The CHIME radio telescope at dusk in British Columbia.
A new radio telescope in Canada is doing its job picking up mysterious signals from deep space known as "fast radio bursts" (FRBs).
The Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) in British Columbia detected the first-ever FRB at frequencies below 700 MHz on July 25, a signal named FRB 180725A.
As you might guess, FRBs are milliseconds-long bursts of radio emissions that come from some unknown source across the universe. They're one of the newer cosmic mysteries around, having been first detected only about a decade ago. Possible explanations include bursts from magnetars, exploding black holes, and yes, highly advanced alien civilizations.
CHIME has been operating for less than a year and is designed to gather data on FRBs and other unanswered questions in astrophysics. The detection of FRB 180725A is very preliminary at this point. It was announced in an online "Astronomer's Telegram" post intended to encourage other astronomers "to search for repeated bursts at all wavelengths."
Best places in space to search for alien life
The deeper we look into space, the more places we come across that seem like maybe, just maybe, could host life. From our neighboring planets to distant galaxies sending out weird signals, the list of spots in space worth checking out just continues to grow.
The closest world we should check for signs of life is one we've already been to, or at least our robots have. There's increasing evidence that Mars was once a lot more like Earth, with oceans on its surface. Today it's more harsh, but it's not out of the question that we could find some sort of microbes in Martian soil.
Dwarf planet Ceres in the asteroid belt is full of surprises. It started with those big bright spots that turned out to be salt deposits, and there's also a huge, strange pyramid-shaped mountain, plenty of water beneath the surface and even the building blocks of life. Some people already believe this huge rock is actually an alien ship. The evidence isn't there to support that theory, but the place does seem worth a closer look.
We don't think of the largest gas giant planet around as a place to look for life, but science fiction author Ben Bova has other ideas.
"It's got all the ingredients, enough room and lots of energy," he said in 2016.
Bova briefly explained his notion of life-forms that might be able to live in the air or in water underneath Jupiter's dense deck of clouds. He referred me to a few of the novels from his "Grand Tour" series, including "Jupiter" and "Leviathans of Jupiter."
The storyline of the novels revolves around the existence of massive, city-size life-forms called Leviathans living in gigantic oceans that have condensed beneath the clouds of Jupiter.
Um, sure. Why not?
Saturn's satellite Titan is the rare moon in our solar system with an atmosphere, weather, seas and rivers. It sure looks like home, except it's freezing and the lakes are flammable. Whatever life could survive there would be awfully weird, but scientists would still love to send a submarine to see for themselves.
Like Europa, Saturnian moon Enceladus has an icy shell with plumes shooting into space. In 2015, the Cassini spacecraft actually flew through one of the plumes and found large amounts of hydrogen present in its hidden ocean. This suggests the watery world has just about all the ingredients required to support life.
Jupiter moon Europa not only hides a subsurface ocean beneath its icy shell, but geysers have also been spotted there, hinting that some sort of hydrothermal activity might be able to support marine life.
Jupiter's moon Callisto is another world that harbors an unseen ocean. Checking it for microbes or any other exotic life forms might be tough, though, because it would require drilling through its huge, rocky exterior.
Ganymede, Jupiter's largest moon, has long been suspected of harboring a subsurface ocean. In 2015, scientists said they could confirm a salty ocean beneath its frozen crust. It also has a thin oxygen atmosphere, adding to its intrigue.
Yes our nearest planetary neighbor is supposed to be a horrible, hot and toxic hellscape, but that's just below the clouds. Higher in the atmosphere it could be quite nice. The planet wasn't always so inhospitable, so perhaps something managed to adapt? Scary to imagine what might have managed that, but you know you want to see it.
This former planet is very cold, but it's also more interesting than we used to think, with hints of active geology, lots of ice and perhaps some hidden oceans of its own. Definitely worth adding to the life-prospecting itinerary.
A potentially habitable planet around the nearest star to the sun, Proxima b is a no-brainer for closer examination. In fact, some told stories about alien civilizations there before the planet was even discovered. Plans are already underway to send tiny craft there to see if anyone is about.
The TRAPPIST-1 system is just 40 light-years away and hosts up to seven Earth-sized planets, all very close to each other and perfect for the space-faring civilization of our sci-fi dreams.
Wolf 1061 c is a "super-Earth" just 14 light-years away, making it one of the top five closest potentially habitable planets orbiting another star. We've known about it for a few years, and scientists have already started checking it for alien transmissions.
Mysterious signals known as "fast radio bursts" have baffled astronomers for a decade. The only such signal that repeats has been traced to a tiny galaxy in this image in the constellation Auriga. Is it E.T. phoning home?
Something weird is going on around the distant star KIC 8462852, also known as Boyajian's Star. After a few years of research, no one knows for sure what's happening, but one explanation that's yet to be completely ruled out is the far-out notion that a highly advanced society is building insanely huge megastructures in space that obstruct the star. Gulp.
The announcement also notes that additional FRBs have been found in the past week at frequencies as low as 400 MHz and early indications suggest they aren't coming from known sources on Earth.
So far only one FRB has been observed repeating and researchers say whatever is sending that signal across the universe is stupendously powerful.
It's early days for both the study of FRBs and this FRB in particular. CHIME and other observatories will be keeping an ear to the sky for more clues to help solve the mystery.