What Are Fast Radio Bursts? A Big Mystery in Astronomy

By | November 19, 2019

You might think you’re watching an educational
channel, where I explain fascinating concepts in space and astronomy, but that’s not really
what’s going on here. What’s actually happening is that you’re
tagging along as I learn more and more about new and cool things happening in the Universe. I dig into them like a badger hiding a cow
carcass, and we all get to enjoy the cache of knowledge I uncover. Okay, that analogy got a little weird. Have you seen that video of badger hiding
cow? It’s super cool. Anyway, my point is fast radio bursts are
the new cosmic whatzits confusing and baffling astronomers, and now we get to take a front
seat and watch them move through all stages of process of discovery. Stage 1: A strange new anomaly is discovered
that doesn’t fit any current model of the cosmos. For example, strange Boyajian’s Star. You know, that star that probably doesn’t
have an alien megastructure orbiting around it, but astronomers can’t rule that out
just yet? Stage 2: Astronomers struggle to find other
examples of this thing. They pitch ideas for new missions and scientific
instruments. No idea is too crazy, until it’s proven
to be too crazy. Examples include dark matter, dark energy,
and that idea that we’re living in a Stage 3: Astronomers develop a model for the
thing, find evidence that matches their predictions, and vast majority of the astronomical community
comes to a consensus on what this thing is. Like quasars and gamma ray bursts. YouTuber’s make their videos. Textbooks are updated. Balance is restored. Today we’re going to talk about Fast Radio
Bursts. They just moved from Stage 1 to Stage 2. Let’s dig in. Fast radio bursts, or FRBs, or “Furbys”
were first detected in 2007 by the astronomer Duncan Lorimer from West Virginia University. He was looking through an archive of pulsar
observations. Pulsars, of course, are newly formed neutron
stars, the remnants left over from supernova explosions. They spin rapidly, blasting out twin beams
of radiation. Some can spin hundreds of times a second,
so precisely you could set your watch to them. In this data, Lorimer made a “that’s funny”
observation, when he noticed one blast of radio waves that squealed for 5 milliseconds
and then it was gone. It didn’t match any other observation or
prediction of what should be out there, so astronomers set out to find more of them. Over the last 10 years, astronomers have found
about 25 more examples of Fast Radio Bursts. Each one only lasts a few milliseconds, and
then fades away forever. A one time event that can appear anywhere
in the sky and only last for a couple milliseconds and never repeats is not an astronomer’s
favorite target of study. Actually, one FRB has been found to repeat,
maybe. The question, of course, is “what are they?”. And the answer, right now is, “astronomers
have no idea.” In fact, until very recently, astronomers
weren’t ever certain they were coming from space at all. We’re surrounded by radio signals all the
time, so a terrestrial source of fast radio bursts seems totally logical. About a week ago, astronomers from Australia
announced that FRBs are definitely coming from outside the Earth. They used the Molonglo Observatory Synthesis
Telescope (or MOST) in Canberra to gather data on a large patch of sky. Then they sifted through 1,000 terabytes of
data and found just 3 fast radio bursts. Three. Since MOST is farsighted and can’t perceive
any radio signals closer than 10,000 km away, the signals had to be coming outside planet
Earth. They were “extraterrestrial” in origin. Right now, fast radio bursts are infuriating
to astronomers. They don’t seem to match up with any other
events we can see. They’re not the afterglow of a supernova,
or tied in some way to gamma ray bursts. In order to really figure out what’s going
on, astronomers need new tools, and there’s a perfect instrument coming. Astronomers are building a new telescope called
the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (or CHIME), which is under construction near
the town of Penticton in my own British Columbia. It looks like a bunch of snowboard halfpipes,
and its job will be to search for hydrogen emission from distant galaxies. It’ll help us understand how the Universe
was expanding between 7 and 11 billion years ago, and create a 3-dimensional map of the
early cosmos. In addition to this, it’s going to be able
to detect hundreds of fast radio bursts, maybe even a dozen a day, finally giving astronomers
vast pools of signals to study. After the break, I’m going to run through
the exotic ideas that could be causing fast radio bursts, including an awesome idea for
alien propulsion systems, but first I’d like to thank some very special Patrons. These people have been supporting us since
December, 2013: Cole Palmer, Michael Freedman, Bill Christian, Dennis Robertson, Craig Landon,
