SEKRIT Memo: Ix-Nay on the Artians-May

A mere two days ago, we got tantalizing news of sentient life in space.

An international team of scientists from the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is investigating mysterious signal spikes emitting from a 6.3-billion-year-old star in the constellation Hercules—95 light years away from Earth. The implications are extraordinary and point to the possibility of a civilization far more advanced than our own.

The unusual signal was originally detected on May 15, 2015, by the Russian Academy of Science-operated RATAN-600 radio telescope in Zelenchukskaya, Russia, but was kept secret from the international community. Interstellar space reporter Paul Gilster broke the story after the researchers quietly circulated a paper announcing the detection of “a strong signal in the direction of HD164595.”


The signal’s strength indicates that if it in fact came from a isotropic beacon, the power source would have to be built by a Kardashev Type II civilization. (The Kardashev scale is used to determine the progress of a civilization’s technological development by measuring how much energy was used to transmit an interstellar message.) An ‘Isotropic’ beacon means a communication source emitting a signal with equal power in all directions while promoting signal strength throughout travel.

This created quite the tizzy among space watchers and had me warning it was a Russian plot to steal the election.

Oh, sure, there were warnings.

“The signal may be real, but I suspect it’s not ET,” Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, told GeekWire. “There are other possibilities for a wide-band signal such as this, and they’re caused by natural sources or even terrestrial interference.”

Nick Suntzeff, a Texas A&M University astronomer, agrees. “God knows who or what broadcasts at 11 GHz, and it would not be out of the question that some sort of bursting communication is done between ground stations and satellites,” he told Ars Technica, explaining that the signal was observed in the radio spectrum used by the military. “I would follow it if I were the astronomers, but I would also not hype the fact that it may be at SETI signal given the significant chance it could be something military.”

But nevertheless, last we heard — two whole days ago — America’s ET watchers were going to monitor that location permanently and telescopes in our hemisphere were turning their eye to watch the signal.

Still, he adds, “the signal is provocative enough that the RATAN-600 researchers are calling for permanent monitoring of this target.”


In the meantime, the SETI Institute, based in Mountain View, California, directed its Allen Telescope Arraytoward HD 164595 on Sunday night, while METI International (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence) did the same with the Boquete Optical SETI Observatory in Panama.

Turns out, two days into that permanent monitoring, the ET-watchers have decided it’s not ET.

We cautioned readers that, because the signal was measured at 11Ghz, there was a “significant chance” it was of terrestrial origin, likely due to some military activity.

Well, it apparently was. First, astronomers with the search for extraterrestrial intelligence downplayed the possibility of an alien civilization. “There are many other plausible explanations for this claimed transmission, including terrestrial interference,” Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer with SETI, wrote.

Now the Special Astrophysical Observatory of the Russian Academy of Sciences has concurred, releasing a statement on the detection of a radio signal at the RATAN-600 radio astronomy observatory in southern Russia. “Subsequent processing and analysis of the signal revealed its most probable terrestrial origin,” the Russian scientists said.

Or, to put it differently, after secretly monitoring this site 95 light years away for 15 months, the Russians have suddenly figured out that this is terrestrial origin.

Maybe even some kind of military activity.

All of which would seem to raise a bunch of other questions. Like who wrote the memo telling all the ET-watchers to Ix-Nay their stories of Artians-May? Or, if this is previously unseen military activity that Russians couldn’t identify for 15 months (but were mighty attentive to, mind you), whose military activity that might be? And what that previously unidentified military activity might be?

It probably means Russian martians aren’t going to steal our election. But the more interesting question is what this really was…

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

10 replies
  1. blueba says:

    This all kind if reminds me of the Cold War Numbers Stations. – Which have recently made a comeback. – Coded messaging going on or some such thing.

  2. P J Evans says:

    A microwave oven, being turn on and off, maybe.
    Srsly, I don’t think any signal from aliens would be more than just a faint “hello?”

  3. Rayne says:

    P J Evans (8:22) — A faint hello depends on whether it was a Kardashev Type I (weak signal, like one we’d produce at our best) or a Kardashev Type II (much stronger). Why would either of them bother with us? Heh.

    • P J Evans says:

      yeah, I doubt that we’re at all interesting (except as potential victims) to any aliens that could send out a signal strong enough to be noticeable on this end.

  4. Rayne says:

    emptywheel — GLONASS outage never adequately explained. Could have been a form of cyber attack thought there is a faint possibility such an attack might have violated the Outer Space Treaty.

    When we’re speculating on microwaves causing unexpected signals noticed by SETI researchers, another source of microwaves besides ovens is communications — including that with satellites.

    For all we know, the GLONASS outage wasn’t the only space-earth event in a chain of possible attacks, and some oddities like stray signals could well be related. Or drones using a very different form of navigation.

  5. rugger9 says:

    This is in the range of X-band control radar frequently used by missile control, airports, etc., so it easily could be terrestrial in source. It’s not ground-hugging, but it is also not as line-of-sight as higher frequency EM. One useful question is to figure out if there is any Doppler shifting, which may affect the true signal. However, this requires a separate reference signal (like the Cepheids used for Hubble’s work) which does not appear to be part of the report.

  6. Evangelista says:

    LOG (cont’d):

    ______”What mean “Chesterfields Satisfy”?? My dictionary say: “Chesterfied” mean “Couch”. USA blasting Universe with Couch Potato Propaganda?? D’mitri.”

    ______”Chesterfields = cigarettes. Escaped voice-over advert. Could be Ronald Reagan voice, but too washed out for positive ID.”

    _____”Smoked USA President broadcast Couch Potato Propaganda?? Tell me you joke. You smoke too much couch. You crazy. Please be crazy. D’mitri”

    _____”Not joke. Not crazy. Not propaganda. American commercial broadcast advertising. Escaped signals. Probably billions of hours of escaped signal. Bouncing around space. More everyday.”

    _____”So All Universe now think Planet Earth All smoked-up Couch Potatoes. D’mitri”

    _____”Think of it as “Global Warning”. A public service…”


    Or signal leak from a narrow-beam spy-satellite?

    You choose.

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