Telescopes in the European VLBI Network helped pinpoint the location of the repeating signal in 2019.


Fast radio bursts, strange, sometimes-repeating signals from the other side of the cosmos, remain one of the universe’s great mysteries. Detectors on Earth pick up these signals and then, in a flash, they’re gone forever — and astronomers aren’t sure where they come from. But as the amount of radio bursts discovered continue to stack up, astronomers are beginning to discover more and more about them.

The fast radio burst FRB 180916.J0158+65, discovered in 2018 and pinpointed to a spiral galaxy approximately 500 million light-years away, was examined over a period of 13 months and found to repeat with a highly regular rhythm — the first time astronomers have seen a deep space signal act in such a way.

In a new paper, published on the preprint server arXiv and yet to be peer-reviewed, scientists working with the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment Fast Radio Burst (CHIME/FRB) project describe the process of listening to the burst between September 2018 and October 2019.

Using the huge ground-based CHIME telescope, situated in British Columbia, Canada, researchers detected the deep space signals with a startling regularity. Over four days, they’d detect the fast bursts every hour or so, before the signals suddenly stopped. Then, after 12 days of silence, they’d kick back up again, pinging the CHIME telescope.

The first FRB was discovered in 2007 but in recent years, new telescopes and greater interest have seen a motherlode of FRBs discovered. Many of these ultra-powerful radio signals do not repeat. We hear them and they disappear, but a small proportion do continue to buzz Earth. In 2019, the CHIME collaboration discovered a new set of eight repeating bursts for follow-up analysis. It’s hoped by studying the repeating bursts, astronomers will be able to shed light on these mysterious signals.

And I know what you’re thinking but you can stop right now. It’s very, very unlikely to be aliens.

Discussing a previous repeating burst last year, Adam Deller, an astrophysicist at Swinburne University of Technology, said, “I think in all likelihood we’ll work out a natural explanation for these events, but I like to keep an open mind and follow wherever the evidence leads me.”