Marko Zivanovic, John Gallant and Helge Bjorkhaug. Thank you for over 3 years of support. I couldn’t do this without you and the rest
of our 699 patrons for their generous support. If you love what we’re doing and want to
help out, head over to patreon.com/universetoday Once again, this episode of the Guide to Space
is sponsored by the .space domain name. Remember when you wanted to make a website
and had to spend a whole night brainstorming domain name after domain name, and everything
was taken. You had to misspell words, or just invent
new words entirely just to get a domain name that was available? Well, those dark days are over, and now you
can get a domain name that matches your interests, at a reasonable price. Like .space. Go to www.launch.space, use the offer code
GUIDETOSPACE, and you can get your own .space domain for only $2.99 instead of the usual
$9.99. Thanks again to .space for sponsoring this
episode. Now, back to the show. Fast radio bursts. What are they? Astronomers have no idea. Seriously, if you’ve got a good suggestion,
they’d be glad to hear it. In these kinds of situations, astronomers
generally assume they’re caused by exploding stars in some way. Young stars or old stars, or maybe stars colliding. But so far, none of the theoretical models
match the observations. Another idea is black holes, of course. Specifically, supermassive black holes at
the hearts of distant galaxies. From time to time, a random star, planet,
or blob of gas falls into the black hole. This matter piles upon the black hole’s
event horizon, heats up, screams for a moment, and disappears without a trace. Not a full on quasar that shines for thousands
of years, but a quick snack. The next idea comes with the only repeating
fast radio burst that’s ever been found. Astronomers looked through the data archive
of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and found a signal that had repeated at least
10 times in a year, sometimes less than a minute apart. Since the quick blast of radiation is repeating,
this rules out a one-time collision between exotic objects like neutron stars. Instead, there could be a new class of magnetars
(which are already a new class of neutron stars), that can release these occasional
shrieks of radio. Or maybe this repeating object is totally
different from the single events that have been discovered so far. Here’s my favorite idea. And honestly, the one that’s the least realistic. What I’m about to say is almost certainly
not what’s going on. And yet, it can’t be ruled out, and that’s
good enough for my fertile imagination. Avi Loeb and Manasvi Lingam at Harvard University
said the following about FRBs: “Fast radio bursts are exceedingly bright
given their short duration and origin at distances, and we haven’t identified a possible natural
source with any confidence. An artificial origin is worth contemplating
and checking.” Artificial origin. So. Aliens. Nice. Loeb and Lingam calculated how difficult it
would be to send a signal that strong, that far across the Universe. They found that you’d need to build a solar
array with twice the surface area of Earth to power the radio wave transmitter. And what would you do with a transmission
of radio or microwaves that strong? You’d use it to power a spacecraft, of course. What we’re seeing here on Earth is just
the momentary flash as a propulsion beam sweeps past the Solar System like a lighthouse. But in reality, this huge solar array would
be firing out a constant beam of radiation that would propel a massive starship to tremendous
speeds. Like the Breakthrough Starshot spacecraft,
but for million tonne spaceships. In other words, we could be witnessing alien
transportation systems, pushing spacecraft with beams of energy to other worlds. And I know that’s probably not what’s
happening. It’s not aliens. It’s never aliens. But in my mind, that’s what I’m imagining. So, kick back and enjoy the ride. Join us as we watch astronomers struggle to
understand what fast radio bursts are. As they invalidate theories, and slowly unlock
one of the most thrilling mysteries in modern astronomy. And as soon as they figure it out, I’ll
let you know all about it. What do you think? Which explanation for fast radio bursts seems
the most logical to you? I’d love to hear your thoughts and wild
speculation in the comments. In our next episode, we’re going to take
spacecraft reusability to the next step: single stage to orbit. I’m talking about a rocket that takes off,
delivers a payload into orbit and then lands again. Is this possible? Is it even a good idea? The mystery of fast radio bursts is similar
to the mystery of magnetars. We kind of know what they are now, but they
didn’t give up their secrets easily. Here’s a video that talks all about them. Like the Breakthrough Starshat spacecraft…

100 thoughts on “What Are Fast Radio Bursts? A Big Mystery in Astronomy

  1. Fraser Cain Post author

    Here's a link to that badger video if you've never seen it. This was CRAZY.

