What Are Fast Radio Bursts and Why Do They Look Like Aliens?

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The Parkes Radio Telescope in Australia listens for, among other things, fast radio bursts. Ian Waldie/Getty Images

Scientists announced on Wednesday they had spotted a strange light called a fast radio burst coming from space. But what actually is a fast radio burst, and why are you seeing so many headlines about aliens?

"The sky flashes over a thousand times a day in radio waves," Matthew Bailes, an astronomer at the Swinburne University of Technology in Australia, told Newsweek. The bursts were first identified in 2007 in data gathered by the same Australian instrument Bailes uses, the Parkes radio telescope.

A fast radio burst, also referred to as FRB, occurs when suddenly, somewhere deep in space, a celestial light quickly flashes and then just as quickly disappears, lasting just a fraction of a second. That light is in the form of radio waves.

Radio waves are the longest type of waves, much longer than the visible light our eyes are equipped to process. It's the basic category of light wave that powers your cell phone and, yes, that strange old music device called a radio that you may have heard about. The devices then convert the light waves to sound waves.

Scientists think that some fast radio bursts may be produced by neutron stars individually or colliding with other space objectsNeutron stars are the superdense corpses of stars that have exploded. The new paper suggests that a particularly weird fast radio burst, which just keeps flashing on and off, may indeed be produced by a neutron star.

But fast radio bursts are perhaps best loved by people interested in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI. One of SETI's core principles is that somewhere else in the universe, technologically advanced life could have realized, just as we humans did, that radio waves are a great way to send information across long distances.

Read more: 3200 Phaethon: How the Still-Recovering Arecibo Telescope Saw This Asteroid Coming

So SETI scientists look for flashes of radio waves, hoping they come from distant civilizations. "A lot of the instrumentation required to study these signals is very similar if you want to study neutron stars or aliens," Bailes said. "It does make alien hunters and fast radio burst scientists natural collaborators."

In fact, he and his colleagues have just launched a new project collaborating with SETI scientists. That work will take data collected by the Parkes telescope and send it to two separate computer programs: One will look for the natural sources of fast radio bursts, the other for alien signals. Either way, we'll learn something interesting from these flashes of light.