The search for extraterrestrial intelligence has been ongoing for decades, but there’s still no definitive proof that someone else is out there. That doesn’t mean we are bereft of evidence, though. Astronomers occasionally spot something unusual but inconclusive, which is how we’d classify the latest report from China’s Extraterrestrial Civilization Research Group at Beijing Normal University. The team has detected an anomalous transmission using the enormous FAST radio observatory that could be evidence of alien intelligence.
What little information we have comes from the state-controlled Science and Technology Daily, which reported on the discovery this week. The site reports that researchers using the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST) identified several narrow-band electromagnetic signals consistent with what we would expect to see from an artificial source.
If there is someone beaming signals into the great beyond out there, FAST would be an ideal way to detect that. The observatory began operation in 2016, becoming the largest radio telescope in the world. It’s physically larger than the now-defunct Arecibo dish, and it has a larger sky observation area along with 19 beams that can watch different parts of the sky simultaneously.
FAST was being used, among other things, to examine nearby exoplanets for evidence of radio transmissions. We don’t know the exact nature of the signals detected, but chief scientist Zhang Tongjie notes this is by no means proof of alien life. “The possibility that the suspicious signal is some kind of radio interference is also very high, and it needs to be further confirmed and ruled out. This may be a long process,” Tongjie said.
There’s some reporting that the 500-meter aperture FAST radio telescope in Guizhou, China has detected candidates for signals from extraterrestrial intelligence, including a suspicious signal from exoplanet target observation data. This is interesting, but don’t get too excited.
—Andrew Jones (@AJ_FI) June 14, 2022
This is not the first time humanity has heard something “suspicious” from the stars. There is the famous wow cue detected on August 15, 1977 by Ohio State University’s Big Ear radio telescope. Astronomer Jerry Ehman spotted the seemingly artificial signal on a printout and scrawled “Wow!” in the margin. There has never been a repeat of this transmission, nor an explanation for its appearance.
It’s possible the signal detected by FAST will be the same — an unsolved mystery. It may also be explained by a natural phenomenon or possibly interference from human technology. There’s even a chance, slim though it is, that someone out there is sending out a signal as we did in 1974 with the Arecibo message. Perhaps FAST is just the first instrument sensitive enough to hear it.