  2. Nicholas Alt Post author

    Always inspired to see that there are still potentially big questions to be answered.
    Also, PENTICTON!

  3. Christiaan Corthals Post author

    I wonder how can you send "constant beams of propulsion" to a starship from a rotating planet (most likely the case) or from an orbiting source. Even the starshot project must have this problem when sending beams form Earth.

  4. Mike Post author

    FRBs – waves of hydrogen on the surface of (tightly orbiting) binary white dwarf stars, occasionally building up enough for fusion.

  5. Master Pack Post author

    my possible theories. one star birth. I don't know but can a star put out a one time frb when fusion first starts. two, if aliens perhaps it is an interstellar communication of some sort and we just can't decipher it. the one sending multiple signals could be the mother world or even just a commanding world of that local sector. the frb sends the info to a distant system then the local group could resend it using more primitive tech. that or I watch too much Issac Arthur lately, if there is such a thing

  6. Jay F Post author

    I hope when we do discover aliens that we spot them first and have time to observe them, they may be arseholes.

  7. Kris Sisk Post author

    Your description of FRBs sounds an awful lot like the WOW signal. Could it have been one?

  8. Toxis Post author

    well if it really repeated several times at the same place, then, most probably, my stupid hypothesis about space-time crackling like ice is wrong… My other idea was – death-shriek of primordial black holes evaporating, but again, if it repeated several times at the same spot, I would think this would falsify this hypothesis.
    If I was the emperor of astronomy (yes, that's a real position.. that I will create and grant to myself after I become the emperor of creating and granting positions) I would say that we should turn our heavy stuff to the place it happened several times. Maybe we will see a space drag strip were alien youth like to meet, listen to space-rap and drag race their heavily tuned spaceships.

  9. Adam Sanders Post author

    After analyzing 47 teraquads of data with a prototype positronic neural network, I've calculated an 87.6% probability that these bursts match the characteristics of a Vulcan warp signature.

  10. Barnard Rabenold Post author

    If the FRB was part of an alien transport system, wouldn't the intensity of energy destroy the spaceship?

  11. Mark Gale Post author

    Space version of CB radio. Smokey and the Intergalactic Bandit.

  12. Jim Jose Music Post author

    Is it possible to get the information of the burst itself ? (like a .wav file or something). I realize it happened really fast and that it's probably way out of the audio spectrum… , but I'd like to slow it down,… load it into my studio software and play around with it. So that I could actually see what the noise looks like and see if there seems to be any math to it. PS: been really enjoying your work Fraser. Been watching / listening for a few weeks. You're my "go to" guy now. Besides… space.com puts way too much spamy ad stuff on their site.

  13. jacob yocom Post author

    Hey Fraser, I'm having a hard time buying into dark energy. Could it be how space-time acts with an absence of matter?

  14. Andrew Analore Post author

    Question: Let's say we visit Enceladus and find that while its ocean harbors no life, it IS potentially habitable by some forms of earth-based life. Would it be ethical for us to introduce life there?

  15. MusiCanines - The Musical Dogs Post author

    Given my mother-in-law's habits, I'd guess it's an alien's mother-in-law farting. ?

  16. Peter German Post author

    FRB's are just our 4d creators putting in new programs for the simulation we are stuck in.

  17. Israel Gonzalez Post author

    Well it could be anything, in the 1960s they thought the cosmic background radiation was bird poop ?. ?

  18. SnowToad Post author

    Q: in the series andromeda the race known as the 'magog' have a 'magog world ship' which is basically a super structure of 20 connected planets and an artificial sun. Is such a megastructure possible?

  19. Kenneth Lapre Post author

    Get Jodi Foster working on it – she'll figure it out.

  20. Edwin James Lynch Post author

    Your like the science teacher I never had Fraser. I failed Chemistry at school. sniff and only just passed Physics. I loved both. Every time I watch you , I feel sad because of it.

  21. Brad Hesse Post author

    While I'm always a sucker for alien based explanations, you know FRB's will probably turn out to be explained by neutron stars. Those things are weird. Lol.

  22. Peter Manger Post author

    I liked the idea it was opening the microwave door.

