Astronomers pick up weird radio signals from distant red dwarf star

18 Jul 2017

Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Image: Dennis van de Water/Shutterstock

More mysterious radio signals have been picked up in deep space, this time from a red dwarf star.

Space is really, really big, and this makes the work of an astronomer never-ending as there always appears to be intriguing mysteries everywhere you look.

The latest mystery has come in the form of peculiar radio waves received by the Arecibo Observatory from a red dwarf star, 111 light years away from Earth.

According to researchers at the observatory, the team was examining a number of such dwarf stars – typically around half the size of our sun yet quite cool – and stumbled across the oddity that is Ross 128.

First picked up in May, the signals being emitted near the star are completely unknown and not the result of radio interference – they are unique to Ross 128, as other stars did not show anything similar.

So, what are they?

While the astronomers are racking their brains to figure out a definite explanation, some possibilities have already been suggested.

Ross 128

Images taken during last May’s survey by the Arecibo Observatory, including Ross 128. Image: PHL @ UPR Arecibo/Aladin Sky Atlas

One possibility is that the strange radio waves could be the result of emissions from the star (similar to Type II solar flares), emissions from another object in the same path as Ross 128, or even a burst from a high-orbit satellite.

These suggestions aren’t so straightforward, however, as they each present their own problems, according to the observatory.

With the solar flares, the Type II referred to occur at much lower frequencies while its dispersion suggests a source from much farther afield.

Meanwhile, the patch of space around Ross 128 has few objects, and an example of a satellite emitting a radio burst like that has never been seen.

Sorry, it’s unlikely to be aliens

Sadly, for those hoping for signs of extraterrestrial life, the team said that the alien hypothesis is “at the bottom of many other better explanations”.

It added: “Therefore, we have a mystery here and the three main explanations are as good as any at this moment.”

There could be a glimmer of hope in finding out what caused the mystery bursts, however, as, since the first analysis in May, Planetary Habitability Laboratory director Abel Méndez confirmed that his team had managed to scan the area again earlier this month.

By going through the returned data, they hope to have an answer very soon.

Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Image: Dennis van de Water/Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic