No, An Alien Radio Signal Has Not Been Detected

Schematic showing Sagittarius A crossing the beam of Indlebe on 28 July 2008 (Stuart MacPherson)
Schematic showing Sagittarius A crossing the beam of Indlebe on 28 July 2008 (Stuart MacPherson)

Some great news from Durban University of Technology in South Africa, their newly built Indlebe Radio Telescope detected its first signal late last month. “On the evening of 28th July 2008, at 21h14 local time the Indlebe Radio Telescope, situated on the Steve Biko campus of the Durban University of Technology (DUT), successfully detected its first radio source from beyond the solar system. A strong source was detected from Sagittarius A, the centre of the Milky Way Galaxy, approximately 30 thousand light years away,” says the statement by Stuart MacPherson. This will be an invaluable resource for students and research projects; a great achievement.

Although this should be the focus of attention, it looks like social bookmarking may have struck again. The DUT announcement was picked up by Digg and the Internet population drew their own conclusions. Interestingly, the Russian mainstream media was listening and interpreted the Internet buzz as proof that an alien radio signal had been detected in the centre of our galaxy…

Firstly, turning back the calendar a week or so to my Phoenix “undisclosed discovery” article on August 2nd, an amazing example of “Internet Chinese Whispers” was spawned from a seemingly innocent report about an Aviation Week article, and now it seems it’s started again, only this time in Russia…

The Russian news report in question states that an alien signal has been detected in Sagittarius A, the centre of our galaxy, some 30,000 light years away:

Scientists in South Africa have detected radio signals from beyond the solar system for the first time – prompting a wave of excitement over who, or what, might have sent it. The signal is the most significant of its kind since radio telescopes started operating in the 1960s. – Leader from the Russia Today article.

OK, lets find the origin of this story. Very easy, right near the top of the “popular” list on Digg. So what is this Digg story relating to? A researcher/lecturer at Durban University of Technology in South Africa is proudly announcing the completion of the university Indlebe Radio Telescope with accompanying images of the first radio observations. I’ve noticed that Stuart MacPherson has updated the press release (probably in response to the misinterpretation that this is an announcement of a SETI-like discovery of an alien radio transmission), and said the following statement:

It should be noted that this is not an intelligent source, i.e. it is not a source that could be considered as having been transmitted by alien intelligence. Furthermore, it is certainly not a new discovery. The electromagnetic radiation emanating from Sagittarius A is well documented and an entirely natural phenomenon. A similar signal, although of a much larger magnitude, would be received by simply pointing the telescope at the Sun.Stuart MacPherson, DUT.

Indeed, their new radio telescope has been set up to detect a highly observable radio emission from neutral hydrogen atoms. The emission can be found all over the observable Universe, specifically in our own galaxy where there are a lot of hydrogen burning stars and interstellar hydrogen gas. In the case of the DUT Indlebe Radio Telescope, it has been set up to detect a very specific hydrogen line at a frequency of 1420 MHz, and its first result is an observation of a well-known 1420 MHz emission region in the constellation of Sagittarius. There are three components to the radio emissions in Sagittarius A; Sgr. A East, Sgr. A West and Sgr. A*. Sgr. A East is a supernova remnant, Sgr. A West is a spiral structure of gas and dust feeding into Sgr. A* which is an intense radio source possibly generated by a supermassive black hole hiding in the centre of the Milky Way.

This is the reason why Sagittarius A is the focus for Indlebe, it is a great, known, natural source of radio emissions for a brand new radio telescope to focus on and carry out calibration tasks.

The Russia Today website appears to read something different into MacPherson’s statement: “We had made significant changes to the receiver to increase its sensitivity,” he said. “When we went in that morning to check the data, we found that it had detected a source. It’s unbelievable. It’s definitely a great relief for us because now we know that the radio telescope works.” Well, yes, I’m sure he is relieved the telescope worked, but this is not in reference to a recent alien radio signal discovery.

I wonder how many other news sources have picked up on this. I’m not sure how popular Russia Today is, and it is hard to tell whether they are reporting on “actual news” or whether they are being light-hearted, but I’m sure it has caused a stir for all the wrong reasons…

Thought of the day: News outlets should not use social bookmarking rumours when interpreting scientific results, it will only lead to false reporting and bad journalism!

Sources: DUT, Russia Today

19 thoughts on “No, An Alien Radio Signal Has Not Been Detected”

  1. The problem is not that the story is inaccurate.
    The problem is that people don’t understand what they are reading.
    In this case, as it would seem, many digg users were unaware that stars emit radio signals.
    In fact, natural sources of radio waves fill much of the sky.
    If you ask me, exaggerated and misleading titles to articles are the problem.

  2. I found the Russia Today article first, only finding this article having paid a visit to Mixx.

    So it’s worth doffing your cap to social bookmarking services this once!

    That aside, the Russia Today article just didn’t read right. After all, if this was such major news, why would something from earlier in the year only just be emerging now?

    Anyway, better than reading headlines about bloody Paris Hilton…

  3. Hate to get to the party late, but i would like to express just how much i detest Russia Today. In terms of sycophantic buffoonery, they make Fox News look like the Utne Reader.

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