  23. Katsu Zatoichi Post author

    what about ligthning in space, is that possible? could that create these radio signals?

  24. AustinArtyPants Post author

    LOL Every time I see time lapse of radio telescopes moving in sync like that, I think of cats crazily watching laser pointers. XD

  25. Chin Jeremy Post author

    Hi Fraser, I have recently stumbled upon a video on Youtube which discussed something called the Oh-My-God Particle. How was it possible that we could have 'seen' it if it was travelling closed to the speed of light? Need some en-'lightenment'.

  26. Upcycle Electronics Post author

    Curiosity Badger: How many moons were captured versus formed around their respective planetary home?

  27. reyray Post author

    just discovered your channel after being an astronomer cast listener for years. so I glad I did

  28. The War Pheonix Post author

    @Faser Cain Why do electrons fall back to a ground state?

  29. Ali107 Post author

    What if fast radio bursts, where Aliens doing an Experiment that gone wrong.

  30. RebelBeamMaster X84 Post author

    Tabby's star: Has possible partial Dyson Swarm, sends out powerful radio waves. Yup totally not aliens. What would really seal the deal is if we detect rare elements and isotopes that could only be there if a sentient civilization is present. Now Tabby's star is 250 light years away so if there is a sentient civilization they're not to far from us.

  31. RebelBeamMaster X84 Post author

    Well us humans did send radio bursts at certain stars that potentially have life so it's not impossible if aliens sent radio bursts our way to see if potential life (us) would notice it.

  32. Johnny J Post author

    It's aliens alright but not to power a spaceship but rather more like a light house, a navigation beacon.

  33. chumly warner Post author

    Great racketing rockets its those dam Thargoids from the planet Gargle,its their handy work alright!!yours Chumly Warner Esq.

  34. Katsu Zatoichi Post author

    Mr. Cain, I wonder, all the strange things with relatively and quantum physics and all, does it serves a purpose in our universe? it is totally ok by me, I do not complain or anything, just wondering, would everything work just as good if everything was just plain 'newtonious' around us? if atoms was just a small grain and that all, if we could add the relative speed to the speed of light etc, everything was 'logical' and the now strange formula E=mc2 was just E=mc or something like that, easy and kind of predictable, would the universe mind you think?

  35. Dave Carsley Post author

    1:22 Fraser gets hit in the chest with a GRB of exactly 10 second duration and lives through it.

  36. Dave Carsley Post author

    2:05 Why do I feel like I don't want to be the one to have to insure that building?

  37. Rasverix Xyleighraq Post author

    No idea but I think the Blitzar & Magnetar Theories are most likely

  38. william badovinac Post author

    The speculations are just as interesting as the restored balance of evidence. Thank u Fraser

  39. Kalyan Raghu Post author

    @8:26 I know Manasvi Lingam from my college IIT Bombay… so I would support his theory of Alien propulsion systems! 🙂 🙂

  40. Chris L Post author

    This may be fringe science, but what if it were white holes. Could hyper expanding space-time releasing energy distort that energy into fast radio burst, or would the lifespan of a white hole be too short to be measured in milliseconds? My apologies for questions on theoretical entities .

  41. Maple Flavor Post author

    why do we limit our thinking to equate to engineering a large structure in order to gather enough solar power to be able to send these bursts? instead why not give an energy estimate? sure it makes it sound more unlikely if you need to build something with the surface area of earth.

  42. Homer smith Post author

    they are deflecting back Disney Star Wars films.

  43. Jason Cavinder Post author

    It's never aliens… UNTIL IT'S ALIENS!

  44. tormaid Post author

    Could it be an explanation for the "wow signal"?

  45. any1alive Post author

    depending how many lightyears away it is and galaxies, it would most probably be civilisations long since died, but if it was wed be able to detect other works of radiationsform them, and dependign on the wave lengths as well hmmmm

  46. Oi Ocha Post author

    When astronomers observe unusual phenomenon in outer space, it's socially acceptable in scientific circles to not rule out aliens, but when it comes to unusual phenomenon in our own atmosphere, even the slightest speculation about aliens is reflexively met with ridicule, irrelevant talking points or logical fallacies. This is unfortunate, but I guess that even scientists (and science enthusiasts) can be vulnerable to dogma and group think.

