Scientists and researchers working at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico recently announced the discovery of strange radio signals coming from a red dwarf star only about 11 light years from earth.  The radio pulses, which were characterized as “very peculiar,” seem to be unique to the red dwarf system, and have not been found anywhere else.

“The signals consisted of broadband quasi-periodic nonpolarized pulses with very strong dispersion-like features,” Abel Mendez, director of the Planetary Habitability Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico, wrote in a statement late last week.

“We believe that the signals are not local radio frequency interferences (RFI) since they are unique to Ross 128, and observations of other stars immediately before and after did not show anything similar,” he added.

In layman’s terms, Mendez said the radio signals were received at unpredictable intervals, don’t seem to have been caused by third-party interference, and as compared to observations made of other star systems in the region, were downright weird.

However, weird doesn’t necessarily mean alien (in the biological sense), as Mendez is quick to point out that two of the top three contenders to explain away this phenomenon are pretty mundane: the signals could have been produced by some sort of solar flare that released unusual signals, they could have been detected erroneously from a satellite that crossed into the massive radio telescope’s focus… leaving only the third possibility as the intriguing one: it could have been something we’ve just never seen before.

“Each of the possible explanations has their own problems,” Méndez wrote. “For example, Type II solar flares occur at much lower frequencies and the dispersion suggests a much farther source or a dense electron field (e.g. the stellar atmosphere?). Also, there are not many nearby objects in the field of view of Ross 128 and we have never seen satellites emit bursts like that, which were common in our other star observations.”

Although Mendez’s own discounting of the more mundane theories may make it seem likely that the radio bursts came from aliens, he’s not jumping to any conclusions.

“In case you are wondering, the recurrent aliens hypothesis is at the bottom of many other better explanations.”

Mendez and his team have begun working to reallocate telescope time to focus on the source of these signals, and he’s optimistic that they’ll be able to find an explanation for this mystery soon, telling Newsweek that, “We’re looking to announce as early as possible.”

Trying to determine what’s causing these radio bursts is a two-fold problem.  First, they need to determine if they’re coming from an astronomical course or if they’re caused by interference.

“What usually happens is you are able to recognize easily what is astronomical and what is local interference. That’s why there’s never normally a mystery. Most of the time it’s just local interference. But what’s happened here is the signal could be easily interpreted as something astronomical or interference. We were not able to recognize either way.” Mendez explained.

“When you recognize that, which one it is, then you have a second mystery. Because why is the source emitting something like that? If you try to use astronomical explanations, it’s hard, because we’ve not seen this before.”

However, if the signals turn out to be coming from a more local source somehow, that lends itself to different questions, because no such interference has ever been detected before.

“Either way, you have a mystery… You need to recognize any new [phenomenon] to learn about it so you can recognize it in the future. You need to know.”


Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons