Amid frenzied arguments about border walls and government shutdowns, tax assessments and who’s going to host the Oscars, it’s easy to overlook a little blip from a far-off realm. But the “repeater” signal of six “fast radio bursts” from a source 1.5 billion light years away, reported this week, highlights the insignificance of our crises.
We are the stars of a very small, very brief chapter of the big story.
Canada’s CHIME telescope detected 13 new fast radio bursts, including only the second “repeater” ever found, in July. Scientists don’t know what drives the repeating bursts, but it’s clear the power necessary to transmit them is extraordinary: equal to the output of 500 suns.
One possible explanation for the bursts is collisions between very dense objects, like neutron stars or black holes. But a paper from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics suggests they could be leakage from planet-sized transmitters powering light sails for interstellar or intergalactic travel, built by intelligent nonhuman species.
The oldest remaining segments of the Great Wall of China go back 2,000 years. The fast repeating bursts detected in July have been traveling 750,000 times that long. And by the time news of our struggles gets to the far reaches of space, no one will remember who won, or what the battles meant. — The editorial board