Could flickering stars be messages from ET?


Could the flickering and winking of some stars be a kind of Morse Code that extraterrestrials are using to communicate across space? Princeton University astrophysicist Lucianne Walkowicz and her colleagues are exploring that very question. Her team is using algorithms to sift data from the space observatory Kepler for flickering patterns that don't appear to be the result of passing planets, sunspots, eclipses, or other known reasons. “What would lead us to say it really is an alien signal?” she asks. “I don’t know, but in my book, finding things you can’t explain is interesting no matter what it is."

And just to be clear, this has nothing to do with the star twinkling that we see, which is caused by atmospheric turbulence on Earth. Or so they'd like us to think. "Flickering Stars: Could Aliens Be Sending Us Signals?" (Thanks, Jake Dunagan!)


  1. Pardon my skepticism, but I think it’s just as likely massive Earth monuments like the pyramids and Great Wall of China are reassuring messages to an alien who crash-landed on Titan on his way to deliver us a greeting from his home planet.

  2.  “If we’re always succeeding all the time, maybe we’re not trying hard
    enough.” Great quote from Walkowicz.  I think she is on the right track, not necessarily because of the specific idea (which prima facie you cannot say is good or bad at all, given the lack of research enforced by certain members of the scientific community), but because she realizes that the real problem here is our own preconceptions blocking our possible perception of pattern. 

    1. I agree – the quote is great. However, I don’t think its fair to say that the lack of research in this field has been “enforced by certain members of the scientific community.” I think this is a combination of 1) something people hadn’t considered before and 2) a long, long, long shot — it’s just really hard to make a star blink. 

      What I’m excited about is the prospect of taking a hard look at all the stellar variation that doesn’t fit into our neat little buckets (thermal pulses, occultation, starspots, and the like.) This could provide key insights about stellar structure, evolution, and instability.

      1. Hi Jeremy,
        I don’t think Mike’s comment in the Time article is meant to imply that anyone is enforcing that no one work on this kind of stuff (and that’s certainly not what I meant!). It’s just that in a really budget-constrained environment (like the one US science is in), research money tends to get spent on projects that likely to lead to definite, predictable results, and aren’t particularly speculative. Like it or not, that means that we don’t often get to go after the big payoff kooky ideas! 

        As to your other comment, checking out all the weird stellar variation is definitely part of the plan! The Kepler data are so amazing, people keep stumbling across new phenomena– we wanted to make a purposeful search for weird things, whether they’re new phenomena happening naturally in the stars, or not… *cue X-Files theme*

        1. Lucianne,
          It’s great to see researchers like you and your colleagues who are pursuing these “big payoff kooky ideas” – especially in light of such tight budget constraints (I’m a grad student working on modeling supernova spectra, and funding for our group is getting harder to secure.)

          Keep up the good work! It’s exciting to think about all the things it might uncover.

  3. It’ll be so disappointing when they turn out to be messages from an alien civilization with the technology to modulate the output of a star that is using that capability to send spam.


    2. Given our own experience, we should expect a comparable intelligence to use an absurd amount of energy to do proportionally trivial things.

  4. alien species have the ability to harness the power of a star to make it “flicker”, yet that’s the best way they can communicate across the universe?

    sorry, but if you can influence those gigantic nuclear furnaces, you can develop better tech to contact life wherever is it.

    light particles and waves can get bent any number of ways as they go untold millions of miles , so the planets, stars, black holes, dark matter, electromagnetic waves, radiation, and other space dirt that’s in between might cause the starlight to “flicker”.  

    a little disappointed that this (and life on Pluto) is what Princeton astrophysicists are coming up with.

    1. Oh no. Stars are a sourcfe of energy. You could capture that energy and retransmit it with some modulation. Thats what our transmitters do now.

  5. “What would lead us to say it really is an alien signal?” she asks. “I don’t know, but in my book, finding things you can’t explain is interesting no matter what it is.”

    And mentioning aliens is bound to bring in orders of magnitude more attention than one’s “interesting thing you can’t explain” otherwise would.

  6. Where’s the credit on that photo of Devil’s Tower? 

    It’s pretty badass and I want to see it bigger.

  7. bwuh? What are we talking about here–Dyson spheres with really big louvers? 

    1. Or a Dyson sphere system of layered polarizing fields. You put it around a neighboring star; not your own.

      B – U – R – M – A    S – H – A – V – E

  8. That was my thought.  If you can make an entire star flicker somehow then you’re way way way beyond what we can even imagine. 

    Heck, even if we did see a signal, it would be thousands or millions of years old at this point.

  9. Sentient stars, having conversations with their sister-stars, whom they’ve kept in contact with since the stellar nursery…

  10. If we’re already looking for intelligence in radio frequencies, is it any more ridiculous to look for intelligence in  the visible wavelengths? Let’s exhaust the low hanging fruit and work our way up from there!

