Aliens in Hercules? Possible SETI Signal Detected by Russian Radio Telescope Remains Elusive

The RATAN-600 radio telescope in Russia. Photo Credit: nat-geo.ru

The RATAN-600 radio telescope in Russia. Photo Credit: nat-geo.ru

It may sound cliche, but the question ‘Are we alone?’ is still one that captures the imagination of many people, including of course, scientists. With the now regular discovery of exoplanets orbiting other stars, the prospect that there may be other intelligent life out there somewhere (or any kind of life) has only become more exciting and compelling. When it comes to intelligent extraterrestrials, SETI is a name that has become part of our modern culture, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. SETI focuses on looking for radio and optical signals that could originate from an advanced society, a technique that in itself has generated much debate. After several decades of searching, a definitive signal has yet to be found, but there have been tantalizing possibilities. Unfortunately, none of those have yet panned out as the signal. Now, another interesting radio signal is making the news – could it be the evidence scientists are looking for or is it another dead-end?

The new signal was first reported by Paul Gilster in Centauri Dreams on Aug. 27, a “strong” radio signal detected in the direction of a star in the constellation Hercules. The detection was made by the RATAN-600 radio telescope in Zelenchukskaya, Russia on May 15, 2015, but was only recently made public by Russian astronomers. The discovery, led by Nikolai Bursov of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Special Astrophysical Observatory, will be discussed in more detail at a meeting of the IAA SETI Permanent Committee, during the 67th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Guadalajara, Mexico, on Tuesday, Sept. 27th, 2016.

The star that the signal is purported to have come from is called HD164595, which is almost exactly the same size as our Sun and a bit older. About 95 light-years away, it is 0.99 solar masses and estimated to be 6.3 billion years old. The star’s metallicity is also very similar to that of our Sun. The star has at least one known exoplanet, HD 164595 b, which has a 0.05 Jupiter mass. It orbits its star in 40 days, and is likely to be a “warm Neptune.” There may still be other planets, as yet undetected.

The possible signal from HD164595 in the constellation Hercules. Image Credit: Bursov et al

The possible signal from HD164595 in the constellation Hercules. Image Credit: Bursov et al

Those facts themselves make this star interesting, but what about the radio signal itself? It was detected on May 15, 2015, at 18:01:15.65 (sidereal time), at a wavelength of 2.7 cm, which is equivalent to a frequency of 11 GHz. The receiver of the RATAN-600 radio telescope has a bandwidth of 1 GHz, which is a billion times wider than the bandwidths typically used in SETI searches. It’s also 200 times wider than a television signal, with a strength of 0.75 Janskyns, which is considered weak. The nature of the signal brings to mind two possibilities, if it was actually alien.

First, the signal is being sent out in all directions. The required power would be 1020 watts, or 100 billion billion watts, in order for us to have found it with the RATAN-600. That is a lot of power, hundreds of times greater than all of the sunlight falling on Earth. Second, the signal was being aimed directly at us. That would require less power, but still more than a trillion watts. Both possibilities would require technology far beyond what we currently have on Earth.

The RATAN-600 is also an unusual radio telescope, consisting of a ring on the ground which is 577 meters in diameter. The past of the sky to which it is the most sensitive is a “beam shape,” elongated north-south, and 20 arcsec by 2 arcmin. The signal however, seemed to come from the east-west direction.

From all accounts so far, including from SETI, this is more likely to be a case of terrestrial interference or possible a natural astronomical phenomenon. The fact that the signal was only heard the one time (so far) in 2015 doesn’t help. SETI requires a signal to be detected more than once, preferably by multiple radio telescopes, for that signal to be considered truly compelling.

“Their receiver was set up to gobble up a huge chunk of the radio dial at once,” said Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute. “Generally, SETI looks for narrow-band signals … that’s like your laser pointer, which, although it has very little power, makes a highly visible spot because it’s all in one wavelength range.”

Starting on Aug. 28, astronomers started using the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) to listen to the star. So far, the signal has not been heard again. In this way it is reminiscent of the famous ‘Wow! signal‘ from Aug. 15, 1977, heard by the Big Ear radio telescope of Ohio State University. That signal was only heard once and still has not been explained. The full range of frequencies still need to be checked however.

The "Wow! signal" detected in 1977 but never heard again. Image Credit: Big Ear Radio Observatory/North American AstroPhysical Observatory (NAAPO)

The “Wow! signal” detected in 1977 but never heard again. Image Credit: Big Ear Radio Observatory/North American AstroPhysical Observatory (NAAPO)

There is also the question of why the Russian astronomers didn’t alert other scientists with SETI at the time. It is standard protocol within the SETI community that if a candidate signal is found, others are notified immediately so that they can try to detect it as well. That didn’t happen in this case.

