Fast radio bursts

In January last year I wrote about Fast Radio Bursts, or FRBs. Now, there's an intriguing update.

An FRB is a sudden flash of radio energy from … somewhere way, way out there, beyond our galaxy. They’re a little like a tame version of a Gamma Ray Burst, which is a slightly scary thing I wrote about a little more recently. FRBs are rare, and when I last wrote about them, they seemed random, with only two locations known to have produced more than one.

Also, last time I wrote, I mentioned the new CHIME radio telescope in Canada, which was able to search large swaths of sky for these phenomena.

Awesome image: CHIME

Well, the update is that CHIME (Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment if you’re interested) is operational, and has been discovering FRBs hand over fist, including something really weird.

One of the places we've detected FRBs, a galaxy about 500 million light years away, seems to be on a repeating cycle, of a bit over 16 days. For four days, the FRB goes off a couple of times per hour, but then it all goes quiet for the rest of the cycle.

We still have no clue what is going on, but the fact that it’s not random is a big step for us. There’s some talk about some sort of eclipse that’s blocking whatever causes the regular FRB. Imagine some sort of binary system, one of which is causing the bursts, the other blocking them.

One hypothesis is that the FRBs are caused by something called a magnetar, or magnetic neutron star. But until now, all the magnetars we’ve come across pulse in regular periods measured in seconds, rather than days.

As a side note, the Express in the UK has described this as proof of alien life. There's a chance this may not be true, but I do love the clickbait.

So, I guess we really don’t know. But it’ll be interesting finding out.

That’s the scientific method – from observations, make an hypothesis. With an hypothesis, make some predictions, which you then test against more observations.

It’s what humans do.