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Those weird radio waves that were puzzling astronomers have a new explanation

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Still not aliens

The Arecibo Observatory
The Arecibo Observatory
Photo: H. Schweiker/WIYN and NOAO/AURA/NSF

Last week, astronomers at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico announced they had picked up some strange radio signals coming from a small red dwarf star, and they couldn’t quite figure out what was causing them. Now, it seems they have an answer: it turns out these bizarre radio signals most likely came from the transmissions of a couple of satellites.

The radio signals initially perplexed the astronomers. A solar flare from the star could have caused the signals, but the waves weren’t at the right frequency. The astronomers said it was possible that the waves came from nearby satellites, but the structure of the signal made it seem like the waves had traveled a long way through space to reach Earth. No explanation perfectly fit the observation.

Fortunately, the Arecibo team did further observations of the star on Sunday. The astronomers analyzed the results, along with other research institutions and scientists, and they came to the conclusion that the signal didn’t come from deep space but from one or more satellites orbiting high in geostationary orbit. This explains the weird frequency and why it seemed like the waves were coming from the star. Named Ross 128, the star is located in part of the sky where a lot of geostationary satellites sit. But it doesn’t explain why the wave signals looked as if they had traveled through interstellar space. “It is possible that multiple reflections caused these distortions, but we will need more time to explore this and other possibilities,” the team wrote in a press release.

One thing is for certain: it definitely wasn’t aliens. It never is.

The signal picked up by Arecibo, which was dubbed the “Weird! Signal.”
Image: Planetary Habitability Laboratory

Update July 21st, 1:27PM ET: This post was updated to include more information about the signal’s location.