Astronomy Without A Telescope – Alien Mining

Article written: 24 Apr , 2011
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015


Recently, some researchers speculated on what types of observational data from distant planetary systems might indicate the presence of an alien civilization, determined that asteroid mining was likely to be worth looking for – but ended up concluding that most of the effects of such activity would be difficult to distinguish from natural phenomena.

And in any case, aren’t we just anthropomorphizing by assuming that intelligent alien activity will be anything like human activity?

Currently – apart from a radio, or other wavelength, transmission carrying artificial and presumably intelligent content – it’s thought that indicators of the presence of an alien civilization might include:
• Atmospheric pollutants, like chlorofluorocarbons – which, unlike methane or molecular oxygen, are clearly manufactured rather than just biogenically produced
• Propulsion signatures – remember how the Vulcans detected humanity in First Contact (or at least they decided we were worth visiting after all, despite all the I Love Lucy re-runs)
Stellar engineering – where a star’s lifetime is artificially extended to maintain the habitable zone of its planetary system
Dyson spheres – or at least their more plausible off-shoots, such as Dyson swarms.

And perhaps add to this list – asteroid mining, which would potentially create a lot of dust and debris around a star on a scale that might be detectable from Earth.

There is a lot of current interest in debris disks around other stars, which are detectable when they are heated up by the star they surround and then radiate that heat in the infra-red and sub-millimeter wavelengths. For mainstream science, debris disk observations may offer another way to detect exoplanets, which might produce clumping patterns in the dust through gravitational resonance. Indeed it may turn out that the presence of a debris disk strongly correlates with the existence of rocky terrestrial planets in that system.

But now going off the mainstream… presuming that we can eventually build up a representative database of debris disk characteristics, including their density, granularity and chemistry derived from photometric and spectroscopic analysis, it might become possible to identify anomalous debris disks that could indicate alien mining activities.

Some recent astronomy pareidolia. Not an alien mining operation on Mercury, but a chunk of solidified ejecta commonly found in the center of many impact craters. Credit: NASA.

For example, we might see a significant deficiency in a characteristic element (say, iron or platinum) because the aliens had extracted these elements – or we might see an unusually fine granularity in the disk because the aliens had ground everything down to fine particles before extracting what they wanted.

But surely it’s equally plausible to propose that if the aliens are technologically advanced enough to undertake asteroid mining, they would also do it with efficient techniques that would not leave any debris behind.

The gravity of Earth makes it easy enough to just blow up big chunks of rock to get at what you want since all the debris just falls back to the ground and you can sort through it later for secondary extraction.

Following this approach with an asteroid would produce a floating debris field that might represent a risk to spacecraft, as well as leaving you without any secondary extraction opportunities. Better to mine under a protective canopy or just send in some self-replicating nanobots, which can separate out an enriched chunk of the desired material and leave the remainder intact.

If you’re going to play the alien card, you might as well go all in.

Further reading: Forgan and Elvis. Extrasolar Asteroid Mining as Forensic Evidence for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

Some useful tips on asteroid mining can be found here.


27 Responses


    I believe that there is alien civilization.soon we’ll find and contact with it i know that they were far away from us.

  2. Lawrence B. Crowell says

    I think the prospects for finding a stellar system with signature of ETI activity are virtually infinitesimal. It is of course worth shelving this prospect in the back of our data analysis method file, but I would be surprised if something came of this.

    I suspect if there is a continuation of our species beyond Earth it will not be our selves. We may over this century introduce self regulating, self modifying and replicating systems into the solar system. These might possibly be on the nanobot scale, where the molecular and atomic structure of these systems mimics molecular biological systems which evolved on Earth. These might then come to evolve into complex forms which live throughout the low gravity regions (asteroids comets etc) within the solar system over the next several billion years and migrate out to other extrasolar systems. A star with just a planetary nebular disk around it might actually be prime celestial real estate for these systems.

    If there exist other ETI within our neighborhood they might do much the same. An ETI which released such into their stellar system 10^7 to 10^9 years ago might be recognizable by these types of signatures. Again I think the probabilities for observing this are very small. Yet a stellar system which has become inhabited by nanobots or von Neumann probe-bots might become modified, just as this planet has been modified by the occurrence of biology.


  3. Torbjorn Larsson OM says


    It is a popular pastime to take a potential trend of society and extrapolate. Malthus extrapolated potential population increase. Kardashev extrapolated potential energy increase. And Kurzweil extrapolates potential chip capability increase.

