Friday, 05 July 2019 05:45

How an alien-hunting Russian billionaire is helping crack one of the Universe's biggest mysteries

In spring 2007, David Narkevic, a physics student at West Virginia University, was sifting through reams of data churned out by the Parkes telescope – a dish in Australia that had been tracking pulsars, the collapsed, rapidly spinning cores of once massive stars. His professor, astrophysicist Duncan Lorimer, had asked him to search for a recently discovered type of ultra-rapid pulsar dubbed RRAT. But buried among the mountain of data, Narkevic found an odd signal that seemed to come from the direction of our neighbouring galaxy, the Small Magellanic Cloud.

The signal was unlike anything Lorimer had encountered before. Although it flashed only briefly, for just five milliseconds, it was ten billion times brighter than a typical pulsar in the Milky Way galaxy. It was emitting in a millisecond as much energy as the Sun emits in a month.

What Narkevic and Lorimer found was the first of many bizarre, ultra-powerful flashes detected by our telescopes. For years the flashes first seemed either improbable or at least vanishingly rare. But now, researchers have observed more than 80 of these Fast Radio Bursts, or FRBs. While astronomers once thought that what would be later dubbed the ‘Lorimer Burst’ was a one-off, they now agree that there’s probably one FRB happening somewhere in the Universe nearly every second.

And the reason for this sudden glut of discoveries? Aliens. Well, not aliens per se, but the search for them. Among the scores of astronomers and researchers working tirelessly to uncover these enigmatic signals is an eccentric Russian billionaire who, in his relentless hunt for extraterrestrial life, has ended up partly bankrolling one of the most complex and far-reaching scans of our Universe ever attempted.

Ever since Narkevic spotted the first burst, scientists have been wondering what could produce these mesmerising flashes in deep space. The list of possible sources is long, ranging from the theoretical to the simply unfathomable: colliding black holes; white holes; merging neutron stars; exploding stars; dark matter; rapidly spinning magnetars and malfunctioning microwaves have all been proposed as possible sources.

While some theories can now be rejected, many live on. Finally though, after more than a decade of searching, a new generation of telescopes is coming online that could help researchers to understand the mechanism that is producing these ultra-powerful bursts. In two recent back-to-back papers in the scientific journal Nature, one published last week and one today, two different arrays of radio antennas – the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) and Caltech’s Owens Valley Radio Observatory (OVRO) in the US – have for the first time ever been able to precisely locate two different of these mysterious one-off FRBs. Physicists are now expecting that two other new telescopes – CHIME (the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment) in Canada and MeerKAT in South Africa – will finally tell us what produces these powerful radio bursts.


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