Yesterday, news made the rounds that a team of Russian astronomers had detected an unusually strong signal emanating from a nearby sunlike star—a possible indication of an alien civilization. Here’s what the detection of this signal really means, and why it’s probably not ET.
To quickly recap, scientists using the RATAN-600 radio telescope in the Russian Republic of Karachay-Cherkessia detected an unusual signal emanating from a star, designated HD164595, located about 94 light-years from Earth. The anomalous radio pulse was detected in May of 2015, but the scientists made their discovery public just this week. The researchers, who will discuss their findings at an upcoming meeting of the IAA SETI Permanent Committee, are calling for permanent monitoring of this target.
Exciting, right? Well, yes and no. It’s way too early to tell if this is a signal from a sophisticated alien civilization, or if it’s even a signal at all. But it’s the nature of this particular planetary system that makes the blip in the data so tantalizing.
HD164595 is located less than 100 light-years from Earth, which means it’s practically next door by cosmological standards. If there’s someone there, we could engage in two-way communication with a 188-year turn around time.
This system also features a very sun-like star, in terms of size and chemical composition. It’s a bit older than our sun, so there’s conceivably been more time for an alien civilization to emerge and develop. HD164595 also features a warm Neptune-like planet, which probably isn’t conducive to life (unless its moons are somehow habitable), but this system might host other undiscovered planets, including rocky ones. This region of space is obviously worth checking out.
The strong radio pulse has attracted the attention of the SETI Institute, prompting its scientists to perform their own scan of HD164595 using the Allen Telescope Array. So far, their search has yielded nothing, but SETI hasn’t covered the full range of frequencies in which the signal could be located. And in an effort to be thorough, the METI Institute is also planning to observe the star from an optical SETI observatory in Panama in case aliens are sending us messages through powerful beams of focused light.
But there’s another reason why HD164595 is getting so much attention, and it has to do with the way it was announced to the world. As the SETI Institute’s Jill Tarter explains, it’s because one of the scientists on the team sent around an email with the title, “Candidate SETI Signal Detected”—an email that reached Paul Gilster of Centauri Dreams, who made it public (Gilster did so after confirming that the email was public, and did not disclose private information).
“This process contradicted the common sense protocols that we’ve tried to develop over the years, and was announced without ever seeing the signal again, without any other facility confirming it, or even being asked to try to do so before public announcement,” Tarter told Gizmodo.
Just as strangely, the researchers waited 15 months to share their findings. That’s not just weird, it’s anti-scientific. It would have been wise to alert as many people as possible in hopes of re-detecting and confirming the signal.
Bottom line: this freaky signal is probably not extraterrestrial in origin. Scientists pick up radio pulses like these all the time, but they rarely repeat (an important condition for verification), and they’re often produced by naturally occurring phenomenon, such as solar flares, the microlensing of a background source, an active galactic core, or even a satellite passing by. Last year, Australian researchers traced an unexplained radio signal to a pair of onsite microwave ovens.