    All of them are wrong of course. No natural populations follows Malthus projection, and specifically our own population increase is rapidly decreasing.

    I just checked with Gapminder, and energy use/person correlates well with income/person. Hence energy use increase will rapidly decrease following the population process.

    Kurzweil will run into similar problems since the rate of chip capability increase will founder as the easiest achievements are made (the technique matures) and as the bottleneck moves to other parts of the system (todays data mining means the new generation of supercomputers have flash memories, it isn’t the chip speed that sets the limitations any longer).

    Societies are complex systems and doesn’t easily lend themselves to such speculation. Futurists are like Utopians, chasing pipe dreams. I wish I had some of what they are smoking though. 🙂

    But here, more fundamentally for Kardashev and colonization there is no easy way to connect over a planetary system, travel times makes transportation of resources inefficient. So one easy prediction is that LBC is correct, these artifacts of civilization will be hard to detect.

    The primary mode of colonization will be as life always have found ecological niches: hard-fought but well worth the effort to move there. Life spreads, it doesn’t waste resource on long range, large scale constructs.

    Maybe once in a while something will turn up that makes a large scale mining operation/space settlement worth it. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

    • Torbjorn Larsson OM says

      I should add that of course we should look! I wouldn’t put it high on my personal priority list, is all.

  4. Torbjorn Larsson OM says

    Speaking of mining btw: don’t miss the Musk interview on Wall Street Journal: ‘I will put a man on Mars in 10 years. Tops 15-20 years.’ It is in the last minutes.

    [Also he reveals the inspiration for the movies Tony Stark profile around there.]

    Also, SpaceX has a new cool video on Dragon phase 2, when it will land with on board rockets. It’s the CCDev2 video under the Updates tab.

    In 10 years Musk will be 50 years. He may make it.

    That tears it. Now US _has_ to change the counterproductive “born in this nation” requirement for its presidents. 😉

    • IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE says

      Now US _has_ to change the counterproductive “born in this nation” requirement for its presidents.

      Indeed, Arnold Schwarzenegger for president! 😉

    • postman1 says

      Thanks for the heads up on the Musk interview!

  5. The notion that any alien race capable of any sort of interstellar travel would consider us an intelligent species is kind of silly.

    Assuming they are TELEPATHIC neatly explains why we haven’t detected any signs of their existence with our modern tech.

    Telepathy being generated by the mind of such an advanced species would probably utilize the intergalactic magnetic field to communicate real time or in ways that bypass the limitations of space/ time so they can communicate instantly. This would be possible, because their mind’s like every human being’s mind generates a magnetic field.

    In both cases we have absolutely nothing that would detect such communications.

    And we likely won’t have for a long time, thanks to the skepticism by many researchers that telepathy is even possible.

    Yes we consider ourselves the most intelligent species ever to develop on the planet Earth, but a species advanced enough to travel the galaxy would have their own “measures of ability” that could easily keep us off their list of “intelligent beings.”

    Compared to that, a single human disconnected, or 6 billion might seem more like mindless ants more than anything else, or maybe a better comparison would be a human would = a single personal computer. Each alien would equal a supercomputer interconnected with the billions of other equally capable aliens. Each would be able to simultaneously access the capabilities of their entire civilization’s fellow citizens using telepathy and completely bypassing technology.

    As a result NO signs of technological alterations would be evident, being that telepathy is organic in nature.

    A being of such tremendous ability would be hard pressed to recognize an individual human’s intelligence as anything more significant than we consider the intelligence of an amoeba.

    One thing is certain, there are other intelligent beings out there.

    The fact we haven’t spotted one only means their technology is incompatible with our own in a major way. It is not proof we are alone.

    I wonder how many times researchers have said “no” to a given possibility simply, because their technology was unable to detect its existence.

    It wasn’t that long ago that some very serious astronomers questioned the notion that planets were a common thing, because they couldn’t find any at that time. They assumed also the development of Earth was made possible by the dynamics of our own Solar System and unlikely to happen elsewhere.

    • Member

      Woah – telepathy? You still need some kind of radiative energy to transmit information, so the outcome would be virtually indistinguishable from having a cell phone or a radio. An alien organic form of long distance communication through a vacuum is plausible, but you couldn’t hide it from external detection (unless it’s just magic).

    • NoAstronomer says

      Except, of course, that telepathy can’t possibly work.

    • Torbjorn Larsson OM says

      The notion that any alien race capable of any sort of interstellar travel would consider us an intelligent species is kind of silly.

