The Alien Search Project Breakthrough Listen found an intriguing and promising signal from Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Sun just 4.2 light years away. Some properties of the signal appear to be typical of artificial transmission, but researchers have not yet ruled out that it is human interference – although they haven’t found any evidence of this either.
Before someone pops a champagne there, it’s worth the warning: we’re not talking about something that can already be described as evidence of intelligent life outside the earth. The project scientists would like to emphasize that for now this is just a provocative result that needs to be independently confirmed and carefully analyzed to rule out a false positive caused by terrestrial interference or even one (least likely) natural occurrence.
Now that we’ve given the warning, let’s move on to the story that researchers initially didn’t even want to talk about until a scientific article was published in early 2021. However, it is difficult to contain enthusiasm for such things, and the results eventually reached British The Guardian newspaper, which published a report on Friday (18).
The discovery story began on April 29, 2019 when a group of researchers started a series of observations using the Parkes Radio Telescope in Australia to study stellar explosions in Proxima Centauri – a red dwarf much smaller than the Sun. around which a planet orbits in the habitable zone (the area of the system conducive to maintaining stable water on the surface of a planetary body).
The Australian Parkes Radio Telescope is part of the largest extraterrestrial information retrieval project in history, Breakthrough Lists. (Image credit: CSIRO)
The data (a total of 26 hours of listening over a week, 30 minutes each) would be used secondarily to search for potential signals of artificial origin as part of the Breakthrough Listen project, which has been funded by the Russian tycoon Yuri Milner since 2015 $ 100 million with the goal of looking for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence.
At the end of October 2020, more than a year later, the analysis revealed something special in the midst of the radio cacophony emanating from Proxima Centauri in these 26 hours: a strong and very narrow band signal at 982 megahertz.
The same signal was found in five consecutive stargazing sessions (30 minutes each) over approximately three hours. In the intervals between these sessions, the signal disappeared as the radio telescope collected data aimed at a different region of the sky. This is one of the main strategies to eliminate the possibility of terrestrial interference (which occurs on a mountain). Obviously, if the signal appeared in two regions distant from the sky on the same observation night, it would not come from the sky. The detection now known as BLC1 (Breakthrough Listen Candidate 1) passed this test.
Indeed, it was the first sign that the project scientists examined, exhausting the most mundane ways to dismiss it as a false positive. And it has the peculiarity of being in a very limited frequency range that has not been seen in any signal of natural origin (stars produce a lot of radio emission, but never in a narrow band).
On the other hand, it looks like a “tone”, it has no modulation that could contain additional information. And its subtle frequency drift (which may indicate the common movement of the point of origin and the point of reception of the signal) does not seem to match a transmitter orbiting Proxima Centauri, as would an antenna located there on a planet.
Of course there is also the fact that no one else has repeated this observation made in Parkes. Repetition and new detection of the same signal are basic requirements in order to move the finding from the list “promising” to the list “likely”.
Nobody at Breakthrough Listen currently knows how to explain the origin of the signal. But nobody also relies on aliens. “The most likely cause is human,” Pete Worden, executive director of the Breakthrough Initiatives project, which includes Listen, told Scientific American. “And when I say most likely, it’s 99.9%.”
However, science thrives on testing hypotheses. The next task is to listen, look for a repetition and at the same time examine the data collected and look for phenomena that could explain the mysterious “tone” in the 982 megahertz frequency for what appeared to be about three hours come from Proxima Centauri.
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