Could Alien Spacecraft Propulsion Explain the Cosmic Mystery of Fast Radio Bursts?

It’s an “out there” hypothesis, but radiation from alien spacecraft zooming around space could account for the strange bursts of radio waves coming randomly from the deep cosmos.

M. Weiss/CfA

Powerful bursts of radio waves have been observed at random all over the sky and astronomers are having a hard time figuring out what the heck could be causing them. Many natural phenomena have been put forward as candidates — from massive stellar explosions to neutron star collisions — but none seem to fit the bill. It’s a mystery in its purest sense.

Pulling the alien card will likely raise some eyebrows in some academic circles, but if these so-called fast radio bursts (FRBs for short) end up lacking a satisfactory explanation, according to Avi Loeb of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), an artificial source (e.g. advanced extraterrestrial intelligence) could become the prime suspect.

“Fast radio bursts are exceedingly bright given their short duration and origin at great distances, and we haven’t identified a possible natural source with any confidence,” said Loeb in a statement. “An artificial origin is worth contemplating and checking.”

FRBs are super weird. First detected in 2007, several radio observatories on Earth — including the famous Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and the Parkes Observatory in Australia — have serendipitously detected only a couple of dozen events. And they are powerful; in a fraction of a second, they erupt with as much energy as our sun pumps out in 10,000 years. These are lucky detections as they only occur when the radio dishes just happen to be pointing at the right place at the right time. Astronomers predict there could be thousands of FRB events across the entire sky every single day. There seems to be no pattern, they appear to originate from distant galaxies billions of light-years away and they have no known progenitor.

So far, FRBs have been mainly identified from looking back through historic radio data, but now, the Parkes Observatory has a real-time FRB detection system that will alert astronomers of their detection, allowing rapid follow-up investigations of source regions. This system resulted in a breakthrough last year when astronomers were able to work out that one FRB originated in an old elliptical galaxy some six billion light-years away. This single event helped researchers narrow down FRB sources — as the galaxy is old and exhibits little star formation processes, some production mechanisms could be ruled out (or at least determined to be less likely).

“This is not what we expected,” said Simon Johnston, Head of Astrophysics at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) which manages Parkes, at the time. “It might mean that the FRB resulted from, say, two neutron stars colliding rather than anything to do with recent star birth.”

But say if the source is a little more, well, alien; why would extraterrestrial intelligence(s) be blasting this incredibly powerful radiation into space in the first place?

In their research to be published in Astrophysical Journal Letters, Loeb and co-investigator Manasvi Lingam of Harvard University looked at a form of beamed energy that could be used to propel interstellar probes to the stars. Vast planet-sized solar receivers could collect the required energy and the power collected could be transferred into a laser-like device that is bigger than we can currently imagine. Although the technology required to create such a device is in the realms of science-fiction, according to the researchers’ work, it’s not beyond the realms of physics.

This hypothetical mega-laser could then be used to blast a huge solarsail-like spacecraft across interstellar — perhaps even intergalactic — distances. The photon pressure exerted by this kind of propulsion technique could accelerate spacecraft of a million tons to relativistic speeds. The engineering details of such a device are only known to these advanced hypothetical aliens, however.

Like this… kinda. (Credit: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

This form of beamed energy would need to be continuously aimed at the departing spacecraft, like a dandelion seed being constantly blown through the air by a steady breeze, to help it accelerate sufficiently to its desired destination — so why would such a technology manifest itself on Earth as a mere radio flash in the sky? Well, to keep the beamed energy on target (i.e. centered on the spacecraft’s sail), it will remain fixed on the spacecraft. But the spacecraft, planet and star will all be moving relative to us, sweeping the beam across the sky, so the beam will only briefly appear in our skies and then disappear as a random FRB. Even if there’s a permanent “beamed energy station” continuously firing spacecraft into deep space, we may only ever see one flash from that location — space is a big place, we’d need to lie directly in the firing line (over millions to billions of light-years away) for us to even glimpse it.

And if these FRBs are originating all over the sky, from many different stars in many different galaxies, it could mean that this beamed propulsion technology is a natural progression for sufficiently advanced civilizations. We could be in the middle of a vast intergalactic transportation network that we can only join when we are sufficiently advanced ourselves to build our own beamed energy station — like an intergalactic bus stop. Mind-bending stuff, right?

Alternatively, FRBs could just be a natural phenomena that our current understanding of the universe cannot explain, but it’s good to investigate all avenues, scientifically.

