Breakthrough Listen is also applying the successful machine-learning algorithm to find new kinds of signals that could be coming from extraterrestrial civilizations. While most fast radio bursts are one-offs, the source here, FRB 121102, is unique in emitting repeated bursts. This behavior has drawn the attention of many astronomers hoping to pin down the cause and the extreme physics involved in fast radio bursts.
The AI algorithms dredged up the radio signals from data were recorded over a five-hour period on Aug. 26, 2017, by the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia. An earlier analysis of the 400 terabytes of data employed standard computer algorithms to identify 21 bursts during that period. All were seen within one hour, suggesting that the source alternates between periods of quiescence and frenzied activity, said Berkeley SETI postdoctoral researcher Vishal Gajjar.
UC Berkeley Ph.D. student Gerry Zhang and collaborators subsequently developed a new, powerful machine-learning algorithm and reanalyzed the 2017 data, finding an additional 72 bursts not detected originally. This brings the total number of detected bursts from FRB 121102 to around 300 since it was discovered in 2012.
“This work is only the beginning of using these powerful methods to find radio transients,” said Zhang. “We hope our success may inspire other serious endeavors in applying machine learning to radio astronomy.”
Zhang’s team used some of the same techniques that internet technology companies use to optimize search results and classify images. They trained an algorithm known as a convolutional neural network to recognize bursts found by the classical search method used by Gajjar and collaborators, and then set it loose on the dataset to find bursts that the classical approach missed.
The results have helped put new constraints on the periodicity of the pulses from FRB 121102, suggesting that the pulses are not received with a regular pattern, at least if the period of that pattern is longer than about 10 milliseconds. Just as the patterns of pulses from pulsars have helped astronomers constrain computer models of the extreme physical conditions in such objects, the new measurements of FRBs will help figure out what powers these enigmatic sources, Siemion said.
Whether or not FRBs themselves eventually turn out to be signatures of extraterrestrial technology, Breakthrough Listen is helping to push the frontiers of a new and rapidly growing area of our understanding of the Universe around us,” he added.
The new results are described in an article accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal and is available for download from the Breakthrough Listen website.