nothing to see in the galactic core, move along
There’s a mystery at the core of the Milky Way. A flashing, pulsating object is emitting an odd, spiraling radio wave and leaving astronomers stumped as they try to figure out what it is. Stars, pulsars, and known high energy events involving them don’t seem to fit the bill, and there’s just not enough data to make any further guesses. Just like with fast radio bursts, replies to this odd new discovery on social media half-jokingly wondered about traces of intelligent alien life even though pop sci articles on the subject were much more responsible this time. And there’s good reason for caution. The galactic core is home to a supermassive black hole the size of our solar system, supernovae, neutron stars, and intense radiation.
Civilizations need hundreds of millions, if not billions of years of stability to evolve even if their home world offers the perfect conditions for the emergence of excess intelligence. Planets near the center of the Milky Way would maybe get a few thousand years before being grazed by the beam of a pulsar or a hypernova that will disintegrate any natural protective mechanisms, or get hit with a supernova blast that can boil off its atmosphere, or get into a nasty gravitational tug of war with a passing star or black hole. Simply put, this region of space is just way too hot and dangerous for anything larger or more complex than a microbe or a tardigrade hiding deep underground to escape the doomsday strobe lights above.
So, what is this mysterious flashing object emitting high energy corkscrews? Well, given its very central location, it’s likely associated with black hole activity and is an aftermath of an exotic natural phenomenon of which we think we may have seen traces in the past. There’s just way too much energy involved with a signal like that to assume anything else. Remember that the center of our galaxy houses a dark monster tipping the scales at 4 million solar masses which spins fast enough to radically distort space and time. With constant collisions and explosions around it, who knows what might get trapped in a magnetic feedback loop or vast gravity well. To sum it up, no aliens, end of article, we can all go home.
Except no, wait a minute, not quite yet. If we really put our lab coats on and consider not just the most likely but every possible explanation in the interest of completeness, there is a way that a signal like this could be produced by intelligent alien life. That life must rank at least a three or four on the Kardashev Scale and is in the process of somehow harnessing the energy output of our galaxy. In that extremely unlikely scenario, what we would be seeing might be a beacon for placing a collector array and the signal it gives out might be a transmission or just a ping, a robotic megastructure’s version of a heartbeat. If you’ve never heard of the Kardashev Scale, here’s an excellent primer on the topic.
Now, keep in mind that the Kardashev Scale isn’t absolute. It’s more like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a useful tool to understand a complex subject that may have a lot of gray, fuzzy areas in its categories and processes. Basically, a Type I civilization works on a planetary scale, a Type II deals with solar systems, a Type III controls an entire galaxy, a Type IV operates with galactic clusters, Type V with superclusters, and Type Omegas are essentially trans-universal gods in the most literal sense of the term. Humanity is essentially a Type I, we might be a Type II in a few thousand years, a Type III in 100,000 if we’re very lucky and very smart, and anything beyond that may be limited by the laws of physics and impossible to achieve.
Given that if intelligent life does set its sights on the core of the Milky Way to leave a massive artifact visible for tens of thousands of light years, it would have to be able to negotiate the high energy carnage of galactic cores, and therefore a Type III civilization or close to it. And if such a civilization exists in our galaxy, we should see far more traces of its activity since it will have to be on an astronomical scale our telescopes would have little trouble noticing. Since we have a few weird anomalies here and there falling well within natural explanations, we once again have to circle back to our original conclusion. That strange signal might be a real head-scratcher, but it’s almost certainly natural. End of article, everyone go home.