The bulk of the work that the Parkes Radio Observatory (2) has been engaged in has been radio astronomy, picking up signals from distant stars and galaxies and gathering data about them for scientists to ponder. Since Parkes is located in the southern hemisphere, it occupies a place of considerable importance in that field of study.
Recently, Parkes picked up some signals that have proven a bit of a head scratcher for scientists. They are not, as one might think from that description, radio or TV signals from an advanced alien civilization. But they are strange, nevertheless.
Recently, as Space.Com reported (3), Parkes picked up signals from distant galaxies called “fast radio bursts.” These signals are so powerful that they travel through the universe across billions of light years. They give out more energy in that brief period than the sun does in 300,000 years.
At one time, some scientists did theorize that the fast radio bursts could have been aliens (4). However, that possibility has been ruled out in favor of a more natural cause, albeit a very strange one.
Ruling Out Natural Sources
Astronomy Now explains what happened when Parkes detected an FSB in real time (5). As it turned out, astronomers at other observatories were able to rule out a number of possible natural sources, since nothing was detected in any other wavelength such as X-rays, infrared light, visible light, or ultraviolet light.
Nothing seemed to exist at the source of the FRB that could have caused it. Scientists were able to rule out the usual catastrophic events such as exploding stars or supernovae. But then another clue presented itself.
“The Parkes detection system captured the polarization of the light. Polarization is the direction in which electromagnetic waves oscillate, and they can be linearly or circularly polarized. The signal from the radio wave burst was more than 20 percent circularly polarized, and it suggests that there is a magnetic field in the vicinity.”
The working theory is that the fast radio bursts are associated with compact objects such as black holes or neutron stars. The idea is that a starquake or even a collision caused the events to happen to be picked up by radio observatories billions of light years away. Now scientists believe they know where to look to confirm the cause of the FRBs.
Related to the ongoing story of fast radio bursts, Parkes has been detecting another but similar signal called perytons. At first the origin of these signals was just as mysterious as those of the FRBs. However, according to Cnet, the origin of the signals was soon discovered. As it turns out, they didn’t even come from space (6).
It seems that when someone opens a microwave oven before it is finished heating food, it will send a short burst of radio waves similar to a fast radio burst at a frequency of 1.4 GHz. If the Parkes dish is pointed in just the right direction, it will detect the microwave oven signal as an FSB. The scientists at Parkes confirmed the origin of the perytons by using a radio interference monitor.
Moreover, the phenomenon seems to be generated by a 27-year-old model of microwave oven manufactured by Matsushita/National and is the result of a standard feature and not a fault. Thus, a minor scientific mystery has been solved, but Parkes will need to upgrade its break room equipment.
References & Image Credits:
(4) TSW: Could Aliens Be Behind Incoming Fast Radio Wave Bursts
(5) Astronomy Now
(7) Image of the Parkes Radio Telescope
(8) Image of 1971 Microwave Oven