How a microwave could fool SETI

In 1961, the Parkes Observatory was established in Australia’s New South Wales. Main equipment in this observatory is the Parkes Radio Telescope, which was funded by the Carnegie Corporation and the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Australian government. During that decade, it was to support the NASA Apollo missions. In the 1970s, the receiver was upgraded and detailed observations began.

Between 1997 and 2002 it conducted neutral hydrogen surveys, the largest blind survey for galaxies in the neutral hydrogen line in history, including the discovery of over 5000 galaxies. It also discovered more than half of the currently known pulsars.

For the last 17 years, it also picked up unidentified radio signals from outer space. These repetitive outbursts of mysterious radio flashes were said to originate from an unknown source at a 5.5 billion light-years distance for durations of no longer than a few milliseconds each.

By now, the source of those radio signals has finally been identified, although at a much closer distance than previously assumed. Turned out that they did not originate from outer space at all, but from the observatory’s pantry. Apparently, the microwave that was used by the observatory’s staff for heating their meals, was the source of the mysterious radio flashes.

At first, the micro wave signals had not been taken into consideration, because it was said to have a closed circuit. Only at times of use, when warming up, it might have had influence on the results of the radio telescope. Furthermore, the radio telescope had to be exactly in line with the microwave. And the microwave was seldomly used, because most of the time the telescope was operated remotely. As the town of Parkes expanded, and population grew, the disturbances in the observations grew as well. This resulted into a growing number of radio flashes, also triggered by an expansive use of cell phones, WiFi, and other home equipment with electromotive force (EMF) such as television, computers and vacuum cleaners.

So far, the search for intelligent life in Parkes has resulted in the discovery of the microwave in the pantry of the observatory. Question is: will mankind ever be able to distinguish real extraterrestrial life with the observatory? Or will society simply keep dumbing down?

(Picture taken from Wikimedia commons, Parkes Observatory)

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