Astronomers at the Arecibo Observatory have picked up some strange signals coming from Ross 128, a red dwarf star located 11 light-years from Earth. Naturally, the inability of scientists to immediately explain the anomalous signals has led to rampant speculation that aliens must somehow be involved.
Artist's depiction of a red dwarf sprouting a solar flare. This could very well be the source of what the UPR astronomers detected at Aricebo. (Image: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/S. Wiessinger)
Indeed, it's pretty amazing what happens these days when astronomers admit to finding something they can't quite understand. You get headlines ranging from Aliens calling? Scientists Detect 'Peculiar' Signals From Nearby Star (DW News) to Aliens Could Be Behind 'Peculiar' Radio Signals From Nearby Star (Daily Caller), and so on ad nauseum. The whole thing brings the recent "alien megastructure" fiasco to mind. Apparently, this is what happens now when scientists discover new stuff in space that they can't explain.
The science world is all in a tizzy this week about the supposed discovery of an alien megastructure. It's an intriguing theory, no doubt, but one deserving hefty amounts of scepticism. As we've learned before, inexplicable observations are all too often confused for aliens. Here are some classic examples.
"Two weeks after [our] observations, we realised that there were some very peculiar signals in the 10-minute dynamic spectrum that we obtained from Ross 128 (GJ 447), observed May 12," wrote astronomer Abel Mendez.
Mendez says he doesn't know the origin of these strange signals, which are relatively strong and quasi-periodic in nature, but he says there are three likely explanations. The signals could be produced by solar flares on Ross 128, they could be produced by some other object in the area being scanned, or these signals could be coming from one of our satellites in a high orbit.
"Each of the possible explanations has their own problems," wrote Mendez. "Therefore we have a mystery here and the three main explanations are as good as any at this moment."
To which he added: "The recurrent aliens hypothesis is at the bottom of many other better explanations."
In an email to Gizmodo, Mendez elaborated on why it probably isn't aliens. "Everybody focused on Ross 128 and aliens," he said, but the "mystery here is that we can't tell apart the source of the signals, either astronomical or terrestrial [i.e. something caused by humans or the local environment] in nature, not if they were produced by alien civilizations. Both sources have their own problems explaining the signals. I choose terrestrial if I need to make a choice, but I would also need to prove that."
Image: University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo
Andrew Siemion, Director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center, says the most likely explanation for the emission seen in the Arecibo work is interference, or a combination of external interference and instrumental effects.
"This explanation might include emission from a nearby natural source, like the Sun," Siemion told Gizmodo. "The second most likely explanation is that it is in fact natural radio emission from the star itself, which we certainly might expect because of the well-known optical flare activity seen in the star. This is, in fact, what the UPR group was looking for when they observed the star."
Siemion says more observations, including those made from other observatories, should clear things up.
This past weekend, Mendez and his team made fresh observations of Ross 128, and the results are expected shortly. Hopefully the new data will clear things up. Until then, we should all just cool it on the whole aliens thing.