“Science isn’t a matter of belief, it’s a matter of evidence. Deciding what’s likely ahead of time limits the possibilities. It’s worth putting ideas out there and letting the data be the judge,” concludes Loeb.

And you know what? I couldn’t agree more.


ALMA Reveals the True Nature of Hubble’s Enigmatic Ghost Spiral

Appearing as a ghostly apparition in deep space, the LL Pegasi spiral nebula signals the death of a star — and the world’s most powerful radio observatory has delved into its deeper meaning.

Left: HST image of LL Pegasi publicized in 2010. Credit: ESA/NASA & R. Sahai. Right: ALMA image of LL Pegasi. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO) / Hyosun Kim et al.

When the Hubble Space Telescope revealed the stunning LL Pegasi spiral for the first time, its ghostly appearance captivated the world.

Known to be an ancient, massive star, LL Pegasi is dying and shedding huge quantities of gas and dust into space. But this is no ordinary dying star, this is a binary system that is going out in style.

The concentric rings in the star system’s nebula are spiraling outwards, like the streams of water being ejected from a lawn sprinkler’s head. On initial inspection of the Hubble observation, it was assumed that the spiral must be caused by the near-circular orbit of two stars, one of which is generating the flood of gas. Judging by the symmetry of the rings, this system must be pointing roughly face-on, from our perspective.

Though these assumptions generally hold true, new follow-up observations by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) on the 5,000 meter-high Chajnantor plateau in Chile has added extra depth to the initial Hubble observations. Astronomers have used the incredible power of ALMA to see a pattern in the rings, revealing the complex orbital dynamics at play deep in the center of the spiral.

“It is exciting to see such a beautiful spiral-shell pattern in the sky. Our observations have revealed the exquisitely ordered three-dimensional geometry of this spiral-shell pattern, and we have produced a very satisfying theory to account for its details,” said Hyosun Kim, of the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics (ASIAA) in Taiwan and lead researcher of this work.

Just as we read tree rings to understand the history of seasonal tree growth and climatic conditions, Kim’s team used the rings of LL Pegasi to learn about the nature of the binary star’s 800 year orbit. One of the key findings was the ALMA imaging of bifurcation in the rings; after comparing with theoretical models, they found that these features are an indicator that the central stars’ orbit is not circular — it’s in fact highly elliptical.

ALMA observation of the molecular gas around LL Pegasi. By comparing this gas distribution with theoretical simulations, the team concluded that the bifurcation of the spiral-shell pattern (indicated by a white box) is resulted from a highly elliptical binary system. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO) / Hyosun Kim et al.

Probably most striking, however, was that Hubble was only able to image the 2D projection of what is in fact a 3D object, something that ALMA could investigate. By measuring the line-of-sight velocities of gas being ejected from the central star, ALMA was able to create a three-dimensional view of the nebula, with the help of numerical modeling. Watch the animation below:

“While the [Hubble Space Telescope] image shows us the beautiful spiral structure, it is a 2D projection of a 3D shape, which becomes fully revealed in the ALMA data,” added co-author Raghvendra Sahai, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., in a statement.

This research is a showcase of the power of combining observations from different telescopes. Hubble was able to produce a dazzling (2D) picture of the side-on structure of LL Pegasi’s spirals, but ALMA’s precision measurements of gas outflow speed added (3D) depth, helping us “see” an otherwise hidden structure, while revealing the orbital dynamics of two distant stars.

A special thanks to Hyosun Kim for sending me the video of the LL Pegasi visualization!

So it Could be a ‘Supervoid’ That’s Causing the Mysterious CMB ‘Cold Spot’

Only last month I recorded a DNews video about the awesome possibilities of the “Cold Spot” that sits ominously in the cosmic microwave background (CMB) anisotropy maps (anisotropies = teenie tiny temperature variations in the CMB).

I still hold onto the hope that this anomalous low temperature region is being caused by a neighboring parallel universe squishing up against our own. But evidence is mounting for there actually being a vast low density region — known as a “supervoid” — between us and that Cold Spot.

And that’s crappy news for my dreams of cosmologists finding bona fide observational clues of the multiverse hypothesis any time soon. The Cold Spot could just be the frigid fingerprint of this supervoid etched into our observations of the CMB.

But as this supervoid could be as wide as 1.8 billion light-years, this discovery is still crazy cool — the supervoid could be the newest candidate for the largest structure ever discovered in the universe. Suck it, Sloan Great Wall.

Read more about this new research published today in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society in my Discovery News blog.

