Tuesday, November 3, 1998 Published at 14:29 GMT Sci/Tech

Alien hoax dismays scientists

EQ Peg: another cosmic myth

by Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse
Some greeted it as a breakthrough. Others were more suspicious, believing it to be a hoax.

Now the strange case of the 'alien' signals from a nearby star seems to be just that.

Last week it was claimed that a British engineer working for a telecommunications company had picked up strange signals from a nearby star system called EQ Pegasi.

The data was posted on the Internet, starting a flurry of debate. Some astronomers went away to look at EQ Peg, others were suspicious.

Shuch: "sabotage"
"For the past 10 days we have been chasing a ghost," says Dr Paul Shuch executive director of the Seti (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) League, an international organisation of amateur ET hunters.

The Seti League has a network of 900 members in 48 countries. Many of them operate small radio telescopes as part of their search for alien signals from space.

"None of them has been able to find the claimed signal from EQ Peg," says Dr Shuch.

"Real science has been jeopardised. It is no longer just a hoax, it is sabotage of a highly respected grassroots effort. It has set Seti back a hundred years."

Some of the world's major radio telescopes have also been looking for the signal with no success.

The Australian compact array telescope, with is 30 times more powerful than the telescope that found the original signals, has not found anything.

Jodrell Bank: signals are from a satellite
"We think it may be a satellite," says Ian Morison of Jodrell Bank.

Other scientists have denounced the supposed findings as a deliberate attempt to trick the world.

"It is a hoax and not a very good one at that," says Dr Nathan Cohen of Boston University.

He declined to elaborate because he said such information could be useful to future hoaxers.

Dr Seth Shostak of the Seti Institute in California said he was suspicious because the supposed discovery did not come through the usual channels and that the nature of the signal was strange.

Rumours that the signal had been detected by the giant German radio telescope at Effelsberg have also been denied. Dr Rolf Schwartz said "We are not involved in any Seti experiment."

Paul Dore however maintains he did find something and that the British and American security services have told him it was a secret spy satellite.

The search goes on

For the past 40 years astronomers have been using radio telescopes to scan the sky looking for alien signals.

Their equipment, designed to sift an alien signal from the cosmic static, is getting better all the time.

Prof Frank Drake, who conducted the first search, has said he is hopeful a detection will be made during the next 18 months or so.

One thing is clear however. Seti scientists will have learned a lot in the past week about how to publicise any discovery of ET, as well as how to get their message across when they think the world is being fooled.

The discovery of alien signals from space would rank as one of the major discoveries of all time. The lesson of EQ Peg is that releasing such news may be a somewhat messy affair.