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Guest Editorial

Don't Stop the Presses
by H. Paul Shuch
Executive Director Emeritus, The SETI League, Inc.

Every decade or so, the SETI community is treated to a tantalizing (though inconclusive) hint that the existence proof we seek may indeed be within our grasp. Invariably, the popular press seizes upon incomplete in-formation to increase circulation by prematurely announcing our success. In the 1960s, the discovery at CalTech of quasar CTA-102 was heralded as proof of extraterrestrial intelligence, until cooler heads prevailed and the true nature of the source was uncovered. In the 1970s, the Ohio State University “Wow!” signal was similarly exaggerated. In The SETI League’s early days, the EQ Pegasi hoax (followed shortly by the Pearl Harbor Hoax) achieved their fifteen minutes of fame. Now, we’re at it again with wild speculations about a single presumed detection associated with the star HD 164595.

The facts as I understand them are fairly straightforward. About a year and a half ago, our Russian colleagues used the RATAN-600 transit radio telescope to con-duct a routine RF survey of the regions of the sky surrounding promising Kepler exoplanet locations. Using an extremely broadband receiver at a wavelength of 2.7 cm, their data revealed an extremely brief RF peak somewhere between 10.6 and 11.6 GHz. No spectral analysis was possible, so no Doppler velocity information could be inferred. The detection never repeated, nor was it duplicated at any other facility. End of story.

Last month, publicizing a paper to be presented at the upcoming International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, an email to members of the IAA SETI Committee referred to this possible detection. And, before we could say “X-files,” the media was all over it with reports of extraterrestrials discovered just 94 light years away.

So, here is what I know: some sort of X-band radiation entered the telescope while it was scanning in the general direction of a known exoplanet. That doesn’t mean the signal came from intelligence, or even necessarily from that planet; it merely entered the telescope. We get hits like this all the time, and usually trace them to satellite interference, or terrestrial RFI, or nearby microwave ovens or police Doppler radars. They are not SETI detections until either they repeat, or they are independently verified as such. No matter what conference agendas, article preprints, or the press may tell you.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in editorials are those of the individual authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of The SETI League, Inc., its Trustees, officers, Advisory Board, members, donors, or commercial sponsors.

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