Mysterious bursts of radio signals is detected from outer space… Is this proof aliens are trying to contact us?

Mysterious bursts of radio signals is detected from outer space… Is this proof aliens are trying to contact us?The signals has prompted questions about the existence of alien civilisations in outer space

A huge Russian telescope in a remote part of the Caucasus detects a mysterious burst of radio signal coming from far away in outer space.

It’s traced to a 6.3 billion-year-old star in a constellation 94.4 light years away from Earth, meaning the radio waves have been traveling across the universe to us since 1922.

The implications are mind-blowing as scientists across the globe rush to their telescopes. Could it really be that an alien civilization far more advanced than ours is trying to make contact?

We’ve seen this gripping scenario play out a hundred times before in Hollywood feature films about alien contact.

Ultimately, the only question mark is whether they’re trying to extend the hand of peace or are intent on hovering over the White House for a few nail-biting hours before blowing us all to kingdom come.

Only this time, the reports of a possible extraterrestrial transmission are real.

An international team from the U.S.-based Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) institute is investigating a burst of microwave radiation, lasting no more than two seconds, that was picked up on May 15 last year by the RATAN-600 observatory in Zelenchukskaya, a hilly region close to the border with Georgia.

The discovery was initially kept secret as the scientists involved wanted to announce it in their own time, but it has filtered out to a stunned star-gazing community.

after decades in which alien hunters have been fruitlessly scanning the stars and finding no evidence that anyone else is out there, the news from Russia has inevitably sparked enormous excitement.

SETI’s biggest radio telescopes — the monstrous dishes of the Allen Telescope Array in California — have swung into action, focusing their attention on the signal’s source in the vicinity of a sun-like star named, not so excitingly, HD 164595.

The star, which isn’t visible to the naked eye, sits in the Hercules constellation.

The team has yet to find any signals matching those discovered by the Russians, but acknowledge they ‘have not yet covered the full range of frequencies in which the signal could be located’.

The researchers who discovered the signal have called for the target solar system to be monitored permanently for any new possible communications.

A Russian radio telescope, similar to the Lovell radio telescope at The Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire, northwest England (pictured), picked up the signal

A Russian radio telescope, similar to the Lovell radio telescope at The Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire, northwest England (pictured), picked up the signal

The star appears to have a size and temperature similar to the Sun. The only known planet in its system is a ‘warm Neptune’, so called because it is gaseous, like the planet Neptune.

This Neptune, however, orbits its sun in only 40 days. Though it is not considered likely as a source of life, there are probably other planets — rocky ones far more suitable for life — in the same system.

On one fact, the experts seem certain. If the signal really did come from an extraterrestrial beacon, the aliens who sent it are hugely more advanced than we are.

Just how advanced depends on whether they were targeting Earth or transmitting radio waves in all directions.

According to Seth Shostak, an astronomer at SETI, the energy a beacon would need to produce to send a signal in all directions this far into space would be a mind-blowing 100 quintillion watts.

‘It’s hundreds of times more than all the energy falling on the Earth from sunlight,’ he says.

It goes without saying this would require a power source far beyond anything that exists on Earth.

SETI — which was founded in the Seventies and is financed by private donors and U.S. government agencies — uses its own scale, called the Kardashev after the Soviet astronomer who created it, to measure the advancement of an alien civilisation.

Astronomer Seth Shostak says the energy a beacon would need to produce to send a signal in all directions this far into space would be a mind-blowing 100 quintillion watts

Astronomer Seth Shostak says the energy a beacon would need to produce to send a signal in all directions this far into space would be a mind-blowing 100 quintillion watts

An extra-terrestrial culture that might be able to send such a signal in all directions would be a Kardashev Type II civilisation, capable of tapping all the energy of its sun.

The most popular hypothetical means of doing this is a so-called Dyson sphere (nothing to do with the vacuum cleaners), a Star Wars-style device that would cover the entire sun and transfer its energy to the planet.

If, however, rather than broadcasting in all directions, the alien civilisation is instead purposefully aiming its signal at us, the power it would need drops significantly, to a little over a trillion watts.

That’s 100,000 times less power than is needed to send a signal throughout the universe, but it’s still a huge amount — comparable to the total energy consumption of the Earth’s entire human population.

‘All the cars, all the planes, all the electronic devices, everything,’ says Shostak. ‘This is not a high-school science project.’

Such a radio signal could point to a (relatively) less advanced Kardashev Type I civilisation, which is only able to harness the sunlight falling on its planet.

But scientists don’t think it likely that anyone would want to target our solar system with a strong signal.

