Going Viral: Why Alien Signals Get Everyone Excited

So, that ‘strong’ signal from aliens everyone was so excited about this week? Turns out, it was probably something from Earth, maybe a satellite passing overhead or another object of “terrestrial origin,” the Russian researchers have concluded.

Yeah. Dang.

“This supports our initial assumption that the signal was made by human intelligence, not extraterrestrial intelligence,” said Doug Vakoch, President of METI International (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence), a group doing follow-up observations of the star system HD 164595, where the signal was thought to maybe, perhaps originate.

When the news broke of the possible alien signal, SETI scientists were quick to temper the excitement with measured skepticism, saying more often than not, these signals end up being “natural radio transients” (stellar flare, active galactic nucleus, microlensing of a background source, etc.) or interference of a terrestrial nature (a passing satellite or a microwave oven, for example.)

But still, people were excited and the news went viral. Crazy viral.

“Being no stranger to how the media can hype SETI stories, I can sympathize with those at the center of the latest dustup,” said astronomer and SETI researcher Jason Wright from Penn State University. “It’s understandable that many content outlets, seeking ‘clickbait’ headlines, would spin this particular story in the most intriguing, exciting way, and once that happens a ‘bidding war’ of hype can make the story spin out of control.”

But is it all about clickbait? Since I’m part of the media (and admittedly was initially very excited about this story,) I’d like to think that the excitement and viral-tendencies of news about possible alien signals say more about humanity’s fervent hope that we aren’t alone in the cosmos, rather than who can get the most pageviews.

And I do know that researchers who dedicate their careers to the search for alien signals and Earth-like planets aren’t doing so just so they can keep telling us to not get excited. They, too, are hoping for that chance, that very remote possibility, that we’ve got company in our big and magnificent Universe.

“You can’t always be cynical,” said SETI senior astronomer Seth Shostak. “If a signal is looking promising, we are going to check it out.”

And that’s the thing, say the researchers. They get signals like this all the time.

“This is the sort of thing SETI researchers do all the time, because by the nature of the search, radio SETI experiments come across strong signals all the time,” Vakoch said via email. “At the end of the day, these need to be confirmed as coming from distant locations in space, and if we can’t, we need to consider them spurious. The unusual feature of HD 164595 is that this process of checking is being followed by the media.”

And while scientists were surprised (and maybe annoyed) at the amount of attention the ‘alien signal’ news got this week, there is an upside.

“The silver living here is that those who read the more responsible stories carefully will learn a lot about how SETI works,” Wright told Universe Today, “that communication SETI researchers see “one-off” signals all the time from both astronomical and terrestrial sources, in addition to perhaps the occasional instrumental glitch. Searches using arrays (like the ATA) have an automatic check against many of these, but in any event no one will be popping the champaign until a signal repeats enough for an independent telescope and instrument to detect it, and its intelligent origin is clear.”

“The public is getting an inside view of the usual process of following up interesting SETI candidates,” said Vakoch. “This helps the public understand the standard process of doing SETI: we find interesting signals, and then we see if we can verify them. If not, we move on.”

Vakoch and Wright said that the confirmation process, however, involves a lot of steps, and it’s not always easy or quick to follow-up. So, most of the time, determining the source of the signal takes time.

“Unlike Hollywood movies, where you get a quick “yes or no” about a possible signal from aliens,” Vakoch explained, “the real SETI confirmation process takes some time. It’s easy to think that all we need to do is get on the phone with an astronomer at another location, and we’re all set. But even when colleagues at other facilities are willing to observe, they may face technical limitations.”

The Allen Telescope Array (ATA).  Credit: Seth Shostak / SETI Institute
The Allen Telescope Array (ATA). Credit: Seth Shostak / SETI Institute

Typical radio SETI searches look for narrowband signals, and most observatories aren’t set up to detect such signals on short notice. And even though radio observatories can make observations even when it’s cloudy, there can be other types of local interference at certain radio frequencies.

“If you need to do a real-time follow-up of a promising SETI signal, you might face significant roadblocks to a ready confirmation – even if the signal is really there,” Vakoch said.

Another upside of the recent media attention is that SETI researchers can let everyone know they aren’t getting much funding for this type of research, and the search could really use a lot more eyes and ears on the Universe, as Jill Tartar tweeted:

“It’s all the more evident that we need to replicate these innovative optical SETI systems over and over,”Vakoch said, “so we can have a global network of modest-sized observatories ready for follow-up of promising SETI signals. Developing such a network is one of METI International’s top priorities as an organization.”

(You can support SETI here and find out more about METI and optical SETI here.)

Wright said while the public interest in SETI is great, sometimes the media (or the tin foil hat crowd or conspiracy theorists) can blow things out of proportion.

“This can make it hard for anyone doing SETI to talk about their work, because any mention of ‘strange’ or ‘candidate’ signals has the potential to enter that echo chamber,” he said.

Which can go viral.

But if anyone is worried that SETI researchers are keeping secrets or not telling the whole story, I can personally vouch that during this week, absolutely every SETI researcher I contacted answered all my questions in an extremely timely manner (and provided even more information than I was expecting) plus, other researchers contacted me, asking to be able to explain the signal and the process of how SETI works.

“Nothing would make us more excited than to verify it,” said Bill Diamond, president and CEO of SETI, “But we have to observe it and look at the data.”

