06 March 2014

The blip

In 2010 the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program detected a powerful radio signal of some interest.  The signal came from the direction of a star designated TYC 1220-91-1, which is very similar to our own Sun, though older; if other habitable planets like Earth exist in the universe at all, this star would be a good candidate to have one.  It's about 100 light-years away (to give you an idea of what that means, the outermost body in our own solar system, Pluto, is so far from Earth that the New Horizons probe launched toward it in 2006 will not get there until 2015, and TYC 1220-91-1 is about two hundred thousand times further away than Pluto).

The signal, however, was clearly not an attempt at communication by aliens, which is what SETI is interested in.  It had no internal structure suggesting encoded information, and it lasted just ten seconds and did not repeat, as a deliberate effort to communicate almost certainly would.  So what was it?  A blogger "Jadestar" has an idea.

At Arecibo in Puerto Rico, the US maintains a huge radio telescope which can also be used as an interplanetary radar station.  In this capacity, it works like ordinary radars which send radio signals that bounce off solid objects like airplanes and are reflected back to the transmitter, enabling those objects to be detected.  Arecibo, however, monitors asteroids in the inner solar system, enabling scientists to track their orbits and find out if any of them pose a risk of colliding with Earth at some time in the future.  Its radar signals are very powerful and focused -- among the most powerful radio signals ever generated on Earth.

If you were 100 light-years from our solar system, and Arecibo just happened to be aimed in exactly your direction while it was doing a radar scan for asteroids here, the radio pulse you would detect would look a lot like the one SETI picked up coming from TYC 1220-91-1.

So.  Maybe there's an Earthlike planet orbiting TYC 1220-91-1.  Maybe it has something like the Arecibo radio telescope on it.  Maybe they sometimes use that telescope to scan their inner solar system for dangerous asteroids, like we do.  And maybe, by pure chance, their radar transmitter happened to be pointing in exactly our direction for a few seconds.

If that's what it was, we'll never know for sure.  The odds of that exact alignment ever happening again are essentially zero.  If they use radio telescopes similar to ours, their general level of technological development is probably roughly similar to ours, and there's almost nothing a civilization like that does that would be detectable at such a distance -- ordinary radio and TV transmissions fade out in less than two light-years.  That one radio blip is all we're going to get.

Now, as I've expressed before, I think it's actually unlikely that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe.  But our knowledge is too incomplete for any such view to be more than tentative.  The radio blip could well have been produced by some natural phenomenon we haven't discovered yet.  But it just might have been a sign, even if faint and accidental, that other minds exist.

[Jadestar link found via Mendip.]


Blogger Tommykey said...

Wow, didn't know about that. Of late, I've drifted into the same camp as you, doubting there are any advanced civilizations elsewhere in our galaxy, especially after reading Alone In The Universe. As for the universe itself, I am less skeptical, but given the distances involved, even if an advanced civilization existed on a planet in the Andromeda Galaxy, we'll never know about them and vice versa.

06 March, 2014 09:44  
Anonymous Marc McKenzie said...

Darn...I was hoping we'd be able to play those musical notes from CLOSE ENCOUNTERS....:)

But on a more serious note--personally, I lean on the side that there is intelligent life out there (or the remains of a civilization, at any rate). All of this brings to mind a quote from Arthur C. Clarke--"Either we are alone in the universe, or we are not. Either thought is frightening."

06 March, 2014 15:56  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe those civilizations have the same limitations we have when it comes to interstellar space travel. If you can't go 10 times faster than light speed, there's not much of a point going too far from one's solar system.

I believe there's something out there that evolved along the same lines we did. I don't mean green women either. I was thinking something that can manipulate the environment at least on the level that we have. This universe is huge so I have hope. Meeting them within 10,000 years is doubtful for me.


07 March, 2014 20:21  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Tommykey, not until we (or they) have far more advanced technology, anyway.

Marc: That's occurred to me, that we might someday find a plant with the ruins of a civilization that failed millions of years ago. But if a surviving civilization existed now that was millions of years more advanced than ours, we'd know.

Vic78: If they still use radio telescopes like ours, they probably aren't any closer to faster-than-light travel than we are. On the other hand, that radio blip would have taken 100 years to get here, so their (hypothetical) civilization would be 100 years more advanced by now.

08 March, 2014 09:15  

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