In the spring of 2007, David Narkevic, a physics student at West Virginia University, was sifting through the massive volumes of data generated by the Parkes telescope in Australia. This telescope had been tracking pulsars, which are rapidly spinning cores of collapsed stars. Narkevic’s task was to search for a newly discovered type of ultra-rapid pulsar known as RRAT. However, amidst the data, he stumbled upon a peculiar signal that seemed to originate from the Small Magellanic Cloud, a neighboring galaxy.
The uniqueness of this signal, which lasted a mere five milliseconds yet emitted energy equivalent to 10 billion times that of a typical Milky Way pulsar, intrigued astrophysicist Duncan Lorimer, Narkevic’s professor. This signal, named the “Lorimer Burst,” marked the first of many extraordinary and powerful flashes detected by telescopes. Although these bursts initially appeared improbable, more than 80 Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) have since been observed. Researchers now believe that an FRB could be occurring somewhere in the universe nearly every second.
The surge in FRB discoveries is attributed, in part, to a notable contributor: Yuri Milner, a Russian-Israeli billionaire with a fascination for extraterrestrial life. Milner’s relentless search for alien civilizations has led him to support a vast and intricate exploration of the universe through initiatives like Breakthrough Listen. This project has invested in upgrading radio telescopes worldwide, including MeerKAT in South Africa and ASKAP in Australia, which are poised to unveil the mechanisms behind these enigmatic bursts.
These new-generation telescopes promise to revolutionize the field of FRB research. MeerKAT, for instance, features 64 dishes in South Africa’s Karoo region, working in unison to track celestial objects with unprecedented sensitivity. ASKAP, on the other hand, consists of 36 dishes in Australia’s remote outback, offering a wider field of view to spot nearby FRBs. With these advanced tools, scientists hope to uncover the true origins of these powerful bursts and determine if any hold the secrets of extraterrestrial life.
While the mysteries surrounding FRBs remain, the interplay between cutting-edge technology, ambitious funding, and a quest for knowledge is propelling humanity’s understanding of the cosmos to new heights. As researchers continue to decode these cosmic signals, the scientific community remains open to a range of possibilities, from the natural to the extraordinary—even to the existence of intelligent alien civilizations.