Astronomy Without A Telescope – SETI 2.0


Fifty years of eerie silence in the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence has prompted some rethinking about what we should be looking for.

After all, it’s unlikely that many civilizations would invest a lot of time and resources into broadcasting a Yoo-hoo, over here signal, so maybe we have to look for incidental signs of alien activity – anything from atmospheric pollution on an exoplanet to signs of stellar engineering undertaken by an alien civilization working to keep their aging star from turning into a red giant.

We know a spectroscopic analysis of Earth’s atmosphere will indicate free molecular oxygen – a tell tale sign of life. The presence of chlorofluorocarbons would also be highly suggestive of advanced industrial activity. We also know that atomic bomb tests in the fifties produced perturbations to the Van Allen belts that probably persisted for weeks after each blast.

These are planet level signs of a civilization still below the level of a Kardashev Type 1 civilization. We are at level 0.73 apparently. A civilization that has reached the Type 1 level is capable of harnessing all the power available upon a single planet – and might be one that inadvertently signals its presence after thoughtfully disposing of large quantities of nuclear waste in its star. To find them, we should be scanning A and F type stars for spectral signatures of technetium – or perhaps an overabundance of praseodymium and neodymium.

We might also look for signs of stellar engineering indicative of a civilization approaching the Kardashev Type 2 level, which is a civilization able to harness all the power of a star. Here, we might find an alien civilization in the process of star lifting, where an artificial equatorial ring of electric current creates a magnetic field sufficient to both increase and deflect all the star’s stellar wind into two narrow polar jets.

Left image - A proposed model for 'star lifting'. An artificial equatorial ring of electric current (RC) produces a magnetic field which enhances and directs the star's stellar wind though magnetic nozzles (MN) to produce two polar jets (J). Right image (Credit: SETI institute) - Artists impression of the completed Allen Telescope Array for future SETI observations. The lead image for this article is part of the current Allen Array prototype, comprising 42 of the proposed 350 dishes.

These jets could be used for power generation, but might also represent a way to prolong the life of an aging star. Indeed, this may become a vital strategy for us to prolong the solar system’s habitable zone at Earth’s orbit. In less than a billion years, Earth’s oceans are expected to evaporate due to the Sun’s steadily increasing luminosity, but some carefully managed star lifting to modify the Sun’s mass could extend this time limit significantly.

It’s also likely that Type 2 civilizations will play with Hertzsprung–Russell (H-R) parameters to keep their Sun from evolving onto the red giant branch of the H-R diagram – or otherwise from going supernova. Some well placed and appropriately shielded nuclear bombs might be sufficient to stir up stellar material that would delay a star’s shift to core helium fusion – or otherwise to core collapse.

It’s been hypothesized that mysterious giant blue straggler stars, which have not gone supernova like most stars of their type would, may have been tinkered with in this manner (some stress on the word hypothesized there).

As for detecting Type 3 civilizations… tricky. It’s speculated that they might build Dyson nets around supermassive black holes to harvest energy at a galactic level. But indications are that they then just use all that energy to go around annoying the starship captains of Type I civilizations. So, maybe we need to draw a line about who exactly we want to find out there.

Further reading:

Starry Messages: Searching for Signatures of Interstellar Archaeology

Detectability of Extraterrestrial Technological Activities

28 Replies to “Astronomy Without A Telescope – SETI 2.0”

  1. Type III – the rocket exhaust from their starships creates chains of stars which form in its wake…

    Or maybe not stars… but trails or detectable traces of an as yet only imagined electro dynamic process. Regular patterns of polarization in galactic sized mag. field alignments?

  2. A couple of quibbles:

    1) “an alien civilization working to keep their aging star from turning into a red giant.” Now, why would they bother with that? The best way to deal with that sort of problem is to either move to some other stellar system or, barring that, move your inhabited worlds and habitats out far enough from the star that its expansion and increase in energy output won’t harm them. But trying to keep an aged, cranky dwarf star from going off the Main Sequence and expanding into a red giant? That kind of tampering with a star could result in a catastrophe compared to which the ongoing horror-story in the Gulf of Mexico would seem like nothing at all, with bits of star scattered hell to breakfast across a huge volume of space, and a whole stellar system gone missing. No, thank you.