After all, the star system from where the radio burst is believed to have come is so far away the inhabitants would not yet have picked up the radar and TV signals that would reveal to them we exist. That is because neither existed 94 years ago: the time it would take for such signals to reach our possible ‘new neighbours’.

So, while the internet was sent into a frenzy about HD 164595, astronomers are more sceptical.

No one in the scientific community has said the signal must have definitely come from an extra- terrestrial radio signal. In fact, as experts have warned, there are a other plausible explanations.

Radio interference from Earth is the most likely alternative. Radio telescopes have been known to pick up rogue signals caused by mobile phones, microwave ovens and even flushing lavatories.

Another possibility is stellar flares, sudden bursts of energy released by stars, which can produce the sort of one-off, powerful signal the Russian observatory detected.

A further potential explanation is that the spike in the radio wave was caused by a spy satellite.

The telescope that detected the signal, operated by the Russian Academy of Science, is the only one that has so far picked it up. Sceptics say they won’t take the signal seriously as a possible extra- terrestrial contact until it is recorded by another observatory.

After so many years on the trail, alien hunters are anxious to find corroborating evidence.

The astronomer Jill Tarter, the former head of SETI and the scientist on whom Jodie Foster’s character was based in the alien encounter film Contact, is keeping an open mind. ‘HD 164595 — who knows? One telescope is not enough and an array is better,’ she says.

Believer: Dr Jill Tarter leaves the Center for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence in California after 35 years
Believer: Dr Jill Tarter leaves the Center for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence in California after 35 years (left). She was the inspiration for the film Contact starring Jodie Foster (right)

Believer: Dr Jill Tarter (left) was the inspiration for the film Contact starring Jodie Foster (right)

It is no wonder they are keen for more information.

The signal from HD 164595 is intriguing, because it comes from the vicinity of a sun- like star.

‘If it’s artificial, its strength is great enough that it was clearly made by a civilisation with capabilities beyond those of humankind,’ says Douglas Vakoch, an astronomer at METI International, a research body that wants to send signals to extraterrestrials as well as pick up their messages.

Back on Earth, a squabble is growing. SETI has accused the Russian observatory of breaching star- gazing protocol by not alerting other researchers in time for them to confirm its observation.

Astronomer Jerry Ehman famously registered a 72-second intense blast of radio waves from a group of stars called Chi Sagittarii in the late 1970s and wrote ‘Wow!’ in his notes.

Astronomer Jerry Ehman famously registered a 72-second intense blast of radio waves from a group of stars called Chi Sagittarii in the late 1970s and wrote ‘Wow!’ in his notes.

Some experts fear it may be too late to double-check the radio signal from the Hercules constellation, leaving it to become another so-called ‘Wow!’ signal that extraterrestrial researchers pick up for a tantalising moment, but are frustratingly never able to explain.

In Ohio in 1977, astronomer Jerry Ehman famously registered a 72-second intense blast of radio waves from a group of stars called Chi Sagittarii and wrote ‘Wow!’ in his notes. The signal never returned.

But in some quarters, there are increasing hopes of an answer to the old question: is there anyone out there?

Scientists have assumed since the Fifties that if there are aliens, they may be beaming radio waves into space, deliberately or accidentally.

The question was to find the right frequency and then tune in. However, under-funding of research has meant experts have been able to scan only a tiny fraction of space.

A $100 million project, Breakthrough Listen, funded by Russian technology entrepreneur Yuri Milner and backed by the scientist Stephen Hawking, launched this year to re-energise the hunt for ET.

It has assigned two of the world’s biggest radio telescopes to focus on the million nearest star systems.

Some sceptics, however, wonder whether it isn’t terribly old- fashioned to be searching for radio waves, speculating that aliens may be communicating across the universe in far more technologically advanced ways.

Anybody out there? Dr Tarter on a platform 500ft above the huge radio telescope dish where she directs the search for signs of civilization in outer space

Anybody out there? Dr Tarter on a platform 500ft above the huge radio telescope dish where she directs the search for signs of civilization in outer space

Of course, the bigger question remains: does anyone out there actually want to contact us?

In his novel The War Of The Worlds, H. G. Wells had little doubt that the Martians, stuck on their cold, rocky planet, would covet Earth jealously.

But that was before Nasa sent out the unmanned Voyager spacecraft in 1977, loaded with golden phonograph records as messages from Earth to any intelligent alien life that found them.

The records — accompanied by a printed message from the then U.S. President Jimmy Carter — provided supposedly representative images, sounds and music, including the noise of an industrial rivet gun, a picture of a Chinese dinner party and a recording of Johnny B. Goode by Chuck Berry.

But surely, if there is an alien civilisation orbiting star HD 164595, it sounds far too advanced to have anything so primitive as a record player.

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