Flickering Stars: Could Aliens Be Sending Us Signals?

An improbable search for ET could produce real results

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Babek Tafreshi / SSPL / Getty Images

Stars shine in the night sky above Mt. Everest, Mt. Lutse and Ama Dablam in Nepal, Sept. 7, 2011.

When scientists go out looking for research funding, it helps if their projects aren’t all that exciting. Excitement usually goes with the most speculative, cutting-edge science, but funding agencies usually prefer to put their money on projects that seem likely to bear fruit. “You pretty much have to demonstrate that you’ve already done half the work to demonstrate it’s feasible,” says Lucianne Walkowicz, a postdoctoral fellow in astrophysics based at Princeton University.

By that standard, Walkowicz’s latest project shouldn’t be getting any funding at all. She wants to conduct a search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), not by doing anything so conventional as listening for radio transmissions á la Jodie Foster in Contact, or watching for flashes of laser light. Instead, she wants to see if ET’s are somehow manipulating the light coming from their stars so that they wink at us — a long shot if ever there was one, especially since she has no clue how they might go about it.

(More: How You — Or Anyone — Can Help Find ET)

But thanks to a program titled “New Frontiers in Astronomy and Cosmology,” funded by the John Templeton foundation and administered by the University of Chicago, Walkowicz is getting her chance. Cutting-edge research is what this program is all about, and the question “Are We Alone in the Universe?” is one of the major areas it aims to address.

The odds of a discovery with Walkowicz’s project may be long, but the search technique is quite straightforward. “Our premise,” she says, “is that up until now, we’ve had a preconceived idea of what a SETI signal would look like.” It would basically be the sort of signal we know how to create, and understandably so, since searching for a signal from some entirely unknown technology would be kind of difficult.

If aliens were so advanced that they could cause their star to appear to flicker, however, it wouldn’t matter how they did it, and it would be easy enough to see with existing technology. In fact, says Walkowicz, “our premise was, ‘what if we’ve already detected a signal but missed it because of our preconceptions.’”

(More: Life on Billions of Planets? Could Be)

So she and her co-investigators (including Princeton’s Edwin Turner, who recently suggested looking for alien cities on Pluto), proposed to look through a potential trove of signals: the archives from the Kepler mission, which has been scanning space since 2009 for stars that are winking because of orbiting planets passing in front of them. Kepler also sees stars that are winking because they have sunspots, or because they’re eclipsed by other stars, or because they brighten and dim naturally, all on heir own.

What Walkowicz and company will do is use software algorithms to look for unusual patterns of variability. “We’ll get all sorts of things we understand,” she says, “but we’ll also be looking for things that aren’t matched by well-known physical processes.”

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Naturally, they’ll try at first to explain these unusual variations with conventional physics — and in fact, the discovery of new, natural types of stellar variation could be a valuable side benefit of the project. Big, wide-field surveys of the sky with instruments such as the upcoming Large Synoptic Survey Telescope will inevitably uncover all sorts of unexpected phenomena, so Walkowicz’s work could pre-explain at least some of them.

Once she and her team have ruled out all of the plausible natural explanations for strange flickerings, however, they’ll be forced to consider the possibility that it really is ET calling. “What would lead us to say it really is an alien signal?” she asks. “I don’t know, but in my book, finding things you can’t explain is interesting no matter what it is. If we see ‘SOS, send water,’ in Morse code, that would be great.”

There will probably be a bit more ambiguity than that, she admits, and we may never know for certain that  we’re seeing a deliberate signal. “You don’t want to invoke the strangest thing first,” says Walkowicz, “but we should think a little bit more outlandishly. If we’re always succeeding all the time, maybe we’re not trying hard enough.”

More: Anyone Out There? A New Way To Look For Alien Life

73 comments
mrbomb13
mrbomb13

Insane waste of money, and total waste of coverage for TIME Magazine.

SmoothEdward1
SmoothEdward1

Since television waves travel through space the first signal will want to know the outcome of the OJ trial.

billy3311
billy3311

hi this is billly im 10 years old and i dont know much about space im just in fith grade but i think work by michcal d lemonick is great i learned alot its awesome so if you could i have g-mail so e-mail me if you want my name is dirtbikebilly3311@gmail.com 

RichardSRussell
RichardSRussell

I guess this represents progress. A thousand years ago, if people saw something they couldn't explain, they'd chalk it up to God. Now the preferred explanation is space aliens. Maybe in another thousand years we'll get to the point of honesty and just admit "nobody knows — yet".

thomasvesely
thomasvesely

i got aliens. i got different kinds.

wanna see ?

send money !

sheamus
sheamus

I think aliens do exists and they must be extremely advanced as well.Earth with its primitive leaders,weaponry,education system and an utterly dishonest citizenly one must wonder how earth has made this far without getting invaded by alien lifeforms.

