Signal from sun-like star likely of Earthling variety

Posted at 1:00 PM, Aug 31, 2016

Apologies to the Tin Foil Hat Clan, but that mysterious signal emanating from a star in the constellation Hercules? Yeah, probably not an alien.

If E.T. didn’t phone home, what happened, you ask? It appears Earthlings are responsible, though scientists haven’t explained exactly how.

Telescope researcher Yulia Sotnikova issued a statement Wednesday via the Russian Academy of Sciences Special Astrophysical Observatory saying analysis had “revealed (the signal’s) most probable terrestrial origin,” and that astronomers across the world continued to look for additional signals.

“It can be said with confidence that no sought-for signal has been detected yet,” the statement said.

In an interview with the state-run TASS Russian News Agency, Sotnikova did not divulge a source for the signal, saying only that the signal “was most likely a terrestrial disturbance.”

One possibility is a satellite. Alexander Ipatov, director of RAS’ Institute of Applied Astronomy, told TASS that during “the Soviet period” he had been among a group of astronomers at Southwest Russia’s Zelenchukskaya observatory that had discovered an “unusual signal.”

“However, an additional check showed that it was emanating from a Soviet military satellite, which had not been entered into any of the catalogs of celestial bodies,” Ipatov said.

How’d we get here?

The intergalactic hullabaloo over the most recent signal began Tuesday when media outlets began reporting that an odd signal was registered by the Zelenchukskaya observatory’s radio telescope, known as the Ratan-600 (not to be confused with the illudium Q-36 explosive space modulator).

Astronomers devoted to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, began aiming powerful telescopes at the star, roughly 94 light years from the Earth.

It’s tough to make that number meaningful. You could break it down into miles — roughly 553 trillion — but that’s likely more meaningless. How about 22 trillion times the Earth’s circumference?

Eh, never mind. Let’s just say it’s a long dang way from here.

The star — catchily dubbed HD 164595 — is a “strong candidate for SETI,” according to astronomers and was believed to be the origin of a radio signal.

If, in fact, the signal was artificial, its strength was sufficient to determine “it was clearly made by a civilization with capabilities beyond those of humankind,” said astronomer Douglas Vakoch, president of METI International.

Emphasis on “if.”

“Without corroboration from an independent observatory, a putative signal from extraterrestrials doesn’t have a lot of credibility,” Vakoch said.

TTYL, aliens?

METI stands for messaging extraterrestrial intelligence, and we’re not talking about DMing Yoda.

If this signal had come from aliens on or in the vicinity of HD 164595, it would’ve required some otherworldly juice to get it here, suggesting a civilization far more advanced than our own.

Considering humans play the lottery and often stick scalding-hot pizza in their mouths, that may not sound like it’s saying a lot. But chew on this (once it cools): In 1964, Soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev developed an eponymous system for categorizing life forms.

“The Kardashev scale is based basically on the energy that that civilization might be able to funnel for its own use,” Italian astronomer Claudio Maccone explained.

Humans are almost Type I, the designation for a civilization that can harness and store energy from the sun, wind, earthquakes and other fuels. No biggie.

Beaming a signal strong enough to be detected 94 light years away would have to come from a Type II civilization, meaning it’s able to harness all the energy emitted by its star, billions of billions of watts. (Don’t get us started on what Type IIIs can do.)

Such a transmission would require some kind of superstructure, which, wholly unlike Earth’s Walmart Supercenters, could catch and store all radiation emitted by the sun. If aliens wanted to text or DM humans, scientists say, they’d likely need a superstructure.

But why would they want to reach us, aside from the obvious — obtaining DVDs of “The Wire” or tickets to a Beyoncé show? (Ha! Take that Type II civilizations with your fancy superstructures!)

For a scientific answer to this looming query, let’s consult a statement released by Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer with the SETI Institute.

“It’s hard to understand why anyone would want to target our solar system with a strong signal,” he said. “This star system is so far away they won’t have yet picked up on any TV or radar that would tell them that we’re here.”

So, there you go. Even the brainiacs have no idea.

Hunt continues

Why did Earth jump to the unlikely conclusion that aliens were trying to ping us? You likely know the answer: 42.

OK, that’s a joke. Obscure literary references aside, fans of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” — or “2001,” “Star Wars,” “Lost in Space,” “Guardians of the Galaxy” and hundreds of other artistic endeavors — can attest that many humans simply like the idea of aliens.

When an announcement surfaces suggesting a signal came from an extraterrestrial lifeform, of course imaginations run wild, even if scientists are quick to temper fantasies with phrases such as “no scientific results within the framework of this research.”

While Wednesday’s RAS report represents a buzzkill for those dreamily looking to the stars in anticipation of a close encounter, the fun isn’t over.

METI International will continue using its Boquete Optical SETI Observatory in Panama in search of “brief laser pulses that might be sent as a beacon from advanced extraterrestrials,” METI president Vakoch said. And the SETI Institute is also examining HD 164595 using the Allen Telescope Array in California.

And, naturally, the world’s astronomers will continue scouring the heavens for “sun-like stars,” with or without detected planets, emitting signals or other indications of life in far-flung galaxies.

Let’s just make sure that when we find them, or they find us, we’re not shoving hot pizza in our mouths.