Scientists listen for mysterious signal from space

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GREEN BANK OBSERVATORY, W.Va. (WDBJ7) Astronomers recently announced a new discovery: a mysterious signal from a galaxy 3 billion light years away. This intense burst of radio waves was one of dozens of similar signals, totally random and totally unexplained.

Under a solid West Virginia sky, this radio telescope searches the universe. It’s untroubled by the clouds, because what it sees are radio waves, falling all around us like the rain.

“There’s a whole invisible universe out there that we can’t see with our eyes,” explains Green Bank Staff Scientist Ryan Lynch.

“The visible light’s a very, very small part of what astronomers look at," says Karen O’Neil, the Director of the Green Bank Observatory. "And I think that’s something that’s often not appreciated.”

And as they searched the skies for the signatures of colliding stars and black holes, they found a spike in radio waves.

That spike is a Fast Radio Burst.

“And if that sounds like an overly descriptive name, that’s because we don’t actually know what they are at their origin,” says Lynch.

That’s right. It’s a total mystery.

“But we do have some ideas," according to Lynch. "It could be related to black holes or to neutron stars.”

Or … maybe aliens?

“It could be aliens," admits O’Neil. "Of course it could be aliens. But you know, if it were, that’s a mighty funny signal to be getting. And that’s the reason you tend to think of it as a natural phenomenon.”

And that’s the thing. The Fast Radio Bursts seem to be one-off, random blasts of very strong energy. Not a series of controlled signals like you would see from an alien civilization.

So, no aliens?

“That would be a fantastic discovery if it ended up being the case," Lynch says, grinning. "Although, like I said, I think most people, most astronomers do not favor that particular interpretation.”

“Whatever FRBs are," says O’Neil, "It’s something really cool. It’s a new phenomenon, and it’s a phenomenon that will certainly teach us more about the universe and just how it works.”