Canadian radio telescope records mysterious low-frequency bursts from outside our galaxy

Click to play video: 'New B.C. radio telescope in South Okanagan picks up mysterious signal from space'
New B.C. radio telescope in South Okanagan picks up mysterious signal from space
A new radio telescope at the South Okanagan's CHIME observatory is picking up strange signals from deep space and as John Hua reports, the cosmic mystery could be a sign of exploding black holes or even alien life – Aug 3, 2018

A radio telescope in B.C. has picked up a handful of signals from a far-off place in outer space.

The Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) has been looking for fast radio bursts for the past week, and has already found a handful of events, researchers say.

Fast radio bursts (FRBs) are bursts of radio waves that last only milliseconds, and they were first discovered in 2007. Since then, there have been about 30 published events.

But CHIME is expected to be able to record dozens of FRBs a day, because of the scale of the telescope and the fact that it can monitor a very large portion of the sky.

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CHIME was fired up last year and started collecting radio waves in an attempt to understand and map the universe.

But researchers have added new functionality to the telescope to be able to capture the FRBs.

Lead researcher Victoria Kaspi, the director of McGill University’s Space Institute, said they know in which direction the FRBs come from, but we don’t know much else about them.

“We can’t say what kind of galaxy it can be from. We don’t know what kind of source they’re coming from. We can’t, you know, [even] confirm they’re coming from another galaxy,” Kaspi told Global News.

Since they’re coming from so far away, the bursts must have been created by an “extremely energetic event,” NRC researcher Paul Scholtz explained. That could be something like a supernova or a gamma-ray burst, or even something falling into a black hole.

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Some have even speculated they are alien in origin — an article on the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics suggested that “these bursts might be leakage from planet-sized transmitters powering interstellar probes in distant galaxies.”

But Kaspi says there’s no evidence that shows alien origins.

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With CHIME’s ability to see more FRBs, researchers hope to unravel several mysteries about them. Are the same sources repeating the signals or are they unique signals coming from different places? And are they coming from everywhere or the same neighbourhood?

But Scholtz says there are lots of other things we can learn from FRBs.

“Because they propagate through a large portion of the universe, you can learn about the material that’s between galaxies using these events,” he said.

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“Basically, like a little probe passing [through] the material between us and the source of it.”

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Kaspi said she hopes other researchers see the data from CHIME and are inspired to come up with new ideas on how to solve the mystery of FRBs.

“We’re going to be able to do great science in this area,” she said.

“This is a valuable place to look and [other researchers] might consider how they’re going … to tackle this problem, too, and what sort of new instruments they might want to build.”

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