The research group METI International will also try observing HD 164595, using the Boquete Optical SETI Observatory in Panama. As president Doug Vakoch explained in GeekWire:

“Standard SETI protocols call for confirmation of possible signals from a separate observatory. This helps ensure that the original signal didn’t arise from a technical glitch in the original observatory, and it helps rule out a hoax perpetuated by some enterprising graduate students targeting a SETI experiment. In the past, plans for SETI follow-up observations have focused on confirmation of the original signal, seeking a repeat signal at the same frequency. That’s a critical step for confirmation – and we don’t yet have evidence that this sort of follow-up has happened for HD 164595. In addition, we need to be alert to the possibility than if we do really find a signal from an advanced civilization, they are also transmitting at other frequencies than the one where we first detected them. That’s why it’s so important to prepare for follow-up SETI observations at both radio and optical frequencies, to be launched as soon as we detect a credible candidate signal at any frequency.”

As also noted by Shostak:

“This is a bit of a puzzling story, as the Russians found this signal a year ago or so, but just didn’t let others know. That’s not good policy, as what you really want is confirmation at another telescope, but … Is it real? The signal may be real, but I suspect it’s not ET. There are other possibilities for a wide-band signal such as this, and they’re caused by natural sources (or even terrestrial interference).”

There was also the case last year where a possible radio burst signal, detected by the Parkes Observatory in Australia, was found to actually originate from a microwave oven in the facility.

The Breakthrough Listen project also aimed the Green Bank Telescope at the star, but so far has heard nothing.

“Our GBT observations did not detect ongoing emission from the direction of HD 164595. Single-epoch transients are by their nature hard to confirm or deny, illustrating the need for confirming follow-up, either at a later time, or as part of the observing strategy.”

*As this article was being written, a statement was released by the Russian Academy of Science. The translation follows (via Google Translate):

The Allen Telescope Array, among others, is continuing to listen for the signal, but so far has not heard anything. Photo Credit: Ben Margot, AP

The Allen Telescope Array, among others, is continuing to listen for the signal, but so far has not heard anything. Photo Credit: Ben Margot, AP

“August 30, 2016 in a number of media reports about the possible detection of the RATAN-600 radio signal associated with the activity of an extraterrestrial civilization, in this connection, we consider it necessary to give an official comment.

Over the past few years, staff SINP MSU (Institute of Nuclear Physics of Moscow State University named Skobeltsyn) jointly c SAO staff conducted exploratory work on the study of astronomical objects – SETI candidates (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). SETI – the common name of projects and activities to search for extraterrestrial intelligence. The program is focused on the search for artificial radio emission. Research is being conducted on the RATAN-600 using a broadband continuum radiometers in the frequency range 1-22.7 GHz. Conducting such observations on RATAN-600 has been made possible thanks to its large collecting surface – thousands of square meters, which is why the high sensitivity allows the telescope to search for radio signals are extremely weak in the universe, which include SETI objects. The objects of study for this program are Sun-like stars with planets and Sun-like stars, planets whose presence is unknown.

Under this program, in 2015 on one of the objects (the star HD164595 system in the constellation of Hercules), it was detected interesting radio signal at a wavelength of 2.7 cm. The processing and signal analysis revealed that the most likely, it’s still a signal of terrestrial origin.

With regard to other research facilities on RATAN-600, it is currently too early to talk about the reliability of the scientific results. The measurements can evaluate radio emission study areas just to the upper limit of detection. With confidence we can say that the search signal is not detected.”

And that’s where we currently are. We probably won’t know much more until perhaps the IAC meeting next month, or if by chance the signal is detected again. As it stands, the signal was most likely terrestrial interference, as has happened often before.

You can track SETI live as it searches for this or other signals on its website.

 

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15 comments to Aliens in Hercules? Possible SETI Signal Detected by Russian Radio Telescope Remains Elusive

  • Tracy the Troll

    “This is a bit of a puzzling story, as the Russians found this signal a year ago or so, but just didn’t let others know.”

    Really this is a surprise that Mafia run Russia didn’t share a potential transmission from outer space that might be sending technological market disruptive data with the rest of the world?

  • And yet,to put this in some petspective, the estimated diameter of the Milky Way is 100,000 light years. Really close by. And there are billions of galaxies. Alone? I think not! Sooner or later we’ll find the signals.

    • Tracy the Troll

      Tom,
      Alone???? Signals???
      The UFO’s that people see in the sky are Aliens but they are not here to invade, rather they are taking inventory and assessment for use after we have destroyed ourselves…

      • James

        Tracy the Troll –

        Over forty years ago, a friend, who had been recently honorably discharged from the army after having made some modest achievements while serving in a relatively well-known unit, went sailing with me on a big and lovely lake.

        Being amateur sailors, we both wanted to get some extensive sailing experience with my newly purchased sailboat prior to taking it out on much larger and more dangerous lakes.

