Hype Check: Is That Russian SETI Signal Really Aliens?

Or are we freaking out over nothing?

by Kastalia Medrano
Getty Images / Mike Hewitt

The internet (including us here at Inverse) has really dug the recent reports about a strange, as-yet-unexplained radio signal detected by Russian scientists using the RATAN-600 radio telescope. The unusually strong signal, emanating from the star HD164595, 95 light-years away, doesn’t yet mean anything conclusive, but could conceivably have come from an alien civilization — one more technologically advanced than our own.

Douglas Vakoch, president of the SETI research organization METI International, told Inverse that while the signal certainly isn’t without merit, it’s not quite the unique event we’re currently making it out to be. It’s just that the reports were circulated before the data had the chance to undergo the usual vetting process, which we’re now watching happen in real time.

“Is this being overhyped?” Vakoch said. “Well, no one is treating this as if it’s likely to be an extraterrestrial civilization. What you’re seeing is the normal process of SETI research unfolding before your eyes. Typically this all occurs behind the scenes; what’s unusual here is that the signal was announced before there’s the usual follow-up.”

The signal was actually detected a year and a half ago, in May 2015, but was only found once. That in itself might indicate that the signal isn’t credible — we need to be able to detect it again. That process, explains Vakoch, typically has two phases.

First, the original observatory will attempt to trace the signal again. If and once it’s been replicated, the scientists will take their data to a different observatory and see if someone else can do the same thing from a second location.

That hasn’t yet happened with this signal, but organizations like the SETI Institute and METI International are now doing what they can in terms of following standard protocol on an interesting data point, and conducting their own follow-up observations of HD164595 with their own radio equipment. The former is using the Allen Telescope Array, while the latter will use Panama’s Boquete Optical Observatory.

Vakoch says HD164595, is interesting because “its a sun-like star.” If in fact the signal that was picked up really did come from that star — and was not produced by natural phenomena — it would indicate that the civilization responsible is more technologically advanced than we currently are. But that’s still a big leap. Typically, scientists look at a one-hertz-wide signal bandwidth. This signal, however, was one gigahertz, or 1,000,000,000 hertz. Yikes.

“It could be that this isn’t even caused by technology,” Vakoch said. “We still need to rule out natural phenomena; we could just be seeing amplification of a weak natural signal. It’s very difficult to determine that because this was so broad. But out of a sense of extreme caution about not wanting to throw away a chance at first contact, we will be following up on this, yes.”

The coming investigation on the data should be telling. Vakoch said that the scientists and instruments at the METI observatory in Panama excel at avoiding false positives.

“If we get a signal there, that’s a really strong sign we’ve really discovered extraterrestrial life,” Vakoch said. “Now, we don’t expect to find that, but we’re going to do our due diligence. This is the sort of thing that, internally, we do all the time.”

So in the meantime, as excited as we all are about the possibility of aliens, let’s try to remember this is business as usual for SETI researchers around the world. Keep your fingers crossed, but keep your shit together, too.

Related Tags