SETI Signal Likely False Alarm, Everyone Calm Down!
Signals in the 11-Ghz-range detected by the RATAN-500 radio telescope in Russia sparked a SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) frenzy yesterday. Media outlets around the world reported potential SETI signal stories. Can you blame them? After all, the first genuine detection of life beyond Earth would arguably be the biggest discovery in modern history.
Yet, all signs are already pointing to Earth-born signals being the cause. Though not yet confirmed entirely, it appears that no Orson Welles War of the Worlds style reaction is necessary.
How was the SETI signal first noticed?
When Russian telescopes first detected the unusually high frequency signals in this particular band, they were flagged for further investigation. This detection occurred back in May of 2015, apparently coming from planet-harboring star HD 164595, 94 light-years away.
Now, more recently, fanatical SETI blog Centauri Dreams got wind of the detection and broke the story. From there, the it began spreading like wildfire, becoming increasingly jumbled along the way. It was not unlike the infamous “telephone” game in which children pass a whispered message from person-to-person, only to find entertainment in how misconstrued the message gets by the time it reaches the final recipient.
When investigating unidentified signals, a crucial step is to conduct follow-up detections. This procedure helps to confirm or deny whether a signal was, in fact, alien-made. Unfortunately, no follow-up detections were conducted by astronomers using the telescopes, or any other SETI based group. This leaves scientists and researchers with little, or no capabilities of confirmation.
“If they can’t find it again, and if we [at SETI] can’t find it, all we can say is, ‘Gosh, I wonder what it was,” says Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute in California.
Why it was probably not a SETI signal
Further investigation by Russian astronomers indicates that the signal likely came from Russian military satellites. Actually, similar military technologies have been responsible for false alarm SETI reports in previous years.
Since the 1950s, possibly earlier, SETI signal searches have turned up similar false positives. Without follow-up investigations, these unidentified signals have left researchers puzzled, sometimes for decades. But, through logical deductions, it is typically determined that signals likely came from something on, or around Earth.
SETI signal fever: the good, the bad
SETI enthusiasts, particularly amateurs, tend to overemphasize and embellish even slightly unusual signal detections. However, even professionals, like the SETI Institute feel that any lead is worth perusing.
“You’ve seen so many false alarms that you think ‘it’s probably a false alarm,’ but with that kind of attitude you’ll never find anything,” mentioned Shostak.
After all, we have not yet communicated with extraterrestrial life, and therefore have no basis for comparison. To not follow through on even remotely promising leads would be a failure in our search of life outside of Earth. However, curbing our overly-eager minds may not be a bad thing moving forward. Though, if the past is any indication, this is not likely to happen. If anything, the vast and rapid reach of technology will only make this worse.
Where does the SETI signal search go from here?
As researchers from all over the globe debate the likelihood, or lack thereof, of SETI signals’ sincerity, the search wages on. And, it will likely do so for decades, if not centuries. While scientific research seems to be pointing moderately towards negative results, hypothetical analysis is tending to lean towards a maybe type of outlook. This does not necessarily negate either school of thought.
After all, we must remember the historical timelines of so many scientific discoveries throughout past decades. Several brilliant minds argued over whether light was a particle or a wave, only to find later that it is actually both!
This particular go-around seems to indicate that E.T. fanatics may have to continue exercising patience. But, only time and further research will let us know for sure.