The signals have complex, mysterious structures, patterns of peaks and valleys in radio waves that play out in just milliseconds, ruling out the possibility that it came from a simple explosion, or any other standard event known to scatter spikes of electromagnetic energy across space.
Astronomers call these strange signals fast radio bursts (FRBs). Ever since the first one was uncovered in 2007 using data recorded in 2001, there's been an ongoing effort to pin down their source. Yet FRBs arrive at random times and places, and existing human technology and observation methods aren't well-primed to spot these signals on time.
However, a team of astronomers wrote that they managed to detect five FRBs in real time using a single radio telescope, according to a paper published July 4 in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
A machine-learning system developed by Wael Farah, a doctoral student at the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, recognized the signatures of FRBs as they arrived at the University of Sydney's Molonglo Radio Observatory, near Canberra. As Live Science has previously reported, many scientific instruments, including radio telescopes, produce more data per second than they can reasonably store. So they don't record anything in the finest detail except their goal – FRBs. Farah's system trained the Molonglo telescope to spot FRBs and switch over to its most detailed recording mode, producing the finest records of FRBs yet.
Based on their data, the researchers predicted that between 59 and 157 theoretically detectable FRBs splash across our skies every day. The scientists also used the immediate detections to hunt for related flares in data from X-ray, optical and other radio telescopes but found no visible event linked to the FRBs
Their research also appeared to confirm the existence of another trait, considered one of the most peculiar of FRBs: The signals, once arriving, never repeat themselves. Each one appears to be a singular event in space that will never happen again.