It’s known as BLC1, and it’s the closest we’ve ever come to discovering clever alien life.
In 2019, astronomers found a radio sign that appeared to come back from Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to the Sun. Though the sign was clearly unnatural in origin, it bore no apparent mark of humanity. The scientists named it Breakthrough Listen Candidate 1, or BLC1, after the state-of-the-art search for extraterrestrial intelligence that made the detection. Until now, nobody knew its true nature.
In a pair of articles printed in Nature Astronomy earlier this week, members of the Breakthrough Listen staff reported that though BLC1 nearly completely resembles a real alien sign, new assessments point out it’s of human origin.
“BLC1 is, in my opinion, the most compelling signal of interest ever,” says Danny Price (International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research), a contributing researcher on each research. “[It] has almost all the characteristics we expect from a technosignature,” which means proof of the use of know-how.
That isn’t any imply feat. There are a number of methods radio searches verify whether or not a sign may really have come from an alien civilization, and BLC1 is the just one ever that checked all the most necessary bins.
First, BLC1 is slim in frequency, a tone purer than any pure course of might produce – so it was clearly made by know-how. Second, BLC1 was solely detected when the telescope was taking a look at Proxima Centauri. That made it much less prone to have been brought on by human radio interference.
But what actually made BLC1 thrilling was that its frequency modified. For the same motive that an ambulance’s siren sounds higher-pitched when it comes towards you and decrease because it strikes away, a radio sign from outer space will change frequency relying on the transmitter’s velocity relative to Earth. BLC1’s frequency drifted precisely like it might if it have been being emitted by one thing shifting inside the Proxima Centauri system, like a satellite tv for pc or planet.
Put that each one collectively and also you get a telltale sign, one which resembles a slim, intermittent waterfall cascading down your display. As Price describes it, seeing that signature captured the Breakthrough staff’s imaginations.
“It’s the first signal we’ve seen that has warranted serious follow-up,” he provides.
But when Breakthrough Listen noticed Proxima Centauri once more in 2020, and but once more precisely two years after the authentic detection, BLC1 had disappeared.
Something was unsuitable. Yet there have been no assessments left in the previous playbook. If the staff was going to search out the place BLC1 got here from, they needed to invent new methods to search for clues.
A Needle In A Haystack
There are not any recognized electronics on Earth that deliberately transmit at BLC1’s frequency, so one of the first locations astronomers seemed was space. They checked satellites, space probes, and even asteroids, which might replicate radio waves from Earth.
When that search turned up dry, they checked out potential routes round the observatory for something that would have theoretically produced the interference. Someone strolling round with a tool of their pocket, a automotive on the freeway, a plane on the horizon – any of these may need been capable of mimic the drift of the sign. But when the staff charted all the potential paths an individual or automobile may need taken close by, they discovered that none might clarify BLC1.
The staff tried a brand new technique: they looked for “lookalikes.” If BLC1 shouldn’t be distinctive – if it was additionally detected when the telescope was pointing elsewhere – then it wasn’t ET. Searching all the knowledge they’d taken on a whole lot of different stars, the staff turned up a number of dozen indicators that drifted precisely like BLC1, although round completely different frequencies.
“That’s when I felt we had enough evidence to conclude that BLC1 was radio interference,” Price recollects.
With cautious examine, the staff discovered that each one of these indicators may very well be produced by a single digital gadget interfering with itself, producing weak radio waves at a spread of frequencies that simply barely leaked into the telescope. Price’s finest guess is a few piece of high-end electronics, tens or a whole lot of miles away.
What precisely the gadget was is beside the level. What issues is that the new instruments Breakthrough Listen developed “will be really useful when they find other interesting signals,” explains Michael Garrett (University of Manchester / Jodrell Bank Observatory), who wasn’t involved in the study. “We are really much more capable than we were a few years ago. If there is a signal out there, we’re getting closer to being able to detect it.”
Since Breakthrough Listen has only searched about a thousand stars out of their goal of a million, the project should have plenty of opportunities. Garrett is hopeful: “One day we might discover something that would really change how we view ourselves and the universe.”
Where does that leave Proxima Centauri? Even before BLC1 was discovered, the system invited speculation of being inhabited. It hosts at least two planets, one of which is potentially rocky like Earth and at the right distance from its star to sustain liquid water. However, recent observations of huge flares from Proxima have made prospects of life on the planet less likely.
To Price, the question isn’t theoretical. “The only way we’ll ever know,” he says, “is by wanting!”