My first theory about why an invasion of earth has not happened  is that maybe there is a superior race of aliens protecting earth and other aliens wishing to invade earth know this and therefore keep away or else their faces get smashed.

My second theory is that maybe the aliens fight among themselves for earth either in their time or ours or even here on earth currently but none has quite overpowered the others to have earth therefore earth has never gone to any of the fighting alien civilizations.

My third theory is that earth is reliably hidden from the sights of the aliens that even them cannot make it here and those that do,do not make it back home or have no idea where they are.

My fourth theory is that aliens aren't that clever and need an invasion by humans to heal them of their ignorance.

My fifth theory is that maybe man became alien and thus there are no aliens left to look for.

My sixth theory is that maybe there is something superiorly weird(i.e disease,air,soil,spirit) that keeps aliens away.

My last theory is that maybe there is nothing to gain for aliens in invading earth so no alien has any interest visiting earth.

Observer52052
Observer52052

Ms. Walkowicz, good luck on your research. Many wish that they had funding from deep wells to do research on suspicions. Perhaps your team could start by determining whether Earth is sending flickering light signals somehow which might appear to "wink" at deep space !!!! Maybe, what you are seeing is extraterrestial intelligence responding back to our winks. That would truly be extraterrestial LOVE !!

SwiftrightRight
SwiftrightRight

This is old news. Folks have been talking about aliens causing noticeable disruptions in their primaries light for decades. Several of the recently discovered rogue exoplanets were discovered using the same techniques that would be used to look for stars that have dyson arrays built around them. 

Scientists long ago gave the nod to science thinkers who pointed out that at some point all intelligent species energy needs will quickly surpass what they can safely and cost effectively gather form their plant (this is happening to us atm) A species will then have to choices of either off worlding energy gathering, stopping growth or dying off.

ThomasTurk
ThomasTurk

Yes, we have no contact except that... Ufos  shut down US nuke missiles sites.. google Larry King CNN, UFOs shut down missile sites, uTube.  And,  www.theyfly.com for open ongoing, civilian  et contact.  Don't expect  seti, nasa or govt to admit anything. If you want to believe we are alone, that's up to you.

shaunbratt
shaunbratt

Perhaps there need be no alien influence at all to the influence the stars light. Perhaps the stars themselves are living, intelligent and alive...communicating with each other via blinking.  If you are out tonight, take a second (you will need to put your i-phone down for at least ten seconds :)...) and to gaze into the universe...don't focus on one star, kind of look into the distance with your peripheral vision and you might be able to see this coordinated blinking phenomena for yourself. Check it out!  

RonE.Thorpe
RonE.Thorpe

Most of the comments here are from people who obviously have not persued the subject of ET or the Cosmos in general but they are quick to report to all how little they know. Any reasonable interest and study of the phenomena will assure students that it is actually unreasonable to think the universe is not teaming with life forms many like ourselves and already in full contact with governments and individuals deemed trustworthy.There is indisputable evidence of past contact and relations with ETs and now their craft are being videoed and photographed every day and you dont know about this??? Thankyou MSM... By the way they can raise and lower their frequencies and interact from a high level to us here on earth. They can monitor every waveform that emanates from the planet as well as access all of history in the Records here called the Akashic. Inasmuch as they are all powerful in ways we haven't yet imagined it is the height of ridiculous to think they are here to harm us. As we are related to many of them they are here to see us back home and to help in the transition to 5d from4 where were are presently.

 That there has been a monsterous coverup of this is patently obvious. Within the next few weeks and months all conjecture on this expansive subject will get kick started into the stratosphere as we are finally aware of the truth of our creation. The representatives from the universal Brother/Sisterhood will mentor us back into full consciousness and introduce us to our space neighborhood.

RobertHarvey-Kinsey
RobertHarvey-Kinsey

I think they would have better luck looking for the effects of a Dyson swarm or a Klemperer Rosette orbiting a star.

janvones
janvones

Of course aliens are blinking stars at us. Every night.

That's why I keep a fresh supply of tinfoil hats.

mrdarklight
mrdarklight

Sounds like a total waste of money. It's surprising the government isn't funding it.

