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Two Harvard professors studying fast radio bursts – those mysterious brief blasts coming from unknown sources beyond our galaxy – say these huge amounts of energy are not necessarily messages but may actually be being used to power alien spaceships for intergalactic travel.

Fast radio bursts are exceedingly bright given their short duration and origin at great distances, and we haven’t identified a possible natural source with any confidence. An artificial origin is worth contemplating and checking.

Abraham (Avi) Loeb of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Manasvi Lingam, also from Harvard, have authored a new study published in Astrophysical Journal Letters that takes an in-depth look at how fast radio bursts might be created. They determined that a humongous transmitter twice the size of Earth could turn solar power into the energy needed to send such burst across vast distances. We puny humans can’t undertake a construction project like that, but someone or something more advanced could.

We can build a Very Large Array to detect fast radio bursts, but we can’t make them.

Building such a structure is only half the battle. Keeping its own massive energy from destroying itself is a bigger challenge. Loeb determined that such a device could be water-cooled using liquid from a hopefully uninhabited planet. That would require some massive pipeline and pump, but Loeb says the transmitter and cooling system are within the possibilities of physics.

If you had that kind of power, what would you use it for … other than creating an instant barbecue lighter for everyone on the planet? Loeb and Lingam believe this huge amount of power could only be used for one purpose – fueling an intergalactic spacecraft. The best type of spacecraft to be propelled by this kind of thrust would be a light sail. This sounds a lot like the concept of photonic propulsion systems proposed last year by NASA where laser beams are aimed at giant sails that could conceivably reach Mars in three days.

Of course, those wafer-thin NASA sails can’t carry humans. But, if the energy of a planet-sized laser transmitter was behind it, how big could that sail be? Lingam estimates it could move a million-ton payload.

That’s big enough to carry living passengers across interstellar or even intergalactic distances.

Wait a minute. Pushing a load like that between galaxies would require constant power. Fast radio bursts are called that because all we’ve ever seen is a few dozen millisecond flashes. According to the study, this can be explained by the fact that the transmitter, the sail, their star, the planet where the aliens who built it live and their whole galaxy are in constant motion relative to us observers millions of light years away. That means it only occasionally is pointed towards us and has an awful lot of universe in between full of stuff blocking that planet-sized laser pointer.

Loeb estimates that a galaxy like the Milky Way could hold 10,000 advance alien civilizations that could potentially develop one of these fast radio burst propulsion systems. Has one already done it?

Science isn’t a matter of belief, it’s a matter of evidence. Deciding what’s likely ahead of time limits the possibilities. It’s worth putting ideas out there and letting the data be the judge.

Evidence and data. What kind of evidence and data will it take for you? More fast radio bursts? A giant sail appearing in our sky? Something in-between?