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False Alarm

May 27, 2015

Astronomers in California are trying a new way to look for ET. They’re using a high-speed camera on a telescope at Lick Observatory to look for the pulses of infrared lasers. The infrared allows you to send a stronger signal with less power than other wavelengths, making it a better way to communicate across the galaxy.

So far, though, the main way to look for extraterrestrial intelligence has been with radio telescopes. They haven’t found ET, but there have been some false alarms. One of the most famous came in the early 1960s.

Soviet astronomers were studying an object known as CTA 102, which had been discovered by a radio telescope in California. One of the Soviets said the object’s odd radio waves were produced by a civilization that could harness the power of a star, or even a galaxy.

And in 1965, another Soviet reported a regular variation in those radio waves — like an interstellar carrier wave.

Alas, that wasn’t the case. Later observations showed that CTA 102 is a quasar — a type of object that wasn’t even known in the early ’60s. It’s a disk of hot gas around a monster black hole in a distant galaxy — in this case, about nine billion light-years away.

CTA 102 is especially busy. It produces outbursts of hot gas, and beams out “jets” of charged particles — producing the radio waves that, for a while, seemed like they might be a message from another civilization.

More about quasars tomorrow.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2015

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