An artificial intelligence system has helped discover 72 new fast radio bursts from a mysterious source about three billion light years away from Earth, scientists say.
Fast radio bursts are bright pulses of radio emission mere milliseconds in duration, thought to originate from distant galaxies. The source of these emissions is still unclear, however.
Theories range from highly magnetised neutron stars blasted by gas streams from a nearby supermassive black hole, to suggestions that the burst properties are consistent with signatures of technology developed by an advanced civilisation.
"This work is exciting not just because it helps us understand the dynamic behaviour of fast radio bursts in more detail, but also because of the promise it shows for using machine learning to detect signals missed by classical algorithms," said Andrew Siemion, principal investigator for Breakthrough Listen, an initiative led by the University of California, Berkeley in the US to find signs of intelligent life in the universe.
Breakthrough Listen is also applying the successful machine-learning algorithm to find new kinds of signals that could be coming from extraterrestrial civilisations.
While most fast radio bursts are one-offs, the source here, FRB 121102, is unique in emitting repeated bursts. This behaviour has drawn the attention of many astronomers hoping to pin down the cause and the extreme physics involved in fast radio bursts.
An earlier analysis of the 400 terabytes of data employed standard computer algorithms to identify 21 bursts during that period.
Researchers subsequently developed a new, powerful machine-learning algorithm and reanalysed the 2017 data, finding an additional 72 bursts not detected originally.
This brings the total number of detected bursts from FRB 121102 to around 300 since it was discovered in 2012.
"This work is only the beginning of using these powerful methods to find radio transients," said Zhang.
"We hope our success may inspire other serious endeavours in applying machine learning to radio astronomy," he said.
"Whether or not FRBs themselves eventually turn out to be signatures of extraterrestrial technology, Breakthrough Listen is helping to push the frontiers of a new and rapidly growing area of our understanding of the Universe around us," Siemion said.
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