        There were no other boats on the lake. Since we were both working full time and usually quite busy, we decided to keep on sailing into the long evening and then continued to sail in the darkness because we wouldn’t have many more opportunities to go sailing that summer.

        It was a perfectly beautiful night filled with a warm gentle breeze and stars and mores stars.

        And then we saw a light in the dark and star filled sky. The light zigged and zagged and sometimes went quickly in a long straight direction almost to the horizon. It made instant stops and changes in the direction of its fast and silent flight across the broad darkness that it shared with the stars.

        I’d been to quite a few airshows in my youth and was quite a space and aviation cadet.

        My friend had gained some experience with helicopters while in the army and his parents owned a home near an airport.

        We both knew that what we were witnessing was the flight of something that was not made by humans.

        One of us finally said, and I cannot remember if it was him or me, “That’s a UFO!”

        I have slept outside many times under a dark sky and stars in America, Canada, Europe, and Asia. I’ve never seen anything in the sky that I couldn’t offer a reasonable explanation for except for that one fast moving light observed for about two minutes while sailing under the stars.

        Now all these years later you have come up with an explanation I hadn’t really thought of:

        “The UFO’s that people see in the sky are Aliens but they are not here to invade, rather they are taking inventory and assessment for use after we have destroyed ourselves…”

        Yep. OK, I’ll add that to the list of possible explanations for what my friend and I saw in the sky above my sailboat on that summer night long ago.

        Thank you Tracy the Troll!

  • Tim

    Ok, if it is real, such a strong signal could only come from a very advanced civilization. As our race at our present stage of development is now finding planets with Kepler and with newer equipment we will soon be able to analyze the atmospheres of those planets and planets to be discovered as they transit across their star, so if this is a true alien race(not likely, but possible)they would have more advanced equipment than we do to observe the planets they have discovered in the Goldilocks zone orbiting other stars. Ok lets say they have observed thousands of worlds and with that more advanced equipment and found at least one world(earth) that had the right trace elements or maybe even saw spectral lines for chlorophyll. They know there is life, but intelligence? How would they know? By now radio waves are arriving from 1922 and they would have confirmation, but the signal the Russians received was sent in 1921 or so. At that time the light and any electromagnetic radiation from earth that they were viewing was from 95 years prior to the time they beamed a signal to us around the mid 1820s. How could they have known we were here? Maybe such a civilization is monitoring the atmosphere of all planets identified with all elements or chemical associated with life( maybe we are the only one?). Now in the mid 1820’s, the chemicals of the industrial revolution(which had been underway since 1760)were entering the atmosphere and their advance equipment detected it. And a signal was sent that may arrive in 95 years to a more advanced earth able to receive it. Now we should watch for more signals. A type II civilization? we see the star, so no Dyson’s sphere there. A type one or almost type one that periodically beams a signal at intervals to us? The power required may be so great for this civilization that signals can’t be sent continually and only at intervals when the entire race diverts power to this endeavor. If so, they are enthusiastically trying to tell us the are there and were not alone! So we need to constantly monitor this star. Another thought those signals are being sent out to a generations ship or probes sent out to explore a world that they feel harbors life! Or the space arks are on the way from a world that was about to die due to runaway climate change or such ……boy will they be surprised!

    • Tracy the Troll

      Tim,
      Fascinating account, however…

      “Another thought those signals are being sent out to a generations ship or probes sent out to explore a world that they feel harbors life! Or the space arks are on the way from a world that was about to die due to runaway climate change or such ……boy will they be surprised!”

      I think that if they have the technology to travel from another star system to Earth they will certainly know the difference between normal climate cycles and a accounting trick used to generate revenue for the Planets Elite. As such I don’t think they would think twice about residing on Earth.

    • Joe

      “Or the space arks are on the way from a world that was about to die due to runaway climate change or such ……boy will they be surprised!”

      One of the conundrums of interstellar colonization is precisely the concept of a space ark.

      It assumes that generations would live in an In-Space Habitat to arrive at an “Earth Like” planet, then abandon the habitat to live on the planet (doing whatever with any indigenous inhabitants).

      But if the Habitat was comfortable enough for generations in inhabit, would the residents really want to leave it for the (to them) “strange” environment of Earth?

      More likely they would want to use resources of the smaller bodies of the Star System (moons/asteroids) of build more Habitats. But if they are going to do that, why go to a new Star System to do it? They could probably do that in their Home System.

      If Interstellar Travel actually ever happens the more likely motivation will be curiosity.

      • Tracy the Troll

        Joe,
        You raise a very good point as here on Earth, the concept of small body mining is leading the demand for space startups. One would assume that would be a universal economic concept and one that would require an Ark Ship to be constantly mining space for resources to refuel, restock, renovate and expand the Ark Ship as required.

