• The Financial District


Nobody believes it was ET phoning, but radio astronomers admit they do not have an explanation yet for a beam of radio waves that apparently came from the direction of the star Proxima Centauri, Dennis Overbye reported for the New York Times.

“It’s some sort of technological signal. The question is whether it’s Earth technology or technology from somewhere out yonder,” said Sofia Sheikh, a graduate student at Pennsylvania State University leading a team studying the signal and trying to decipher its origin.

She is part of Breakthrough Listen, a $100 million effort funded by Yuri Milner, a Russian billionaire investor, to find alien radio waves. The project has now stumbled on its most intriguing pay dirt yet.

Proxima Centauri is an inviting prospect for “out yonder.” It is the closest known star to the sun, only 4.24 light-years from Earth, part of a triple-star system known as Alpha Centauri.

Proxima has at least two planets, one of which is a rocky world only slightly more massive than Earth that occupies the star’s so-called habitable zone, where temperatures should be conducive to water, the stuff of life, on its surface.

The radio signal itself, detected in spring 2019 and reported on earlier in The Guardian, is in many ways the stuff of dreams for alien hunters. It was a narrow-band signal with a frequency of 982.02 megahertz as recorded at the Parkes Observatory in Australia.

Nature, whether an exploding star or a geomagnetic storm, tends to broadcast on a wide range of frequencies. “The signal appears to only show up in our data when we’re looking in the direction of Proxima Centauri, which is exciting,” Sheikh said.

“That’s a threshold that’s never been passed by any signal that we’ve seen previously, but there are a lot of caveats.”

Practitioners of the hopeful field of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, also known as SETI, say they have seen it all before. “We’ve seen these types of signal before, and it’s always turned out to be RFI — radio frequency interference,” Dan Werthimer, chief technologist at the Berkeley SETI Research Center, who is not part of the Proxima Centauri study, wrote in an email.

That thought was echoed by his Berkeley colleague Andrew Siemion, who is the principal investigator for Breakthrough Listen. “Our experiment exists in a sea of interfering signals,” he said. “My instinct in the end is that it will be anthropogenic in origin,” he added. “But so far we can’t yet fully explain it.”


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