Remember that star that looked like it maybe—just maybe—supported alien megastructures? Well, the first in-depth studies of the system's radio emissions were announced this week, and the results may be disappointing for the ET obsessed among us.
According to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI), no radio signals that seemed artificial in origin were turned up by a two-week survey of KIC 8462852—or the WTF (What the Flux) star, as it has been nicknamed—conducted by the Allen Telescope Array (ATA).
"Analysis of the Array data show no clear evidence for either type of signal between the frequencies of one and ten gigahertz," reads the SETI statement.
This specific range of frequencies represents the kind of narrowband signal that would be highly indicative of a high-powered, artificial radio transmitter.
Stephen Colbert talks about KIC 8462852 on The Late Show. Video: The Late Show With Steven Colbert/YouTube
"If you look at as much of the radio dial as possible, you can see if there's any radio noise at a given spot on the dial," explained Seth Shostak, senior astronomer and director of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, in a phone interview with Motherboard two weeks ago. "Natural noise is all over the dial […] but there's nothing in nature that we know about that produces lots of radio noise just at a very narrow range of frequencies."
Moreover, the ATA looked for radio distortion that might be emitted by supermassive rockets or other large-scale orbital equipment, but it also came up blank with this search.
Of course, this doesn't necessarily rule out the alien megastructure hypothesis. After all, the system is 1,480 light years away, which is a long way for radio signals to travel, even at the speed of light.
"That's about 300 times farther than the nearest stars," Shostak told me. "Any signals [from that distance] are 100,000 times weaker, and that's a big factor. Even assuming that there is anybody there, they would have to have either a really hunky transmitter, for you to be able to hear it at that distance, or it would have to be deliberately focused in our direction."
Still, it's remains overwhelmingly more likely that the swarm of objects that periodically occult the star is natural. It could be the fallout of a planetary collision, or a large comet family, or a group of asteroids. It could even be a technological civilization just happens to not be transmitting strong radio signals our way. We won't know until we study it further.
"The chances are pretty high that what this is something completely natural," said Shostak. "But on the other hand, you don't just blow it off. If you don't check it out, you can't be sure."
"In fact," he added, "even if you do check it out, you can't be sure."