Let’s be careful about this “SETI” signal

August 31: See update at the end of this post

Several readers have contacted me recently about reports that a group of international astronomers have detected a strong signal coming from a distant star that could be a sign of a high-technology civilization. Here’s my reaction: it’s interesting, but it’s definitely not the sign of an alien civilization—at least not yet.

Jodie Foster in the movie "Contact"
Jodie Foster in the movie “Contact”

Here’s why:

  1. The signal was first detected in May 2015 and has not repeated since. Unfortunately, although international protocols call for alerting the astronomical community to the detection of a mysterious signal, the observers chose not to do so. Sadly, their failure to observe this simple protocol likely hindered our ability to clarify exactly what caused the signal.
  2. The signal was detected by an antenna that is very complex—and one that a colleague of mine who is a radio astronomer said could have mislabeled a terrestrial signal (i.e, one from a satellite or airplane) crossing the side lobes of the beam when the observation was made. In other words, the pointing quality of this antenna is so uncertain that it may have captured what we call a false or “parasite” signal.
  3. HD 164595, the host star, is very similar to the sun (same color, size, and age). It’s ninety-one light years from Earth and has a known planet, HD164595 b, which is probably Neptune-like and orbits very close to its star every forty days. We have not yet detected an Earth-like or super-Earth-like planet around this star, and do not believe there is one. This is the case because this is what current theories on the formation of planetary systems tell us. But there is no reason why life could not exist on satellites of as-yet undetected icy giants in this system—but this moves us from fact to the realm of pure speculation.
  4. Finally, before getting too excited about a speculative and relatively old signal, we should recall the puzzle of the perytons. Astronomers detected them at the Parkes Observatory in Australia in 2015, only to later conclude that they were nothing more than the signal from a nearby microwave oven whose door was opened by impatient astronomers.

But—and it’s a big but—I began this post by saying “at least not yet.” So what might cause me to change my mind? How might we prove the extraordinary claim that this signal is, in fact, a civilization trying to communicate with us?

We turn to this mantra from Carl Sagan: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” That means three things:

First, this signal must be detected by at least one other antenna located somewhere else in the world. My colleagues at the SETI Institute are already working on it, and have observed the star for several hours.  So far they have nothing to report.

Second, we must analyze the signal to be certain that it is not coming from a human source.

Third, if the signal is detected repetitively, we can analyze it under the assumption that it might have content E.T. wants to share with us. Whatever that message might be—the digits of Pi, the first prime number, their encyclopedia, or some images of themselves—we can quickly find out if ET is trying to tell us something, and what that something is.

We are not there yet. In the past, especially during the tumultuous history of SETI, astronomers briefly thought that they had discovered a signal (see “Aliens on Line 1”). As technology evolves, and more searches occur, we may discover more signals that look promising at first but don’t pan out. But the search continues… in fact, in the scale of the age of our solar system, it has just begun.
Clear Skies,

Franck Marchis

August 31 2016  Update:

In contrast with all the hypes about this hypothetical signal, I must admit that I love the dry, not marketing-oriented, note from SAO RAS, the team that managed the Russian RATAN-600 antenna. https://www.sao.ru/Doc-en/SciNews/2016/Sotnikova/

“Subsequent processing & analysis of the signal revealed its most probable terrestrial origin”

Apparently, there has never been a SETI signal, not even a candidate one.


Comments (37)

  1. Exciting nonetheless! We need more stories like these to keep up the hype and get more involved and informed in this kind of work. I agree, certainty is absolutely needed, but just the fact there’s a chance is enough to stir a furious curiosity. I’ll be keeping an eye out for updates. One day, I believe we’ll find something. Thank you for your important work.

  2. Why is Jodie Foster listening to Procol Harum in the middle of a Radio Telescope Array?

    1. Because.

    2. Foster’s listening to Procol Harum in the radio telescope array ’cause she’s a ‘Simple Sister.’

  3. It’s absurd to even believe humans are alone in this universe. But evidence shows a different story according to our present technology and knowledge. Maybe one day we’ll be able to reach the stars ourselves and know the truth, but we’ve a long way to go, if we make it in our current war-like state of mind.

    If there are beings more advanced than us out there, our war-like state might be the reason they would prefer to stay hidden from us. They’ve done a good job so far at baffling the human mind.

    1. really what proof do you/we have that thrie is other life out there? I read a little of the tid bits about this and yet have I seen any proof that alien life exists if you could show me then I would be so happy to belive and pass it on to all of us ordinary people

    2. The eerie silence…

    3. For decades, I agree with your thought
      “If there are beings more advanced than us out there, our war-like state might be the reason they would prefer to stay hidden from us.”

      I include reality of some ‘close encounters …’ , which have resulted in ‘no contact’.

