For about the last decade, scientists have been detecting strange signals called "fast radio bursts" (FRBs) from deep space that have a suspicious mathematical pattern. The pattern is consistent enough that some scientists have even speculated that the signals may have a technological origin. In other words, it's possible they could be signals from aliens.
Of course, that's just one theory, but it's a theory that scientists haven't yet been able to rule out. These FRBs are truly perplexing, and learning more about them has proven to be a monumental undertaking. Only 16 bursts have ever been recorded, and discovering these bursts required painstaking analysis of data because filtering out all the other noise from the cosmos and from our own technology is arduous work.
But now new data has emerged that could help scientists begin to solve the mystery.
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"We now know that the energy from [one] particular burst passed through a dense magnetized field shortly after it formed," said Kiyoshi Masui, lead author of the new findings, in a statement to the press. "This significantly narrows down the source's environment and type of event that triggered the burst--and means the source of the pulse likely resides within a star-forming nebula or the remnant of a supernova."
Masui, along with colleague Jonathan Sievers from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, developed new data-mining software that could analyze FRBs as never before, leading to their discovery. Essentially, the researchers identified an FRB that exhibited Faraday rotation, a corkscrew-like twist that radio waves acquire when they pass through a powerful magnetic field.
Further analysis of the data also suggested that the FRB passed through two distinct regions of ionized gas, called screens, on its way to Earth. This is important because it allowed researchers to determine the relative locations of the two screens. Interestingly, the strongest screen is very close to the original source of the FRB. It's so close that it must have existed inside the source's galaxy.
So, now we know something about the environment surrounding the FRB source. Scientists said there are only two known phenomena that could account for this kind of environment: a nebula surrounding the source or a galactic center.
"Taken together, these remarkable data reveal more about an FRB than we have ever seen before and give us important constraints on these mysterious events," said Masui. "We also have an exciting new tool to search through otherwise overwhelming archival data to uncover more examples and get closer to truly understanding their nature."
We're still a long way from truly understanding where FRBs are coming from, but this new data at least gives scientists a lead that they can follow. If it doesn't guide us to E.T., it could very well direct us to some phenomena that we have never seen before.