Further reading:

Statement from Russian researchers about followup observations revealing the signal to be ‘terrestrial in origin’

TASS news story about signal

“Let’s Be Careful About This SETI Signal” by Franck Marchis

“No, we almost certainly did not detect an alien signal from a nearby star” by Phil Plait

SETI is Hopeful Yet Skeptical that Russians Found Aliens by Dean Takahashi

“That Alien Signal? Observations Are Coming Up Empty” by Nadia Drake

Aliens? “Strong” Signal Detected From Sun-Like Star Being Verified By SETI

We’re not saying its aliens, but this could be the most enticing SETI-related signal from space since the famous “Wow! Signal” in 1977.

Over the weekend, interstellar expert Paul Gilster broke the news that “a strong signal” was detected by Russian radio astronomers from the region around the star HD 164595. This signal has attracted enough attention that two prominent SETI observatories are quickly making follow-up observations. Alan Boyle reports in Geekwire that the Allen Telescope Array in California has already been observing the star system and the Boquete Optical SETI Observatory in Panama will make an attempt this evening, if the weather is clear.

Doug Vakoch, the President of METI International (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence) told Universe Today via email that the Allen Telescope Array has already completed its initial reconnaissance of HD 164595, “with no indications of alien technologies at radio frequencies.”

“The first step in following up a putative SETI signal is to look at the same frequency where it was first detected,” Vakoch said, and with the nil detection from the ATA, “now it’s time to search other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum.”

Vakoch said METI International will be observing HD 164595 for brief laser pulses from the Boquete Optical SETI Observatory in Panama as soon as weather permits.

“It looks like the Boquete Observatory will be hit by heavy thundershowers late this afternoon and into this evening,” he said, “so we’ll likely need to wait to observe until another night. Once the evening sky is clear in Boquete, we’ll have about an hour to observe in the direction of the constellation Hercules shortly after sunset.”

The signal from HD 164595 was originally detected on May 15, 2015, by the Russian Academy of Science-operated RATAN-600 radio telescope in Zelenchukskaya, Russia. It is located about 95 light years from Earth in the constellation Hercules. The signal had a wavelength of 2.7 cm, with an estimated amplitude of 750 mJy.

Gilster wrote on his Centauri Dreams website that the researchers have worked out the strength of the signal and that if “it came from an isotropic beacon, it would be of a power possible only for a Kardashev Type II civilization,” which means a civilization capable of harnessing the energy of the entire star, and developing something like a Dyson sphere surrounding the star, and transfer all the energy to the planet.

Freeman Dyson theorized that eventually, a civilization would be able to build a megastructure around its star to capture all its energy. Credit: SentientDevelopments.com
Freeman Dyson theorized that eventually, a civilization would be able to build a megastructure around its star to capture all its energy. Credit: SentientDevelopments.com

If the beam was narrow and sent directly to our Solar System, the researchers say it would be of a power available to a Kardashev Type I civilization, a type of civilization more advanced than us that is able to harness the full amount of solar power it receives from its star.

Of course, like any other signal, such as the recent study of the dimming light curve of KIC 8462852 (Tabby’s Star) that is still being researched, it is possible the signal comes from other “natural” events such microlensing of a background source or even comets as been proposed for both Tabby’s Star or the “Wow! Signal.”

The SETI website explains that narrow-band signals – ones that are only a few Hertz wide or less – are the mark of a purposely built transmitter. “Natural cosmic noisemakers, such as pulsars, quasars, and the turbulent, thin interstellar gas of our own Milky Way, do not make radio signals that are this narrow. The static from these objects is spread all across the dial.”

And so Gilster said “the signal is provocative enough that the RATAN-600 researchers are calling for permanent monitoring of this target.” You can see a graph of the signal on Centauri Dreams.

Update: A member of the [email protected] team posted a note online that they were “unimpressed” with the paper from the Russian radio astronomers. “Because the receivers used were making broad band measurements, there’s really nothing about this “signal” that would distinguish it from a natural radio transient (stellar flare, active galactic nucleus, microlensing of a background source, etc.) There’s also nothing that could distinguish it from a satellite passing through the telescope field of view. All in all, it’s relatively uninteresting from a SETI standpoint.”

So, this detection might not be as exciting as originally reported. Also SETI senior astronomer Seth Shostak has now weighed in on the topic, also with measured skepticism on the excitement, with a post about this event on the SETI website.

What has probably fueled interest in this signal is the striking similarities between the star and our Sun. HD 164595 is a star just a tad smaller than our Sun (0.99 solar masses), with the exact same metallicity. The age of the star has been estimated at 6.3 billion years it is already known to have at least one planet, HD 164595 b, a Neptune-sized world that orbits the star every 40 days. And as we’ve seen with data from the Kepler spacecraft, with the detection of one planet comes the very high probability that more planets could orbit this star.

The signal has been traveling for 95 years, so it “occurred” (or was sent) in 1920 on Earth calendars. (There is a good discussion of this in the comment section on Gilster’s article.)

Why the Russian team has only made this detection public now is unclear and it may have only come out now because the team wrote a paper to be discussed at an upcoming SETI committee meeting during the 67th International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, on Tuesday, September 27.

As Gilster wrote, “No one is claiming that this is the work of an extraterrestrial civilization, but it is certainly worth further study.”

Sources: Centauri Dreams, Alan Boyle on Geekwire, SETI