In case you missed it, researchers using a Chinese radio telescope (FAST) shared with the world a few days ago (on June the 14th, 2022) the news that they thought they had evidence of technological traces of an alien civilization. Then the momentum of this discovery was stopped in its tracks by more press releases two days later saying that the Chinese scientists hadn’t found an alien radio signal. Amongst the many disseminated announcements, an announcement appears on Twitter from the Global Times (Chinese Affiliated media).
The alien radio signals in question were picked up by the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST) in Guizhou, southeast China picked up the narrow-band signal, which is typical of an artificial source and not a natural one like a black hole or stars.
How could astrophysicists go from hastily sharing their excitement with the world about finding an actual alien radio signal on June the 14th to a day later on the 15th, admitting that the noise seems to come from electronics on Earth? You may be wondering why the sudden turnaround of news?
This is kind of embarrassing as the FAST radio telescope is said to be China’s most powerful radio telescope. Researchers now blame radio-frequency interference from Earth, likely from cell phones, computers, satellites, or other electronic devices near the observatory. All of these things send out their own weak radio signals.
What is the FAST radio telescope?
FAST is the single-dish radio telescope with the world’s biggest and most sensitive dish. It is in a natural bowl-shaped depression in Guizhou, China, a mountainous part of China. FAST can look at pulsars, stars, and other natural things in space. It can also search for very low, narrow-band radio frequencies to find alien radio signals in the vast sea of electromagnetic waves from Earth and space.
The goal of FAST is to find exoplanets, which are planets that are not in our solar system. Together with the SETI Breakthrough Listen project, it began its search for extraterrestrial civilizations for real in September 2020. Since then, scientists from Beijing Normal University, the National Astronomical Observatory of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the University of California, Berkeley have been working together to look for alien radio signals.
Tourism vs. space science
It would seem that with further investigation, that it is documented in Wikipedia as far back as 2017 that astronomers were worried that nearby cell phones could be a source of radio frequency interference (RFI) because the local government is trying to build a tourist industry around the telescope. The local government at the time had begun to consider choosing between the scientific mission and the economic benefits of tourism because 10 million tourists were projected to visit.
Does the speculated alien radio signal make space science look ridiculous?
If scientists thought they had discovered alien radio signals, why the hasty sharing of the information without more due diligence checks?
Something seems very off about this news. It isn’t apparent whose agenda this news serves.
The scientists now potentially look ridiculous, and China’s best radio telescope technology’s capabilities now look questionable. It paves the way for those who argue that tourism and allowing tourists to use their phones in the area is more critical than quack astronomy science.
Will the areas surrounding FAST become a no go zone for tourists?
Alternatively, on the other hand, maybe this false alien signal adds strength to the scientists’ argument that tourists shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the area of the FAST radio telescope? Something that scientists have been arguing about since 2017.
While at this stage, it is speculation what may happen next to FAST and its projects, a news piece of this international note is likely to fuel the argument and agenda of both sides. Will mobile use and or tourism be prohibited near FAST, or will the services of FAST eventually become obsolete so the needs of tourism can be serviced?
Was anyone else in the space community excited by the Chinese announcement?
Not everyone in the space community was excited or gullible to the news of possible alien contact discovered by Chinese scientists. Astrophysicist Sascha Trippe of Seoul National University in South Korea, who is not involved with FAST, also didn’t think possible signs of aliens would turn out to be real. Before the researchers finished their study, he tweeted his doubts about the possible alien radio signal discovery:
To other scientists, it seems a weak excuse and bunk to blame other radio interference on Earth on the alleged alien radio signal.
Astronomer Vishal Gajjar told Popular Mechanics in an email that FAST’s unique ability to scan in 19 different sky directions helps get rid of signals coming from more than one direction simultaneously. A signal from aliens would come from a single spot in the sky. In fact, Gajjar, who is a project scientist for the SETI Institute’s Breakthrough Listen project at the University of California, Berkeley, says that this method got rid of 99 percent of the signals in this particular survey.
Admitting their blunder
The Chinese scientist’s blunder became evident when Dan Werthimer, a physics researcher and chief scientist of the [email protected] project, helped install the SETI Institute detectors on FAST. This made the analysis go quickly. By June the 15th, astronomers had thoroughly checked each signal and knew it was a false alarm.
Feature image credit: FAST-radio-telescope by Petrsteller under CC BY-SA 4.0