It lasts just milliseconds, but it could be a turning point in space research. Since July, Canada’s CHIME Telescope has received Fast Radio Bursts (FRB) from across the universe. It may be the first time Earth has received a signal from an alien civilization — or the cry of a dying star.
The Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment in British Columbia began operations in 2017, with the overarching goal of collecting data about dark energy, the mysterious force that comprises 70% of the universe. More specifically, the journal Nature describes CHIME’s mission as “[mapping] the density of interstellar hydrogen across the Universe in the epoch between 10 billion and 8 billion years ago.” Part of the data collected includes FRB. Since the first transmission in July, many more FRB have been received by the CHIME telescope, but researchers can’t say where they’re coming from or what might be sending them.
“We can’t say what kind of galaxy it can be from,” said McGill University Space Institute Director Victoria Kaspi. “We don’t know what kind of source they’re coming from. We can’t, you know, [even] confirm they’re coming from another galaxy.”
Researchers speculate that the FRB might originate in a neutron star going supernova or a gamma-ray burst. They believe that the source of the FRB must have immense power and energy behind it, but beyond that, it’s all educated guesswork.
CHIME comprises four, 100-meter-long collectors shaped like half pipes, or cylinders halved lengthwise. It’s Canada’s largest telescope, and one of the largest telescopes in the world dedicated to investigating our universe’s “adolescence” — the period from 8 to 10 billion years ago, during the universe’s rapid expansion.
The hope is that the more FRB that CHIME receives, the more information that researchers will be able to glean from them. To begin with, they hope to determine whether all FRB originate from the same source or area, or from unique, discreet sources. They also hope to gather some data about the vast distances through which the FRB signals travel, and what fills those apparently empty expanses. But there’s more than that.
“Because they propagate through a large portion of the universe, you can learn about the material that’s between galaxies using these events,” said the National Research Council’s Paul Scholtz. “Basically, like a little probe passing [through] the material between us and the source of it.”
A better understanding of dark matter means a better understanding of the movements of the universe. It could lead to scientists understanding how dark matter’s occasional collisions and interactions with other particles affects movement and matter throughout the universe and here on Earth.
“We’re going to be able to do great science in this area,” said Kaspi.
“This is a valuable place to look and [other researchers] might consider how they’re going … to tackle this problem, too, and what sort of new instruments they might want to build.”
In the meantime, while researchers collaborate and build new tools to investigate FRB, CHIME will continue its own mission, collecting new information about the origins of the universe.