[/caption]The cosmos is a very big place, how do you begin the search for exoplanets orbiting other stars? Astronomers have a few tricks up their sleeves to work out how to spot these tiny specks of distant alien worlds. Astronomers can look for the gravitational “wobble” of a star as a massive exoplanet tugs on its parent star during orbit, or more commonly, they look for the slight dimming of star light as the exoplanet passes in front of the star. In fact, the Kepler space telescope is going to peer into space, surveying 100,000 stars to do just this; not looking for large gas giants, but detecting rocky bodies that resemble large Earths with the unparalleled precision.
OK, so we have a means of finding these habitable worlds, how can we use this information to widen our search for extraterrestrial intelligence? Researchers in Israel have asked that same question, and arrived at a very logical answer. If we are to communicate with these advanced beings, perhaps we should make sure they can see us first…
The concept is simple enough. Find a star with an Earth-like transiting exoplanet (we will hopefully have a few super-Earth targets over the next three years with Kepler), aim a radio transmitter at the star and send a “Hello world!” message to the possible alien civilization living on the exoplanet. All going well (or not, depending on whether these extraterrestrials are actually friendly), we’ll get a reply from said star system in a few decades with a message saying something like “Hello world to you too!”. It would be a momentous day for interstellar communications and it would answer the one question that bugs astronomers everywhere: Are we alone in the cosmos?
So far so good, until interstellar travel becomes a reality, mankind and our new chatty alien neighbours can play a very long game of radio tag, learning more about each other as the years/decades/centuries go on (depending on how distant the extraterrestrial civilization is in the first place). But there’s a problem with this plan. What if our ET neighbours aren’t looking in our direction? What if the Sun looks like ‘just another’ star amongst the other 1010 Sun-like stars hanging out in the Milky Way? We can transmit to our hearts content, but they may never see us.
Shmuel Nussinov at Tel Aviv University in Israel asked these same questions and actually makes the search for extraterrestrial intelligence a little bit easier. With the assumption that a sufficiently advanced alien race is surveying the skies, also looking out for exoplanets orbiting other stars, they may be using the same transit method that we use to detect exoplanets. Therefore, it only seems reasonable that ET will only be able to detect Earth if we pass in front of the Sun, thus dimming it slightly for our alien neighbours to see us. If this is the case, it seems highly unlikely that any alien race will detect our existence unless they are located along a narrow angle along the ecliptic plane of our Solar System. So, if we want to open up some alien banter, we should perhaps send signals to Earth-like exoplanets spotted along the ecliptic.
Although the Earth only passes across the solar disk for 13 hours every year (as viewed by a distant observer), our star will appear to dim slightly, allowing ET to see us. Factor in the various transits of the inner Solar System planets, and our observers will see there are a few possibly habitable rocky “exoplanets” for them to transmit to. If we are already transmitting, communications can be exchanged.
What a good idea…
Source: arXiv blog