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SYFY WIRE aliens

Astronomers phoned E.T. in the center of the galaxy but got a dead signal

Hello? Nothing? Not even voicemail?

By Elizabeth Rayne
Liz Alien and milky way GETTY

Where would you expect to pick up a signal transmitted by intelligent aliens? It seemed that they would be most likely to live in the central hub of the Milky Way, though killer radiation is being blasted through there all the time, but nobody’s picking up the phone.

Of course, it’s not like anyone actually has E.T.’s number. Astronomers focused on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, were hoping to get some sort of signal when they tried to detect low-frequency radio waves using the Murchison Wide Field Array (MWA) in Australia. Unfortunately, if this had been an actual call to extraterrestrials from a cell phone, they wouldn’t have even reached voicemail. It was more like getting no ringtone.

“This is the first technosignature search at a frequency of 155 MHz toward the galactic center (our previous central frequencies have been lower),” the researchers said in a study recently uploaded to the preprint server arXiv, adding that “no plausible technosignatures were detected.”

Technosignatures are signals that could have only come from some type of technology. These escape from Earth all the time, and spacecraft are technosignatures in themselves. There has been speculation that the interstellar object ‘Oumuamua is really a piece of alien technology from somewhere outside the solar system. Other hypothetical alien tech would be something like a Dyson sphere, a massive structure that can harness all the energy of a star. There is no way of knowing if some faraway civilization is picking up on Earthling technosignatures.

There are different interpretations for technosignatures depending on who you ask. Some insist that radio waves, which are often sought out in the search for technologically advanced aliens, do not necessarily qualify because they can be given off by naturally occurring sources. Others think you shouldn’t count them out just yet. Radio waves are emitted artificially on Earth. Who’s to say another planet doesn’t have radio broadcasts of its own? They are also the most practical techno signature to search for. We have the equipment. Of course, it would be nothing short of amazing if we could detect mega-radiation from a Dyson sphere, but it’s not happening.

Radio signals are not going away any time soon in the search for intelligent life. Because (hypothetical, again) species that are advanced enough to create and use technology are thought to have the ability to produce and detect radio waves early on, we need to take these signals into account. This opinion might be slightly biased because our own species started with radio signals before things like 4G LTE ever existed. Still, if there is an alien analog for humans somewhere, they might have done or be doing the same thing.

“The existence of both powerful transmitters and sensitive receivers at low frequencies — both of which emerged early in the history of radio engineering — motivates low-frequency technosignature searches by providing an example class of engineered signals to search for, and instruments with which to do so,” said the researchers.

The galactic center is blazing with stars. That could be a positive and a negative. Stars provide light for life (at least as we know it) to survive, but hot young stars are also prone to more outbursts like flares and coronal mass ejections. Such phenomena could obliterate any living organisms, unless they are intelligent enough to have created a radiation shield so tough and advanced, the onslaught of plasma would never make it through. Any hypothetical aliens that figured out how to make something like that need to share their secrets with us. Just saying.

There is also the possibility that hypothetical intelligent aliens aren’t returning our calls — or transmitting signals out into space in search of other life-forms — because they can’t hear us.  With so many stars in the galactic center, what could offer better protection than an icy moon or planet in which some sort of life-forms thrive in the deep? Under miles of ice, they would have instant protection from virtually everything the galaxy could throw at them, from gamma rays to molecular clouds. Maybe there really are some sort of intelligent sea monkeys out there.

So maybe there was a dead signal this time, but for all we know, there might be no one home in the galactic center. Intelligent aliens could be on a planet so distant that they will die out before their message ever reaches us. Maybe, just maybe, though, there are creatures sort of like us somewhere, trying to find out if we exist.