We Are The 4.9%

The AMS attached to the space station's exterior (NASA)
The AMS attached to the space station’s exterior (NASA)

This month is Global Astronomy Month (GAM2013) organized by my friends Astronomers Without Borders (AWB). There is a whole host of events going on right this moment to boost astronomy throughout the international community, and as a part of GAM2013, AWB are hosting daily blogs from guest astronomers, writers, physicists and others with a background in space. Today (April 11) was my turn, so I wrote a blog about the fascinating first results to be announced on the International Space Station instrument the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer — or AMS for short.

Although the AMS’ most recent findings suggest positrons with a signature energy indicative of the annihilation of dark matter — particularly hypothetical weakly interaction massive particles (WIMPS) — it isn’t final proof of dark matter (despite what the tabloid press might’ve told you). But still, it’s exciting and another component of our enduring search for 95.1% of the mass-energy of the universe that is locked in the mysterious and perplexing dark matter and dark energy.

You can read my blog on the AWB website: “Dark Matter: We Are The 4.9%

Sir Patrick Moore (1923-2012)

Sir Patrick Moore
Sir Patrick Moore

“I’m only a four-dimensional creature. Haven’t got a clue how to visualise infinity. Even Einstein hadn’t. I know because I asked him.”Sir Patrick Moore

The Sky at Night: Curiosity at Mars (Patrick Moore and Chris Lintott):

Patrick Moore interviews Carl Sagan (h/t @megschwamb):

BBC News: Sir Patrick Moore: Chris Lintott’s tribute
Discovery News: Astronomer Patrick Moore Dies at 89

The Discovery Channel Telescope Is ONLINE!

M104, "The Sombrero Galaxy" as seen through the DCT. Credit: Lowell Observatory/DCT
M104, “The Sombrero Galaxy” as seen through the DCT. Credit: Lowell Observatory/DCT

Since I started working as Space Producer at Discovery News in 2009, there’s always been a major project humming in the background. But on Saturday, that hum evolved into a monster roar when astronaut legend Neil Armstrong spoke at Lowell Observatory, near Flagstaff, Ariz., to introduce the $53 million 4.3-meter Discovery Channel Telescope. Seeing photographs of the ‘scope and its “first light” observations gave me goosebumps.

But this is only the beginning. As the fifth largest optical telescope in the continental USA, the DCT has a packed science schedule and I am in a very privileged position to report on the exciting discoveries that will be made by “our” telescope.

Congratulations to everyone at Lowell Observatory on a job well done!

BIG PICS: The DCT First Light Gallery.
PHOTOS: Get a behind-the-scenes tour of the Discovery Channel Telescope.
INTERVIEW: Unlocking dwarf galaxy mysteries with the DCT — Discovery News talks with Lowell Observatory astronomer Deidre Hunter.

Cosmic Log — Alan Boyle — Telescope opens a brand new window on Discovery
Bad Astronomy — Phil Plait — Discovery Channel telescope sees first light!

When Venus Transited the Sun

The Venus transit taken with my iPhone 3GS through a telescope eyepiece atop Mt. Wilson on June 5, 2012.
The Venus transit taken with my iPhone 3GS through a telescope eyepiece atop Mt. Wilson on June 5, 2012.

After the historic Venus transit and my involvement of the Astronomers Without Borders live webcast of the event from Mt. Wilson, I jetted off to Florida to give a talk at the 7×24 Exchange meeting in Orlando, so I had little time to post my transit photos on Now that my feet are (partially) back on the ground, I’ve found some time to upload them.

Interestingly, my favorite photos were taken using my trusty old iPhone 3GS through the eyepieces of random telescopes (pictured top), but here are some more from that awesome day.

For more, read my recent Discovery News articles based on the 2012 Venus transit:

Venus Transit: Streamed LIVE from Mt. Wilson, California!

Today, at 2:45 p.m. PDT (5:45 p.m. EDT or 10:45 p.m. GMT), be sure to tune into the extra special Venus transit live video feed from the famous Mt. Wilson Observatory. I will be there, co-hosting a pretty awesome live event from the historic site with Mike Simmons, President and Founder of Astronomers Without Borders. We also have a surprise, rather sci-fi announcement in store too. For a run-down of all the festivities and the live feed, take a look at the AWB transit pages.

I will be surrounded by real astronomers with huge telescopes, so there will likely be lots of opportunities to see me geek out over some awesome views of this once-in-a-lifetime event (well, two if you saw the 2004 transit… or if you’re really young and live to see the 2117 Venus transit!). I will also be taking my patented “eclipse viewing” kit — a $1 pair of eclipse glasses and my Nikon CoolPix camera — to see if I can get a very amateur photo of Venus’ silhouette!

