A joint investigation between scientists from the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute and METI International resulted in the discovery of exactly zero radio transmissions emanating from KIC 8462852, aka Tabby’s Star, aka that “alien megastructures” star everyone freaked out about late last year. According to new findings published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, we still haven’t found signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. Our cold streak continues.
In case you don’t remember, there was a big hooplah last fall when Jason Wright, an astronomer at Penn State University, dropped a small suggestion that strange stellar light patterns glowing from Tabby’s Star, nearly 1,500 light-years away from Earth, were caused by “alien megastructures,” a catchall phrase for materials artificially placed in orbit. Since then, study after study has basically put that hypothesis to rest, with more reasonable ideas like a family of weird comets garnering more and more support based on new data.
But science is about making confirmations, so the dutiful scientists at the SETI Institute and METI international came together and used the Boquete Optical SETI Observatory in Panama to determine whether or not the strange dimming patterns were caused by intelligent extraterrestrials, as well as use the Allen Telescope Array in California to measure whether the star system was spewing out any radio signals indicative of advanced technology.
“We were looking to see if there are intentional laser signals being beamed at us,” says METI International research and study coauthor Douglas Vakoch. He tells Inverse he and his colleagues were looking for the kinds of signs of technology that us humans on Earth might be capable of building and using to broadcast our presence to the rest of the universe.
Unfortunately, they did not find any radio signals, and the optical signals found were less than encouraging. No optical signal of a particular period pattern was measured, and the power of the light pulsing from Tabby’s Star didn’t seem characteristic of a laser signal. “If there is a large laser facility kicking out signals of 5 mega-joules or stronger, we would have been able to detect those,” says Vakoch. “We didn’t.”
Vakoch emphasizes that the results don’t totally discount alien life living in the star system. He and his team were using Boquete during Panama’s rainy season — “the worst possible time,” he says. He acknowledges that the results “don’t say for sure there aren’t extraterrestrials out there.” It’s always possible E.T. is sending weaker signals out or exhibiting patterns stretching across a larger timeframe.
“But we can say that within the scenario where we could have possibly gotten a signal, we didn’t get one,” says Vakoch.
Disheartening, sure, but there’s a strong silver lining to the new findings. While SETI research around the world centers in large part around the measure of radio signals, the new investigation allowed the scientists to flex their optics muscles and get practice at looking for signs of E.T. across other frequencies as well. “If we get a signal, there may be different sources of information at different frequencies, so we need to be ready to jump on that,” said Vakoch.
Moreover, the study demonstrated the feasibility of using even a modest-sized optical telescope to conduct SETI observations. This runs counter to the whole “bigger is better” mentality that permeates space science, and Vakoch thinks the new methodological approaches he and his colleagues outline in their paper illustrate a new model for doing SETI research that is more efficient and sustainable. He says a major goal of METI International, after all, is to answer “how do we sustain the search going forward” as funding for these types of projects drop or become thinned out over more and more initiatives.
“We still don’t have a natural explanation for what is going on” with Tabby’s Star, says Vakoch. And he doesn’t find that particularly discouraging. “This is the type of ambiguity we can expect if we really got a signal from E.T. It will be a slow unfolding and grappling of the data. So we continue to search for answers.”