A startling scientific find by space researchers which sounds straight from the plot of the 1990's sci-fi movie "Contact" is the last thing you might expect to read on CNN this week.
"Mysterious radio signals from space have been known to repeat, but for the first time, researchers have noticed a pattern in a series of bursts coming from a single source half a billion light-years from Earth," the report begins.
The "mystery radio signal" has been recorded as repeating based on a clear discernible pattern according to a new paper by a team of astrophysicists in Canada that pinpointed bursts which are unprecedented, identified as "fast radio burst" — or a short radio emission, with a 16-day cycle.
"The discovery of a 16.35-day periodicity in a repeating FRB source is an important clue to the nature of this object," the team of scientists said in the paper. A brief summary of some of the key findings are as follows:
Between September 16, 2018 and October 30, 2019, detected a pattern in bursts occurring every 16.35 days. Over the course of four days, the signal would release a burst or two each hour. Then, it would go silent for another 12 days.
...The signal is a known repeating fast radio burst, FRB 180916.J0158+65. Last year, the CHIME/FRB collaboration detected the sources of eight new repeating fast radio bursts, including this signal. The repeating signal was traced to a massive spiral galaxy around 500 million light-years away.
The team hopes to eventually trace the origin of the mysterious bursts, which has a variety of possibilities, and has even raised the question of alien life "reaching out" to establish contact.
So could it be aliens seeking to establish contact via hidden messages meant to be deciphered from rational patterns?
The MIT Technology Review's Neel Patel, who first broke the story this week of the research team's latest breakthrough, thinks it highly unlikely:
Wait, is it aliens? Almost certainly not. The signals are a sign of energetic events that are on the extreme scale of the cosmos. Even a highly intelligent species would be very unlikely to produce energies like this. And there is no detectable pattern so far that would suggest there’s a sentient hand at play.
Patel offers likely scenarios including a celestial body orbiting another object, such as a "low-mass black hole."
Some analysts have elsewhere suggested it's the result of a binary system involving two massive stars orbiting each other. And Phys.org described what could be the most mundane theory, that it could be "nothing more than the noise created when two stars collide."
"Another possibility is that stellar winds might be alternately boosting or blocking signals from a body behind them. Or it could be that the source is a celestial body that is rotating," the same source offered.
Regardless, the breakthrough observation could help future astronomers better map out the universe.
"Understanding fast radio bursts can also help astronomers learn more about the universe itself," CNN concludes. "The more bursts they can trace, the better they may be able to use the signals to map how matter is distributed across the universe."