- Abe Mandez is a planetary astrobiologist at the University of Puerto Rico
- Weird signal arrived when he pointed telescope at Ross 128, a small star
- Frequency of signals was same as radio emissions from many satellites
It presented a mystery within a mystery, said Mendez, a planetary astrobiologist at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo. First, did it originate in space, on the ground, or somewhere in near-Earth orbit? And second, wherever it came from, what could have produced it?
After spotting the strange signal in May, Mendez did what a good scientist always does: He took a closer look. He sought the advice of experts, asked other observatories to watch for the signal and applied for more telescope time in hopes of detecting the pulses again.
Here's what he didn't do: speculate that it's aliens. But after he described the signal in a brief blog post last week, "that's all anyone wants to know about," Mendez said with an exasperated laugh. "I have that experience even with my family."
The impulse to attribute any odd astronomical phenomena to extraterrestrial intelligence is so compelling it's practically its own law of physics. But jumping to "aliens" at the slightest mention of a strange signal kind of misses the point, Mendez said. Not everything has to come from aliens to be cool. Space is full of sights we don't yet understand, sounds we haven't quite explained. Sure, the possibility that they're signs of life beyond Earth is thrilling, but so, too, is an encounter with any new natural phenomenon. And even when supposedly strange stuff in space turns out to be something mundane, that realization helps astronomers fine-tune their instruments and improve their surveys of the skies.
Whatever the result, mysteries like this one are a reminder of how much of our universe is left to explore - and motivation for scientists like Mendez to keep probing for answers.
"I have had so much mystery in my life in the past month," Mendez said. "We hate that."
Mendez's signal was initially detected during a campaign to observe nearby red dwarfs - very cool, dim stars that are widespread in our galaxy. Several of these stars are thought to be candidates to host planets that may be hospitable to life, so scientists are interested in knowing more about them. A few months ago, Mendez and his colleagues spent an evening surveying several red dwarf stars at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico - the world's largest fully operational radio telescope (China's Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope is still undergoing testing).
Arecibo also happens to be the observatory where fictional astronomer Ellie Arroway first looked for extraterrestrial signals in the movie "Contact," and where real astronomers, like Jill Tarter and Frank Drake, have sought signs of alien life - but Mendez doesn't let that go to his head, and you shouldn't either.
The weird signal arrived while Arecibo was pointed at Ross 128, a small star in the constellation Virgo that's too faint to be seen with the naked eye.
This doesn't mean that the radio emission came from that star. Mendez must consider the possibility that the signal's source is something much more prosaic. Because Arecibo is so sensitive, it often picks up ground-based signals. Something as small as a cellphone can create interference that disturbs radio telescope observations. Astronomers at Australia's Parkes Telescope famously spent months looking for the source of enigmatic signals called "perytons," only to discover they came from the kitchen microwave.
Yet Mendez is fairly confident that the signal is not Earthly. It was detectable only during the brief minutes that Arecibo was trained on Ross 128, and not during the observations immediately before and after. This suggests that the signal came from something in Arecibo's field of view during its observation of Ross 128.
Mendez consulted with four scientists from the SETI Institute, which searches for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. They compared the Arecibo signal to a catalogue of known kinds of radio emissions - a checklist used by astronomers to make sure their weird observations aren't just a satellite acting up. The SETI scientists noted that the frequency of the signal, somewhere between 4.6 and 4.8 GHz, was in the same range as the radio emissions from many satellites.
But the signal's "shape" didn't look like the emissions that come from satellites, Mendez said. Instead, it had the "distinctive structure of something that comes from far away."
"I mean, really far away," he added. "Like stellar or farther."
Red dwarf stars are known to emit flares - eruptions of high-energy radiation that go rippling through space. But the radio signatures of these flares are usually at a different frequency than that of the signal. If the signal is a result of a dramatic stellar outburst, it would likely be a type of flare scientists haven't seen before.
Such a signal could also be a result of an interaction between the star and an orbiting planet, though no planets have been found around Ross 128. In addition, it's possible that the signal is coming from another source in space that the astronomers haven't identified yet.
On Sunday, Mendez was given almost an hour of time at Arecibo to observe Ross 128 and another nearby red dwarf, Barnard's Star. He is still working to analyze the data from that effort, so it is too soon to tell whether he was able to detect the signal again. Researchers at the Green Bank radio telescope in West Virginia and the Allen Telescope Array in California also tuned into the star last weekend. Mendez said the results of the observations should become available later this week.
The worst case scenario is that Mendez and his fellow astronomers can't find the signal again. Then, Mendez said, "the mystery deepens," because the trail has run cold.
But if they do achieve a second detection, their first goal is to determine where the signal is coming from. "If I can figure out if it's something astronomical, then I will worry about what astronomical thing is causing that," Mendez said. "And the same way if we find out it's a satellite."
If the results indicate that the signal originates close to home, then Mendez and his colleagues will have to track down the source and add it to the list of known "not alien" emissions. That wouldn't be a particularly exciting result, Mendez acknowledged, but it would be satisfying nonetheless. It's essential for astronomers to know about all the weird noises instruments on Earth can make, so they can be sure of what they're looking at if and when something truly alien streams down from the skies.
"But I'm hoping it's astronomical," Mendez said. "That would be something to write about . . . there will be a lot of work and a paper there."
That's astronomers for you. They're the kind of people who look forward to "a lot of work" and writing papers. This doesn't mean they're immune to daydreams about aliens (Mendez runs the University of Puerto Rico's Planetary Habitability Lab, after all), or that they don't appreciate the possibilities that a mystery like this one raises.
But mostly, Mendez likes mysteries because he likes solving them. He wants to add just a little bit to our understanding of the universe.
(This story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)