Radio signal probably not from extraterrestrials

Reports stir excitement, but there’s no sign of alien activity


LONG DISTANCE CALL  A signal detected by the Russian RATAN-600 radio telescope (pictured) has triggered speculation about a message from extraterrestrials. 

александр с кавказа (CC BY 3.0)

A radio signal detected last year has sparked speculation that an advanced alien civilization is broadcasting from a relatively nearby planet. But recent scans have turned up nothing, suggesting the blip was a false alarm and nothing more than earthly interference.

In May 2015, astronomers detected a blast of radio waves coming from the direction of HD 164595, a sunlike star about 94 light-years away in the constellation Hercules. The signal, reported online August 27 on the blog Centauri Dreams, lasted just a few seconds and reached a peak power of about 750 millijansky — fairly strong by radio astronomy standards (1 jansky equals 10-26 watts per square meter per hertz). The researchers aren’t claiming that they found E.T., but they are asking other astronomers to monitor the star — home to a planet at least 16 times as massive as Earth — in case the signal repeats.

So far, all is quiet.

Scientists with the SETI Institute, whose mission is to seek out signs of extraterrestrial intelligence, turned the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia toward HD 164595 on August 28 to scan for signals. “There was nothing there,” says Dan Werthimer, a SETI astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley. The original claim, however, “is consistent with someone pushing the button on a CB radio for a couple of seconds.”

Radio telescopes have to contend with interference from the civilization on this planet before picking out transmissions from our galactic neighbors. Earth-based satellites, power lines and cellphones all emit radio waves that can overwhelm cosmic signals. One type of radio chirp whose origin had eluded astronomers for years recently turned out to be coming from microwave ovens, a fact discovered when researchers at the Parkes observatory in Australia who were tracking the signal prematurely opened an oven door without waiting for the ding signal (SN: 5/16/15, p. 5).

“We see strong signals like this all the time,” says Werthimer. With enough information, such as frequency and location, researchers can usually figure out the cause of an incoming signal. But this latest finding, recorded at the RATAN-600 radio observatory near the Caucasus Mountains in Russia, is missing a lot of details that could help astronomers assess its origin. Without precise frequency measurements or statistics on how often the observatory detects comparable events, says Werthimer, it’s hard to tell how unusual this signal is.

The signal was detected around a frequency of 11 gigahertz. That suggests interference from telecommunication devices, says Italian astronomer Claudio Maccone, who was part of the discovery team.  “This is precisely why many countries have to watch the star with different technologies,” he says. “By comparing results, we may be able to find the answer.” The long delay in sharing the results, he says, comes from a reluctance among his Russian colleagues to interact with Western researchers. “They are a closed community,” he says. “It’s an unfortunate circumstance.” The team will present the findings September 27 at a meeting of the International Academy of Astronautics in Guadalajara, Mexico.

If the signal didn’t originate on Earth, there are also plenty of natural cosmic sources. Jean Schneider, an astrophysicist at the Paris Observatory in Meudon, France, contends that a gravitational microlens might be responsible. Gravity from an object, such as a star or planet, can temporarily amplify light — including radio waves — received on Earth from other more distant bodies that the interloper passes in front of. Testing that idea would require meticulously tracking the movement of stars that lie in the direction of the radio signal, says Schneider, and seeing if anything could have lined up on the day of the detection.

The discovery is reminiscent of an infamous — and still unexplained — detection known as the “Wow!” signal, named after what astronomer Jerry Ehman wrote on a printout of the signal. Detected in 1977 at the Big Ear radio telescope in Delaware, Ohio, the Wow! signal was at least 70 times as powerful as the one at RATAN-600, lasted for about 72 seconds and appeared to originate in the constellation Sagittarius. Many ideas have been put forth about the signal’s origin, including comets in our solar system, Earth-orbiting space debris and, of course, extraterrestrials.

If aliens do reside around HD 164595, and they are trying to get our attention, they could do so with precisely aimed transmitters no more powerful than anything on Earth, Werthimer says. But if we eavesdropped on a signal that was blasting in all directions into space, then our neighbors are far more advanced than us; such a device would require tapping into the entire power output of their sun. 

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