    2) “A civilization that has reached the Type 1 level is capable of harnessing all the power available upon a single planet – and might be one that inadvertently signals its presence after thoughtfully disposing large quantities of nuclear waste in its star” — Better they should cast their waste out into space, aimed at a point well away from any star or even distant galaxies. At sublight speeds, that waste wouldn’t reach any background galaxies, because the expansion of space would have them traveling away from us at faster than light speed. Why risk giving your stellar primary a nasty case of indigestion when you can get rid of the stuff without harming anything — or, even better, you can recycle it? It may be possible to recycle some of that. Or you could dump it into a stellar nursery, where it could help form new stars and planets. Mo bettah than dumping it into a mature star.

  3. Curious read. Unfortunately, as much as I’d like to find out what else is out there, the Universe doesn’t seem to be built for beings to cross paths on any regular or coincidental occasion. It’s just too darn big. The distances are so very, very vast.

  4. OK, right Steve, 50 years of SETI. I take it that started with the exhaustive Drake Ozma initiative and has run continuously and comprehensively ever since. (sarc)

    This phrase get repeated and has become “factoid” in the purest sense. It sounds like a fact and has some of the characteristics of fact and communicates untruth. Steve, how about this for USAUniverseToday: A real actual rundown on all of the SETI searches done in the past 50 years, their results and conclude with a ratio of the universe searched to the universe. Let us know what progress the SETILEAGUE and Hat Creek and @home have made, not a rehash of the endless prose eminating from the SETI Industrial Complex. I think you’ll find it amounts to bugger all. One ping from Ohio Big Ear and millions of hits from Arecibo. Too little and too much. Really, I think think this is a worthy excercise for UT, thanks

    No rush, we’ll wait patiently listening…

  5. The Kardashev scale would have to be one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard of. Right – harness the entire energy output of a galaxy. Whatever you reckon. (SciFi uber-buffs can feel free not to offer vague proposals of how they feel that this could be achieved.)

    Even the idea of harnessing an entire planet’s available energy is farce. How can you turn every single photon of incident solar energy into a useful form, without blacking out the planet and defeating the entire purpose? How could one utilise all of the available geothermal or tidal energy without covering the entire surface of the planet with crap required to extract this energy?

    Or does this the scale simply refer to the ability to harvest any possible energy source available to us on this planet? The answer seems to be no, based on all of the available sources I can find in 1 minute of googling. Ergo, this scale is preposterous.

  6. Now that’s out of the system, I must say that it is an interesting problem to find civilisations purely by the effect that they have on their environs. Seeing as this will be the only way that we will ever be able to answer the question of whether life exists on exoplanets, then it is a question that will garner more and more attention once we start spotting planets in their habitable zones. Maybe that’s the area that I should be heading into…

  7. I have a somewhat different view of things. As we humans work to control things on this planet we find that in a way we end up making things more messed up. It is really a case of thermodynamics. A type II civilization might not so much work their star to prevent it from ending its main sequence status, but more to squeeze energy out of it to hasten its end. I doubt such things happen. Given our status as a sub-type I civilization it might be that as we reach type I that we collapse the whole planet.

    The power of intelligent life is not in how it controls aspects of the universe, but in its ability to consciously understand the universe.


  8. I go for Star lifting idea. That will reduce solar wind that stripped Mars atmosphere. So that new atmosphere can be created and make Mars livable again.

  9. Lawrence B. Crowell Says:
    June 19th, 2010 at 7:03 pm

    “The power of intelligent life is not in how it controls aspects of the universe, but in its ability to consciously understand the universe.”

    To a certain extent, agreed – which makes Carl Sagan’s own ‘sophistication scale’ much more reasonable to me (i found it on the Wikipedia page for the Kardashev scale). He proposed a scale based on quantities if information:

    From Wikipedia:
    “In contrast to simply increasing the maximum power level covered by the scale, Carl Sagan suggested adding another dimension: the information available to the civilization. He assigned the letter A to represent 10^6 unique bits of information (less than any recorded human culture) and each successive letter to represent an order of magnitude increase, so that a level Z civilization would have 10^31 bits. In this classification, 1973 Earth is a 0.7 H civilization, with access to 10^13 bits of information. Sagan believed that no civilization has yet reached level Z, conjecturing that so much unique information would exceed that of all the intelligent species in a galactic supercluster and observing that the universe is not old enough to effectively exchange information over larger distances. The information and energy axes are not strictly interdependent, so that even a level Z civilization would not need to be Kardashev Type III.[4]”

  10. Lawrence B. Crowell:

    The power of intelligent life is not in how it controls aspects of the universe, but in its ability to consciously understand the universe.

