Scientists Discover Mysterious Radio Bursts From Billions Of Light-Years Away

Using new radio telescopes, scientists have discovered mysterious new radio bursts that originated from deep in the universe long before life began on Earth.

The New York Times is reporting that scientists are puzzled over a series of radio signals from far way in the universe that they can’t fully explain:

Something is happening out there, and astronomers sure wish they knew what it was.

For the last several years, they have been teased and baffled by mysterious bursts of radio waves from the distant universe: pops of low-frequency radiation, emitting more energy than the sun does in a day, that occur randomly and disappear immediately. Nobody knows when these “fast radio bursts,” or F.R.B.s, will occur, or where exactly in the cosmos they are occurring.

More than 60 of these surprise broadcasts have been recorded so far. About the only thing astronomers agree on is that these signals probably are not extraterrestrials saying hello.

So it was big news a year ago when scientists found a repeating radio burster and tracked it to a dwarf galaxy 3 billion light-years from Earth. Subsequent observations suggested that the burst was generated by extremely powerful magnetic fields, most likely ruling out lasers from alien spaceships.

Now a group of astronomers from several Canadian universities have announced the discovery of a second radio repeater. The repeating bursts appeared last summer almost as soon as the team turned on and began tuning up a new telescope, the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment, or Chime, in British Columbia. The team announced the discovery in a pair of papers in Nature, and in a news conference at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle on Jan. 9.

The astronomers estimated that the new repeater is about 1.5 billion light-years away, roughly half the distance to the other repeater. The existence of a second repeater suggests that there are many more to be found, said Ingrid Stairs, an astrophysicist at the University of British Columbia, in a news release.

These two reports appear to be the first time that we’ve been able to detect these ‘radio burst repeaters’ whatever they may be, which suggests either that the equipment we’ve had hasn’t been sufficient to detect them before or that they are “new” in that they didn’t exist before. Of course, in both cases, these radio burst originated from whatever their source might be three billion and one-and-a-half billion years ago and just reached Earth recently. This means that the first such signal originated when Earth itself was a little more than a billion years old at a time before life in even its more rudimentary forms had begun and the planet was largely a barren wasteland. The second was sent 1.5 billion years ago when the existing continents and plate tectonics were just beginning to take shape and the life that existed on Earth consisted of multicellular organisms that had yet to evolve into anything resembling something that we would recognize as life.

Most likely, of course, it’s probable that these radio bursts come from some form of an astronomical phenomenon that we aren’t familiar with, or perhaps are related to the formation of some of the more exotic phenomenon we are aware of such as black holes and quasars. That’s the most fascinating thing about science, the idea that no matter how much we think we know there’s always going to be something new that we haven’t encountered before, especially in a universe that is as vast as ours where it’s likely that we will always be encountering things we’ve never seen or heard before.

Notwithstanding the Occam’s Razor explanation that the radio bursts are coming from a natural source of some kind, it’s always fun to speculate that things like this might be something different. We live in a universe that is some 14 billion years old and I’ve always found the idea that we are the only intelligent species that has ever developed in all that time to be somewhat absurd. This isn’t to say that I believe that we’re being visited by aliens or even that intelligent life that is equivalent or superior to us exists anywhere that can be considered “close” in the astronomical sense. It’s simply to say that, while it does seem apparent that the conditions that make it possible for the kind of intelligent life capable of exploring the universe or being the source of ancient radio signals are somewhat rare that doesn’t mean such a thing is impossible, if not likely. Anyway, that’s just a tangential thought since, as I said, it’s likely that what was detected here was some kind of previously unknown natural phenomenon.

That being said, who’s going to argue with this guy?

FILED UNDER: Science & Technology, , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    The first FRBs, including the first repeater, were found in the higher frequencies that are measured by the older radio telescopes like the one at Arecibo. The Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment is able to observe in lower frequencies and has found many more at the low end than were found at the high end. It is suspected that the low frequency FRBs are far more common.

    I was reading an article in the Guardian yesterday about why people instinctively reach for the Alien answer in response to the unknowns of the universe. It’s because our fight or flight response is more effective at keeping us alive if we presuppose the source of that new unknown sound is an active agent like a leopard stalking us and not just the wind. So naturally enough that is where our minds unconsciously go.

    Same thing happened with that regularly dimming star (30-40% iirc). Some wanted to believe it was an alien structure orbiting that star and not just a large cloud of gas and dust.

    I am pretty sure (like 110%) that there are in fact quite a few intelligent aliens elsewhere in the vastness of the universe. However the chances that they are responsible for FRB’s are very small. The energies involved are just beyond belief.

  2. @OzarkHillbilly:

    I was, of course, kidding about the alien explanation, although I am serious about my belief that I think it’s unlikely that we are the only intelligent life form to develop in the 14,000,000,000 year history of the universe. In all likelihood, we’ll probably never encounter this life, and communicating via the electromagnetic spectrum is exceedingly impractical, but we shouldn’t be so self-centered to believe that we are, always have been, or always will be “alone” in the universe

  3. Bill says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    it’s unlikely that we are the only intelligent life form to develop in the 14,000,000,000 year history of the universe.