      Who were talking about travel?

      But since it makes marginally more sense than the rest, I will address it:

      No. Intelligence is measured by a set of capacities (such as memory and planning) and we can observe that in other species too.

  6. Uncle Fred says

    I too agree with the above comments. The probability of conclusively detecting engineering operations on that scale is infinitesimal. The main problem lies in determining what constitutes as an anomalous unnatural observation. Quite frankly, we don’t know enough about extra-solar planetary systems to infer any serious conclusions. Without the proper resolving power, or a detailed study of numerous planetary systems to work with, it is not reasonable to conclude that any strange observations are anything but the result of an unobserved natural phenomenon.

    I’m also hesitant to made extrapolations of future societies. Particularity, I have issue with the Kardashev Civilization scale system. This system implies that a civilization can use up to 100% of a planet’s energy resources. This is simply ridiculous. A type 1 civilization implies that even the last joule of kinetic energy swirling around a planet’s core is utilized, or devices exist that channel the electric energy generated from the near-invisible flutter of your Kleenex box. A dubious premise to say the least.

    The only predictions that have any useful real extrapolation are (in my option) these:

    1. Significant historical events are occurring at an exponential rate .

    2. Kurzweil’s computational power per dollar metric is exponential over time.

    For the first point, it is clear that events are proceeding at a more rapid pace. It is clear this is occurring even at the most basic historical analysis (an analysis of empire longevity). Even if you consider our contemporary perspective bias, it is very clear events are accelerating – year by year. This is likely due to the increase in information exchange. However, it is likely not that simple, however this topic is obviously beyond the score of this UT article.

    As for Kursweil, I disagree with Torbjorn. His predictions were not specific to sheer processor Ghz. Rather, Kursweil is referring to the computational power purchased per dollar over time. From my interpretation of his Singularity is Near, he charted the abilities of computational devices per dollar back from to the 1700s and found an exponential relationship with time. Whenever a bottleneck is reached, a new technology advances to keep the pace going, such as the transition from vacuum tubes to transistors. This process has astoundingly remained on course (to my knowledge so far at least).

    What this means is anyone’s guess, the technological and social implications are impossible to predict with any accuracy – the social ones even more so.

    Note: This is not to say I think everything Kursweil says is a bit off the mark – his thoughts on the realization of immortality through exponential medical advances (this century) seem a bit fantastical.

    • Torbjorn Larsson OM says

      We will have to agreeing to disagree on that one. Computational power can be observed as flops (chip capability) – or GHz, but then we are specializing.

      I haven’t kept up with the flops increase, but I know that the much debated Moore’s law is sub-exponential nowadays because of the effects I discussed (maturity). I.e. it started out with doubling every 12 months, then futurists have had to goalpost move to every 18 months to save “the prediction”.

      Now the cycle of the industry is a new technique every 2 years, I believe. (From start of development; IIRC Intel keeps a cycle with every 1st year mature technique, every 2nd year mature devices.)

      What I know Kurzweil patterned his flops/USD prediction on the observed Moore’s law (area/transistor or transistors/chip). His graphs are a gag, apparently he has to phony up his data to fit his conclusions.

      I mentioned one specific example where flops doesn’t map to computational power as regards the problem (massive data mining). How one can measure computational power, in the context of specific problems, outside of flops is an open question AFAIU. (I.e., complexity classes of computer science makes some problems prohibitively large for mere flop exponential increase anyway.)

      Hence I’m pretty sure Kurzweil can’t do it either. The concept is one of those smoke screens that illusionists are so fond of, vague, amorphous, obscuring observation.

      • Uncle Fred says

        While I agree Kurweil sits on shaky ground, I still think his basic premise is right, at least in some ways. The link you sent me brought up both issues most people have with his book (though I think the author of that post should have at least bothered to read the book before critiquing). The idea that anything can substitute for an “important technological event,” and that a contemporary hindsight clouds judgement. Both valid objections. However, I think it’s clear that no period of history can account for so many technological changes. Pick any period – any region – and what is happening worldwide now dwarfs anything that has come before.

        We can argue over specifics in processing power (a poor argument for either of us as the Ghz war has subsided while multi-chip processors and other aspects such as video processing, hard drive performance, data transfer speeds, and even software performance/utility have vastly improved since. Yet again, the changes in these devices are clearly leaps and bounds greater than similar devices even 15 years ago.

        To me, all these rapid changes are probably (in large part) a result of something Kursweil didn’t even mention: More tech-savy/tech-engaged people to market too.