  47. tinkmarshino Post author

    badger hiding a cow carcass.. oh yeah…I had to stop the vid on that one….! kickin' alien propulsion! my imagination is stimulated.. the black hole was my first thought but the repeating ferbies have me rethinking..

  48. Bulk Logan Post author

    failed big bangs where the new universe, luckily for us, doesn't have the right laws of physics to continue propagating out.

  49. Corbald Post author

    They're the bow shock of an Alcubierre Warp Bubble as the ship releases it's captured matter as a radio beam, aimed away from their destination (so as not to fry it) by manipulating the space-time geometry of the leading event horizon….

    or stars… probably stars…

  50. Matthew Grotke Post author

    I think it's awesome that FRB's are getting more coverage lately.  Way back in January 2017, John Michael Godier made this youtube video (https://youtu.be/0S4uWOBNR8w?t=3m54s) discussing FRB's and the notion that they may be optimal frequencies for pushing light sails.  He also made a follow-on video delving in-depth into the sail-pushing idea. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=isHOAbUAwGM)

  51. Don Morgan Post author

    Maybe just a simple fusion engine using microwaves and radio waves to accelerate particles from the fusion to near light speed. Let's hope. Many millions for many years distributed over many galaxies.

  52. Evol Bob Post author

    Its not just aliens, it is a leak from the simulation we are in…just a small crack letting in a little of the outside, of this Universe.
    Or it is an alien Spacecraft FTL breaking shockwave.

  53. Rob Post author

    Could it be an earthquake on a neutron star? That would release a massive amount of energy and be sporadic.

  54. DrFox2000 Post author

    Just subbed, would love to find out more about these FRBs and definitely interested in the CHIME receiver at the Dominion Observatory.

  55. J Spin Post author

    Published in Nature was a finding on FRB 121102. The object creating the repeating FRB is thought to now have known properties: a constant orientation relative to earth, surrounded by elections, and has a strong magnetic field. What does this mean for your aliens?

  56. RGB Reading Post author

    You had me at cow carcass.

    You go where those other science channels don't dare to go.

  57. 1000dots Post author

    If the FRBs are alien propulsion, then the one that repeated might be aimed towards us and that's why we've seen it multiple times

  58. OldGamerNoob Post author

    If it's alien transportation, a beam would only be pointed to the crafts' destinations. That means they're coming for … EARTH. (especially if repeated signals means multiple ships O.o)

    Also, I would think the calculated solar array size assumes constantly powering the radio beam and that the solar panels are the same distance from a star similar to the sun (and a similarly poor efficiency to our own). Charging the power up before hand from closer to a star than the habitable zone makes for a more reasonable construction project, especially with more advanced solar technology.

  59. Gordon Chin Post author

    The propulsion idea is pretty good, or maybe they are broadcasting the location of their neighbors to The Dark Forest.

  60. Adrian Flynn Post author

    Just read this today. The above video was included in the article, too https://www.sciencealert.com/these-mysterious-radio-bursts-could-be-coming-from-collapsed-stars

  61. TechBaron, Cameras and more! Post author

    Its me broadcasting afsk in digital mode tellin the pizza guy wheres my damn xxl peporoni….local repeater 900

  62. Guðmundur Ingi Guðmundsson Post author

    Dont you think FRB's are "just" macro objects "landing" on neutron stars ? big bada boom.

  63. Kyle R Post author

    My Aspergers Brain keeps thinking that a bursts timing is actually just the rotational speed of a planet/solar system of Intelligent species , transmitting in a straight line as the planet/solar system rotates , multiplied by the distance from Us just makes a 5ms burst for Us . Is it a binary burst of 1's and 0's in the signal ? If so then there might be a reason that many Intelligences would do this same thing , some problem that We haven't contemplated yet but is common enough for every One to want to "Transmit about it" , or maybe they were just trying to send a signal to a specific point in space between Them and Us . But They would be smart enough to try to concentrate/Direct/Track the signal on to a specific point , which means that their signal was meant for a place/location closer to them than We are and We are just getting a snippett of that signal because of their planets/solar systems rotatonal speed that was concentrated on a single spot in a star cluster closer to them . This makes Me think that they are Really Far away from Us , Really really far away (is there a place that I can go to to see a map of the distribution of thse radio bursts and Their distances ?) . I may be totally full of crapp , but I keep thinking that the rotation of a planet or it's solar system / Sun is the reason for the small timinng of an FRB as is sweeps past Us far away from them . Just asking some questions that I haven't heard any info about yet . If They originate from a planet in a solar system that is older than 4.5 Billion Years old (plus their distance from Us in Light Years) then I'm really hopiing for confirmation of Technological Species out there 🙂 . Luv Ya Fraser Man , Luv Ya Space Enthusiasts 🙂 .

