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[News] Mystery radio waves and a galactic puzzle

Anyone who’s ever studied physics or thought about signs of life in the universe will know that objects in space emit radio waves. In a story we saw in Business Insider, Australia, and New Scientist recently, the astrophysics community is all aflutter because mysterious radio waves are emanating from the heart of our Galaxy — and astronomers don’t know what’s making them. 

The signals detected by researchers at the University of Sydney do not match any known types of radio waves. Even stranger is the changing strength of the signal detected. Ziteng Wang, the lead author of the new study and a PhD student in physics at the University of Sydney, published his team’s findings in The Astrophysical Journal. His group says it’s possible that the mysterious source of the radio signal may represent part of a new class of objects.

The persistent signal was discovered using the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (or ASKAP), and the findings are supported by a survey conducted by a team of University of Wisconsin and Milwaukee astronomers. They all hope to use the newly constructed array of 36 satellite dishes, each standing nearly three stories tall and 40 feet wide, to scour the sky over Western Australia. They hope to detect other radio sources like these that are regular and change monthly. They intend to focus their pilot study on the galactic center where gravity pulls all manner of objects into a kind of tunnel. It was a pure fluke that, while setting up their study and the square kilometer array with the Sydney team, that the students discovered the radio wave anomalies.

Scientists can only theorize a category of potential explanations for Wang’s team’s observations. These include asteroid collisions, where a strong magnetic field can generate a spark like lightning, and then the radiation travels towards us, forming a radio signal. Another explanation involves the theory of the formation of galaxies. When a black hole interacts with dust and gas (in what is known as active galactic nuclei), it creates fast radio bursts similar to these new radio waves. It could also be caused by the collapse of a neutron star, which emits fast radio bursts as it explodes. 

Astronomers have long been concerned about mysterious radio signals known as fast radio bursts (FRBs). Many of these FRBs emit waves at the edges of our galaxy, where most creation and death of stars occurs.  However, the new radio signals —  first discovered in 2020 — don’t fit with previous categorizations. After a year astronomers observed intermittent observations consistently coming from the same object and right down the center of our Milky Way galaxy.

The signal “apparently switches off and on at random” says Wang, in his press release, and “we’ve never seen anything like it.”

So what can this be? This signal is unusually ordered. Radio waves are normally random, but these waves are a phenomenon called polarization, which looks like circular spirals. We usually only see this behavior from magnetized stars, such as red dwarfs, magnetars, or brown dwarfs. So, researchers initially looked hard for a sign of the mystery object, but none of the known equipment designed for this detected anything. This has led to a couple of conclusions. 

In The Astrophysical Journal, the team observed that the object must be very small or it wouldn’t be able to disappear in a single day. Furthermore, a mighty magnetic field envelopes the source of the radio wave due to the circular pattern of the polarisation. And it seems, the object almost certainly sits within the Milky Way, not in a background galaxy far, far away. This is due to the purity of the polarized radio waves signal that hasn’t gathered enough dust to have traveled very far. The astronomers say it’s unlikely to be an extraterrestrial beacon because radio waves used for communication are normally only single frequency, while this signal contains a wide range of radio waves like many known natural sources. 

“We don’t really understand those sources, anyway, so this adds to the mystery,” Wang’s co-supervisor, David Kaplan from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said in the release.

Having ruled out the usual suspects. Kaplan says the mystery object might fall into what is known around astrophysicist circles as a “grab bag of weirdos,” or more accurately, a group of galactic center radio transients (GCRTs). These are characterized by the general behavior of flashing polarized radio waves in seemingly random ways. However, because scientists are using very powerful observation arrays, it’s possible there are too many radio surveys on the Milky Way and what we’re seeing is overlapping coincidences. 

The whole field of radio sky is pretty much untapped and what could be a storm over a new discovery could also be merely a storm in a tea cup, or a crossed wire. Astrophysicists will no doubt be looking to the skies and more powerful telescope technology to reveal more about the mysteries of our galaxy.

In other news

  • Travel goes high-tech. The Pittsburgh International Airport broke ground on a state-of-the-art 700,000 square-foot, tech-forward terminal, becoming the first in the United States to be raised from the ground up, post-pandemic. Designed with a focus on health and technology, it’s more than just a series of gates and terminals. As reported by the International Airport Review, the modernized PIA will include clean air technologies, room for social distancing, and 90,000 square feet of outdoor terraces to ensure access to fresh air — an uncommon feature for American airports. It will also be amongst the most sustainable airports in the world, powered through an on-location microgrid featuring 10,000 solar panels and 5 natural gas generators.

