Strange Radio Signals Detected from a Nearby Star

Astronomers have been listening to radio waves from space for decades. In addition to being a proven means of studying stars, galaxies, quasars and other celestial objects, radio astronomy is one of the main ways in which scientists have searched for signs of extra-terrestrial intelligence (ETI). And while nothing definitive has been found to date, there have been a number of incidents that have raised hopes of finding an “alien signal”.

In the most recent case, scientists from the Arecido Observatory recently announced the detection of a strange radio signal coming from Ross 128 – a red dwarf star system located just 11 light-years from Earth. As always, this has fueled speculation that the signal could be evidence of an extra-terrestrial civilization, while the scientific community has urged the public not to get their hopes up.

The discovery was part of a campaign being conducted by Abel Méndez – the director of the Planetary Habitability Laboratory (PHL) in Peurto Rico – and Jorge Zuluaga of the Faculty of Exact and Natural Sciences at the University of Antioquia, Colombia. Inspired by the recent discoveries around Proxima Centauri and TRAPPIST-1, the GJ 436 campaign relied on data from Arecibo Observatory to look for signs of exoplanets around nearby red dwarf stars.

Arecibo Observatory, the world’s biggest single dish radio telescope, was and is still being used to image comet 45P/H-M-P. Courtesy of the NAIC – Arecibo Observatory, a facility of the NSF

In the course of looking at data from stars systems like Gliese 436, Ross 128, Wolf 359, HD 95735, BD +202465, V* RY Sex, and K2-18 – which was gathered between April and May of 2017 – they noticed something rather interesting. Basically, the data indicated that an unexplained radio signal was coming from Ross 128. As Dr. Abel Mendez described in a blog post on the PHL website: 

“Two weeks after these observations, we realized that there were some very peculiar signals in the 10-minute dynamic spectrum that we obtained from Ross 128 (GJ 447), observed May 12 at 8:53 PM AST (2017/05/13 00:53:55 UTC). The signals consisted of broadband quasi-periodic non-polarized pulses with very strong dispersion-like features. We believe that the signals are not local radio frequency interferences (RFI) since they are unique to Ross 128 and observations of other stars immediately before and after did not show anything similar.”

After first noticing this signal on Saturday, May 13th at 8:53 p.m., scientists from the Arecibo Observatory and astronomers from the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute teamed up to conduct a follow-up study of the star. This was performed on Sunday, July 16th, using SETI’s Allen Telescope Array and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory‘s (NRAO) Green Bank Telescope.

They also conducted observations of Barnard’s star on that same day to see if they could note similar behavior coming from this star system. This was done in collaboration with the Red Dots project, a European Southern Observatory (ESO) campaign that is also committed to finding exoplanets around red dwarf stars. This program is the successor to the ESO’s Pale Red Dot campaign, which was responsible for discovering Proxima b last summer.

Images of the star systems examined by the GJ 436 Campaign. Credit: PHL/Abel Méndez 

As of Monday night (July 17th), Méndez updated his PHL blog post to announced that with the help of SETI Berkeley with the Green Bank Telescope, that they had successfully observed Ross 128 for the second time. The data from these observatories is currently being collected and processed, and the results are expected to be announced by the end of the week.

In the meantime, scientists have come up with several possible explanations for what might be causing the signal. As Méndez indicated, there are three major possibilities that he and his colleagues are considering:

“[T]hey could be (1) emissions from Ross 128 similar to Type II solar flares, (2) emissions from another object in the field of view of Ross 128, or just (3) burst from a high orbit satellite since low orbit satellites are quick to move out of the field of view. The signals are probably too dim for other radio telescopes in the world and FAST is currently under calibration.”

Unfortunately, each of these possibilities have their own drawbacks. In the case of a Type II solar flare, these are known to occur at much lower frequencies, and the dispersion of this signal appears to be inconsistent with this kind of activity. In the case of it possibly coming from another object, no objects (planets or satellites) have been detected within Ross 128’s field of view to date, thus making this unlikely as well.

The stars currently being examined as part of the GJ 436 campaign. Credit: PHL/Abel Méndez

Hence, the team has something of a mystery on their hands, and hopes that further observations will allow them to place further constrains on what the cause of the signal could be. “[W]e might clarify soon the nature of its radio emissions, but there are no guarantees,” wrote Méndez. “Results from our observations will be presented later that week. I have a Piña Colada ready to celebrate if the signals result to be astronomical in nature.”

And just to be fair, Méndez also addressed the possibility that the signal could be artificial in nature – i.e. evidence of an alien civilization. “In case you are wondering,” he wrote, “the recurrent aliens hypothesis is at the bottom of many other better explanations.” Sorry, alien-hunters. Like the rest of us, you’ll just have to wait and see what can be made of this signal.

Further Reading: AFP, PHL

Potentially Habitable Exoplanet Confirmed Around Nearest Star!

For years, astronomers have been observing Proxima Centauri, hoping to see if this red dwarf has a planet or system of planets around it. As the closest stellar neighbor to our Solar System, a planet here would also be our closest planetary neighbor, which would present unique opportunities for research and exploration.

So there was much excitement when, earlier this month, an unnamed source claimed that the ESO had spotted an Earth-sized planet orbiting within the star’s habitable zone. And after weeks of speculation, with anticipation reaching its boiling point, the ESO has confirmed that they have found a rocky exoplanet around Proxima Centauri – known as Proxima b.

Located just 4.25 light years from our Solar System, Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf star that is often considered to be part of a trinary star system – with Alpha Centauri A and B. For some time, astronomers at the ESO have been observing Proxima Centauri, primary with telescopes at the La Silla Observatory in Chile.

