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On Wednesday, Breakthrough Listen, the $100m global project looking for extraterrestrials said it had detected 15 radio bursts from a dwarf galaxy 3 billion light years away from the Earth.
Using the Digital Backend instrument on the GBRT, Dr. Gajjar and the Listen team observed FRB 121102 for five hours. From this, they accumulating 400 terabytes of data in the entire 4 to 8 GHz frequency band which they then analyzed for signs of short pulses over a broad range of frequencies. What they found was evidence of 15 new pulses coming from FRB 121102, which confirmed that it was in a newly active state.
In addition, their observations revealed that the brightest of these 15 emissions occurred at around 7 GHz. This was higher than any repeating FRBs seen to date, which indicated for the first time that they can occur at frequencies higher than previously thought. Last, but not least, the high-resolution data the Listen team collected is expected to yield valuable insights into FRBs for years to come.
This was made possible thanks to the Digital Backend instrument on the GBRT, which is able to record several GHz of bandwidth simultaneously and split the information into billions of individuals channels. This enables scientists to study the proprieties and the frequency spectrum of FRBs with greater precision, and should lead to new theories about the causes of these radio emissions.
So even if these particular signals should prove to not be extra-terrestrial in origin, Listen is still pushing the boundaries of what is possible with radio astronomy. And given that Breakthrough Listen is less than two years into its proposed ten-year survey, we can expect many more sources to be observed and studied in the coming years. If there’s evidence of ETI to be found, we’re sure to find out about it sooner or later!
The finding has sparked a new interest among scientists across the world. Vishal Gajjar, a post-doctoral researchers at University of California, Berkeley, who detected the radio bursts, shared his views through emails with TOI, which first reported about the findings on Thursday+ .
From how the Breakthrough Listen is pushing the frontiers to his own journey from a small town (Botad) in Gujarat to Berkeley, Gajjar speaks about Extraterrestrials and the new finding.
Q: How significant is this detection in the context of Breakthrough Listen, a project looking for intelligent life in the universe?
A: Breakthrough Listen is pushing the boundary in terms of achieving the highest quality instruments at a range of frequencies. This discovery demonstrates the capabilities of our backend as we detected these pulses at the highest radio frequency with the widest bandwidth ever attempted. Such a high-quality instrument can certainly help us explore various ranges of parameter space to search for ET.
Q: There are speculations that these bursts could be energy sources powering spacecraft from other intelligent civilizations…how much should a layperson believe this?
A: I think it’s less likely to be originated by any intelligent civilization because we see these types of sources all over the Sky. About the extraterrestrials (ETs) powering spacecraft, a similar argument can be raised that unless a good fraction of ETs are using similar techniques, which might be a long stretch, it’s unlikely that all FRBs are from ETs. Having said that, I think if ET would like to communicate with us, mimicking an FRB type signal and modulating it with an artificial message, it would not be difficult to find them using similar techniques we have used here to find these bursts.
A: Indeed, this is one of the significant findings I personally ever had. Although we did not discover a new source, having detected FRB 121102 at the highest frequency opens up a lot of possibilities of scrutinizing its origin models. In addition, we sort of sound an alarm for the entire FRB community that the source is in a new active state which will motivate various other observations from several different telescopes.
A: I was born in a small town in Gujarat (Botad) and did my schooling there. I completed Engineering from the Shantilal Shah Engineering College (Bhavnagar) in Electronics and Communication. I was always interested in astronomy and the question of life in the Universe. So, I decided to pursue my career as a scientist and join National Center for Radio Astrophysics (NCRA-TIFR, Pune) for my Ph.D. I just started working at the University of California, Berkeley for my Post-Doctoral research in March 2016 when the project was just announced and started working with the team to search for these types of signals.