrough Listen project announced that they had discovered 72 new radio signals from outer space.
These signals are very particular. Called fast radio bursts, or FRB, they are among the most mysterious phenomena of the universe. They only emit for a few milliseconds, but generate as much energy as hundreds of millions of suns. However, they are very random, which prevents scientists from observing them voluntarily.
Machine learning to help astronomy
This was at least the case until 2012, when FRB 121102 was discovered. To date, it is the only known source of known fast radio bursts, and it is located within a dwarf galaxy, located 3 billion light-years away from ours. Its particularity is that since its detection in 2012, it has been observed to be in perpetual explosion.
Based on the fact that FRB 121102 emits recurrently scientists have sought to take advantage of this. On August 26th they pointed the telescopes at the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia at it for 5 hours. They collected 400 terabytes of data and by using standard algorithms, scientists managed to discover 21 new signals, suggesting that the source is going through periods of frenetic activity followed by moments of tranquility.
This data was then analysed by a new advanced algorithm, based on artificial intelligence and machine learning, known as a coevolutionary neural network. Machine learning is a type of artificial neural network in which the connection pattern between neurons was inspired by animals’ visual cortex. This artificial intelligence has revealed that FRB 121102 is much more active and possibly much more complex than previously thought.
An alien origin?
Thanks to these elements, scientists have been able to make assumptions as to the nature of the source. Thus, it could be an extreme environment such as the vicinity of a black hole, a neutron star or a very powerful nebula. But according to scientists, the theory that it is a technology developed by a civilisation much more advanced than ours has not been excluded either.
‘Whether or not these signals turn out to be signs of alien technology, this is very exciting,’ says Dr. Andrew Siemion, member of the Breakthrough Listen project. ‘It helps us push the boundaries of this whole new field, which allows us to progress very quickly in our understanding of the universe around us.’