    1. Yes but…  what if we intercept those “twinkles” and decode them… and then they threaten to sue us for illegal downloading of protected content?

      1. Shades of John Varley’s THE OPHIUCHI HOTLINE, where humanity intercepts an alien transmission full of useful tech, but then one day, a bill arrives…

  11. Now’s a good time to throw this out here, a persistent flickering light I saw one night two years ago from my backyard, it spooked me and I wrote it down, like so:

    Between 1:25 am and 1:45 am.  Slow moving object, flashing for 1/4 (one quarter) second in 8 second cycles, visual magnitude decreasing from 1.5 to around 3.5 in 8 or 9 cycles, then gradually increasing again to 1.5, over and over again. (picture attached)

    Due to the slowness, it can’t be an airplane, nor a regular satellite with the added factor of the hour.  A friend of mine said “drone airplane”, but that doesn’t sound right.
    The only thing I can think of is the solar panels of a geostationary satellite, but it still doesn’t… I don’t know.

    If somebody on BB can shed some light on this phenomenon, please do so, I can’t be the only one who’s seen this weirdness, and I have no plausible explanation.

    1. How slow was it moving, what direction was it moving in relative to you, and how far away was it? I don’t think you have given any reason to rule out an airplane as the most likely explanation, less still a helicopter.
      Also, a geostationary satellite wouldn’t appear to be moving at all, if I understand the term correctly.Actually never mind. Yeah it was martians. Problem solved.

      1. It’s right there in the star chart jpg I attached, didn’t you see it?

        But in technical terms, ballpark figure – the flickering light took 20 minutes to move across 10 arcminutes of the sky.
        Canis Minor at that time and date was east, a bit over halfway between azimuth and zenith.

        BTW, the chart is upside down in relation to the sky that night, it was the only jpg of the area that I found on the web at a moment’s notice, a quick and dirty solution was better than nothing.

        It was NOT an airplane and NOT a helicopter.  FWIW, newly launched geostationary satellites work their way up in a spiraling orbit to reach their destination.

        Actually never mind. Yeah it was martians. Problem solved.

  12. Hey all,
    I’ll try to lurk around here through tomorrow afternoon and answer any questions you have about my work, or anything you’d like to ask about astronomy! 

    To those who’ve commented on the slim chances– yeah, I hear you. The idea here is to do a search for any starlight that changes in a way we don’t understand– “intentional” signals are one possibility (and they are the main motivation of the project!), but of course there could be natural phenomena out there that we might find as well. 

    I think it’s great to do very specific SETI searches like the ones that have been done thus far (mostly in radio waves, but also in visible light as well)– but they’re limited to the scope of what we can imagine doing ourselves. In the meantime, there are all these amazing ways of mining data that are really coming into their own– ways of looking for patterns, groups of things that look similar, and outliers that look different– that can help us discover new kinds of signals without presupposing what they will be like. 

    Lots of these methods/algorithms are used regularly by companies to mine data about *you* (for example: this article)! Nowadays  astronomers are taking more and more data about the Universe, so we’re applying some of these methods to discover new things out there. I think it’s pretty exciting, so you can outfit me with a tinfoil hat if you like– but I probably won’t notice because I will be busy learning things about space. 


    1. I cannot believe you are *honestly* stating that the “main motivation of the project” is to look for artificially-modulated variations in the brightness of stars intended as a signal from a super-powerful (but economically naive?) civilisation.

      It’s just super-implausible. Surely the chances of finding some new and interesting natural astrophysical phenomenon must be several orders of magnitude more likely, and yet that’s somehow *not* the main motivation of the project?

      I call bullshit, but I hope you find something interesting, even if nothing particularly sensational to non-physicists.

      1. It was indeed the main motivation– most fun I’ve ever had writing a proposal! And even if it’s super implausible (at least as we imagine it), there’s enough data now (and will be much more soon) that it’s worth looking for– big data sets increase the chance of finding truly rare phenomena. If we don’t find anything, fine– but I think it’s worth a look!

  13. I support the late Russell Baker’s pulsar theory on this. The blinking is obviously the program-commercial cycle of some fast paced alien civilization’s television networks. The programs are the quieter part of the transmission, but they crank up the volume during commercials. Of course, they all synchronize commercials so you can’t just change channels, and their faster pace of living accounts for the rapid rate of pulsation.

  14. I’m of two minds about this   The attempt at breaking the conceptual boundary is great–though those involved in the hunt deny it, the current radio-wave method of searching has been fruitless for so long, it makes sense to try something new.  And the audaciousness also makes sense; given the Deep Time factor, anyone sending is almost certain  to be advanced enough to do that sort of thing.

    But still–you’re really going to postulate a civilization advanced enough to modulate stars, but who can’t figure out a way–light speed limit or no–to colonize the galaxy?

    Sci-fi is great, but the thought-experiments lead me into the Rare (or unique) Earth camp more and more.

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