Their interest in this star was partly due to recent research that has shown how other red dwarf stars have planets orbiting them. These include, but are not limited to, TRAPPIST-1, which was shown to have three exoplanets with sizes similar to Earth last year; and Gliese 581, which was shown to have at least three exoplanets in 2007.

The ESO also confirmed that the planet is potentially terrestrial in nature (i.e. rocky), similar in size and mass to Earth, and orbits its star with an orbital period of 11 days. But best of all are the indications that surface temperatures and conditions are likely suitable for the existence of liquid water.

It’s discovery was thanks to the Pale Red Dot campaign, a name which reflects Carl Sagan’s famous reference to the Earth as a “pale blue dot”. As part of this campaign, a team of astronomers led by Guillem Anglada-Escudé – from Queen Mary University of London – have been observing Proxima Centauri for signs of wobble (i.e. the Radial Velocity Method).

After combing the Pale Red Dot data with earlier observations made by the ESO and other observatories, they noted that Proxima Centauri was indeed moving. With a regular period of 11.2 days, the star would vary between approaching Earth at a speed of 5 km an hour (3.1 mph), and then receding from Earth at the same speed.

Artist’s impression of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri. The double star Alpha Centauri AB is visible to the upper right of Proxima itself. Credit: ESO
Artist’s impression of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri. The double star Alpha Centauri AB is visible to the upper right of Proxima itself. Credit: ESO

This was certainly an exciting result, as it indicated a change in the star’s radial velocity that was consistent with the existence of a planet. Further analysis showed that the planet had a mass at least 1.3 times that of Earth, and that it orbited the star at a distance of about 7 million km (4.35 million mi) – only 5% of the Earth’s distance from the Sun.

The discovery of the planet was made possible by the La Silla’s regular observation of the star, which took place star  between mid-January and April of 2016, using the 3.6-meter telescope‘s HARPS spectrograph. Other telescopes around the world conducted simultaneous observation in order to confirm the results.

One such observatory was the San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations Observatory in Chile, which relied on its ASH2 telescope to monitor the changing brightness of the star during the campaign. This was essential, as red dwarfs like Proxima Centauri are active stars, and can vary in ways that would mimic the presence of the planet.

Guillem Anglada-Escudé described the excitement of the past few months in an ESO press release:

“I kept checking the consistency of the signal every single day during the 60 nights of the Pale Red Dot campaign. The first 10 were promising, the first 20 were consistent with expectations, and at 30 days the result was pretty much definitive, so we started drafting the paper!”

This infographic compares the orbit of the planet around Proxima Centauri (Proxima b) with the same region of the Solar System. Proxima Centauri is smaller and cooler than the Sun and the planet orbits much closer to its star than Mercury. As a result it lies well within the habitable zone, where liquid water can exist on the planet’s surface.
Infographic comparing the orbit of the planet around Proxima Centauri (Proxima b) with the same region of the Solar System. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/G. Coleman

Two separate papers discuss the habitability of Proxima b and its climate, both of which will be appearing soon on the Institute of Space Sciences (ICE) website. These papers describe the research team’s findings and outline their conclusions on how the existence of liquid water cannot be ruled out, and discuss where it is likely to be distributed.

Though there has been plenty of excitement thanks to words like “Earth-like”, “habitable zone”, and “liquid water” being thrown around, some clarifications need to be made. For instance, Proxima b’s rotation, the strong radiation it receives from its star, and its formation history mean that its climate is sure to be very different from Earth’s.

For instance, as is indicated in the two papers, Proxima b is not likely to have seasons, and water may only be present in the sunniest regions of the planet. Where those sunny regions are located depends entirely on the planet’s rotation. If, for example, it has a synchronous rotation with its star, water will only be present on the sun-facing side. If it has a 3:2 resoncance rotation, then water is likely to exist only in the planet’s tropical belt.

In any case, the discovery of this planet will open the door to further observations, using both existing instruments and the next-generation of space telescopes. And as Anglada-Escudé states, Proxima Centauri is also likely to become the focal point in the search for extra-terrestrial life in the coming years.

This picture combines a view of the southern skies over the ESO 3.6-metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile with images of the stars Proxima Centauri (lower-right) and the double star Alpha Centauri AB (lower-left) from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Proxima Centauri is the closest star to the Solar System and is orbited by the planet Proxima b, which was discovered using the HARPS instrument on the ESO 3.6-metre telescope.
A view of the southern skies over the ESO 3.6-metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile, showing the location of Proxima Centauri in the sky. Credit: Y. Beletsky (LCO)/ESO/ESA/NASA/M. Zamani

“Many exoplanets have been found and many more will be found, but searching for the closest potential Earth-analogue and succeeding has been the experience of a lifetime for all of us,” he said. “Many people’s stories and efforts have converged on this discovery. The result is also a tribute to all of them. The search for life on Proxima b comes next…”

As we noted in a previous article on the subject, Project Starshot is currently developing a nanocraft that will use a laser-driven sail to make the journey to Alpha Centauri in 20 years time. But a mission to Proxima Centuari would take even less time (19.45 years at the same speed), and could study this newly-found exoplanet up-close.

One can only hope they are planning on altering their destination to take advantage of this discovery. And one can only imagine what they might find if and when they get to Proxima b!

A paper describing this milestone finding will be published in the journal Nature on August 25th, 2016, titled “A terrestrial planet candidate in a temperate orbit around Proxima Centauri“.

Further Reading: ESO