In 1997, Jodie Foster starred in the movie, Contact and her character, Dr Ellie Arroway, detects signals from outer space which, after a good deal of political and scientific conflict and drama leads to her going into space to make contact with these mysterious aliens.
The external shots in the film showing Jodie Foster’s character listening intently for alien signals had as background the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory in New Mexico. It has 27 huge dishes aimed into outer space and is known as the “Very Large Array”.
Perhaps eerily, in 1998, the Parkes CSIRO telescope in NSW detected signals – known as perytons –believed to be from outer space. The finest scientific minds in Australia and beyond could not decipher the signals nor could they pinpoint from what part of the galaxy they originated.
The Parkes radio telescope, standing alone, is not even a Very Small Array but it has been going since 1961 with regular upgrades and is now 10,000 times more sensitive then when it was commissioned. It was the star in the 2000 movie, The Dish which was about the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969.
Learned papers were written, long debates were held by experts, workshops were conducted, standing committees sat, ad hoc discussion groups discussed and, inevitably, conspiracy theorists came up with all sorts of weird so-called explanations. But the infuriating mystery continued for seventeen long years.
Then a PhD student, Emily Petroff, who is studying at the Swinburne University of Technology, decided to investigate.
She reviewed all of the work that had been done to try and trace the source of these signals and had the assistance of fellow boffins from the beautifully named SUrvey for Pulsars and Extragalactic Radio Bursts (SUPERB). In December last year what is called a radio frequency interference (RFI) monitor was installed.
Perhaps oddly, these mischievous little signals only happened during office hours which caused some to speculate that the aliens who were sending them were in a fully unionised workplace.
Then, miracle of miracles, on March 17 this year – and I bet Ms (soon to be Doctor) Petroff won’t forget this Saint Patrick’s Day – the culprit for these odd signals was their very own staff kitchen microwave. Oh dear – life can imitate art only to a certain degree so Ms Petroff, very clever as she is, is not yet a real-life Dr Arroway.
“We found that we could generate perytons in our data by simply having a direct line of sight between the microwave oven and the telescope receiver without the telescope surface itself in the way and stopping the microwave oven by opening the door. Perytons come from microwaves ovens! Solved! she said.
So, it was impatient staffers who jerked open the door prematurely to stop it were the culprits. Her findings have been published by the prestigious Cornell University in the USA.
“It was kind of a surprise to us,” she said. I bet it was.
It was a very dismal sort of discovery for the grandly named perytons which were named after a decidedly proud winged elk in legend and folklore when it was thought they came from outer space.
But another mystery still waits to be uncovered.
Ms Petroff and her colleagues have been trying to locate the source of what are known as “fast radio bursts (FRBs)”. According to the resourceful Ms Petroff, “The source of these powerful millisecond bursts is unknown but we are getting closer to understanding them.”
She said he first FRB was found in 2007 although it actually occurred in 2001 – its late discovery resulted from “a more close and careful inspection of archival data”. Well, better late than never and now the Parkes crowd are being rather more diligent about their homework.
Wrote Ms Petroff, “Even though one radio mystery has been solved another remains – the source of the fast radio bursts. While we still don’t know what is causing the FRBs that started this whole peryton investigation although we find that they cannot be explained by the same microwave ovens and many properties of FRBs point towards a genuine astrophysical origin. So the hunt continues.”
I wonder if a memo has been circulated at the Parkes Observatory asking staff to exercise some patience and restraint when warming up their lunches in the microwave?
Ms Petroff is a bubbly, photogenic lass who has wanted to be an astronomer since she was 12. She speaks fluent French and plays the classical violin and, I was pleased to discover, she likes fine whiskey. It’s nice that we have at least one thing in common – well more actually as I am known to be a bit of a star gazer.
Now, depending on the outcome of her FRB work, she could be the star of “Contact 2”. After all, she admits that she wanted to go into space when she was nine and with her prodigious talents she could probably out-act at least half of Hollywood.
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