The origin of the brief, high-intensity signals from outer space called fast radio bursts baffles astronomers. Now AI is generating real-time data to help solve the mystery.

What’s new: A machine learning model deployed at the Molonglo Radio Telescope in Australia detected five fast radio bursts in unprecedented detail.

How it works: The Molonglo telescope uses a standard program to flag incoming electromagnetic waves as fast radio burst candidates. However, the mystery signals share the same frequency band as cell phones, lightning storms, and solar emissions, so the system is prone to false positives. Researcher Wael Farah developed a machine learning model to pick out the most viable candidates.

  • Farah first trained the model on recordings of pulsars. Those signals resemble fast radio bursts, but scientists have many more recordings of them and know enough about them to train the model to differentiate them.
  • The model compares incoming signals against known features of fast radio bursts, such as the rate at which their higher frequencies disperse as they cross the cosmos.
  • The model pared down each day’s fast radio burst candidates from tens of thousands to tens, a manageable number for the telescope’s human staff to verify.

Results: Since the model debuted in April, 2018, it has flagged the most energetic fast radio burst and the one with the broadest spectrum, and it has captured the most detailed view of the signals’ rapidly fluctuating voltage.

Behind the news: Earlier this year, American scientist Brian Metzger won a $3 million Breakthrough Prize for his work on a theory about the genesis of fast radio bursts — not SOSes from an alien intelligence, sadly, but shock waves produced by young neutron stars with dense magnetic fields.

Why it matters: Testing ideas about fast radio bursts requires more, and more detailed, data. Farrah’s model delivers it.

We’re thinking: Telescopes collect a crushing torrent of data. With the help of AI, human astronomers might manage to analyze them before the universe’s Big Crunch.


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