Back in 2007, astronomers detected an incredibly brief, incredibly strong radio wave burst in Australia. And now, on the opposite side of the world, astronomers have detected a second blast of similar proportions. Meaning that A) the first one wasn't a fluke, and B) we have absolutely no idea what's causing them.
This second ultrafast flash of radio waves was discovered by the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, which had been putting out its feelers in hopes of discovering neutron stars. Instead, it got the second instance of so-called fast radio bursts (FRBs), which finally allowed astronomers to rule out cosmic noise and formally report them. Because unlike the radio signals we usually detect, these radio waves "show every sign of having come from far outside our galaxy".
According to Laura Spitler, a post-doctoral researcher for the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Germany, the discovery is a major step forward:
We really have no handle on what they are. Scientists are highly sceptical of such discoveries … [that] all of the bursts up until now had been discovered by the Parkes telescope was a cause of concern. Now, with the discovery of a burst from Arecibo, we are more confident that FRBs are astrophysical phenomena, and discovering and classifying them should be a priority of radio astronomical observatories in the future.
Until we're able to uncover more of these FRBs and properly study them, though, scientists are at a loss for what could be causing them. Some proposed explanations have included evaporating black holes, mergers of neutron stars, and flares from extremely powerful neutron stars called magnetars. And as Duncan Lorimer, one of the astronomers whom uncovered the first set of FRBs told NPR:
There's even been discussions in the literature about signatures from extraterrestrial civilisations.
It may be quite a while before we get any definitive answers, though. The two radio telescopes that detected the waves suffer from tunnel vision, which means that since our view is so limited, any FRBs we find in the future will largely be thanks to luck. But as Cornell astronomer James Cordes also said to NPR, "the nice things about this in the current stage is that we really don't know what these bursts are caused by. And so the sky's the limit in some respects."
Or to put that in layman's terms:
Image via Shutterstock/Israel Pabon