Mystery flashes may be aliens at work, say scientists
Hold on to your lightsabers and brace yourself for hyperspace. A team from Harvard University suspects mysterious energy flashes detected in galaxies far, far away may be caused by a species of super-advanced aliens firing up their interstellar spacecraft.
It is a scientific development that, if true, would make Star Wars more akin to an historical documentary than a nonsensical bit of sci-fi movie-making.
The scientists at the respected Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics have come up with what they believe is a possible explanation for the existence of Fast Radio Bursts - or FRBs - that were discovered a decade ago.
FRBs are intense radio pulses that last no more than a millisecond that emanate from remote galaxies billions of light years away. They were first detected in 2007 by the world's largest radio telescopes, but 10 years on astrophysicists remain no clearer about what produced them.
Enter the team from Harvard with a theory to make Darth Vader splutter in his mask. Or as Yoda might say: "Aliens there are, maybe". Professor Avi Loeb and his colleague Dr Manasvi Lingam have published a study offering up one possible theory. They say the FRBs could be evidence of aliens hard at work and that the bursts may be leaked energy from unimaginably powerful transmitters capable of sending giant light sail ships on voyages between stars.
Prof Loeb said: "Fast radio bursts are exceedingly bright given their short duration and origin at great distances, and we haven't identified a possible natural source with any confidence. An artificial origin is worth contemplating and checking."
In their study, accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, Prof Loeb and Dr Lingam looked at the feasibility of building a radio transmitter powerful enough to be detectable across such immense distances. They said that a solar-powered system would generate the required amount of energy if it used an area twice the size of Earth to capture the sun's rays.
The Harvard team speculates that the purpose of such a giant solar-powered energy plant is to drive interstellar light sails. A light sail uses the tiny amount of pressure exerted by light to produce acceleration that allows a spacecraft to attain great speeds. Energy levels responsible for FRBs would be enough to push a payload of a million tons - 20 times the mass of the largest cruise ships on Earth. "That's big enough to carry living passengers across interstellar or even intergalactic distances," Dr Lingam said.
Prof Loeb has admitted the work is speculative and Dr Simon Foster, star of the TV science show Duck Quacks Don't Echo, said he was sceptical aliens were the cause of FRBs. "We just don't know what these things are," he said. "It would be lovely if it was aliens."
- The Telegraph, London