Weird radio beam probably isn’t aliens but it’s the best candidate yet

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By Leah Crane

The Parkes Observatory in Australia discovered radio signals from Proxima Centauri

CSIRO / A. Cherney

Astronomers have seen what is possibly the strongest candidate for an alien signal yet. Researchers at the Breakthrough List project have found an unusual beam of radio light coming from our nearest neighbor, Proxima Centauri, according to a report in The Guardian on December 18th.

Any alleged discovery of foreigners should always be taken with skepticism. This is especially true in cases where a signal appears to be a possible techno-signature, a sign of foreign technology rather than just life beyond Earth. The Breakthrough Listen team has been extremely careful with this finding. “Nobody claims it’s a techno signature,” tweeted Pete Worden, President of the Breakthrough Prize Foundation.

In fact, researchers do not claim much about it at all. News of the signal came from a researcher who spoke to The Guardian before the scientific article on it is published – the data analysis is not yet complete, so no one can be sure exactly what this strange radio beam is. All we know so far is that it is peculiar.

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“The Breakthrough Listen team has detected several unusual signals and is investigating closely,” Worden tweeted. “The strongest and most persistent are all from Proxima.”

The team discovered several cues while examining data collected by the Parkes Observatory in Australia in a 2019 search for starbursts from Proxima Centauri. Almost all of the signals marked by Breakthrough List’s algorithms as potential extraterrestrial lighthouses turned out to be from man-made technology such as satellites – except one.

This odd signal lasted about 3 hours and was concentrated in a very narrow range of wavelengths – an area not normally used by our satellites and spacecraft. It was the first signal to pass through the first control round of the breakthrough, which is mainly designed to eradicate signals that actually originate from Earth. Researchers have called it the Breakthrough List Candidate 1 or BLC1.

Worden, however, called for caution and stressed that the Breakthrough Listen team still believes that these signals will prove to be radio interference from terrestrial technology rather than contact from an alien civilization. All previous signals that the team has detected have been quickly explained by the Breakthrough List’s first round of tests, but researchers will have to run additional checks that they have never used before on this new signal, says Jason Wright at Pennsylvania State University. They are running these controls now.

If it really is a signal from Proxima Centauri, it is interesting not only because it is our solar system’s nearest star neighbor only 4.2 light years away, but also because we know that it has at least two planets.

“Proxima is also nice because some people have wondered that if there is a lot of technology in the galaxy and if you want to communicate over long distances, it’s a pretty inefficient way to send the signal directly,” Wright said. “That’s how if I call you on the phone, my cell phone does not directly send your phone a radio signal.”

The idea is that advanced foreigners are more likely to create a network which could look like an interstellar mobile phone system with many interconnected nodes that transmit messages across the galaxy. “If extraterrestrial civilizations do, we would not expect to receive many signals from distant stars, we would expect to find them from nearby stars,” Wright said.

We know if BLC1 is just terrestrial interference in the next few months after Breakthrough Listen researchers run more tests and officially publish their studies. Although they exclude interference from our own satellites or spacecraft, astronomers will run through many other possible explanations before concluding that they are aliens. The team will keep an eye on our nearest neighbor.

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