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"Something Incredible Is Out There" --Scientists on Hunt for Signs of Extraterrestrial Intelligence Detect 15 New Cosmic Radio Bursts From Deep Space



As Carl Sagan was fond of saying: “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known." Astronomers on the hunt for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence have detected 15 Fast Radio Bursts from a dwarf galaxy located three billion light-years away. These exotic pulses have confounded scientists since they were first discovered a decade ago by astronomers using the Parkes radio dish in Australia.

The Berkeley Astronomers Telegram reports that the source of these latest bursts, called FRB 121102, is the first to produce repeating FRBs, and this most recent batch of 15 pulses is further reaffirming its repeating nature, strongly ruling out a catastrophic source, such as a supernova explosion. Astronomers have now detected over 150 “high-energy pulses” from FRB 121102, which was discovered in 2012 and identified last year as coming from a dwarf galaxy.

The 15 new FRBs were detected by scientists working on the Breakthrough Listen project—a 10-year mission to search the skies for signs of extraterrestrial intelligences (ETIs). Using the Green Bank Radio Telescope in West Virginia, the Breakthrough Listen team at UC Berkeley picked up the unusual signals on Monday August 28th. The larger astronomical community was quickly alerted.

“The conservative explanation for repeating FRBs is that they originate from a spinning neutron star which acts as a lighthouse [known as magnetars],” Avi Loeb, Chair of Harvard’s Astronomy Department, told Gizmodo. “Its beam of radiation is sweeping across the sky again and again because the star is subject to some external force that jolts it around. The circumstances must be different from a pulsar where the visible to the observer with an exact periodicity. FRBs appear to repeat in a non-periodic fashion. Moreover, FRBs are ten billion times brighter than pulsars, so the neutron star must be special, possibly very young (10-100 years old) and with a very strong magnetic field, producing much more powerful radiation than a typical pulsar.”

Loeb has speulated that FRBs might be artificially produced by an ETI’s antenna array for lightsail propulsion (similar to Breakthrough Starshot’s plan to send a lightsail to Proxima Centauri), and the repetitions are simply due to multiple firings of the launch system combined with the complicated motion of the beamer (on the source planet) relative to us. “But as Mark Twain said, ‘It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so’,” cautioned Loeb. “We should therefore wait for more data before jumping to conclusions.”

Or, as Carl Sagan said: "Exceptional claims required exceptional evidence."

“While it would be unwise to exclude the possibility that there are is other intelligent, technologically-capable, life in our universe, it is also unwise to immediately ascribe any new and poorly-understood astronomical phenomena to the work of alien life,” added Loeb.

FRBs from this source have never been seen at such high frequencies, explained Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center and Breakthrough Listen, the highest of which reached 7 GHz. The Berkeley researchers say the high resolution data that they acquired will now enable scientists to measure the properties of FRBs at higher levels of precision than ever before. Over 400 terabytes of data was pulled in over a five hour period, as the researchers scanned the 4 to 8 GHz frequency band. The analysis by Siemion and Breakthrough Listen postdoctoral researcher Vishal Gajjar revealed the 15 new pulses.

“The extraordinary capabilities of the backend receiver, which is able to record several gigahertz of bandwidth at a time, split into billions of individual channels, enable a new view of the frequency spectrum of FRBs, and should shed additional light on the processes giving rise to FRB emission.” Gajjar said.

“We clearly have much more to learn about FRB 121102, and FRBs in general,” Siemion told the online technology site, Gizmodo. “While it would be unwise to exclude the possibility that there are is other intelligent, technologically-capable, life in our universe, it is also unwise to immediately ascribe any new and poorly-understood astronomical phenomena to the work of alien life.”

“As has happened with myriad other ‘strange’ phenomena (the CMB, pulsars themselves, gamma ray bursts, etc), we will probably find a natural explanation for FRB 121102 that, while not having to do with extraterrestrial intelligence, will never-the-less teach us something new about the universe,” he said.

The Daily Galaxy via Berkeley, Astronomer’s Telegram  and Gizmodo

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If it's 3 billion light years away, then that estimated age throws a wrench into everything we know about light speed and distance.

What makes it impossibly difficult to speculate intelligently on the possibilities of alien technologies is the dizzying rapidity of the development of our own. We can imagine the struggles of a great and flexible intellect like Ben Franklin to understand the function of a cellphone, and he lived a scant 200 year ago. And that is where he himself is the author of some of the understandings on which the cellphone is based.

Would we not struggle as unsuccessfully to understand the technology of 200 years hence? And get no traction on that of thousands of years in the future? The first person considered to be a modern homo sapiens lived no more than 70,000 years ago. But geological and astronomical time periods are generally in millions or billions of years. We are such a young species that it is hard to see how we can ever visualize long futures for ourselves.

Add to the perplexities of the rapid development of our species and its technology, the certainty that intelligent aliens, based on entirely separate and different biological premises, would be vastly hard to understand even if by some outlandish fluke, they were at the same exact period in their evolutionary history as we are. Consider the difficulties we have understanding one another here on earth even though we are biologically identical, and exact contemporaries.

So the great improbability is not that there are alien intelligences out there. That I think is a certainty. The improbability lies in the chance we and they would be able to recognize each other as intelligences, let alone communicate.

Even here on earth among members of our own biome, we do not send ambassadors-plenipotentiary to sign treaties with bee hives. We can be sure that whatever aliens may be like, they will not resemble Leonard Nimoy.

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