ChrisThomasWakefield
ChrisThomasWakefield

Walkowicz should be recognized as a good person looking to make progress with the conundrum of "Do Aliens exist" field of study, the dreadful failure of the original SETI program notwithstanding. Unfortunately, to do the study you need money for equipment and/or rental of existing skyward observing installations and to pay the woman-man hours for time spent on the project, so this invariably leads to asking those with money-to-burn for some of it. Why is this an issue? Since Walkowicz has secured the funds, this means something critical to the success of all such projects that nobody ever talks about: the person in charge of the purse-strings has to fall-in-line with the government official point-of-view. Not only this, but Walkowicz's peers must support findings and the middle management, in this case the "John Templeton foundation" must also agree to her scientific findings. Governmental and money-lending bodies are not known for their liberal views, are they? Since Governments, Corporations and large institutions are not to be trusted to expose earth-shaking data, the kind of data that means, for example, that all science text-books have to be re-written exposing the official messages over the decades (now about 2 centuries?), that what our scientific, governmental and big-business organizations have been telling us about our Earth history, our solar system and interplanetary physics and the origins of our Galaxy is seeded with falsehoods, mistaken assumptions, enforced viewpoints of the day or anything that would upset the apple-carts of the "Western" Christian churches, European religious states or Eastern Religious organizations.All opinions of the public are not in line with scientific findings, this we know,  but why is it that these alternative and challenging-to-the-official viewpoints not supported? Of course, this question implies that the reader is aware of how secrecy shapes the opinions of the common man from cultural and bureaucratic leadership. Let me put it this way: of those with money or high positions and their lavish and privileged life-styles, would they want to loose all of that to support a movement or a social program that would do away with their ways-and-means to break from the status quo? Would a government official ever admit to a lie. stealing public funds a reveal a better opposing candidate and step down from office? Do large corporations who rape the land and the local denizens of an area ever do right by it without massive exposure by the public and massive expenditure of funds for lawyers to deny it first?We all know the answer to these questions, but do we, on the other hand, still accept the pablum feed to us by our science fellows and pundits?What is this conundrum? How does an astronomer or planetary scientist find legitimacy, when they are in denial of the daily occurrence of UFO sightings? News and UFO-interested organizations from around the world have been reporting on the UFO phenomena for many, many years, they can't all be weather balloons! (famous U.S. Military excuse for the actual occurrence of a UFO crash in Roswell in the 50'ies). It's amazing the chutzpa that people like Walkowicz have all-the-while blissfully and gleefully going about avoiding the UFO elephant in the room.

StanMiller
StanMiller

the earth has look inhabitable for a very long time. you would think intelligent life, if they were a curious form, would have found us a long time ago. we have no evidence of that. 

vstillwell
vstillwell

If they could control stars, I'm sure they would have invented jump drive. Just saying. 

msteffes
msteffes

I might be speaking the obvious here, but Morse code was an earthly creation. If other beings did create something, your chances of understanding it (and therefore deciding it is a coded message or not) seem to be farfetched. 

DhrubKumar
DhrubKumar

@msteffes but everything(information) would be in form of waves or signal so can be decoded

MrMister
MrMister

Brazen junk science, with the sole purpose of supporting tenure.

The Templeton Foundation trustees should hang their heads in shame.

rodgerw
rodgerw

flickering stars?  What do you do, place a lens at a significant distance from it? This is crazy.  How do you point the lens?  It wouild seem to me, radio waves are the only way to communicate and we have scanned the heavens for decades and found nothing.  And do you know why?  Because there is nothing there.

A.priori
A.priori

How beautiful to think twinkle, twinkle is actually winking. I hope it's not a distress call though as we used to do with a mirror and sunlight.Still, while I do believe out planet is the prettiest girl around, can we be quite sure we're the ones being winked at?

TheDisclosure
TheDisclosure

The truth is slowly coming out now about this. The new film 'Sirius' will document many of these et contact sighting and events, and ultimately, disclosure will soon be made by global governments. Dr. Steven Greer and his team already have an Extra-Terrestrial Biological Entity that they are examining, and hopefully it will be in the upcoming film 'Sirius'. This is a great story by Time, and we can't wait for more news.

jimmoir83
jimmoir83

I agree. We are so self oriented, we assume alien life forms will be basically like us, only looking a little different. That they will commuicate with some sort of genrated sound like speach, that they will see like we do, manipulte radia waves as we do.  The truth is they may be so alien that we dont even recognize them as life. Who says they have to be individuals, like life here? Maybe "they" are one gigantic organism coveing half thier planet. Maybe they "see" radio waves, and communicate through crystal structures. The possiblities are just endless. Thats why innovative thinking like this is importrant. Even if they diont find ET, good science will get done and useful data generated.

PeterLangham
PeterLangham

Another place to find hidden messages could be in the DNA of Earth's life. A coded message left in the four letters of the genetic code would remain until an intelligent species was able to look and thoughtful enough to do so. 

GaryRMcCray
GaryRMcCray

Although they have a stated goal, looking at variations in starlight or spectra could provide all kinds of information.

They could easily find something else entirely.

Spaceage
Spaceage

I think that this is a great idea.    I wish them all of the luck.   The things you are looking for are not complicated, but very simplistic.  For all of you haters do not ignore the things your brain does not have the capacity to understand.

jediunixmaster
jediunixmaster

There is probably all kinds of inter-galactic communication all around us and we just don't know how to find it.  I'm betting there is some kind of neutrino communication going on this very second. Let me look into this and then I'll just need some money to continue.  I'll start around the reefs in Hawaii, submerged, in a scuba suit.