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Scientists are days from finding out if that mysterious star could actually harbor aliens


(NASA Blueshift on Flickr)
Artist's impression of Fomalhaut b.

When astronomer Doug Vakoch heard the news that there might be an alien civilization around the mysterious star KIC 8462852, he took immediate action.

For the last week, Vakoch and his colleagues at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute have been pointing the ground-based Allen Telescope Array in California at the enigmatic star with one goal in mind.

"We're trying to rule out the hypothesis that maybe it's intelligence out there," Vakoch told Business Insider.

He added that they're crunching the data in real-time and will, therefore, know if it's ET within the next week, or so.

Last week, news broke that a bizarre collection of objects unlike anything astronomers have seen before is in orbit around star KIC 8462852. And until more data comes in, speculation is raging that it could be a megastructure in the process of construction by an advanced alien civilization — though astronomers have told Business Insider that the chances of that are "very low."

"Our assumption is that there's going to be a natural explanation for this, we just haven't gotten clever enough to find it," Vakoch told Business Insider.

Vakoch is the director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI Institute with a special interest in how to design outgoing messages that would express what it's like to be human.

For now, though, Vakoch has all his attention on the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) and what it will find — if anything — around KIC 8462852.

The ATA is a radio telescope that can tune in to 9 billion different frequencies between 1 and 10 GigaHertz. What Vakoch is searching for is a strong signal at a specific frequency, which will tell him that something, or someone, is transmitting from the star's system.

Since the big news, Vakoch and his team are the first to explore this star for potential alien habitation. However, because the ATA observes in radio frequencies, that's about all they can do. They can't, for example, determine the composition of this mysterious material to determine what it is, which is what Penn State astronomer Jason Wright hopes to do in the coming months.

Still, Vakoch's task is of utmost importance and far from easy.


(Facebook Developers/YouTube)

"We're looking for a signal at one spot on the radio dial, and the problem is we don't know which spot" he told Business Insider. "And so we tune the dial to billions of different channels. It's almost like we're searching the cosmic cable TV but instead of trying to find intelligence on 400 or 500 channels, we're looking at billions of channels."

Complicating matters further are the space satellites and radio transmitters on Earth that send signals in the same frequency range the ATA is listening to. So, to make sure any signals they detect are from aliens and not Earthlings, the SETI scientists tune the telescope to three separate stars at the exact same time.

"What we want to find is a signal coming from one of those stars and not from the other two," Vakoch said. "What we typically find is that if there's a satellite flying over it's in our telescope and it's going to look like we're getting that signal at all three of those stars, and then we know it's a false alarm."

When astronomers tune ATA to a specific object, all 42 antennae move to a specific point in the sky:

Out of most SETI instruments, the ATA is perfect for this exercise, Vakoch said. That's because it enables the scientists to crunch the data in real-time — something not many other SETI instrument can do — so if they hear an intriguing signal, they'll focus in to learn more.

Vakoch expects that observations will end Friday, Oct. 23 at which point they'll immediately begin writing up their results and put them through the coveted peer-review process that is the backbone of any reputable scientific discovery.

More importantly, this means that if the scientists have found something, then they already know. But they won't be saying anything for at least a few weeks.

"So you can expect it to be several weeks or months until you here the conclusions of our observations, even though we may be wrapping them up in the next week or so," Vakoch said.

Is it aliens? Vakoch suspects not.

"I think the best explanation I've seen so far is ... a swarm of comets," he said. However, if the researchers do discover something it will be huge.

"If we find what we're looking for it will tell us one of two things: Either we have found an extraterrestrial that is sending us a signal that's very similar to our own radio technology, or we have discovered a radically new natural phenomenon that makes this star system even freakier than it is right now."

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