“It’s the most interesting signal from SETI@home,” says Dan Werthimer, a radio astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley (UCB) and the chief scientist for SETI@home. His team is NOT exceptionally impressed. “We’re not jumping up and down, but we are continuing to observe it.”
In February 2003, astronomers involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) pointed the massive radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, at around 200 sections of the sky.
The same telescope had previously detected unexplained radio signals at least twice from each of these regions, and the astronomers were trying to reconfirm the findings. The team has now finished analysing the data, and all the signals seem to have disappeared.
This radio signal, now seen on three separate occasions, is an enigma. It could also be generated by a previously unknown astronomical phenomenon. Or it could be something much more mundane, maybe an artefact of the telescope itself.
It’s also the best candidate yet for alien contact since the infamous “Wow” signal, say scientists.
SETI@home has been operating for 6 years, using programs running as screensavers on millions of personal computers worldwide to sift through signals picked up by the Arecibo telescope.
Named SHGb02+14a, the signal has a frequency of about 1420 megahertz. This happens to be one of the main frequencies at which hydrogen, the most common element in the universe, readily absorbs and emits energy.
Some astronomers have argued that extraterrestrials trying to advertise their presence would be likely to transmit at this frequency, and SETI researchers conventionally scan this part of the radio spectrum.
SHGb02+14a seems to be coming from a point between the constellations Pisces and Aries, where there is no obvious star or planetary system within 1000 light years. “We are looking for something that screams out ‘artificial’,” says UCB researcher Eric Korpela, who completed the analysis of the signal in April. “This just doesn’t do that, but it could be because it is distant.”
The telescope has only observed the signal for about a minute in total, which is not long enough for astronomers to analyse it thoroughly. But, Korpela thinks it unlikely SHGb02+14a is the result of any obvious radio interference or noise, and it does not bear the signature of any known astronomical object.
That does not mean that only aliens could have produced it. “It may be a natural phenomenon of a previously undreamed-of kind like I stumbled over,” says Jocelyn Bell Burnell of the University of Bath, UK.
It was Bell Burnell who in 1967 noticed a pulsed radio signal which the research team at the time thought was from extraterrestrials but which turned out to be the first ever sighting of a pulsar.
There are other oddities. For instance, the signal’s frequency is drifting by between eight to 37 hertz per second. “The signal is moving rapidly in frequency and you would expect that to happen if you are looking at a transmitter on a planet that’s rotating very rapidly and where the civilisation is not correcting the transmission for the motion of the planet,” Korpela says.
The relatively rapid drift of the signal is also puzzling for other reasons. A planet would have to be rotating nearly 40 times faster than Earth to have produced the observed drift; a transmitter on Earth would produce a signal with a drift of about 1.5 hertz per second.
What is more, if telescopes are observing a signal that is drifting in frequency, then each time they look for it they should most likely encounter it at a slightly different frequency. But in the case of SHGb02+14a, every observation has first been made at 1420 megahertz, before it starts drifting. “It just boggles my mind,” Korpela says.
The search for life in space has always been the stuff of science fiction, CNN Reports. But with new tools, scientists are looking in ernest.
The Allen Array has successfully completed a three-year research and development phase for an array of small satellite dishes that will eventually consist of 350 – 6.1-meter dishes. The ATA is a partnership between the SETI Institute and the Radio Astronomy Laboratory of the University of California, Berkeley (RAL).
Over the course of the next three years, through a comprehensive campaign called The Quest, the Institute will raise $62 million to support the completion of the ATA-350, and to provide for the ongoing endeavors of its engineers and scientists and educators pursuing all aspects of astrobiology.
The Square Kilometer Array, a similar but much larger array of radio telescopes aimed at expanding on a proven technology. Radio telescopes have produced major discoveries in astronomy such as pulsars, quasars and the cosmic microwave background. Scientists believe expanding the power and reach of these discoveries is critical.
In related matters:
- Two Neptune-sized planets have been discovered circling stars beyond our Solar System. On Tuesday, Nature reported two US teams announced further discoveries. The star lies 41 light years away in the constellation Cancer, has 15 times the mass of Earth. A planet of 20 Earth masses orbits Gliese 436, 33 light years away in the constellation Leo.
- NASA’s Genesis solar-wind sample will be returned to Earth and grabbed by mid-air retrieval above the Utah Test and Training Range, on September 8th. The mission returns extraterrestrial specimens. The landmark in civilian space draws upon a once classified satellite snooping program. It lands at the Dugway Proving Grounds, testing grounds for the nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. It passes over Salem, Oregon. At precisely 8:52:46 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time, northwest of Bend, Oregon, a fireball will appear: a white-hot dot of light, brighter than the planet Venus, gliding across the blue morning sky. Just How Dangerous are its Contents? Genesis is the first NASA mission to develop a class 10 cleanroom.
- Alien Contact is more likely by “Snail Mail” than radio, says a new study. Researchers writing in Nature this week argue that radio signals are not the most efficient way of alerting an extraterrestrial intelligence. NPR Report.
- According to New Scientist our transition from radio tranmissions to cable TV could mean that our window of detectability is no more than 100 years. Other civilizations may evolve similarly. In the 1960’s Frank Drake developed an equation that gave researchers a ball park figure for SETI. Instead of trying to eavesdrop on unintentional signals, he now thinks we should be searching for beacons.
N = N* fp ne fl fi fc fL
Astrobiology Magazine features The Martian Cronciles, a multipart series, showing the inside story of the Mars mission. Portland State University’s Sherry Cady (left), an Astrobiologist in Portland, edits the more academic Astrobiology Journal.
“After living in the dirt of Mars, a pathogen could see our bodies as a comparable host,” says John Rummel, Planetary Protection Officer for Earth. John Barros thinks extraterrestials should go to the University of Washington for Astrobiology study.
In 2011 NASA plans to bring Martian soil back to Earth. The International Committee Against Mars Sample Return (ICAMSR) wants to stop it. The Mars Exobiology strategy is being executed with the help of Planetary Protection Officer for Mars, Bill Horsley, who must prevent contamination between Earth and Mars. It’s not immediately clear who resolves jurisdictional disputes between Planetary and Solar System Protection Officers or who calls the shots for extraterrestrial contact.
Related Dailywireless articles include Spirit Telecommunications, Martian Bombshell?, Beagle 2 systems, Spirit is Willing, The Mission to Mars, the 1999 Mission to Mars, Spirit In Dirt, Good News from Mars, and Telepresence Now!.