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Mysterious radio signal is coming from a nearby galaxy, scientists announce

The Independent logo The Independent 07/01/2020 Andrew Griffin
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A mysterious radio signal is coming from a nearby galaxy, scientists say.

And that galaxy looks surprisingly like our own, the astronomers have announced.

Together, the findings could help solve the mystery of fast radio bursts – unexplained, very intense blasts of energy that are being sent through the universe, and could be the result of anything from unknown natural phenomena to alien life, scientists have speculated.

Astronomers have been hunting for the source of fast radio bursts, or FRBs, for more than a decade. Over that time they have detected hundreds of signals, though pinpointed very few.

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The search is difficult in part because they last for just miliseconds and could come from anywhere in the sky, making detailed examination of them incredibly difficult.

Astronomers have so far managed to find the precise sources of four of the bursts. Now they have managed to locate another, in a nearby galaxy, taking the total to five.

But they are perhaps more excited about the nature of the galaxy that is sending them out. It appears to be similar to our own, they say.

"Identifying the host galaxy for FRBs is critical to tell us about what kind of environments FRBs live in, and thus what might actually be producing FRBs," said Sarah Burke-Spolaor, assistant professor of physics and astronomy and co-author on a new paper in Nature.

"This is a question for which scientists are still grasping at straws."

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That discovery adds further mystery to the question of where FRBs are coming from. The first of the blasts came from a tiny galaxy made up of metals and newly formed stars, which led scientists to suggest they might be the result of the kind of stars found there – but that would not apply to the newly found galaxy.

That means astronomers will have to consider other explanations of how FRBs are generated, and might suggest there are multiple origins.

The newly discovered source, named FRB ​180916, is only half-a-billion light years from Earth and much nearer than other bursts that have been found in the past. It is seven times closer than the only other repeating burst that has been tracked down.

That could allow for further study of the burst that could give further clues about where the bursts are coming from, scientists said.

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