A Strange Radio Signal Just From Earth, Not Aliens


Last fall, a Sofia Sheikh’s partner posted a message on her group’s Slack channel, where members of Breakthrough Listening Find the Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) collaboration talk about the radio telescope signals they examine for possible signs of communication from space. Much of what they have analyzed so far has clearly been caused by the interference of Earth radio, artifacts of many human technologies and devices that emit signals in the frequency ranges studied by scientists. But one seems more promising.

The message was posted by a student studying radio telescope data originally taken to monitor the stellar flares emitted by the star Proxima Centauri. He got a strange signal, and the Sheikh did not know what to do with it. “It has a lot of features that we associate with a signal coming from space,” he said. The signal detected near 982 MHz, called “blc1” for “Breakthrough Listen Candidate 1,” intrigued them from the beginning, because it was from a telescope trained by our closest star system. itself, one that can host a habitable world. And it does look narrow in the electromagnetic spectrum, suggesting it was made by technology. but to whom technology?

Working with other astronomers, Sheikh and his team began a series of signal tests — radio waves measured at different frequencies that stand out above more noise, such as soft sound. on a remote radio station, distinguishable from static. They wanted to know if the signal was moving in the way of a celestial object, and they compared it to the radio interference they encountered at other frequencies. And a couple of new study published this week in the journal Natural Astronomy, they published their bad news: This is a false alarm. The excitatory signal did not come from space, but came from Earthling technology, like others.

“This is the best signal we’ve seen in the Breakthrough Listen project,” said Sheikh, an astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley, and lead author of one of the papers. But, he said, their one-year quest to study the mysterious signal and understand its origin “is the most exciting investigation of my career to date,” and has helped scientists develop their tools while they prepare to analyze future signals.

Breakthrough Listen, a research program that began in 2015, uses data from radio telescopes in Australia, West Virginia, and California to listen for potential alien signals from nearby stars as part of an ongoing search for extraterrestrial civilizations. Because it can be competition to take time with a radio telescope, that sometimes involves “piggybacking” on the observations of others, so that they and other astronomers can benefit from the same data.

Proxima Centauri seems to be a good candidate for finding life outside of our solar system. The star is “only” a little over four light years, or about 25 quadrillion miles, away from Earth. That’s up close, from a cosmic perspective, and it’s at transmission distance for a message from intelligent life. In 2016, astronomers confirmed the existence of a planet orbiting the star, ignited the hope that it would be hospitable to foreign life. If and when someone sends a space mission to another star, that’s likely to be its destination. In fact, Breakthrough Starshot aims to create a system to fire a powerful laser beam to push a small spacecraft at high speed to one of the star’s neighbors, Alpha Centauri, to take pictures and send them to house. (Both Breakthrough Listen and Starshot were funded by billionaire and philanthropist Yuri Milner’s Breakthrough Initiatives.)



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