An international team of scientists made a big splash this week when Chinese state media reported that a SETI telescope had detected "suspicious signals," emanating from a distant star system, that could possibly point toward the existence of an extraterrestrial civilization.
Using the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST), a gigantic alien-hunting radio observatory in southwest China, the team documented narrowband signals that one FAST official, who was not directly involved in the research, told Chinese media could "likely" be an alien signal.
But not everybody involved with the project agrees with that conclusion.
"The signals that we found so far are all [radio frequency] interference, they're not from extraterrestrials, they're from terrestrials," Dan Werthimer, a SETI researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, who coauthored a preprint paper about the findings, told Futurism.
Wertheimer likened the current research to a "kind of a down payment on our survey to make sure everything's working." The preprint is an early part of a massive sky survey that will take at least five years to complete, he added.
Radio frequency interference (RFI) "a big problem" while looking at these "very weak signals," he said.
"The problem is that when you look for these very weak signals from a distant civilization, you get overwhelmed by the the pollution, the radio pollution on Earth," Werthimer said. "All this television and cell phones and satellites now are getting worse and worse and it's hard to figure out what's interference and what might be from a distant civilization."
While the signal was observed coming from the direction of Kepler-438, a star system with a habitable zone that's home to several Earth-like planets, there's a simple explanation for that as well.
"When you point a telescope at an exoplanet, like one of these Kepler exoplanets, the problem is that the even though that the telescope is staring at this star, signals can get in the telescope from the side," Werthimer explained. "Even though the [FAST] telescope in China is pretty far away from most big cities, there are still transmitters that can get in from the side."
That leaves the question: why did some researchers seemingly jump the gun and deem the discovery to be a possible sign of extraterrestrial life?
"One of the things in SETI is that we look through billions of different signals every second and then you find the best things," Werthimer told Futurism.
"If you're not used to looking at a billion things, looking for unusual stuff, it's like flipping a coin a billion times and see ten heads in a row or even 20 heads in a row," he added.
"But my guess is they're not used to these experiments, where you're flipping a coin a billion times a second," Werthimer said.
Despite the rather sobering conclusion, the astronomer remains hopeful that we're not alone in the cosmos.
"I'm actually optimistic about life in the universe," he said. "It'd be bizarre if we were the only ones. There's a trillion planets in the Milky Way galaxy," including "little rocky planets like Earth with liquid water."
"And that's that's just our galaxy," he added. "There's 100 billion other galaxies — so I'm optimistic about intelligence."