  4. Why in the hell would Ratan keep this to themselves for a YEAR!!! Why Ratan whyyyyyyyyyy!!! 🙁

  5. […] of the crowded audience. But there’s plenty to be cautious about for now, according to a blog post by astronomer Franck Marchis, as well as comments made by SETI officials at the […]

  6. […] in the crowded audience. But there’s plenty to be cautious about for now, according to a blog post by astronomer Franck Marchis, as well as SETI officials at the […]

  7. “…s signal must be detected by at least one other antenna located somewhere else in the world….” – Civilization that sent ONLY ONE ‘Arecibo message’ EVER !

  8. I loved reading about this ‘new signal’ in the newspaper, because newspapers nowadays aren’t exactly known for thoroughly researching a story before going to print. I for one would love to know for certain where the closest extra-terrestrial civilization is, albeit it just to kill my own curiosity. We, as a species, really need to let go of the assumptions that life elsewhere can only exist if the planet has the same properties as Earth. This is simply not proven.
    The general public needs to be educated with regards to this. WE, as a species, need a planet like our own to survive on. Extra-terrestrial species most likely don’t, and could therefore easily exist on planets we can’t even get used to.
    We assume there is no actual life on Mercury, but is this really certain? Have we dug deep enough into the surface of Neptune to know there is no intelligent civilization living in the depths of the planet core that we just can’t detect? The answer is: no. And it will most likely stay that way for a long time until we can prove to ourselves that we are a species worth getting to know.
    I like to think that, if there is a God, he created a planet somewhere just like ours, a twin if you will, with a population just like us, but who don’t look for reasons to kill each other.
    Ah, we all need dreams don’t we?

  9. Although I have not shared this experience with many people, I have wanted to tell someone in your field about it, Franck. You have no reason to believe me, and I have no reason to lie. So, leaving out some detail, I will tell you about something that happened 3 years ago now. Working the night shift, I was on the rooftop of my factory, doing outside patrols. There was not a cloud in the sky.
    I was looking at the stars, wondering how many light years away they were. (Cutting it short) I saw an object that was phasing to the point where I thought it disappeared. There were amber, light blue, and white lights that would go off and on around its perimeter. Each time it appeared, it was closer to me. After watching this thing for about 30 minutes, it disappeared again. I thought it was gone. But then, it reappeared, what seemed to be about 400 ft above me. It made no sound and hovered in one spot. Then it began to rotate, with white lights coming on, at the same time, all around a triangle shaped object. I went to get somebody to witness it. When we returned, it was gone. The worse part was, I had a good camera phone in my pocket. I guess I was in shock and didn’t think about it at the time. Don’t know what it was. Just know it was!

  10. I have a lot of evidence that we are not alone, have showed a few important people. But they act freaking scared . I could stop all of this not believing , an wondering if we are alone!! But no one will contact me back. I will e-mail 1 picture to the right person. I’m tired of trying to get a hold of certain people, an they just blow it off. I guess cause i would make them look stupid, an they would lose their job, which i would not wont them to lose their job! I wanna keep working on my Discovery, i just don’t have the $$$ or the Technology to go forward. Please someone with a open mind, that wants to help, let me know. Thanks.

  11. “alone” becomes a very subjective term when speaking about contact and communication. Given the size of the universe and the unbelievably vast number of planets and moons with the potential to harbor life as we perceive it, it is absurd to think that Earth might be the only place were it would have taken hold and flourished. Less likely but still quite probable is the chance that some of those forms of life would evolve to at least our level of sophistication or beyond. But the chances of another civilization existing within the time and space required to make contact,let alone communication, with our own would be extremely remote to say the least. And that may be for the best as pointed out by Stephen Hawking. Any alien race capable of interstellar travel would have advanced so far beyond us that we would hold little fascination or interest for them aside from any material resources our planet or species might offer

  12. It really is something I woud like to live to see. But if like Edgar says they maybe trying to stay away from our war like world. I have to worry about the info we seem to have. First ET has the tech to go very fast which would make them smart. Yet for some reason they seem to crash land a lot. I think we will be safe until they have enough time in a simulator learning to land.

  13. Regrettably, the media in general don’t obey the protocol for news like this: Wait for the results of at least a second independent astronomical observation. By contrast, only they released the news with their sensationalist headlines. Causing confusion in the population.

