Space & Innovation

No, That 'Interesting' SETI Signal Wasn't Aliens

Well that was quick. On Monday, speculation was rife that a signal from an alien civilization had been detected coming from a star system 94 light-years away. Today, we're coming to terms with the fact that the 11.1 GHz radio signal was actually produced by a Soviet era satellite.

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In a statement from the Special Astrophysical Observatory of the Russian Academy of Sciences on Wednesday, astronomer Yulia Sotnikova said that "an interesting radio signal at a wavelength of 2.7 cm was detected" but "subsequent processing and analysis of the signal revealed its most probable terrestrial origin."

Bummer.

The strong radio burst was detected on May 15, 2015, by the RATAN-600 radio telescope in Zelenchukskaya, Russia, and reports of a document describing the "interesting" signal from the star system HD164595 appeared on the website Centauri Dreams. Although speculation as to the possible extraterrestrial intelligence implications was on everyone's minds, no one thought aliens were a high probability, only that it was worth further study.

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A discussion was planned during a special SETI meeting at the 67th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Guadalajara, Mexico, in September.

Of course, the mere hint of discovering a candidate signal from an advanced extraterrestrial civilization was enough to work some mainstream media outlets into a frenzy while science journalists tried to inject some sanity into the proceedings, pointing out that the signal was overwhelmingly likely to be terrestrial in origin. But aliens remained the narrative and aliens kept hogging the headlines. It's a fundamental law of space journalism: even if alien life is just a remote possibility, alien life will become the story.

The problem with the speculative science of SETI is that there is a high probability of false positives. Strong signals are detected, but we live on a planet drenched in radio waves. To complicate matters, our planet is surrounded by satellites also blasting transmissions of various wavelengths back at our planet. It's a complex task to take a suspect SETI signal, analyze it and identify exactly what may have caused it.

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And as the May 2015 signal hadn't even moved beyond the analysis phase, it's likely that the radio astronomers who found the signal were overtaken by its rumored existence and subsequent heavy media coverage.

Now it seems cold water has been thrown over the origin of the signal and Sotnikova emphasized the RATAN-600 radio telescope has yet to find any candidate SETI signals: "It can be said with confidence that no sought-for signal has been detected yet."

So what was it?

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"We, indeed, discovered an unusual signal," Alexander Ipatov, Director of the Institute of Applied Astronomy at the Russian Academy of Sciences, told the Russian news organization TASS. "However, an additional check showed that it was emanating from a Soviet military satellite, which had not been entered into any of the catalogs of celestial bodies."

"One can easily get kind of cynical about these things -- 'Oh, man, another one of these false alarms,'" SETI Institute senior astronomer Seth Shostak told SPACE.com. "You have to guard against that, because, in this business, there are going to be a lot of false alarms."

Although this short saga of rumored aliens concluded with an errant radio signal from an old military satellite, the search for extraterrestrial intelligences continues and, besides, we still have the weirdness of Tabby's Star to keep the alien speculation alive and well.