    Meanwhile, over in Russia, Moscow city officials announced that they’ve installed a new system in over 240 subway stations that will allow riders to pay just by looking at a camera. Dubbed “FacePay,” this new system will avoid the need to pay with cash, a card, or even a phone. Although convenient, Gizmodo points out that privacy activists worry that this technology will allow governments to assert more control. Indeed, Human Rights Watch has previously warned that Russia was strengthening its facial recognition capabilities without any oversight or regulation, and this technology could allow the government to more closely monitor its citizens.
  • Has Amazon been lying about its business practices? Congress wants to know. Amazon executives, including founder Jeff Bezos, might have been lying to Congress about their data and practices — or so a letter from a US House Judiciary Antitrust subcommittee says. The letter refers to last week’s Reuters report revealing that the company had an explicit, detailed strategy to rip off third-party sellers in India, using their data to streamline their own knockoffs, then prioritized the Amazon-manufactured versions in search results. The letter goes on to remind Bezos that deliberately lying under oath before Congress is a federal crime. Amazon is also facing antitrust probes in the EU and India. 
  • LinkedIn is no longer linked to China. After first opening its doors to China in 2014 with an agreement to censor certain topics, Microsoft, who owns LinkedIn, is pulling the plug on its social network in the country, and will replace it with a simpler version called ‘IN’ that focuses on jobs only. On their official blog, the company noted that it is “facing a significantly more challenging operating environment and greater compliance requirements in China.” As the last of the major social media platforms to have access to China, this move is worrying both for Internet freedom and access inside China, but also for geopolitical reasons.  Wired quoted Nina Xiang, an expert in China-US financial relations, as saying “LinkedIn is about the last remaining big American tech firm operating in China that provides content. With it gone, the decoupling between China and the rest of the world will only deepen.”
  • What if your Internet came by plane? Airbus is developing a solar-powered plane that can remain in the skies for months at a time. This intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) technology could be used to provide Internet to customers as well as monitor environmental disasters. The aircraft, named Zephyr, just completed two test flights of 18 days each. It is unmanned and according to Airbus, could stay aloft for up to six months, and is being billed as a cheaper and greener alternative to satellites, which are costly to produce, require more fuel, and eventually contribute to the constellation of space junk circling the planet. As Airbus stated on the Institute of Engineering and Technology blog, the Zephyr “is a sustainable, solar-powered ISR and network-extending solution that can provide vital future connectivity and earth observation to where it is needed.”
  • Robot dogs are back. We’ve talked in the past about robot dogs being used in law enforcement. It was just a matter of time before they were fully weaponized, taking on the aspect of the fictional creatures in the dystopian television show Black Mirror. And that reality seems to be here, with the partnership of companies Ghost Robotics and SWORD International. They have developed a weaponized robot dog, dubbed the Special Purpose Unmanned Rifle, or SPUR. This monstrosity has a 6.5mm Creedmoor rifle from SWORD mounted on top of a Ghost Robotics’ euphemistically named “quadrupedal unmanned ground vehicle” (a name clearly designed to remove any canine associations). Although little information is known at this time about the units’ full capabilities, The Drive said that a unit was displayed at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual convention in Washington, D.C., with a description that it could achieve precision fire up to 1,200 meters. 

Tip of the week

If you’re selling physical products, it’s hard to ignore Amazon’s ability to help you find new customers. Even though Amazon uses sales data to elevate their own branded products above of your own, it’s still one of the most effective ways to connect with new customers. If you are launching a new product, it’s almost essential to list it on Amazon. But you’re not tied to selling everything there.  There are a few clever ways you can use Amazon’s marketplace to bring buyers to your own website. 

It’s against the Amazon Terms of Service to actively encourage shoppers to leave one of their listings and visit your external website. Still, there are subtle clues you can use to help curious shoppers find you elsewhere. 

First, choose a seller name that exactly matches your website URL. For example, if your website is techspacecoffee.com, your Amazon seller name should be Tech Space Coffee. When an Amazon shopper falls in love with your Guatemalan Medium Roast and is curious to see what else you offer, they can easily find you via web search. 

Next, include products you offer only on your website in secondary photos and videos on Amazon listings. Curious viewers might see those adjacent products and head to your website to see if they can purchase them through your site when they can’t buy them on Amazon. 

Finally, offer an incentive on your site so that bounced Amazon shoppers who find you will buy directly. The incentive could be anything from a free sticker to personalization to a quantity discount. Just make sure it’s something that you don’t offer in the Amazon marketplace. 


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Lisa McKnight avatar

Lisa McKnight

As a digital technology copywriter, I'm passionate about communicating how vital the information industry is and how stuff works. If it's complicated I believe it can also be engaging. With 10 years of copywriting in B2B and B2C marketing, technology is rocking my world. More articles written by Lisa.

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