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A signal from aliens? No, it’s just a kitchen appliance

The Parkes Observatory (called “The Dish” by locals) is an advanced radio telescope observatory, located close to the town of Parkes, New South Wales, Australia. The main piece of technology is a 64-metre (210 feet) movable dish telescope. This is pretty large and it is the second biggest space-monitoring device in the Southern Hemisphere.

One of the tasks of the telescope is to gaze out into the cosmos. Recently, astronomers working with the powerful telescope detected strange flares which they termed “perytons” (millisecond-duration transients). The Peryton is a mythological hybrid animal combining the physical features of a stag and a bird. The astronomers selected this term because the signals were not what they were initially thought to be.

These initially appeared as fast radio bursts, yet there was something different about the signals. The peryton bursts arrived at all 13 of the telescope’s beams (appearing as an all-sky event), whereas most radio signals from space are localized to just one part of the sky. This led the astronomers to suspect that the origin was linked to a meteorological events closer to Earth.

The main radio signals that interest astronomers are fast radio bursts. These single-point radio signals are considered to be astronomical noise from other galaxies (scientifically these are electromagnetic waves with much lower frequencies than infrared and visible light.) Perytons, are, however, difficult to filter out from other cosmological phenomena.

In January 2015, three perytons were detected and these coincided with independently detected blasts of 2.4 gigahertz radio waves. This puzzled the astronomers working at the facility because radio waves at this frequency are those used in microwave ovens.

For a three week period, the astronomers experimented with microwaves, by heating up cups of water to see if the operation of the ovens was causing interference with the advanced telescope. Initially the studies proved fruitless. Then, one of the scientists decided to open the door of a microwave oven mid-way through heating a cup of water (rather than letting the microwave complete its three minute cycle). This activity (the microwave oven’s magnetron shut-down phase) caused perytons to appear on the data collected by the radio telescope.

This caused the astronomers to conclude that microwave ovens, opened before cooking is completed, can interfere with searches for astronomical activity.

Meanwhile, the hunt for more interesting intergalactic fast radio bursts continues although astronomers now need to be a little more careful about how they interpret such data: have they picked up a neutron star or alien life? Or is someone simply cooking a frozen pizza?

The astronomers have reported their findings to the journal Astrophysics, in a paper titled “Identifying the source of perytons at the Parkes radio telescope.”

Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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