Editorial: What’s that signal from Ross 128?

  • The Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico. AP

Friday, July 21, 2017

Eleven light years away, there is a curious, dim star in the constellation Virgo.

It is one of eight “red dwarfs” – along with others such as Gliese 436, Wolf 359 and K2-18 – to be observed recently by Abel Mendez, a planetary astrobiologist at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo, as part of the Red Dots project.

Ross 128 is its name, and depending on what Mendez tells the world today, that curious red dwarf may soon be the star of stars here on Earth.

In May, when Mendez and his colleagues had the Arecibo radio telescope pointed at Ross 128, they encountered a signal they couldn’t explain. This is how Mendez described it in a blog post: “The signals consisted of broadband quasi-periodic non-polarized pulses with very strong dispersion-like features. We believe that the signals are not local radio frequency interferences (RFI) since they are unique to Ross 128 and observations of other stars immediately before and after did not show anything similar.”

In other words, as Sarah Kaplan put it in the Washington Post, the signal “had the same frequency as radio emissions from satellites, but it pulsed like it came from something much more distant.”

Before you start planning a “We’re Not Alone” party, you should know that Mendez does not believe the signal is coming from aliens. In fact, the short list of likely explanations he is working from couldn’t be less sexy for the casual stargazer or sci-fi fan:

1) Type II solar flares

2) Emissions from another object in the field of view

3) A burst from a high-orbit satellite

But here’s the thing that has a lot of people so interested in Ross 128: Mendez himself has a problem with each of those explanations.

1) Solar flares “occur at much lower frequencies” than the Ross 128 signal.

2) There are no nearby objects in the field of view.

3) He and his colleagues have never seen satellites emit bursts like this.

So does that mean the “alien origin” hypothesis is growing on him? Not really.

Mendez is a scientist, and that means that the very act of solving the mystery is the exciting part. If the signal is indeed from a satellite, his discovery will provide helpful information for his peers. If the signal is “astronomical” in nature, it would be like an entomologist finding a new type of ant here on Earth. That means lots of analysis, increased prestige in his field and a scientific paper or two.

Neither of those explanations will have Hollywood filmmakers knocking on Mendez’s door, but for a guy who has dedicated his life to better understanding the universe, what could be better? Well, the sci-fi fan in us can think of one thing.

So for those of you who are still holding out hope that the signals are from an alien civilization, we offer these four tantalizing tweets, in chronological order, posted by Mendez on Wednesday afternoon:

“Finally, I just started the computer to analyze our Arecibo’s data on #Barnard’s Star and #Ross128.”

“I analyzed the #Ross128 data and reduced the explanations for the signals from many to just two. Still waiting for other observatories data.”

“Full explanation of the signals of #Ross128 will be given on Friday.”

“The only other person that knows is my colleague @zuluagajorge. Will soon inform to other partner observatories.”

Who doesn’t love a good mystery?