  64. Mark Poole Post author

    How about alien communication, do we know for definite that these signals are traveling at close to the speed of light like other radio signals? Also has anyone looked for data in these bursts, i am thinking highly compressed data communication travelling very fast, maybe someone figured out how to send their loved one happy birthday a great distance away so that it arrives the same century, I realise this would be difficult due to how short the a length of time the burst lasts but there some clever people out there to look into it. Sadly not sold on the propulsion theory as it stands, to fiddly but who knows! Love the channel by the way!

  65. seachangeau Post author

    you better dig here – https://www.thunderbolts.info/wp/2015/12/11/transmission-from-beyond/ they aRE BAFFLED BECUASE THEY GOT redshift wrong google halton arp and redshift.

  66. Fred is aus the venision Post author

    If thay contact us we need to find a star gate!!!??

  67. Werideplaces Post author

    So what happens when our A.I. searching for alien radio waves finds a advanced A.I.? What if the radio wave is a algorithm for our A.I. to advance rapidly to kill all humans?

  68. john hartman Post author

    Gamma Ray Bursts arrive here in order of wavelength. The longer the waves, the more seriously delayed (can be months or more). This is evidence that Relativity is wrong, but the politics and paradigms will not let that happen. Mainstream science is more about protecting constants than second guessing them. These FRBs have a frequency dependence that runs in this same direction. When is science going to happen? Let me know, I can't wait.

  69. Joseph Emmanuel Post author

    How about: Fast Radio Bursts are recognized only when the direction of the burst is toward the earth. Since his does not happen often it seems that it only happens once. However, if we keep listening to the same direction that we heard the burst before, maybe, after a long time the burst is again directed toward the earth and so we can hear it again (it might take a very long time to find if this is true)!

    If the theory above prove to be incorrect: How about these burst are created when an events that only happens once, in the life of a body (like a star), happens. That is why they are not repeated because this only happens once (like supper Nova)!

  70. It is I Post author

    @3:10 Are we sure about the never part? What if it does repeat but at frequencies longer than we anticipate or have time to measure?

  71. It is I Post author

    @4:40 By the way, this new CHIME instrument has already produced impressive results https://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/fast-radio-bursts-1.4969863

  72. tim kenney Post author

    why all the talking talking. just get to the point! this is youtube.

  73. SenseiRaichuss Post author

    We got repeaters now! I'm not saying it's aliens ….. but …

  74. Lady of the Woods Post author

    I like your background… It’s impossible for me to have worries when I’m in the woods….
    careful tho thought I seen big foot hiding back there . ?. :-).
    FRB interesting thanks good video

  75. Mike Stevens Post author

    I had a bad idea , sis , what if you / we are seeing an emergency signal " sos " as if from the Titanic , if stuck would you , hit the emergency button very hard? would you break all the rules? would you face extra risk , to get help in an emergency ? who who whom wouldn't ?

  76. shamusfarmer Post author

    Could you have liquid water surface oceans on a Titan sized moon in the habitable zone? Would it have a magnetic field to protect it's oceans?

  77. Arun Vishwakarma Post author

    Why we people always rule out the Alien ? possibility ?
    It may be some other civilization sending Radio Signals in all the directions to find other civilization.

  78. Keith Pieterse Post author

    Fast Radio Bursts: This is what happens when Trump releases a burst of mental flatulence in the form of a tweet! QED

  79. Fermifire Post author

    I really want it to be aliens, I'm tired of this planet.

  80. ImiBagPiticul Post author

    ……………FRB…….what happens with a tennis ball that you throw towards a wall….comes right at you…….the question is not where the ball is coming from….the question is……where is the wall…..when you find the wall…..you will understand……..FRB……..


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