Mysterious radio burst spotted within the Milky Way. Was it a message from space?

By Harriet Piercy

Published Nov 8, 2020 at 09:00 AM

Reading time: 3 minutes

On 28 April 2020, a group of keen-eyed astronomers spotted a powerful but short burst of radio waves, lasting no more than a few milliseconds, coming from outer space and washing over Earth. To their amazement, they have now discovered that its source came from an object, possibly a magnetic star, within our very own galaxy. This is the first time scientists have been able to pinpoint the source of these mysterious cosmic signals.

Telescopes have picked up similar bursts before but until now, they had always come from outside of our galaxy, sometimes from billions of light-years away, which troubled researchers ever since the first signals were detected back in 2007. What exactly could these ephemeral blasts be, exploding stars? Or, alien technologies, perhaps?

The radio waves are officially known as ‘fast radio bursts’ (FRBs). We now know that at least one source of these FRBs is likely to be an exotic stellar object called a magnetar (the most powerful magnets in the cosmos), which is a type of young neutron star that was left over from a larger neutron star with a higher magnetic field after it collapses in on itself or explodes. Caltech graduate student and lead author of one of the studies published in the science journal Nature, Christopher Bochenek, stated in a press briefing that when he looked at the data for the first time, he “froze, and was basically paralysed with excitement.”

Magnetars host an incredibly powerful magnetic field that stores enormous amounts of energy, certainly capable of distorting the shapes of atoms, or FRBs. FRBs are assumed to appear once every second in the night sky, but flare up for just a few milliseconds each time. Scientists have only witnessed a miniscule fraction of these phenomena at play.

The discovery of this particular FRBs source, has been the magnetar living in (cosmically speaking) our own backyard, in fact just 30,000 light years away. Two different observatories, one being a telescope made up of more than a thousand radio antennas arranged like metal half pipes called CHIME in Canada, and then another array of low-tech (metal pipes and cake pans) radio telescopes spread out across California and Utah called STARE2, spotted this FRB coming from the same part of the sky, which also strengthened the credibility of the signal.

According to Bochenek, who led the STARE2 discovery team, the FRB was so bright that even a regular cell phone 4G LTE receiver would have theoretically been able to pick up the signal.

A lot is evidently gained from watching and waiting so patiently, because just a few days before the FRB was detected, the astronomers had started to notice that one already known magnetar had been becoming quite hyperactive in the sky. It was sending out X-rays as well as gamma rays, meaning that the radio waves they saw on 28 April had perfectly coincided with the particularly large burst of X-rays from the magnetar, therefore pointing it as the source.

Sadly this does give us the inclination that a message from an alien colony might be out the picture, however, CHIME’s Daniele Michilli, a postdoctoral fellow at McGill University said in a press briefing that she doesn’t think that “we can conclude that all fast radio bursts come from magnetars, but for sure, our models that have magnetars as the origins of fast radio bursts are very probable.” In other words, the brightest radio bursts, for example, may be produced by objects other than magnetars, according to astrophysicists.

There are two very compelling theories as to why and how these magnetars could produce these fast radio bursts. Astrophysicist Bing Zhang published an interesting review also in Nature along with the founding studies, and proposed two scenarios. In one, flares of particles are ejected from the magnetar’s surface and collide at extreme speed with surrounding debris, which proceeds to create a hot and highly magnetised maelstrom (vortex or whirlpool), which has the potential to give off both X-rays and radio waves.

In the other, which I personally find conceptually enthralling, Zhang proposes that the FRBs form as the magnetar’s super-intense magnetic field lines (like on Earth, radio waves are generated through directing electrons through a wire) get tangled, and disconnected, which releases vast amounts of energy in the process, causing FRBs.

So, aliens are still nowhere (officially) to be seen, that much is clear. But either way, while the professionals do their exciting job and find the facts for us to report to you, readers—I’m going to go to bed tonight imagining a jelly-fish like magnetar whipping its gamma ray tentacles across our electro-magnetic night sky.

Keep On Reading

By Charlie Sawyer

O.J. Simpson dies at the age of 76 following a battle with cancer 

By Abby Amoakuh

After School Satan Club causes uproar in US elementary school

By Charlie Sawyer

Singer Luke Combs sickened to hear about his team’s $250K lawsuit against loyal fan, offers to help

By Abby Amoakuh

Kanye West to build a kingdom in the Middle East as part of his plans for a Yeezyverse

By Charlie Sawyer

Rachel Sennott is working on a new HBO coming-of-age comedy. Here’s why it’s bound to be perfect

By Charlie Sawyer

TikTok investigator reveals identity of pathological liar in Who TF Did I Marry 50-part viral series

By Fatou Ferraro Mboup

Is Brazilian weight loss influencer Mila De Jesus dead? Fans concerned about cause of death

By Emma O'Regan-Reidy

From gen Z farming to pro-hybrid work, here are 3 ways the younger generation will impact 2024

By Charlie Sawyer

Dan Schneider addresses accusations revealed in Quiet on Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV 

By Fatou Ferraro Mboup

AI-generated images of Donald Trump with Black voters spread before US presidential election

By Charlie Sawyer

Ron DeSantis’ administration links pro-Palestine student group to terrorism and bans it from campus

By Charlie Sawyer

Will the Supreme Court banish Trump from the presidential ballot? Social media users have their say

By Abby Amoakuh

Khloé Kardashian blasts Kris Jenner over cheating scandal in episode 4 of The Kardashians

By Charlie Sawyer

What is the Electoral College? What is the popular vote? And how is the US president elected?

By Abby Amoakuh

Nella Rose faces backlash following explosive fight with Fred Sirieix on I’m a Celebrity

By Charlie Sawyer

How to become a sugar baby: Everything you need to know about pursuing a safe sugar lifestyle

By Abby Amoakuh

Nara Smith addresses Mormon religion as parodies of her lifestyle take over TikTok

By Charlie Sawyer

Gypsy Rose Blanchard says husband Ryan Anderson’s D is fire after trolls call him a creep

By Fatou Ferraro Mboup

ISIS started trending on X after the terrorist group allegedly threatened to attack Champions League

By Fatou Ferraro Mboup

QAnon conspiracy theorists claim Iowa shooting was a political coverup for Jeffrey Epstein scandal