In May 2015, N. N. Bursov at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Special Astrophysical Observatory in Zelenchukskaya, Russia, was gazing at his instruments when he spotted something extraordinary. There was a spike on his radiograph. But not just any spike – this was a big one, much bigger than anything he and his team had seen before.
The astronomer was using the RATAN-600: the largest radio telescope of its kind at nearly 2,000 feet in diameter. Surprisingly, though, the team sat on their discovery for a year while they tried to figure out what to do. This flaunted international protocol.
Finally, then, on the afternoon of August 26, 2016, the rest of the international astronomy community learned about what the Russian Observatory had found. “We were taken aback. It was certainly a surprise,” Dr. Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Centern said to the MailOnline.
So what exactly had the Russians seen? The spike in radio signals came from HD 164595, which is a star 95 light years away. Astronomers already know that there is at least one planet, a kind of “warm neptune,” orbiting that star – but there may be others as well.
Interestingly, HD 164595 is very similar to our own sun. In fact, it is only slightly hotter than ours and is also about the same age. Relatively speaking, that is, as our sun is around 100 million years older than HD 164595.
Naturally, then, astronomers are now trying to figure out what exactly the signal means. For obvious reasons, most are holding onto the conservative possibility that it’s a completely natural occurrence: something has happened out there, and we’re picking up the impact over the radio.
For example, sometimes planets and stars, when lined up correctly, can magnify radio signals – the same way a magnifying glass strengthens light as it passes through it. So it wouldn’t be unheard of for a typically weak signal to get strengthened and look like it was abnormal by the time it reached Earth.
A second, potentially disappointing, possibility is that the signal actually comes from Earth. Crazy as it might sound, someone tinkering with a short wave radio in their basement, a plane going overhead or a solar flare could emit a signal that gets bounced around our atmosphere and redirected back to the ground. The RATAN-600 is vulnerable to these mistakes, though they are rare: a chance of about one in 5,000.
Then there’s a third, and spectacular, possibility. In his report on the phenomenon, writer Paul Gilster posts that the data could indicate a “bonafide signal from an advanced technology from a distant star.”
If that was the case, then, we could be hearing aliens! After all, scientists aren’t shy about their search for civilizations technologically advanced enough to send out messages that we can receive.
These aliens wouldn’t have to be too advanced to do that, either. “If it were a narrow beam signal focused on our solar system, it would be of a power available to a Kardashev Type I civilization,” Glister said. This is a reference to a system of measuring technology that was invented back in the 1960s.
Supposedly, then, a type 1 civilization could harness the power of its nearest star. And, in this case, that would probably be HD 164595, if the source of the signal did in fact come from that direction.
Humans, however, are not as advanced as a Type 1 yet – although it’s expected that we’ll get there in the next 100 or 200 years. Type 2 and Type 3 civilizations are even more advanced, with the theoretical capability to completely harness the power of a star, perhaps even encasing it in an engine.
Of course, finding out the answer to these questions is difficult. Since the news about the spike was released to the scientific community, for instance, other attempts using specialized telescopes have failed to find the signal again.
At the forefront of this new investigation is the Breakthrough Listen project. In fact, the team in charge is using the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia. In addition, colossal observatory arrays are also being used in California and Panama.
So far, no one has managed to come up with much, but the search continues. “The short answer is we have no way of knowing [what caused the Russian spike],” says Dr. Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Research Center.
“[Alien signals] would be an incredible discovery in the history of humanity… But as it stands now we only know of one example of life anywhere in the universe, and as scientists we have to be skeptical and rule out every other possibility,” Dr. Siemion added.
So, essentially, it would be incredibly exciting if it was alien life communicating with us, but no one on this planet can say one way or the other if that is indeed the case. For their part, the Russian scientists want “permanent monitoring” of the curious phenomena. Other scientists, meanwhile, fear it may have been one of the rare errant signals that can mess with the data, get everyone’s hopes up, but in the end mean nothing.
Still, be careful what you wish for. Stephen Hawking, the famous physicist, has warned that we should tread carefully before contacting suspected alien civilizations. He said, “If aliens visit us, the outcome could be much like when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.”
Of course, that threat never deters anyone in science fiction movies. After all, we are, arguably, a species of curious and hopeful humans and learning about a world beyond ours would be incredible. But for now, it looks like we still have a long wait ahead of us, as this strange signal is unlikely to lead us to anything soon.