The search for intelligent extraterrestrial life did not have the breakthrough that many were hoping for last week.
Reports emerged on Wednesday June 15 that Chinese astronomers have detected the techno-signatures of an intelligent extraterrestrial civilization.
Unfortunately, it turns out that the report, originally picked up by Bloomberg, highlighted signals that are, in fact, likely to come from human technology, a LiveScience report reveals.
The search continues.
The “Sky Eye” probably detected human interference
In an interview with LiveScience, Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) researcher Dan Werthimer, co-author of the project that first spotted the anomalous signals, said the narrowband radio signals he and his fellow researchers have detected “come from [human] radio interference, not aliens.”
Narrowband radio signals are usually emitted by unnatural sources, such as human technology. This is why the detection of this type of signal made world news this weekend.
Scientists found three such signals in 2019 and 2022 using the Five Hundred Meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST). The world’s largest radio telescope, dubbed “Sky Eye”, was conducting a preliminary analysis of exoplanets ahead of an upcoming five-year survey of the sky. News that the latest signal, picked up this year, may be of extraterrestrial origin first appeared in a June 14 report by the official journal of China’s Ministry of Science and Technology. This report has now been removed from its website.
The claims went viral last week, with a FAST official even saying it was “likely” the signals were of extraterrestrial origin.
In search of intelligent extraterrestrial life
It looks like the news will now be seen as a cautionary tale about jumping to conclusions and not waiting for peer-reviewed results. That’s because Werthimer said that although the signals were artificially created, they almost certainly came from humans.
“The big problem, and the problem in this particular case, is that we’re looking for signals from extraterrestrials, but what we find are a million signals from terrestrials,” Werthimer told Live Science. “These are very weak signals, but the cryogenic receivers in telescopes are super sensitive and can pick up signals from cell phones, TV, radar and satellites – and there are more and more satellites in the sky every day. If you’re kind of new to the game, and you don’t know about all these different ways that interference can get into your data and corrupt it, it’s pretty easy to get upset.”
It’s not the first time this has happened. In 2019, astronomers spotted a narrowband radio signal originating from Proxima Centauri, the closest star system to our solar system. Last year, however, a study concluded that this signal likely came from faulty human equipment. Radio interference is a big problem for a telescope like FAST, which has a dish 1,600 feet in diameter (500 meters) and is capable, in theory, of detecting radio devices operating many light-years from Earth.
This does not mean that the scientific community will stop searching for intelligent extraterrestrial life. In fact, it was only recently that an amateur astronomer, Alberto Caballero, claimed to have identified the origin of the Wow! signal, a still unexplained anomalous signal detected in 1977. There are many unexplained signals, and all of them are worth investigating. Until we realized the signal was coming from someone microwaved their lunch near the lab equipment.