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Mystery radio bursts coming from space – but probably not from E.T.

The radio bursts are energetic enough to suggest that they are triggered by extremely powerful astrophysical events. Evaporating black holes or supernovae might be possible sources.

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This illustration shows the Parkes radiotelescope with a 'radio burst' flashing in the sky. The red background is gas in our galaxy.

Swinburne Astronomy Productions, vr.swin.edu.au

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Astronomers have discovered four mysterious radio bursts from beyond the Milky Way, bursts unlike any in the catalog of emissions from well-known radio sources in space or on Earth.

E.T. is an unlikely source, since each burst seems to be a one-off event. Instead, what little evidence astronomers have in hand suggests that the bursts come from astrophysical sources billions of light-years away. The bursts are energetic enough to suggest that they are triggered by extremely powerful astrophysical events.

These fast radio bursts last a few thousandths of a second and slide ever lower in frequency as they fade.

Based on the number of events that the researchers detected in their hunt for the bursts, roughly 10,000 of these should appear across the sky each day – or one every nine to 10 seconds, they say.

"If we could view the sky with 'radio eyes' there would be flashes going off all over the sky every day," said Michael Kramer, director of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, and a member of the team reporting its results in Friday's issue of the journal Science.

So far, no one has been able to associate any of these with a particular galaxy, presuming that they have galactic sources. Indeed, once one tries to go beyond the generalization of "exotic sources" for these radio bursts, speculation varies widely on their cosmic transmitters, according to James Cordes, a radio astronomer at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

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