Don't Get Excited About Those "Alien Signals" Just Yet

Tuesday, 25 October 2016 - 4:21PM
Astronomy
Alien Life
Tuesday, 25 October 2016 - 4:21PM
Don't Get Excited About Those "Alien Signals" Just Yet
Today, a study was published that announced the news we've all been waiting for: aliens are trying to talk to us. More specifically, two scientists say that signals coming from certain stars are "probably" intentional signals from extraterrestrial intelligence. But if you're hoping that we're about to live out the plot of Contact, don't hold your breath, because the scientific community is still extremely skeptical.

For the study, researchers Ermanno F. Borra and Eric Trottier analyzed data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and found unusual signals emanating from a group of stars within a specific spectral range. And after investigating several other possibilities, they claim that the most likely explanation is extraterrestrial intelligence.

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"We find that the detected signals have exactly the shape of an [extraterrestrial intelligence] signal predicted in the previous publication and are therefore in agreement with this hypothesis," they write in their paper. "The fact that they are only found in a very small fraction of stars within a narrow spectral range centered near the spectral type of the sun is also in agreement with the ETI hypothesis."
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And while the authors acknowledge that the hypothesis "needs to be confirmed with further work," they're sticking by that claim. They say there is a possibility that the signals were caused by a celestial phenomenon, such as unusual chemical compositions in galactic halo stars, but dismiss these alternative explanations as "unlikely."

However, there is significant opposition to this claim within the SETI community. Seth Shostak told Astronomy.com that "several referees have been disciplined to see this [study] published," and that he was skeptical of the authors' methodology. Meanwhile, Andrew Siemion, director of SETI Berkeley and leader of the Breakthrough Listen initiative, said, "Punch line is that this is interesting but needs to be followed up on other facilities, which we will be doing with Breakthrough Listen."

The project itself released a statement that said the peaks in stellar data could be false positives, which could be caused by the observing conditions, including the telescope's position and process of wavelength calibration, as well as a problem with the spectrograph. As a result, these results need to be confirmed by an independent study before we can place any stock in them.

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The one in 10,000 objects with unusual spectra seen by Borra and Trottier are certainly worthy of additional study. However, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It is too early to unequivocally attribute these purported signals to the activities of extraterrestrial civilizations.
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