    Well, that rules out the “Electric Universe” brigade, then! :mrgreen:

  11. @Procyan
    I think the 50 year timeframe is genuine. The generally agreed point in time is April 1960 when Frank Drake had a session on the Green Bank radio telescope, allegedly for the specific purpose of SETI.

    I’m not sure any SETI organisation has sought to suggest it owns all activity from that point – nor does anyone think that SETI activity to date has been anywhere near exhaustive enough to call off the search. 50 years is just an arbitrary milestone to take stock of whether we are on the right track.

    There are better qualified people than me to decide if we are on the right track – but I understand the ideas outlined in this article are at least one area to consider.

  12. @Polaris93

    1) If there’s any alternative to moving house, I’ll take it. Fair point about the risk though – being an advanced civilization doesn’t eliminate the possibility of royally bollocksing things up.
    2) The star might be convenient as the bottom of the local gravity well – and I doubt Earth’s total complement of degraded uranium/plutonium etc would lead to solar indigestion. There will just be a few detectable trace elements left behind.

  13. A hypothetical.

    We assume that stars and planetary systems are random natural occurrences.

    What if they are not?

    Considering the immensity of the universe, Its entirely possible that Solar systems and by extrapolation, Galaxies, are the perfect spaceships for an advanced sentience.

    We do know that our Local Cluster of galaxies is traveling. 🙂 From what I have read, at some 600 km per second.

    However, in the universe, perhaps our idea of travel is arbitrary, or even irrelevant.

    If the destination is increased information or computational capacity, some of the things we observe (such as the expansion of the universe) can take on different meanings.

    From what I deduced, everything we observe, including ourselves is tending towards increased complexity. i.e. Stars make increasingly complex matter, humans have created atoms more complex then any observed in nature. Galaxies, solar systems and planets become dynamic systems the produce further complexity.

    Its well accepted that Life as we know it, could not have existed in the early universe, the complex matter that makes up biology simply was not made yet.

    With that in mind, it seems to me, that perhaps sentient life might be arising all over the universe just now. Simply because it has taken this long to create that level of complexity.

    So, lets backtrack, If galaxies are constructed then where is the intelligence that began it all. ? Well thats the problem, we think of an advanced intelligence as a singular individual. In this case I think that we, and possibly other sentiences in the universe are expressions of the information system. The Gaia hypothesis does not need a higher power controlling the system.. Its self creating and sustaining. Perhaps Galaxies are just like that.

    Nice Sunday muse. 🙂


  14. Just to trying to put things in perspective.

    Everything we have observed, is scaleable and part of a cycle.

    Infinitely small to infinitely large to infinitely small etc. etc.

    Infinitely dense and hot to the opposite.

    Singularity to singularity and everything in between with turbulence.

    If we consider an intelligence as THE creator

    Then to these entities ( surely more than one) our universe would be no more them than a molecule is to us.

    Not very personable

    We are really alone and accepting this takes a lot of courage

    50 of our terrterrestrial years searching for other species is not even a blink of the eye

    We are very short lived primitive creatures trying to come to terms with infinities and desiring instant gratification.

    It’s a grand life if you don’t weaken but god help you if you do.

    Without some luck we’ve had it

  15. Given mankind’s performance over the last 50 years, perhaps SETI would be better employed in looking for intelligent life on our own planet.

    Thought provoking article, if you have an open mind.

    Few typos Steve. Late nights watching TV? Or listening to the cosmos?

  16. @damian,
    IF an intelligence created this universe it would actually not be aware that we humans exists. Too many practical problems.

    First if the Alien is bigger than the universe, then for them we would be more tiny than a virus the size of the Earth.
    If the Alien is too small then he would not find us because the universe is too big
    Also in time 13.7 billion years, if the Alien has our time frame then they would probably be dead by now, but if they live in a faster time frame then the entire human existence and disappearance would a nanosecond. They miss it if they are no looking at it with the right equipment.

    To have a sense of problem. I you aware of the neuron call George that lives next door to Lucy in your brain?

    Ok that alien has a computer with a big database connected to all life. Imagine second life, do you follow every character in second life?

    So could it that this universe was created by something intelligent? Yes, but it would not matter if it were true or not in our lifetime.

  17. Typos? I read this in the early hours of this morning (UK time) and I did not detect any typos, but there is just one grammatical error at the third paragraph, in the second line:

    The presence of chlorofluorocarbons and would also be highly…

    That’s either a superfluous “and” or there’s something missing between “and” and “would”.

