“It’s never aliens,” the saying goes. It’s a symbol of humility in astronomy: we may see weirdly patterned readings from time to time, we may discover new, bizarre phenomena. But it is never, ever aliens. Of course, the excitement comes the fact that, if aliens exist are common enough for us to reasonably find them, then the saying should be: “it’s never aliens until it is.” But, eager ET greeters will have to wait a bit longer. Because we found something new, and it’s not aliens.
Arecibo Observatory (i.e. that giant dish that was in that one James Bond movie) picked up some unusual signals coming from a nearby star. Ross 128 is, by all other measures, a fairly typical red dwarf. But in May, somewhat periodic signals were detected from that region of the sky. But, that’s just it — as with many of these sorts of “zomg, it’s aliens” stories, this could be explained by any number of things.
The astronomers at Arecibo said as much in a blog post addressing some of their findings as well as likely causes. The bottom line? Scanning regions of the sky can be imprecise, but that’s no reason to jump to little green men.
Professor Abel Mendez, who works at Arecibo wrote, “We do not know the origin of these signals, but there are three main possible explanations. They could be (1) emissions from Ross 128 similar to Type II solar flares, (2) emissions from another object in the field of view of Ross 128, or just (3) burst from a high orbit satellite since low orbit satellites are quick to move out of the field of view.”
Aliens are still on the possible list of explanations, but they’re “at the bottom of many other, better explanations.”
That said, each of the ideas posted, Mendez admits, has some problems. Type II solar flares, he notes, usually aren’t quite so energetic. But, space is really weird. And big. And there’s a lot we don’t know.
When astronomers first discovered pulsars, they were so weird, so regular, and so obviously bizarre, scientists turned to calling them Little Green Men (LGMs) in jest. Obviously, they weren’t aliens, either. We just needed more data.
Don’t worry, eventually, if aliens are there, and we haven’t nuked or polluted ourselves into oblivion, we may one day find them. But unless you hear someone from NASA or an equivalent agency say, “Yeah, we found aliens,” then it’s not aliens.