Mysterious pattern of cosmic radio signals repeats every 157 days

Something in space is blasting radio signals at Earth (Credits: PA)

Scientists have picked up on a series of radio bursts coming from distant space that form a repeating pattern.

Fast radio bursts, known as FRBs, are millisecond-long busts of radio waves that travel through space. They’ve been periodically picked up by radio telescopes here on Earth since they were discovered in 2007.

Now a new study has determined that there’s a pattern in one particular burst that repeats itself every 157 days.

Although scientists have been using artificial intelligence to comb through the huge amounts of cosmic data, they still aren’t sure where the FRBs are coming from and what’s causing them.

But the team from the University of Manchester used the Lovell Telescope at the Jodrell Bank Observatory to observe the FRB called 121102 for four years and spotted 32 bursts.

These bursts repeated in a cyclical pattern that repeated every 157 days — with bursts coming in the first 90 period, followed by 67 days of silence, before the bursts begin once again.

An artist’s impression of an orbital modulation model showing an FRB coming through from the cosmos (Kristi Mickaliger)

Dr Kaustubh Rajwade of The University of Manchester, who led the new research, said: ‘This is an exciting result as it is only the second system where we believe we see this modulation in burst activity. Detecting a periodicity provides an important constraint on the origin of the bursts and the activity cycles could argue against a precessing neutron star.’

The team confirm that FRB 121102 is only the second repeating source of FRBs to display such periodic activity.

To their surprise, the timescale for this cycle is almost 10 times longer than the 16-day periodicity exhibited by the first repeating source, FRB 180916.J10158+56, which was recently discovered by the CHIME telescope in Canada.

‘This exciting discovery highlights how little we know about the origin of FRBs,’ said Duncan Lorimer who serves as Associate Dean for Research at West Virginia University and, along with PhD student Devansh Agarwal, helped develop the data analysis technique that led to the discovery.

‘Further observations of a larger number of FRBs will be needed in order to obtain a clearer picture about these periodic sources and elucidate their origin,’ he added.

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