    As to the question of Steve having late nights watching TV, I think that he still has not recovered from watching Australia losing 4 – 0 to Germany in the World Cup last weekend! 😉

  18. Olaf:

    So could it that this universe was created by something intelligent? Yes, but it would not matter if it were true or not in our lifetime.

    That reminds me of Isaac Asimov’s short sci-fi story “Breeds There a Man…?”, in which Elwood Ralson, a brilliant but psychologically disturbed physicist, becomes convinced that humanity is a kind of genetics experiment being run by an alien intelligence. His behaviour becomes more erratic and suicidal as his thoughts become more entrenched in this idea, and his health fails.

    In the story, Elwood Ralson claims that the aliens want him to die before he can help produce a defence against atomic weapons, since a defence against atomic weapons would protect humanity against an extinction at the hands of the aliens, and humanity, analogous to bacteria when faced with the advanced technology and power of the aliens, would have developed an immunity against the penicillin that the aliens use to control the experiment.

    Under the care of a psychiatrist, Dr Blaustein, Ralson is able to provide guidance to the scientists carrying out the research. Once the experiment is complete and the defence (a force-field generator) is built and tested, he commits suicide.


    I’m also keeping too many late nights. Not typos, Steve’s one of the best writers on UT in that respect, but just as you spotted. Plus..

    Para 4, line 4 “after thoughtfully disposing large quantities ” – missing preposition between ‘disposing’ and ‘large’.

    We know what he meant anyway. Shame about the result.

  20. @AndyInv and IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE

    Thanks – appreciate the gently delivered tips.

    I started with chlorofluorocarbons and rising CO2 (as suggested from the article) – but pulled it after considering that the CO2 could just be interpreted as volcanic. Forgot the ‘and’ – doh.

    I struggled with the second one – ‘large quantities’ is a qualification and the needed ‘of’ comes next:
    ‘after thoughtfully disposing large quantities of…

    It looks clunky, so probably not great writing in that respect alone – but two ‘of’s didn’t look right either.

    Please… don’t mention the soccer.

  21. @ Steve Nerlich

    🙂 Keep up the good work and thought provoking articles. Don’t worry about the other thing – I’m a Scot. Looks like our neighbours are trying (and succeeding) to play as badly as us.

  22. Steve Nerlich:

    It looks clunky, so probably not great writing in that respect alone – but two ‘of’s didn’t look right either.

    In that case, may I suggest substituting the phrase “disposing of” with one of these alternative terms: dumping, discharging, or (since it would be a starship ‘garbage truck’ doing the dirty business) jettisoning…?


    England are probably still ‘acclimatizing’ to the high altitude. 😉

  23. Great article Steve.

    All the religious mumbojumbo and supersized/supermicro life stuff is all well and good, but how does this help us search for extra-terrestrial civilizations?

    What I don’t see is much of a willngness to consider what is likely the fastest and easiest way we will likely find a civilization – you know the kind we can actually relate to – type 0.x or 1.0 or Sagan’s equivalent.

    Here’s my thoughts:

    The Seti search is largely a waste of time. LC and others on here have explained that it is unlikely that readable transmissions will reach us. It may be possible with a overly large transmitter aimed at Earth but this means THEY are seeking us out. This is like wanting a pizza and deciding to wait at the front door, hoping for one to show up – It just won’t happen. Seti should thank everyone for their time and money, and quietly close up shop. The time/resources/personnel could be put into more productive projects.

    Again, some have proposed waiting around for bursts of laser light. However, I would rather be proactive in the search, rather than waiting around for someone to call us up.

    We need to really work on finding other terrestrial planets in goldilock’s orbits.

    These seem like the best candidates for life similar to our own. Lets get more technology and teams online to find these planets. Once we fond them we can check for unusual atmosphere elements indicative of a civilization.

    Once we are reasonably sure someone is home we can attempt to make that long distance call. Perhaps we can fire out a 2001 Space Odyssey-like information time capsule.

    What other options do we realistically have for this search in the near-term? Sure looking for signs of super-engineering is good.. but do we have the capability of detecting this any time soon? At best, we may be only able to detect oddities in the star’s behavior.. how do we rule out some natural process as yet undiscovered?

    Just my thoughts, let me know what you guys think.

    Why don’t we start by

  24. “Some well placed and appropriately shielded nuclear bombs might….”. Good grief. If they’re that advanced [type 2 civilisation] they will be as far ahead of nuclear bombs as nuclear bombs are ahead of ants squirting formic acid.
    I’m a s.f. fan but some of these ideas are not really ‘roadable’ in mainstream s.f. [Ian M. Banks excepted I suppose].

