MORGANTOWN, W.Va. Two WVU postdoctoral research assistants have discovered faint, frequent burst of radio waves coming from intergalactic space, millions of light-years away and have closed the door on a mystery nearly seven years old.
In 2007, David Narkevic, a then-undergraduate physics student at West Virginia University, and his professor Duncan Lorimer discovered a single, short burst of radio waves from another galaxy using the Parkes radio telescope in New South Wales, Australia.
The sudden burst of waves came only once and nothing like it was never spotted againuntil now.
“The implication was that there were many other (bursts) going off that we weren’t seeing,” Lorimer, Woodburn Professor of Physics, said. “They just proved very difficult to find.”
In 2012, two WVU postdoctoral research assistants, Sam Bates and Lina Levin were working as part of an international research team led by Dan Thornton at the University of Manchester. Using the same telescope with upgraded electronics, the team discovered four more bursts of radio waves. These bursts have become known as “Fast Radio Bursts.”
“Since (Lorimer’s research) had only been published a year or two before, it was kind of in everyone’s minds that that was something we’d want to look for,” Bates said.
Fast Radio Bursts are more faint and frequent than the original burst in 2007 and appear much more often, roughly once every ten seconds somewhere on the sky.
“It’s quite unusual and something entirely new. We don’t currently know what they are,” Lorimer said. “It must be something very compact because it is a short-duration event. There are of course many theories at present, but their origin remains a mystery.”
He said if scientists can identify what is causing these waves it would allow them to measure the distance to the sources of the waves.
“When you’re looking at these sources, you’re seeing events that happened when the universe was a lot younger. There might be a galaxy in which the source emitted and went off, and we see the light today. That’s very exciting,” he said. “We’re looking at the universe in earlier times.”
As far as extraterrestrial life is concerned, humanity may have to wait just a bit longer for that discovery.
Lorimer, Bates and Levin all agreed that it is nearly impossible an extraterrestrial being emitted these waves.
“With one event, which we had in 2007, you could get away with that theory, but now, if we’ve got these bursts going on all over the sky it’s very unlikely, impossible I would say,” Lorimer said.
The Lorimer Burst buzz has gathered momentum in the past month and the phenomenon was featured in the Huffington Post earlier this month.