Unraveling the mystery of a radio signal that appeared from a nearby star | science and planet

The radio signal was picked up by an Australian radio telescope in early 2019 and appears to come from Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our solar system. But it did not come from extraterrestrials, according to two papers published yesterday in the scientific journal natural astronomy.

“It was a radio interference caused by humans with some form of technology, presumably on Earth,” astronomer Sophia Sheikh of the University of California, Berkeley, who contributed to the papers, told the scientific journal.


However, the signal was promising. It was discovered by Breakthrough Listen, a research project that has been searching for signs of extraterrestrial life (SETI) since 2016. Telescopes are used around the world for this. Millions of anonymous radio bursts have been detected in recent years, but almost all of them can be categorized as signals caused by radio interference on the ground, from telephone towers and flight radars, among other things.

Proxima b orbits Proxima Centauri. © Reuters

The 2019 signal came from the direction of Proxima Centauri and was different from the others. Investigators were immediately on guard, because the star has at least two planets, one of which is just the right distance away to allow liquid water to surface, the basis of all life as we know it.

The signal – dubbed BLC1 – appeared to come from the star itself and lasted about five hours. Did not meet known criteria that indicated some form of malfunction. A radio frequency band of about 982 MHz is used mostly by aircraft in Australia, but scientists were unable to identify a single aircraft that was close to causing the signal.

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The telescope that picked up the signal also failed to recover it. Finally, the scientists discovered that there were other signals in the original data that were similar to the mysterious signal, but were of a different frequency. These, however, are classified as disturbances of the Earth.

This is what the surface of Proxima b might look like.
This is what the surface of Proxima b might look like. © AFP

Additional investigation revealed that BLC1 and similar signals were all interference from the same unknown source. The signals were distorted and obscured each other, causing confusion. Never being seen again, scientists suspect the signal came from malfunctioning electronic equipment, which has since been removed or repaired. Presumably, it was a few hundred kilometers from the telescope that picked up the signals.

The investigation ended in palpitations, so. However, the research was not all in vain. The experience gained by the scientists during the research will be a huge advantage if new interesting signals are picked up in the future.

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Megan Vasquez

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