Astronomers have discovered mystery repeated radio signals in space - this is what it means

Mysterious radio bursts from space remain one of the universe’s greatest mysteries.

But now, for the first time, scientists in Canada have been able to see a specific pattern from one of these signals, emitting from a single source located half a billion light years from Earth.

What are fast radio bursts?

Fast radio bursts, are millisecond-long bursts of radio waves in space. Individual radio bursts emit once and don't repeat.

But repeating fast radio bursts are known to send out short, energetic radio waves multiple times, and when they repeat it’s usually at random.

Pattern in radio signals

Researchers with the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment observed a series of radio bursts between September 16 2018 and October 30 2019.

During this period, they detected a pattern in bursts occurring every 16.35 days. Over the course of four days, the signal would release a burst or two every hour. Then it would go silent for another 12 days.

The repeating burst was traced from a massive star-forming spiral galaxy 500 million light years away.

Now, the evidence of a pattern in the signal adds to the question of what could cause these bursts to emit the way that they do.

Why is this important?

"The discovery of a 16.35-day periodicity in a repeating FRB source is an important clue to the nature of this object," the researchers wrote in their study

In the paper, the researchers consider the possible causes, like the orbital motion of a star or an object that acts as a companion in the outskirts of the galaxy. The authors of another paper, who consulted with the researchers who discovered the pattern, suggest the cause could be coming from a neutron star.

Understanding fast radio bursts can also help astronomers learn more about the universe itself. The more bursts they can trace, the better they may be able to use the signals to map how matter is distributed across the universe.