We recently heard the news that a Russian radio telescope had picked up strong radio signals, apparently coming from the direction of an obscure star. Too faint to be seen with the unaided eye, the star is HD164595, an entry in a catalog of stars studied in the late 1800s at the Harvard College Observatory, where Annie Jump Cannon classified a quarter of a million of those stars. The “HD” comes from the wealthy physician and amateur astronomer Henry Draper, whose memorial had funded the project.
This star had already been discovered to have a planet orbiting about it, so the notion of an alien on that planet trying to communicate with us seemed intriguing.
But, in the spirit of science, the observation is not valid unless other scientists can replicate it. The star was observed with the Green Bank Telescope, the largest steerable radio telescope in the world. The GBT is in West Virginia, built using a federal earmark provided by the late, powerful Sen. Robert Byrd. (The GBT had replaced a scope that was built on a shoestring budget and just collapsed one night.) The GBT got no E.T.
Astronomers at the SETI (Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) Institute in California observed the star with its Allen Array, a project initially funded with a lead gift by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. The array of 10 dishes was steered to the star. Nothing was found. These radio observations were in disarray.
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It would turn out in the end that the Russian dish had apparently picked up signals from a Russian military satellite. We astronomers are not normally privy to knowledge of such secret satellites. Our militaries can’t tell us their capabilities, nor should they. If I know our capability, then the enemy knows.
The incident reminded me of when I was in graduate school at the University of Florida. We had a large array of radio antennas used to study the radio waves coming from Jupiter, triggered by its moon Io. The radio engineer had equipment at home, too, and as a hobby he liked to discover new secret Soviet satellites that were freshly launched. He would call up their embassy and snarkily tell them of his discovery. He’s probably lucky to still be alive.
The tinfoil-hat crowd has, of course, claimed that we know of E.T. but that we are hiding the truth lest the world panics. But, like claims of an E.T. in a freezer in Area 51, such secrets would be purposeless and, in today’s world, impossible to keep.
We’ll keep looking for E.T. And, if E.T. is within about a hundred light years, the distance our first radio waves have gone since the birth of radio, E.T. may already know we are here. I hope we get a real call.
Daniel B. Caton is a physics and astronomy professor and director of observatories at Appalachian State University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. www.upintheair.info