Heartbeat signal from distant galaxy raises hopes of alien detection

Scientists have discovered an unusual and repetitive signal coming from a distant galaxy – with the source remaining a mystery. The blast of radio energy is flashing, in a pattern that has been likened to a heartbeat.

Boffins say it is a fast radio burst (FRB), which are mysterious and powerful blasts of energy that emanate from deep space.

But it is unusual among those blasts, and is nowhere near as fast, lasting for up to three seconds rather than the milliseconds of usual FRBs.

FRBs are visible at distances of billions of light years and exhibit the characteristic dispersion sweep of radio pulsars. These events give out as much energy in one millisecond as the Sun emits in 10,000 years, but the physical phenomenon that causes them is unknown.

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The signal is reportedly flashing in a “periodic” pattern, with the bursts of energy repeated every 0.2 seconds. Daniele Michilli, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, said: “There are not many things in the universe that emit strictly periodic signals.

“Examples that we know of in our own galaxy are radio pulsars and magnetars, which rotate and produce a beamed emission similar to a lighthouse. And we think this new signal could be a magnetar or pulsar on steroids.”

Called FRB 20191221A, the signal is currently the longest-lasting FRB, with the clearest periodic pattern, detected to date. Its source lies in a distant galaxy billions of light-years from Earth. However, the source might be remains a mystery.

The scientists hope to detect more periodic signals from this source, which could then be used as an astrophysical "clock". It is believed the frequency of the bursts could be used to measure the rate at which the universe is expanding.

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In December 2019, the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (Chime) picked up a signal of a potential FRB. Mr Michilli said: “It was unusual. Not only was it very long, lasting about three seconds, but there were periodic peaks that were remarkably precise, emitting every fraction of a second – boom, boom, boom – like a heartbeat.

"This is the first time the signal itself is periodic.” The discovery reported in the journal Nature is authored by members of the Chime/FRB Collaboration, including MIT researchers.

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