Stephen Hawking's SETI Project Will Search the Stars for Aliens


A pair of astronomers think they have observed a group of alien civilizations — 234, to be exact — sending extraterrestrial messages out into space.

In a paper uploaded to the arXiv repository, Professor Ermanno Borra and graduate student Eric Trottier at Laval University in Quebec detailed their observations of “strobe-like” pulses emanating from 234 stars studied by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. The pulses, the researchers think, could be a purposeful system of communication, developed by advanced aliens.

“We find that the detected signals have exactly the shape of an ETI (Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) signal predicted in the previous publication, and are therefore in agreement with this hypothesis,” Borra and Trottier write in the paper.

The Sloan Digital Sky Survey

That’s a pretty ballsy claim. To understand the researchers’ reasoning, we have to understand the theory’s origins. It has long been thought that the single best way for species across the galaxy to interact and communicate through interstellar space would be through radio signals. This makes pretty good sense — radio signals, even very powerful ones, are pretty easy and affordable to create and ship into outer space. The type of technology and resources you need to shoot radio waves into the sky are fairly simple.

The biggest drawback, however, is that the receiving civilization needs the necessary tools to actually pick up and record those radio signals. Just as humans began to point optical telescopes into the sky before we built and pointed radio telescopes upwards, an alien civilization would presumably have an easier time pinpointing sources of light that don’t look like natural stars — signals that may indicate the presence of life in outer space.

While a light-based interstellar communication system definitely requires more resources to construct, and more expertise to design and operate, it’s not totally unreasonable to make it. A laser, on the scale of something between 30 to 250 megawatts of power, could be enough to broadcast our existence to the rest of the universe. The authors of the new study say that something like the Helios laser, at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, would be sufficient to create a pulsing light that could be observed from light-years away.

And if humans could do it, why not aliens?

That’s the basis of Borra and Trottier’s hypothesis. The pair parsed through 2.5 million stars observed by the SDSS, and pinpointed 234 stars that are emitting a light signature that matches what they believe would be the result of intervention at the hands of intelligent extraterrestrials. The stars, which fall under the same spectral class as the sun, are pulsing light at about 1.65 picoseconds from the perspective of Earth.

This pattern, the pair believes, is not natural — but artificial.

Unfortunately, theres not much proof to back up this theory. The results of the study — which hasn’t been peer-reviewed or published in a journal yet, could very well be the result of instrumental or human error. For SDSS to inaccurately observe light from 234 out of 2.5 million stars, it would need to have an error rate of no less than 0.0094 percent. Even the most state-of-the-art equipment are more than capable of committing that low a rate of bad measurements.

As with all science, you need to validate your conclusion with follow-up studies and measurements. This is where Stephen Hawking comes in. His Breakthrough Listen Initiative, whose goal is to look for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence, announced that it would conduct follow-up observations of these spectral anomalies.

This is in spite of a high degree of skepticism that aliens are responsible for these 234 light signals. In a statement, Breakthrough Listen rated the Quebec astronomers’ findings between 0 and 1 on the Rio Scale for SETI observations — essentially saying they are of little to no significance.

The new findings are starting to seem like theyll go the way of HD 164595 — a star exhibiting some unusual activity, and raised hopes we finally found alien life, but turned out to yield bupkis. It was just “terrestrial interference.” The odds these new signals are also just caused by some sort of aberrant interference are greater than the odds extraterrestrials, in 234 different star systems, are flashing lights to talk to us.

This post has been updated.

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