Are Observed Radio Bursts An Alien Propulsion Technology?

Harvard astrophysicists wonder if it could be worth examining a set of fast radio bursts to see if it could be evidence of an alien propulsion technology.


(Artist concept of alien sails and propulsion)

"Fast radio bursts are exceedingly bright given their short duration and origin at great distances, and we haven't identified a possible natural source with any confidence," said theorist Avi Loeb of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. "An artificial origin is worth contemplating and checking."

As the name implies, fast radio bursts are millisecond-long flashes of radio emission. First discovered in 2007, fewer than two dozen have been detected by gigantic radio telescopes like the Parkes Observatory in Australia or the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. They are inferred to originate from distant galaxies, billions of light-years away.

Loeb and his co-author Manasvi Lingam (Harvard University) examined the feasibility of creating a radio transmitter strong enough for it to be detectable across such immense distances. They found that, if the transmitter were solar powered, the sunlight falling on an area of a planet twice the size of the Earth would be enough to generate the needed energy. Such a vast construction project is well beyond our technology, but within the realm of possibility according to the laws of physics.

Lingam and Loeb also considered whether such a transmitter would be viable from an engineering perspective, or whether the tremendous energies involved would melt any underlying structure. Again, they found that a water-cooled device twice the size of Earth could withstand the heat.

I don't know about alien civilizations, but on this planet this idea has a relatively brief history (with a surprising outlier). In a 1962 book by Dr. Robert Forward titled Report on Laser Design Study, we find "results of the design analysis indicate the feasibility of proceeding with the construction of a LASER cannon system at once." This idea was used creatively in the 1974 Niven/Pournelle classic Mote in God's Eye:

"Captain, look," he said, and threw a plot of the local stellar region on the screen. "The intruder came from here. Whoever launched it fired a laser cannon, or a set of laser cannon - probably a whole mess of them on asteroids, with mirrors to focus them - for about forty-five years, so the intruder would have a beam to travel on. The beam and the intruder both came straight in from the Mote.

See the entry for laser cannon from Niven and Pournelle's novel.

However, this is not the earliest instance of this idea. Golden Age science fiction great Edmond Hamilton wrote about ships propelled by light pressure in his 1929 story The Comet Doom.


(Light cones for light propulsion)

Via Harvard Center for Astrophysics.

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