What is known about the signal from Proxima Centauri?

Considering that the number of stars in the Milky Way alone, according to various estimates, varies from 200 to 400 billion, it would be somewhat naive to believe that you and I are the only intelligent civilization in the Galaxy. What, then, can be said about the Universe, which, as the great Russian poet Joseph Brodsky wrote, is “end and end”. Many outstanding scientists of the past, despite the deafening cosmic silence, believed that we are not alone in the universe. In November 1974, an encrypted radio signal was sent from the now defunct Arecibo Observatory to a huge (about 150 light-years across) globular cluster of stars 25,000 light-years from Earth. Perhaps someone will receive it someday and even answer us. But what if intelligent extraterrestrial life is even closer to our planet? In early 2019, a team of astronomers using the Parks Telescope captured an unusual radio signal emanating from Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our solar system.

Proxima-Centauri is the closest star system to Earth.

Mysterious radio signal

A team of astronomers is hard at work analyzing an unusual radio signal detected in early 2019 by the Parks Telescope, a 64-meter radio telescope located in eastern Australia. The signal, apparently, came from the direction of Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our solar system, and its characteristics are more typical for artificial broadcasting than for a natural radio source. So can the received signal be a long-awaited message from our brothers in mind?

The signal’s discoverers, researchers from the massive Breakthrough Listen project to search for extraterrestrial life, warn that although the signal has very specific qualitiesdistinguishing it from typical natural radio emissions, it is most likely noise or interference caused by our own communication technology here on Earth, or even a natural phenomenon that has not been observed before.

В рамках международного проекта Breakthrough Listen исследователи систематически ищут искусственные радиосигналы, приходящих из-за пределов Солнечной системы. Начало проекта было положено в 2015 году израильско-российским миллиардером Юрием Мильнером и Стивеном Хокингом. На сегодняшний день эта инициатива является самой продвинутой и всеобъемлющей программой поиска инопланетян, которую когда-либо предпринимали люди.

Breakthrough Listen’s launch was announced today on July 20, 2015 in London.

The radio signal, which has attracted global attention through screaming headlines in the media (for example, “Mysterious signal sent by aliens” or “Alien hunters have caught a mysterious signal emanating from a nearby star system”) was discovered in April 2019. As the British The Guardian found out, “a narrow beam of radio waves was recorded during 30 hours of observations with the Parks telescope in April and May 2019.” Note that the signal arrived at a frequency of 980 MHz and did not repeat itself… In addition, the material speaks of a kind of “shift” of the signal, which resembles the shift created by the movement of the planet.

Called BLC1, the signal detected by astronomers was intriguing. However, when news of its discovery leaked to the press, the astronomers who discovered it quickly pointed out that while the transmission came from some technology, the technology probably belonged to us. In the weeks since the news broke, researchers have done a great job and they believe that although the signal is artificial, it is probably not the work of aliens

“There is nothing in it that would indicate that it is clearly some kind of alien intelligence trying to send us a message,” – the words of a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, who leads the group that studies the signal, quoted by The Atlantic. “There is no information in the signal. It’s just one tone, which is very similar to what we produce on Earth. “

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Proxima-Centauri system

And in one sense, this news differs from similar conclusions made in recent years. The fact is that Proxima Centauri itself is too weak to be seen with the naked eye, but it is the closest star to Earth. If we can ever get out of the solar system and head for another, we will probably fly directly to Proxima. Perhaps there is nothing there – not a microbial colony, not a community of highly evolved creatures. But when it comes to listening to space, Proxima Centauri may be a sensible target in an attempt to detect signs of something familiar and unusual.

Earth and Proxima Centauri b as seen by the artist.

Since its discovery in 1915, Proxima has appeared regularly in science fiction tales of interstellar arks and alien empires. In the 1960s, scientists were seriously puzzled by the search for life beyond Earth and Proxima Centauri was considered one of the first by researchers. When your search spans the observable universe, proximity certainly matters.

Interestingly, Proxima is not like our Sun, it is cooler and dimmer. But she has at least two planets. One of them, Proxima c, orbits further away from the star, like a miniature Neptune. The other, Proxima b, is closer – so close that a year on it lasts only 11 days. Proxima b is a rocky planet, roughly the same size as Earth, and lies within the star’s habitable zone – an area where temperatures can allow water to flow across its surface.

We do not know what Proxima b looks like, and astronomers studying BLC1 do not assume that the source of the signal originated there. Contrary to some science fiction stories, Proxima b is unlikely to become a second home for us. It is known that stars like Proxima Centauri emit streams of radiationenough to deprive a nearby planet of its atmosphere for many years.

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In this image, Proxima Centauri is circled in red.

Public enthusiasm for BLC1 may have been premature, but if humanity ever catches a signal from an advanced alien civilization, it could come from somewhere nearby. It may seem presumptuous to suggest that out of the hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way, we could detect intelligent life so close to Earth.

Yes, it’s pretty presumptuous, but not impossible. In the end, recently, Oxford University astronomer Avi Loeb suggested that the mysterious asteroid Oumuamua, which invaded our solar system in 2017, could well turn out to be both an alien ship and an alien reconnaissance probe. While researchers at Breakthrough Listen warn that upon further analysis, the unusual signal is likely to be just radio interference from human technology – which has happened before – no definitive conclusions have yet been drawn. So everything is possible.

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