We’re Receiving Radio Signals From Space. They Repeat Every 54 Minutes and Physics Can’t Explain Them

  • The ASKAP and MeerKAT radio telescopes are picking up very different radio signals.

  • What sets these signals apart is that they intermittently go through three very different states.

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This is, by no means, the first time that this phenomenon has occurred. Terrestrial radio telescopes have picked up radio signals from the cosmos on other occasions, and astrophysicists have managed to explain most of them in a plausible way. In fact, stars, nebulae, galaxies, and even planets are astronomical sources of radio waves that cosmologists occasionally manage to identify from Earth.

Of course, we shouldn’t attribute the source of these signals to an extraterrestrial civilization, either. There are many possible and completely natural explanations that can fit perfectly into this puzzle. For example, the pulsar GPMJ1839-10 emits a periodic radio signal that reaches Earth every 21 minutes. Astrophysicists have been observing it for no less than 35 years, and they know it quite well. As such, there is no mystery there.

However, the story we’re about to tell you is different. And exciting.

This Super Weird Radio Signal Oscillates Between Three Different States

The main characters in this story are two radio telescopes: MeerKAT in South Africa and ASKAP in Australia. In fact, ASKAP was the first to detect a rare radio signal, which caught the attention of astronomers. They noticed that the signal occurred at every 53.8 minutes on the dot. So far, nothing too surprising given that periodic signals like this aren’t uncommon and can originate from objects like pulsars or neutron stars.

“What is intriguing is how this object displays three distinct emission states, each with properties entirely dissimilar from the others”

However, the astronomers soon realized that the radio signal was, in fact, unusual because it goes through three completely different states. At times, it emits flashes lasting between 10 and 50 seconds and propagates in only one direction. Other times, the pulses are much shorter (about 370 miliseconds) and propagate in all directions. Finally, there are moments when the signal remains completely “silent.”

Astrophysicists investigating this cosmological phenomenon published a very interesting article in Nature Astronomy, explaining it in much more detail. “What is intriguing is how this object displays three distinct emission states, each with properties entirely dissimilar from the others… The MeerKAT radio telescope in South Africa played a crucial role in distinguishing between these states,” study author Manisha Caleb told New Atlas, confirming the singularity of the event.

In the end, the most surprising thing is that this unusual radio signal reaching Earth is nothing like we’ve seen before. Astrophysicists, led by Caleb, believe that the signal may be coming from a neutron star or a white dwarf. However, there's a problem: Current astrophysical models used for these objects can’t explain the signal’s behavior.

In other words, current astrophysics can’t explain this phenomenon. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it won’t be explainable in the future. Astrophysicists will hopefully and eventually uncover the key to understanding the nature of this signal. In the meantime, all we can do is wait and observe.

Image | NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

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