A recent paper by two scientists from Laval University in Canada claims that 234 out of 2.5 million stars monitored by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey show bizarre evidence of "periodic spectral modulations." While it’s too early to say for certain, it’s possible that these occurrences could be signs of life.
The Breakthrough Listen project, funded by Hawking and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, intend to find out.
"Authors [Ermanno] Borra and [Eric] Trottier state that the signal is consistent with a prediction from an earlier paper by Borra, for signals from extraterrestrial civilizations broadcasting extremely rapid (shorter than 0.1 nanoseconds) optical pulses superimposed on the light of the host stars," reads a statement from Breakthrough Listen.
"However, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It is too early to unequivocally attribute these purported signals to the activities of extraterrestrial civilizations."
To get to the bottom of the mystery, Breakthrough Listen will use its facilities at UC Berkeley to conduct follow-up observations.
"The capabilities of the APF spectrograph are well matched to those of the original detection, and these independent follow-up observations will enable us to verify or refute the reported detections," the statement reads.
"We look forward to consulting with Professor Borra and his team on these observations, as well as additional follow up investigations using other data sources."
Many are skeptical, pointing out that the initial paper has not yet been peer reviewed.
"There is perhaps no bolder claim that one could make in observational astrophysics than the discovery of intelligent life beyond the Earth," said Andrew Siemion, the director of the SETI Research Center at Berkley, according to Science Alert.
"It’s an incredibly profound subject – and of course that’s why many of us devote our lives to the field and put so much energy into trying to answer these questions. But you can’t make such definitive statements about detections unless you’ve exhausted every possible means of follow-up."
Only time will tell.