Nearby star Ross 128 is exhibiting a never-before-seen stellar behaviour, and it has researchers at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico digging deep for an answer.
*UPDATE: An update to this article is available, here (click).
By John Wenz
A May 12 observation in the direction of the star, which is 11 light years away, revealed a bevy of radio signals at a higher frequency than typically seen in radio signals from stars. They are dispersing out in all directions. The structure of the signal revealed that it couldn’t have come from any near-Earth satellites.
The Arecibo team didn’t notice the bizarre radio signature until two weeks later, making it hard to do immediate follow-up. “I saw the data the next day but it was two weeks later that I noticed the signals while further processing the data,” Abel Mendez, director of the Planetary Habitability Laboratory at Arecibo, says.
The Arecibo researchers are hunting for planets around nearby stars, including Ross 128, Barnard’s Star, and Wolf 359. Ross 128 is known to be an active flare star, which indeed is the leading hypothesis for what’s taking place. There’s one little hitch: This is nothing like any flare event ever witnessed before. The behaviour is akin to Type II solar flares, which are energetic events that vary rapidly in time and energy levels. Yet those events are at a much lower frequency than what Arecibo found.
“Since the frequencies are so high I’m counting on it being a new class of stellar flare for that hypothesis to work,” Mendez says. “To our knowledge, that will be the first such signals are observed in any star.”
There are a couple other hypotheses for what it could be, both explanation rely on the signal not being from Ross 128 at all. In one scenario, another radio source in the field of view (perhaps a background star) made this radio emission. In another, it’s a high-orbiting satellite, which would account for why it didn’t appear to drift as a nearer-Earth satellite would, but doesn’t explain the signal frequency at all.
Yes, we know – there IS that other explanation that’s… not entirely ruled out. Aliens. But the team isn’t exploring that possibility quite yet. “We need to discard all other possibilities before jumping to the aliens conclusion, but so far there is no way to tell,” Mendez says.
But even if it’s not aliens, it likely marks a new type of activity never seen in a red dwarf like Ross 128, which in and of itself is a unique event. The Arecibo team will be tuning into the star this Sunday in the hopes of finding more clues as to the origin of the signal.
Which isn’t aliens.
Image credit: PHL, URP Arecibo Observatory/Aladin Sky Atlas
This article was originally written for and published by Popular Mechanics USA.