No, That 'Strong Signal' from Space Probably Isn't Extraterrestrial Communication

8-29-16 Alien
A boy carries an inflatable alien toy prize while sitting on a stool at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines in August 2015. Researchers searching for extraterrestrial intelligence observed a "strong signal" with a telescope in Russia last year. But it's most likely not extraterrestrial communication. Jim Young/Reuters

On May 15, 2015, the RATAN-600 radio telescope in Zelenchukskaya in southern Russia observed a "strong signal" from the direction of a sunlike star, as several outlets have recently reported. So it's aliens, right?

Well, no, probably not. But the interest of some researchers has been sufficiently piqued.

Italian researcher and mathematician Claudio Maccone, Nikolai Bursov from the Special Astrophysical Observatory of the Russian Academy of Science and other SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) astronomers say they detected "a strong signal in the direction of HD164595," which is located about 95 light-years from Earth. According to NASA, the star has at least one exoplanet, HD 164595 b, an ice giant that orbits it every 40 days.

"No one is claiming that this is the work of an extraterrestrial civilization, but it is certainly worth further study," wrote Paul Glister, who covers deep space exploration on the website Centauri Dreams. He seems to have missed headlines like "Alien Hunters Spot Freaky Radio Signal Coming From Nearby Star," "Is Earth Being Contacted by ALIENS? Mystery Radio Signals Come From a Sun-like Star" and "SETI Investigating Mysterious, Extraterrestrial Signal From Deep Space Star System."

Still, he adds, "the signal is provocative enough that the RATAN-600 researchers are calling for permanent monitoring of this target."

The International Academy of Astronautics's SETI Permanent Committee will discuss the research at a meeting scheduled for September 27, during the 67th International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico.

In the meantime, the SETI Institute, based in Mountain View, California, directed its Allen Telescope Array toward HD 164595 on Sunday night, while METI International (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence) did the same with the Boquete Optical SETI Observatory in Panama.

But even SETI folks are not convinced. "The signal may be real, but I suspect it's not ET," Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, told GeekWire. "There are other possibilities for a wide-band signal such as this, and they're caused by natural sources or even terrestrial interference."

Nick Suntzeff, a Texas A&M University astronomer, agrees. "God knows who or what broadcasts at 11 GHz, and it would not be out of the question that some sort of bursting communication is done between ground stations and satellites," he told Ars Technica, explaining that the signal was observed in the radio spectrum used by the military. "I would follow it if I were the astronomers, but I would also not hype the fact that it may be at SETI signal given the significant chance it could be something military."

In other words, there's a good chance the signal is the product of terrestrial activity rather than a missive crafted by extraterrestrial life on a distant exoplanet. For those who prefer a different outcome, there are plenty of movies that can offer more thrilling narratives.