    • James

      Tim –

      “As our race at our present stage of development is now finding planets with Kepler and with newer equipment we will soon be able to analyze the atmospheres of those planets and planets to be discovered as they transit across their star, so if this is a true alien race(not likely, but possible)they would have more advanced equipment than we do to observe the planets they have discovered in the Goldilocks zone orbiting other stars.”

      It would appear that defining “the Goldilocks zone” (aka the habitable zone or HZ) has various issues, such as Galactic Cosmic Radiation and planetary magnetic fields and clouds that may be critical to the potential initial evolution of life.

      “Finally, part of the energetic charged particles reach the planetary surface, where they contribute to a potentially harmful radiation background and increase the effective dose rate. This increase is only a factor of a few for the case of an Earth-like atmosphere. For planets with a thin atmosphere, however, magnetospheric shielding is important to protect the surface. This may also have important implications for studies of the possibility of life on the surface of sub-Earth-mass exoplanets close to their host star.”

      From: Astronomy & Astrophysics March 22, 2016 ‘Galactic cosmic rays on extrasolar Earth-like planets: II. Atmospheric implications’ By J.–M. Grießmeier, F. Tabataba-Vakili, A. Stadelmann, J. L. Grenfell, and D. Atri
      At: http://arxiv.org/pdf/1603.06500v1.pdf

      Note also:

      “The extent of the HZ does not take the effect of clouds into account. The physics is, however, still very poorly understood, but the consequences should mainly move the HZ(1) toward the star if the cooling reflective properties of the clouds are stronger than their warming effect, (2) outward if the warming effect is stronger than the cooling, or (3) potentially extending the HZ in both directions if the water clouds that form at the inner edge of the HZ have a cooling effect while the CO2 clouds that form at the outer edge of the HZ have a warming effect (see the section titled Biomarkers).”

      From: ‘Stellar Aspects of Habitability—Characterizing Target Stars for Terrestrial Planet-Finding Missions’ By Kaltenegger, Lisa; Eiroa, Carlos; Ribas, Ignasi; Paresce, Francesco; Leitzinger, Martin; Odert, Petra; Hanslmeier, Arnold; Fridlund, Malcolm; Lammer, Helmut; Beichman, Charles; Danchi, William; Henning,Thomas; Herbst, Tom; L ́eger, Alain; Liseau, Ren ́e; Lunine, Jonathan; Penny, Alan; Quirrenbach, Andreas; Rottgering, Huub; Selsis, Frank; Schneider, Jean; Stam, Daphne; Tinetti, Giovanna and White, Glenn J. 2010.
      Astrobiology, 10(1) pp. 103–112.
      At: http://oro.open.ac.uk/25564/1/glenn.pdf

      Prior to having the ability to head off to visit or live near distant stars we should have the capability of Terraforming the Moon, Mars, Mercury, and Venus and building huge numbers of extremely large mining Space Arks or Habitats. And this thought is noted by Joe’s above “conundrum”:

      “One of the conundrums of interstellar colonization is precisely the concept of a space ark.”

      “More likely they would want to use resources of the smaller bodies of the Star System (moons/asteroids) of build more Habitats. But if they are going to do that, why go to a new Star System to do it? They could probably do that in their Home System.”

      Eventually, Ark Starships loaded with millions or even a billion frozen humans with advanced AI cyborg subsystems embedded in their brains may leave on journeys to far distant star systems, or even other galaxies, for reasons that we folks of 2016 might find hard to fully accept or even understand.

      Humans have evolved significantly in the past and continue to evolve today.

      Time will tell.

  • Tim

    Let’s hope, our world”s only value is curiosity. But I agree with H G Wells, kind of, micro organisms may be like a planetary defense system. I think ETs would most likely terraform worlds or prefer worlds that are like their own where life just didn’t quite happen or hasn’t happened yet. Or move out in their solar system and live in artificial environments. Most likely the “Signal” was a fluke and our closest technological advanced neighbors are very far away indeed…. or intelligent life is so rare, we’re it in the milky way galaxy. That would make our survival paramount!

  • Tim

    Wonder how much of its residents will be Biological and how much might be AI of some type?

  • It is fanciful to imagine another race of “homophobe sapiens” out there. The sheer limitless number of planets make it statistically likely….but perhaps we’ll never know.

  • Should read “homo sapiens”

  • Vladislaw

    Would you not be able to detect a nuclear detonation in the atmosphere? I would think that would be “wow” signal that alien species would be looking for if they are monitoring a couple hundred thousand planets in the goldilocks zone.

    I would imagine you would send automated arks that just hold eggs in cryo? Just do seeding of DNA on potential planets?

  • Vladislaw

    If a species found a way to travel between stars I would imagine that the galaxy would be colonized and ownership established. We might be owned as a simple DNA bank?