  14. why is it all i hear is life must be carbon based ? why can life not be based on some other element such as silicone … i think we are limiting our search to a very narrow field their is to much evidence to not believe life is out there

  15. […] Institute in Mountain View, California, and the organization’s Exoplanets Research Thrust Chair, wrote in his blog that, “although international protocols call for alerting the astronomical community to the […]

  16. […] “Let’s Be Careful About This SETI Signal” by Franck Marchis […]

  17. Hopes briefly elevated. Await news of discovery of Eat at Joe’s or other beacon signal.

  18. I think that it’s a colossal waste of time, money, and so-called expertise to sit around all day and waiting on “aliens” to communicate, not to mention trying to discover “why we are here”, what stupidity! . No alien civilization, if they exist at all, are going to bother broadcasting a message to Earth – the movie “contact” is a nerd fantasy. carl sagan was a quack scientist, it must be really nice to sit around and just “think” about how things happen and get paid for it rather than doing real work for society.

  19. The eery silence…

  20. […] son côté, l’astronome Franck Marchis, chercheur à l’institut SETI, a réagi sur le blog Cosmic Diary Report pour nous éclairer sur les preuves nécessaires avant de prétendre avoir un signal […]

  21. If i directed a fixed laser out in space from earth, due to the earths rotation and degree of tilt constantly changing, it seems like it would never repeatedly point at a single location thats 90light years away. Would that concept make make it difficult to detect a signal from a type 1 civilization that is transmitting a signal in a straight line? Or am I way off base.

    Or is it similar to viewing a light house from far away. Where as its more visible when the light shines directly at you, but still slightly visible from a 45degree angle?

    I hope the anaologies make sense. Just curious.

  22. Nice read! The only thing i dont get is why wasn’t there any more research into finding what the signal was? Yes it could be a plane or even a signal from a drone. But if you can figure out the bugs you will be able to know right away what is giving the signal. there should be a way to distinguish the type of signal.

    The FAA keeps track of all airplane’s flight paths. So they could have asked, was their a plane in the area where the beam was pointing. Even drones now have to be registered with the FAA. If a satellite can pin point where we are then we have the tech to figure out if it was interference or a signal from a sun or something.

  23. I’ve come up with a few different ideas, to move faster than light and time, and indestructible transportation, and last but not of the least, real invisibility….. And as of now, it’s all hypothetical, because I have no funds, or laboratories, to test them. But in time, I pray someone will take notice, and help a brotha’ out, hooaahh??

  24. […] of what happened, or rather what didn’t happen, with this alleged SETI signal. I recommend this post from cosmicdairy.org. From what I gather from everything I’ve read, the basic summary is […]

  25. It seems to me, that even if we do discover other life out there, they are going to have to come to us. We,at our present technological state do not have the ability to cross light years across the universe.
    Even at the speed of light(if we could somehow achieve it) would take thousands of years to go anywhere,there are just too many barriers to overcome. Worm holes are hypothetical at best, and gravitational vortex technology hasn’t been invented. Not to mention the cost for the technology that it will take to get us there.

  26. If we on earth are truly serious about SETI, then why have we not followed up on the Moon landings, with a project to construct a human scientific base on our moon part of which could be the construction of a SETI telescope array.

  27. For now the maximum we can say is that it’s just a mere smoke signal. I am skeptical each day with the existence of ET, especially in a orchestra of 234 stars emitting waves at the same time. Undoubtedly, it is a natural phenomenon, still out of reach of our wisdom or an anomaly of own telescope. Here around us, it did not show the slightest sign of extraterrestrial life. If it exists, we will probably never know because of the distance. Until you reach a sign probably have disappeared. Now imagine that someone at 6 billion light years send a signal. Untill our response to get there the earth will have already extinct. That thing is out of sense

  28. I suspect that evolution of carbon based life will lead to AI as the predominant life form in the universe. If that is the case we should be looking for hacking attempts by the AI to access our systems. We are just now mature enough technology for AI to show interest in us and have a portal to our civilization. No need to search the stars AI systems will detect us, hack into us and start manipulating our civilization thru the computers we have built. Look for the hackers not the stars. Life in the universe is limited to the time before Superior AI detects and begins using the digital technology society has built for itself. Again look for the hackers not signals from distant stars!! Cheers mike

  29. I think the reason SETI has been unsuccessful at detecting alien life is that for civilization there i at most a couple of hundred years when they would be generating radio traffic. Already television signals are starting to disappear from our planet due to transmission over cable. Eventually quantum communications is developed. Using aspects of quantum physics, communications are made instantaneous and totally secure. Experiments into this technology are already being conducted here on earth. After that an advanced civilization may be listening for signals if they wanted to study more primitive planets but probably wouldn’t be broadcasting. Why would they be interested in contacting us?

  30. One day Perhaps..Distances and means of communication that will surely reach or exceed the theory of Light speed allowing a connection in a single lifetime .

  31. The Probability of Advancement in Contact of Far distant Objects is at our present scientific ability ridiculous to comprehend receiving a signal let alone respond to one even if we knew what to look for ..or where to look ..But wouldn’t it be fun to know or discover they’ve been here all along and Humans had no idea..

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