Breakthrough Listen researchers used to search through radio signals recorded from a fast radio burst, capturing many more than humans could. In fact, they now used to discover 72 new fast radio bursts from a mysterious source some 3 billion light years from Earth.
Fast radio bursts are bright pulses of radio emission mere milliseconds in duration, thought to originate from distant galaxies. The source of these emissions is still unclear, however. Theories range from highly magnetized neutron stars blasted by gas streams from a nearby supermassive black hole, to suggestions that the burst properties are consistent with signatures of technology developed by an advanced civilization.
“This work is exciting not just because it helps us understand the dynamic behavior of fast radio bursts in more detail, but also because of the promise it shows for using to detect signals missed by classical algorithms,” said Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center and principal investigator for Breakthrough Listen, the initiative to find signs of intelligent life in the universe.
Breakthrough Listen is also applying the successful machine-learning algorithm to find new kinds of signals that could be coming from extraterrestrial civilizations.
While most fast radio bursts are one-offs, the source here, FRB 121102, is unique in emitting repeated bursts. This behavior has drawn the attention of many astronomers hoping to pin down the cause and the extreme physics involved in fast radio bursts.
The algorithms dredged up the radio signals from data were recorded over a five-hour period on Aug. 26, 2017, by the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia. An earlier analysis of the 400 terabytes of data employed standard computer algorithms to identify 21 bursts during that period. All were seen within one hour, suggesting that the source alternates between periods of quiescence and frenzied activity, said Berkeley SETI postdoctoral researcher Vishal Gajjar.
UC Berkeley Ph.D. student Gerry Zhang and collaborators subsequently developed a new, powerful machine-learning algorithm and reanalyzed the 2017 data, finding an additional 72 bursts not detected originally. This brings the total number of detected bursts from FRB 121102 to around 300 since it was discovered in 2012.
“This work is only the beginning of using these powerful methods to find radio transients,” said Zhang. “We hope our success may inspire other serious endeavors in applying to radio astronomy.”
Zhang’s team used some of the same techniques that internet technology companies use to optimize search results and classify images. They trained an algorithm known as a convolutional neural network to recognize bursts found by the classical search method used by Gajjar and collaborators, and then set it loose on the dataset to find bursts that the classical approach missed.