  25. @ Olaf

    [IF an intelligence created this universe it would actually not be aware that we humans exists..]

    I want to clarify, I’m not advocating a higher (godly) intelligence created the universe. Indeed quite the opposite. I think any conjecture on (an Alien) intelligence is polluted by human social context.

    Searching for planets in Goldilocks Earth like orbits around other stars, or applying Human technological thought constructs about possible alien sentience is a flawed methodology.

    Perhaps in terms of exo-solar planet haunting we should be considering the (complexity) of any particular solar system.

    Simply put, the more complex and dynamic the system the more likely that sentience can arise there.

    The rationale for my thinking is entirely subjective, however is you can assume the basic tennet that sentience is Information, a kind of higher order complexity that arises on the building blocks of its surroundings then the search parameters need to be re-evaluated.

    Just for fun, another hypothetical, Take the three types of star we have observed and classified. Only G-Type (or Population 1) stars like our sun produce the kind of complex matter that can create biology. So its fair game that we should look at similar stars for possible signs of life like ours. However Type 2 and Type 1 (the earliest kind of stars) might also have spawned intelligence.

    This kind of intelligence is on a totally different level to us, but perhaps not as complex. The early universe was a simple place. An analogy I might make is with Biological evolution on Earth. Early life had simple goals, Make oxygen, procreate, survive, evolve.

    So a Type 3 star (early) intelligence is quite possibly a very simple one, but unfathomably large and incomprehensible to us. Just as oxygen breathing life evolved on earth as a second generation biology to organisms that started consuming CO2, so stellar evolution spawns ever more complex systems.

    In my original post I suggested that its possible that Sentience (on the Order that we consider ourselves sentient) has only just become possible in the universe. (at roughly the same time).

    If that is the case, then there are no advanced civilizations for us to find yet. We are all becoming more complex at the same time.

    As for the Earlier sentience that might have existed or still exists, they might forever be incomprehensible to 3rd generation life.

    However, one might argue that First and Second generation Intelligence created Galaxies, and thats an order of magnitude that goes into the God basket.

    I might argue that we have grown to understand how oxygen came to be on our planet, and have decided that its not an act of god.

    Did early pre-biotic life on earth have sentience. or self awareness. ?? How can we tell? Perhaps all life is sentient. Its all about context and purpose.

    As always the nail biting clincher to this whole subject is the proverbial: Why are we here. ?

    But thats another discussion.


  26. IMHO the Kardashev scale is nothing but science fiction jibble-jabble. Just the fact of harnessing ALL the power of a star is rediculous. Not to mention the fact it would likely bankrupt a planet–even with advanced technology. To anyone who can understand just how large the Sun is, and how much energy is expends every minute… the idea of using “well placed nuclear bombs” to extend a stars life doesn’t pass the giggle test.

    You wouldn’t be prolonging a stars life, you would only be prolonging its death. Eventually you would have to go… hopefully you didn’t waste away resources in the attempt to keep the star going a bit longer.

    As for type 3… just getting to a SMBH would likely take quite a few lifetimes, unless you have the technology to jump through space-time, or just happen to have one near by (which is highly unlikely for most systems).

    Not to mention a civilization would have to decide to do either; just because Kardashev decides to do this, doesn’t mean everyone will.

    I’m in-line with your thinking. Although, I believe it is possible a civilization could have attained our technology up to 2 to 3 billion years before our existence; when the Universe was 9-10 billion years old.
    I think the problem is, once a civilization reaches the capability to build nuclear weapons, it will have a real problem maintaining the capability without blowing themselves back to the iron age and near extinction.

    I can’t even understand half of what you are saying. However I will offer this piece of evidence in line with your thinking: “IFa caterpillar had a machine gun, a bird wouldn’t try to eat it”. I can stick “IF” in front of anything and make it work.

    once again agree with you. I beileve if we are going to set up some sort of scale, it needs to be a lot more reasonable, have more levels, as well as more than one way to get there. Carl Sagan’s scale would be a good place to start.

    As for SETI…
    I don’t see any harm with keeping this going. I would like to see it become a bit more active. Right now I believe it is just a bit too passive.
    As in, use new technology to enhance its capability to ACTIVELY LOOK for different signals of the spectrum. Really check out systems where we have found planets near the “Goldielocks zone”.
    Kepler is finding planets faster than anyone imagined…so use it!

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