Sci-Tech

Real search for aliens gets weird signal from a sci-fi world

An ambitious search for signals from aliens across space hasn't found much yet, but there was an odd blip from a star system popular with science fiction fans.

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The Green Bank Telescope is scanning the dial for alien stations.

National Radio Astronomy Observatory

In the late 22nd century, a terraforming project is underway on the planet Selika, orbiting the star 107 Piscium some 24 light-years from Earth. Plans to bomb and remake the planet in the image of Earth have ignited controversy because they also threaten to destroy all native life there.

That's part of the plot in award-winning science fiction author Jack McDevitt's 2013 novel "Starhawk." While the storyline is obviously imagined, 107 Piscium is a very real star, and scientists recently picked up intriguing signals when they pointed some of the world's most powerful radio telescopes in its direction.

Late last month, the Stephen Hawking-backed Breakthrough Listen initiative released its first set of alien-hunting data gathered from huge listening devices like the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia to target a list of 692 different stars. Sophisticated software scanned billions of radio channels for unique signals that might be coming from a distant alien civilization.

While there were no obvious messages from E.T. in all the petabytes of data, the analysis did surface 11 "events" considered to be significant. I've just finished a little basic analysis of my own, digging into what's significant about those 11 stars. While I'm no astronomer, I can tell you that one of them is especially significant to sci-fi fans. Breakthrough Listen refers to it as HIP7981, but it's also known as 107 Piscium.

107 Piscium has also appeared in other noted works of science fiction like "Absolution Gap" by the Welsh author and former European Space Agency astronomer Alastair Reynolds. I also dig this cool poem called "The Best Western on 107 Piscium E" for the sci-fi journal Star Line.

To be clear, no one is saying Breakthrough Listen has picked up signals from a civilization on a distant terraformed planet. In fact, the researchers say it's far more likely they're picking up radio interference from our own human technology.

Still, they plan to gather more data and more rigorously analyze the data they've already gathered, including signals from 107 Piscium, which has already been tempting our imaginations for years now.

"Although the search has not yet detected a convincing signal from extraterrestrial intelligence, these are early days," Andrew Siemion from the Breakthrough Listen science team said in a statement.

The data from the project and the software used for the analysis is open source and available for anyone with serious skills to dig into and search for evidence that other franchises might turn out to be a little more science fact than science fiction.

May I suggest starting with the star system from "Babylon 5?" Good luck. The truth is out there, just be sure to report it back to me.

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