    Who says we are intelligent?

    Perhaps its aliens who just encountered a meteor and are on their to crashlanding just outside Wichita Kansas. I sure hope so because one of my ebooks would become an instant best seller.

  4. Mister Bluster says:

    Outerspace aliens? Bring me one.
    Am I being self centered to require evidence for claims of intelligent (or vacuous) life in the universe?
    Or am I being realistic to say that with the methods of detection presently available these claims can not be tested and that this is something we can not know at this time?

  5. Kylopod says:

    I think it is a signal from the Star Wars galaxy.

  6. Mister Bluster says:

    @Bill:..Who says we are intelligent?

    ‘Truly, that which makes me believe there is no inhabitant on this sphere, is that it seems to me that no sensible being would be willing to live here.’
    ‘Well, then!’ said Micromegas, ‘perhaps the beings that inhabit it do not possess good sense.’

    One alien to another, on approaching the Earth, in Voltaire’s Micromegas: A Philosophical History (1752)*

    *Demon Haunted World
    Pg. 61

  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    I was, of course, kidding about the alien explanation,

    I knew that Doug, but there has been some speculation in some “respectable” but ignorant corners of the internets and I just wanted to put it to bed here.

  8. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Mister Bluster: While I am sure they are out there, the chances of us ever meeting them or even communicating with them are so infinitesimal that the world’s most powerful electron microscope couldn’t see them at full magnification.

  9. Mister Bluster says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:..While I am sure they are out there,..

    Leap of faith?

  10. Kathy says:

    The time factor in distant phenomena is important. For all we know, all those FRBs were repeaters for decades until a hundred years ago, when we lacked the means to detect them.

  11. Kathy says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    I was, of course, kidding about the alien explanation, although I am serious about my belief that I think it’s unlikely that we are the only intelligent life form to develop in the 14,000,000,000 year history of the universe.

    Lately there’s much speculation about filters in the evolution of an intelligent species towards interstellar travel or communication. Things like a nuclear war, for example, filter out potential travelers.

    Suppose, though, there are many intelligent species that never manage to develop agriculture, therefore never develop a civilization.

    Consider, Homo sapiens is about 200,000 years old. Agriculture dates back maybe to 12,000 years ago, and civilization around 6,000 years. And prior to us, there were tool-making, fire-using hominids. If you regard all our pre-modern ancestors as human, humanity goes back about 2 million years.

    That’s only one datum, but a relevant one: it can take 2 million years to go from the inception of intelligence to the beginning of agriculture. In-depth astronomy and space travel follow relatively quickly.

  12. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Mister Bluster: Numbers. I forget what the exact numbers are, but the chances of this solar system developing life on a habitable planet were (to pick a number) 1 in a billion. The number of stars out in the universe are something like 10 to the 27th power (or otherwise ridiculously unimaginably large number) and the chances of life developing on a habitable planet around at least 2/3s (again to pick a number) of them are similar to our solar system.

    The math demands that other forms of life will exist out there, and while we only have one example to infer from, I am pretty sure that evolution will by it’s very nature bend towards intelligence. That doesn’t mean it will be a form of intelligence that we are capable of recognizing as such, but a being or beings that can anticipate the future and is able to manipulate the world around it will always have an evolutionary advantage.

  13. Kylopod says:


    a being or beings that can anticipate the future and is able to manipulate the world around it will always have an evolutionary advantage.

    I don’t think that’s at all clear. First of all, there are examples of organisms that lost their ancestor’s brains. Second, by far the most successful organisms on the planet are still bacteria. They’ve been around a helluva lot longer than we have, and probably will be around long after we’re gone.

    The problem with extrapolating like this is that there’s only one example to extrapolate from. We know of only one instance of something arising called “life,” and while a lot of different organisms possess some level of intelligence, only one possesses the kind of intelligence capable of having this conversation, or building machines that fly to the stars. How can we calculate how likely or unlikely that is with, so to speak, such a small sample size?

  14. Gustopher says:


    The math demands that other forms of life will exist out there, and while we only have one example to infer from, I am pretty sure that evolution will by it’s very nature bend towards intelligence.

    We estimate that it took fvcking forever* to go from single celled organisms to multicelular. With large numbers of ecosystems, it’s likely inevitable that some will do so, but I wouldn’t assume life leads to complex life, let alone intelligent life.

    *: “fvcking forever” is a precise scientific term. It is equivalent to one year per grain of sand in a metric shitload of sand. And remember, there are 2.2 imperial shitloads for each metric shitload. Or vice versa.

  15. Teve says:

    The startling thing is that it took four billion years to go from life, to intelligent life.

  16. Gustopher says:

    With our current level of technology, if there was a duplicate Earth, evolving exactly as we have done (except maybe sticks of butter have different dimensions or something) at the same time how far away could we detect it?

