An American colleague has doubts about the Chinese scientists' claims that their telescope could pick up signals from aliens.
Dan Werthimer, a Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) researcher at the University of Berkeley, California and a coauthor on the research project, told Live Science that the narrow-band radio signals he and his fellow researchers found.
Natural sources do not usually produce narrow-band radio signals. The largest radio telescope in the world, the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST), was used to pick up three of these signals, seemingly from space.
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The news of the signals' possible alien origins first appeared in a report published in the official newspaper of China's Ministry of Science and Technology.
A FAST official who was not involved in the research said that the signals were likely to be extraterrestrial.
The claims were reported by the international press and Live Science after being spread across Chinese state media. Werthimer says that the signals are most likely from humans and not aliens.
Werthimer told Live Science that the problem is that we're looking for signals from extraterrestrials, but what we find is a lot of signals from the ground. The weak signals can be picked up by the telescopes, which can pick up signals from cell phones, television, radar and satellites. It's easy to get excited if you don't know how interference can get into your data and corrupt it.
Despite the excitement, Werthimer's Chinese partners were careful to emphasize the likelihood that the signals originated on Earth.
The head scientist at the China Extraterrestrial Civilization Research Group at Beijing Normal University said in the report that there are several narrow-band electromagnetic signals different from the previous ones. There is a very high chance that the signal is radio interference and needs to be ruled out. It might be a long process.
Several alien-hunting scientists have been misled by noise from human activity, such as the recent false alarm. The nearest star system to our sun, Proxima Centauri, has a signal beamed to Earth. Scientists were entertained by the possibility that the signal came from alien technology because it was a narrow-band radio wave. The signal was most likely produced by malfunctioning human equipment, according to studies. The famous set of signals that were supposed to have come from aliens were actually made by scientists who microwaved their lunch.
Werthimer said that a lot of very sophisticated astronomer looked at that and couldn't figure out what it was. Someone realized they were happening at lunchtime.
The scale and sensitivity of the telescope make it a big problem for radio interference. The 1,600-foot-diameter dish is powerful enough to detect radio devices like those on Earth, and the data it captures contains just under 40 billion observations per second. Werthimer said picking up a false positive is a lot like flipping a coin to get twenty heads in a row.
It is more likely that a research team won't spot a subtle interference effect if they don't have a lot of history with the radio telescope. The FAST telescope's receiver can see 19 different places in the sky at the same time. Even experienced researchers can be led astray if interference only appears in one, as it did in this case.
The problem will only get worse with the increasing number of satellites above us.
We did not know how to do SETI. Wethimer thinks we won't be able to do it from the ground. It may be a unique window in our history where we can do good SETI searches, where not all of the possible radio bands are corrupted by our own signals.
If aliens are sending us signals that aren't in radio waves, but in ways that we haven't yet developed the technology to understand, it's possible that we won't be able to detect them.
I wouldn't be surprised if we were in the wrong place. Around 200 years ago, the original ideas for SETI were "let's build some big fires on Earth" or "let's have some big mirrors that reflect sunlight to the Martians." People won't ask why we didn't use tachyons or subspace communication 200 years from now. You need to do what you know how to do.
SETI astronomer are confident that we're not alone in the universe despite the likelihood that these signals have an Earth bound source. We may dig up something real in the future.
If we are the only ones, it would be weird. There are more planets in the universe than there are stars. Many of them are similar to Earth. Werthimer said that many of them have liquid water and are intelligent. They might not want to interfere with primitive civilizations that are still killing each other. We might be in a big zoo to see. They may have gotten tired of technology and growth and are more interested in music and poetry.
Live Science reached out to the person, but did not hear back.
It was originally published on Live Science