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Thursday, October 29, 1998 Published at 18:42 GMT


Puzzle over alien 'discovery'

Is there intelligent life in this star system?

By our Science Editor David Whitehouse

The scientific world is buzzing with the suggestion that signals from aliens living in another star system may have been picked up by a part-time astronomer.

Other astronomers are scrambling to confirm or deny them.

It could either be the most important discovery ever made, or more likely, a case of mistaken identity or an elaborate hoax.

The part-time astronomer who discovered the signals posted the data on the internet but would not reveal his identity.

He has been using a small radio telescope belonging to his firm to scan the sky for intelligent signals.

On October 22 and on the following night, he reported detecting signals from the EQ Pegasi star system which is 22 light years away.

The signals were not the type that occurs naturally. The data has been distributed to several astronomers and observatories.

However astronomers at the Jodrell Bank Observatory in England say it is all a case of mistaken identity. Astronomer Ian Morrison told BBC News Online: "I think he has detected signals from a satellite."

The truth is out there

The same search for extra-terrestrial life is being carried out by professional astronomers using the world's largest radio telescopes such as the one in Arecibo, Puerto Rico.

They call it Seti, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.

With the development of radio astronomy in the 1950s, astronomers realised that they had telescopes that could send and receive radio signals between the stars.

The first search for radio signals from space was in 1960. Two nearby stars were observed but no signals were detected.

Since then about 40 searches have been made. Many unusual signals have been detected but astronomers think that none of them were from intelligent life.

Last month astronomers at the giant Arecibo radio telescope conducting 'project Phoenix,' a detailed search for radio signals from intelligent life in space, detected a signal from EQ Peg but concluded that it was man-made interference.

The EQ Peg star system is unlike our own. It consists of two dim red dwarf stars orbiting each other. From time to time explosions, so-called stellar flares, occur on both stars.

Detecting signals from some form of intelligence living in a nearby star system would be the most important scientific discovery ever made.

At the moment it seems likely that the 'alien' radio signals are just man-made interference.

Terrestrial signals can easily fool astronomers into thinking that they have detected ET.

The searchers of project Phoenix recently tracked a signal for many hours before they realised it was a scientific satellite.

Many astronomers involved in searching for life in space have expressed regret that the EQ Peg observations were released without going through the procedure agreed to tell the public about possible ET signals.

Because of this they say they are suspicious that it is all a hoax.

Even if it is it will have caused many scientists to think again about how they would release the news of a real discovery.

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