See you at the summit!

Mystery Mars Cloud: An Auroral Umbrella?

The strange cloud-like protursion above Mars' limb (around the 1 o'clock point). Credit: Wayne Jaeschke.
The strange cloud-like protursion above Mars' limb (around the 1 o'clock point). Credit: Wayne Jaeschke.

Last week, amateur astronomer Wayne Jaeschke noticed something peculiar in his observations of Mars — there appeared to be a cloud-like structure hanging above the limb of the planet.

Many theories have been put forward as to what the phenomenon could be — high altitude cloud? Dust storm? An asteroid impact plume?! — but it’s all conjecture until we can get follow-up observations. It is hoped that NASA’s Mars Odyssey satellite might be able to slew around and get a close-up view. However, it appears to be a transient event that is decreasing in size, so follow-up observations may not be possible.

For the moment, it’s looking very likely that it is some kind of short-lived atmospheric feature, and if I had to put money on it, I’d probably edge more toward the mundane — like a high-altitude cloud formation.

But there is one other possibility that immediately came to mind when I saw Jaeschke’s photograph: Could it be the effect of a magnetic umbrella?

Despite the lack of a global magnetic field like Earth’s magnetosphere, Mars does have small pockets of magnetism over its surface. When solar wind particles collide with the Earth’s magnetosphere, highly energetic particles are channeled to the poles and impact the high altitude atmosphere — aurorae are the result. On Mars, however, it’s different. Though the planet may not experience the intense “auroral oval” like its terrestrial counterpart, when the conditions are right, solar particles my hit these small pockets of magnetism. The result? Auroral umbrellas.

The physics is fairly straight forward — the discreet magnetic pockets act as bubbles, directing the charged solar particles around them in an umbrella fashion. There is limited observational evidence for these space weather features, but they should be possible.

As the sun is going through a period of unrest, amplifying the ferocity of solar storms, popping off coronal mass ejections (CMEs) and solar flares, could the cloud-like feature seen in Jaeschke’s photograph be a bright auroral umbrella? I’m additionally curious as a magnetic feature like this would be rooted in the planet’s crust and would move with the rotation of the planet. It would also be a transient event — much like an atmospheric phenomenon.

The physics may sound plausible, but it would be interesting to see what amateur astronomers think. Could such a feature appear in Mars observations?

For more information, see Jaeschke’s ExoSky website.

What Do You See When SETI’s Allen Telescope Array Is Aimed At The Sun?

A comparison between an observation of the sun using the ATA's 2.75 GHz band (left) and SOHO's 195A filter. Both are near-simultaneous observations on Oct. 1, 2009 (Saint-Hilaire et al., 2011)
A comparison between an observation of the sun using the ATA's 2.75 GHz band (left) and SOHO's 195A filter. Both are near-simultaneous observations on Oct. 1, 2009 (Saint-Hilaire et al., 2011).

And no, “aliens” isn’t the answer.

The Allen Telescope Array (ATA), located near Hat Creek, California, isn’t only used by the SETI Institute to seek out signals from extraterrestrial civilizations. The 42 6.1-meter antennae form an interferometer that can be used for a variety of astronomical studies — in reality, this is the main focus of the project. SETI studies “piggyback” the active astronomical research, passively collecting data.

Due to the radio interferometer’s wide field of view, one surprising use of the ATA is solar astronomy — at radio frequencies. The ATA can be used to simultaneously observe the whole of the solar disk at a range of frequencies rarely studied. As outlined in a recent arXiv publication, a University of California, Berkeley, team of astronomers headed by Pascal Saint-Hilaire have carried out the first ATA solar study, producing images of the sun in a light we rarely see it in (shown above).

According to the paper, active regions were observed at radio and microwave frequencies, spotting the emissions associated with bremsstrahlung — electromagnetic radiation generated by accelerated charged particles caught in intense magnetic fields, a feature typical inside solar active regions. Also, coronal interactions, or gyroresonance, between solar plasma and plasma waves (propagating along magnetic field lines) was detected.

Combining the ATA’s wide field of view, range of frequencies and high resolution, it looks like the ATA is the only solar radiotelescope on the planet.

For more on this fascinating study, read “Allen Telescope Array Multi-Frequency Observations of the Sun,” Saint-Hilaire et al., 2011. arXiv:1111.4242v1 [astro-ph.SR]