We’ll know for sure on September 27, but the bad news for alien hunters is that the powerful signal detected by Russian researchers last year is highly unlikely to have come from another civilisation 94 light years away.
“An international team of researchers has announced the detection of ‘a strong signal in the direction of HD164595′,” book author Paul Gilster wrote at his blog Centauri Dreams.
He was reporting an admission of sorts from a Russian team at radio telescope RATAN-600 that it detected this a year ago and was “too shy” to say anything about it:
If you’re wondering, that’s an almost off-the-chart surge which the Russian team says it picked up when the telescope was aimed at the star HD 164595, located some 94 light years away in the constellation Hercules.
Astronomers have in the past also found a Neptune-like planet orbiting the distant star, called HD 164595 b, adding to the kind of excitement amateur observers experienced back in 1977 when the Big Ear telescope in Ohio picked up what became known as the “Wow!” signal.
That’s because the astronomer who saw the anomaly on the printout immediately scribbled this on it:
There’s been plenty of theories explaining the Wow! signal, but nothing conclusive. The main argument against it being an alien transmission is nobody has ever been able to pick up a repeat transmission.
So far, that’s exactly the case with the RATTAN signal. If it was a transmission, it would have to be massive – using “a little more (energy) than all of humanity uses at any moment”, according to Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute.
Obviously SETI – the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence – had to get involved. But after spending all night manning the Allen Telescope Array (ATA), they’ve found nothing.
Even an official at the Russian Academy of Science has come forward to say “processing and analysis of the signal revealed its most probable terrestrial origin”.
In other words:
Official word on the SETI signal: it was us.https://t.co/UvTjPiSIBP
— Henry Alwyn Wootten (@awootten) August 31, 2016
And that’s not surprising, says one of the world’s foremost experts in the search for extraterrestrial life.
Astronomer Duncan Steel is, among other positions, a visiting Professor of Astrobiology at the University of Buckingham in England. He’s worked with NASA on comets and investigating ways to avert asteroid collisions, something he knows a thing or two about, having discovered the main-belt asteroid 9767 Midsomer Norton and 11 minor planets.
Asteroid 4713 Steel is named after him, which is nearly as kudos-worthy as Arthur C Clarke naming a robot – Robot Steel – after him in “The Hammer of God”.
And while Professor Steel’s specialty is searching for biological signs of alien life, he says radio signals are “easy” to investigate. And the fact that even the Russian team which detected the signal hasn’t been able to find it again is an excellent reason to scratch “aliens” from the board.
Here’s what he’s says are seven far more likely reasons for the energy burst:
(1) It was some form of glitch in the Russian equipment and no actual signal ever existed
(2) It was from some local source near the radio equipment that happened to scan across their bandwidth
(3) It was emitted by an Earth-orbiting satellite that passed through the beam
(4) It was a chance, brief reflection of a terrestrial signal from an Earth-orbiting satellite that passed through the beam
(5) It was some form of transient natural emission from the star system in question
(6) It was a result of some temporary alignment (e.g. gravitational focussing by the star as it appeared to pass in front of a distant galaxy, the movement being due either to the star’s motion in space, or perhaps Earth’s motion around the Sun with the Sun also moving [much faster] through space).
(7) An unknown astrophysical phenomenon (remember that pulsars were unsuspected until strong repeating pulses were discovered in the 1967.)
Which is not to say we won’t find out something juicy when the team presents its findings on September 27.
Steel says SETI would love the signal to be genuinely ET in origin, as it “(a) It would give them something to study” and “(b) It would guarantee their future funding (and therefore jobs)”.
But the response so far from all scientific circles has been “measured and appropriate”, he says.
“They know that this claimed ET signal detection will most likely (indeed, almost certainly) fail the tests of scrutiny that will be applied to it, and they will need to continue looking elsewhere.”
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