Have Chinese astronomers stumbled upon the techno-signatures of a distant alien civilization? Unfortunately for UFO tragics and Area 51 fans, the answer is no, but numerous reports over the last 72 hours have suggested an anomalous radio signal from deep space could point to extraterrestrial technology.
As a science journalist who feels like he's constantly examining bogus claims of extraterrestrial life (and is something of a party pooper), let me explain exactly how we got here.
It all starts with a headline: "China Says It May Have Detected Signals From Alien Civilizations."
On June 14, Bloomberg astutely picked up on a report by the website Science and Technology Daily, a Chinese state-backed media outlet. According to Bloomberg, the Chinese report cited "Zhang Tonjie," chief scientist of an extraterrestrial civilization search team co-founded by Beijing Normal University. It referenced unusual signals picked up by the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope, or FAST, a huge circular dish cut into a Chinese mountaintop.
The dish is very real and very powerful. It can focus on regions of the sky and "listen" for radio signals, and it's one of the most sensitive on Earth to certain electromagnetic frequencies. In fact, just last week, Chinese researchers using the telescope announced the discovery of an extremely unusual fast radio burst, a brief blip of a signal from deep space. That research is unrelated to the Science and Technology Daily report.
Bloomberg, and many other publications, noted the original Chinese report has since been deleted, but the reasons for the deletion are unknown. This, of course, adds to the intrigue for some -- the idea that governments are covering up aliens is a fairly well-established conspiracy (think back to Area 51).
But for me, the deletion is a huge red flag, suggesting that the original reporting shouldn't have been published without a much higher level of scrutiny and going much deeper into the original report.
One of the real problems when the media jumps straight to aliens every time we hear of scientists discovering an anomalous signal is that it erodes trust in science and scientific institutions. This seems to be the case for Science and Technology Daily, where intriguing, unusual signals have been interpreted as possibly extraterrestrial — even before any data has been made available in peer-reviewed journals. This then spiraled out of control internationally.
Critically, it can also hurt the scientists at the center of the research. Other astronomers have told CNET there is a scientific study currently undergoing peer review related to the findings. When the "results" leak out early like this, it can jeopardize those findings ever making it into a journal, but it also prevents the proper process of checks and balances from occurring. Perhaps other researchers who looked at the data would immediately see them as something other than alien or unusual -- and we'd never end up here in the first place.
There's also another lingering issue: Who is the Zhang Tonjie referred to in the piece, and is this just a different spelling or transliteration for Zhang Tong-Jie, a man dubbed "China's Top Alien Hunter"? Zhang Tong-Jie is affiliated with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) with FAST and is based at Beijing Normal University, according to the International Astronomical Union.
CNET reached out to this Zhang Tong-Jie to try to clarify the situation.
"These signals are from radio interference," he told CNET via email. "All of the signals detected by SETI researchers so far are made by our own civilization, not another civilization."
Radio frequency interference, or RFI, can come from cellphones, TV transmitters, radar, satellites and even the device you're reading this article on right now, though those are fairly weak signals, he added.
Dan Werthimer, an astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley who works with the team, provided similar comments to Space.com.
As our instruments listening to and looking out across the universe improve, it becomes slightly more likely we might stumble upon alien civilizations. However, all that new data presents a bit of a conundrum for scientists because it will inevitably throw up signals we've never seen before. Jonti Horner, an astrophysicist at the University of Southern Queensland, likens it to the videos you see of people hearing for the first time. When they put on that hearing aid, all sorts of new information comes in. With time, they're able to filter it more effectively.
Even if you can say these unusual new signals are genuine... there's still a lot we don't know about the cosmos. "You will probably find new astronomical and astrophysical phenomena that you've never thought of before," Horner said.
Astronomers have been listening for alien techno-signatures among the stars over the past few years. Earlier this year, a research team using Australia's Murchison Widefield Array pointed that telescope toward the galactic center, their search covering billions of stars -- and came up empty. Not a peep from extraterrestrials.
In December 2020, Zhang told Sixth Tone he believed "China will probably find extraterrestrials first" because FAST can detect things other telescopes can't. So far, however, scientists have been found wanting.