    We’ve been pumping out radio waves for a bit over a century so I want to say 100 light years, but the radio waves should decline by in inverse square law, so I’m not sure they are strong enough.

  17. Hal_10000 says:

    I’ve done a little bit of work on trying to follow these up. Unfortunately, they don’t last very long. But, just between you and me, we think that they are aliens from distant civilizations announcing their candidacy for the 2020 Democratic Party presidential nomination.

  18. Kathy says:

    Another thought, what if intelligent species in other worlds live under water? They could develop stone tools easily, make use of bone and coral (if any), and perhaps even develop forms of agriculture and an underwater equivalent of pastoralism. But they wouldn’t be able to use or make fire, ergo no metallurgy, ergo no high technology.

    Unless they found a way to colonize land and work in air.

  19. Kylopod says:


    Another thought, what if intelligent species in other worlds live under water?

    The thing is, judging from our own world, the evolution from water to land isn’t a huge barrier; it’s happened several times at minimum on our planet. I imagine this intelligent water-dwelling species would eventually find its way onto land assuming it’s habitable. We know many unintelligent species have. Even if it remains in a semi-amphibious state and can’t breathe the air (sort of like the way whales spend much of their life underwater despite not possessing gills) it could probably achieve quite a lot.

  20. Michael Reynolds says:

    It shows you how little evolution values intelligence. When you can get along without something for more than a billion years, you have to wonder if it isn’t just some short-lived phenomenon, some random blip whose long-term usefulness is nowhere near being established.

  21. Michael Reynolds says:

    Well, if we are living in a SIM there’s no particular reason the SIM wouldn’t or couldn’t add aliens. I’m not a gamer, but you want levels don’t you? Humans, Vulcans, Klingons, Yeerks (ahem), Hutts, Wookies, your various Predators and whatnot, each species would have a backstory, surely. You’d want various adventures when you get bored playing humans.

  22. Kylopod says:

    @Michael Reynolds: I think in this thread a lot of people seem to be defining “intelligence” strictly to mean human-like intelligence. Intelligence of some kind isn’t exclusive to humans (though it does seem to be exclusive to multicellular animals, which didn’t start to appear until little over half a billion years ago), and in fact it’s evolved independently on earth twice: among vertebrates and among cephalopods. Octopuses may not be building spaceships anytime soon, but they do seem to possess intelligence comparable to that of some of the smarter birds and mammals.

    So it’s possible there could be planets with organisms as smart as, say, raccoons, and it would be scarcely more detectable than if there were simply one-celled microbes.

    And if these organisms do evolve into something more advanced, we just might miss it. Andromeda is just a few million light years from us, but that’s far enough that if there are smart aliens there looking into a telescope, the earth they’ll see still doesn’t have anything more advanced than a few slightly brainy apes.

  23. JohnMcC says:

    There have been a few articles in the fairly recent past looking at whether a pre-human civilization evolved on this planet many MANY millennia before we arrived. That would be before the tectonic events that gave the map it’s present shape. And the articles discuss looking for unnatural, unlikely concentrations of certain minerals in various strata that would show very very ancient mining and accumulations of such material. That is actually the only speculation about ‘alien contact’ that has any likelihood IMHO because of the time spans involved at even ‘warp speed’ across the galaxies.

  24. Franklin says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Speaking of Yeerks and stuff, when am I getting Sudden Death in Cyprus? I ordered it in early November for chrissakes.

    /Yeah, yeah, Amazon tells me Feb 6.

  25. Kathy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    It may not be that intelligence is an improbable development, but that intelligence coupled with the ability to manipulate the world around is exceedingly improbable.

    It’s well known that a larger brain takes resources away from other parts of the body. It’s not clear to many people what that means. Humans, as compared to animals, even similar ones like chimps, are weak, slow, and not very agile. But we can make tools and weapons that surpass most animals.

    That said, we spent the better part of 2 million years hunting, gathering, and wondering around like just another animal, just one with tools and weapons.

  26. Michael Reynolds says:

    Well, I’ve had a bit of a contretemps with my publisher on that book. They produced an amazingly crappy ‘library’ copy and upon my seeing it words were exchanged and the head of the company acquiring this publisher actually reached out to me to get me not to yank it.

    Long story short, the Kindle version is available, and a (they promise me) good paperback is coming in September. On the plus side it was well-reviewed by Publishers Weekly and Kirkus. Thanks for asking. I’m busy on the second in the series in which I re-imagine art theft and find a way to make it profitable. I know: a public service.

  27. Tyrell says:

    @Kathy: That is a very good point. A scientist said that we must presume the senders to be highly advanced, much more so then we are. And they will probably have the technology to know when and where the messages are received and read, much like we know when a text or phone call is received.
    History Channel is running a documentary drama series on “Project Blue Book”. Some people remember the UFO activity of the 1950’s. Washington, D. C. was literally under attack. Maybe people will now demand that the UFO documents be released. Senator Goldwater was determined to get info the on famous Hangar 18 at Wright-Patterson Field to see for himself what was going on. General Lemay said no.