Known as “fast radio bursts,” these flashes are a bit of a mystery.
Since 2007, scientists have been picking up on radio signals of unknown origin from beyond the Milky Way. The signals, known as fast radio bursts (FRBs), flash brightly for incredibly brief periods — sometimes just once, and sometimes in a predictable pattern that can last for months. While we still don’t know exactly where these pulses come from, a new study published in the journal Science is getting us closer by identifying the magnetic pattern embedded in the signals.
This is a little tricky, but the researchers essentially determined that it’s possible to make determinations about the origin of these pulses based on their magnetic polarization. By looking at how the signals are affected by magnetic fields, it’s possible to place them in locations with similar magnetic environments.
Signals with a messy magnetic field likely came from places like near a supernova (an exploding star) or highly magnetized neutron stars known as pulsars. When the signals are tamer, the scientists suggest that they may come from less turbulent spaces, like within a group of older, stable stars known as a stellar population.
While this research may help to determine the origins of these FRBs, there are still more questions than answers remaining about them. It’s still unclear why some repeat and some are one-off events. Could they be coded messages from aliens? Probably not, but we haven’t technically ruled it out yet.