        With the market for innovations increasing across the world by the millions, and with millions more contributing to technological innovation, the process will have an accelerating effect in of itself. This is provided that something doesn’t occur to knock back large portions of the globe back into poverty.

        Again, where this leads is anyone’s guess – but maybe the ultimate creation will be a self replicating, self improving AI. Sounds interesting to say the least.

  7. Dark Gnat says

    I’ve always thought that land-based life might be the a occurance. Aliens worlds with water oceans might be full of life, perhaps even intelligent live, but not much on dry land.

    Following this, they may never have bothered to do much astronomy, as being aquatic, they may not even come to the surface or even be able to see stars.

  8. Duncan Lunan says

    In the last chapter of my book “Man & the Planets” (1983) I described the discussions held in ASTRA, the Scottish spaceflight society, on ‘The Philosophy of Kardashev-2 Civilisation’. We concluded that a civilisation driven by Malthusian pressures is not ‘in control’ of its matter and energy resources. Control must allow the option of restraint. By that reasoning a Dyson civilisation is not a Kardashev one, especially if it expands blindly to other stars as what Dyson himself called ‘a purposeless technological cancer’. To achieve Kardashev-2 status a civilisation has to be self-sustaining and conservationist, and a Kardashev-3 civilisation is an alliance of K-2’s – gardeners, not inudstrialists. When we look out at the Galaxy, we don’t see the wreckage of failures. So either there’s nobody out there, or ‘absence of evidence’ is ‘evidence of presence’ – we can’t see the ones who’ve made it! Either way, we concluded, “it doesn’t suggest that violence prevails”.

    But then as we also pointed out, we’ve had telescopes for only 400 years, astrophotography for 150, with radio, i-r, u-v, x-ray and gamma-ray astronomy all much more recent. After, say, 1000 years of observation, the evidence of other civilisations may be a lot more obvious.

    • Torbjorn Larsson OM says

      I have difficulties with this:

      – But _no_ populations are “driven by Malthusian pressures” (famine and disease). Not in nature and not in society. In fact, we are moving away from such constraint every year (more and better food margins, less poverty and disease).

      Populations are driven by Darwinian pressures (selection) and, yes, there are signs that famine and disease has been constraints at times.

      Scandinavians have slightly more of an allele contributing to HIV resistance, likely from the scope of “black death” that once put selective pressures on society.

      Likewise H. sap can be obese to a much higher degree than most other, and similar, animals, which is hypothesized as either sexual selection (eek!) or famine bottlenecks. (We know our immediate ancestors, saps and Neanderthals have bottlenecked. The Denisovans, that contributed much less alleles, not so much.)

      Those are benefits (HIV resistance) or risks (tendency for obesity) resulting from such pressures. Hardly something that decides the fates of societies.

      – No society can conceivably achieve “a Kardashev-3” state, because that would take an extremely unlikely occurrence (a Kardashev-2) and multiply it. Say that for some cockamamie reason a civilization resolves to do the hardest possible development and redesign a solar system instead of colonizing.

      To get to a probability map that as a specific trait, or in other word as something like the chances that a species will evolve language. We may have something like 10^8 species today, and since 99.9 % of species goes extinct, we can assume a likelihood of 10^-10 over the age of Earth to be conservative.

      We have something like 10^11 stars in our galaxy. Independent Kardashev-2 decisions give a (10^-10)^10^11 probability (!) for a Kardashev-3.

      There are only ~ 10^11 galaxies in the observable universe… We are really lucky if we have one Kardashev-2 in a galaxy at some specific time. And that assumes that they have some type of economical ROI in the first place. That is not researched, AFAIU.

      Personally I think it is a ludicrous notion (have you guessed? :-D) because it is futurism and technique optimism rolled into one unsavory package. However societies develop, we can be fairly certain that they take the easy way out, and that is decidedly not mega projects but daily living. We can as well worship the pyramids instead, because that is all what we will ever have in that direction.

      • Torbjorn Larsson OM says

        I should note that I’m not entirely sure of my claim on human obesity. But if that isn’t so, the observable effects of famine are less, not worse.

  9. alcyone says

    “presuming that we can eventually build up a representative database of debris disk characteristics including their density, granularity and chemistry derived from photometric and spectroscopic analysis…”

    and the post of Mercury image from NASA

    But how can this be if this is “Astronomy Without a Telescope – Alien Mining”? Should just be called “Speculations Without Bothering to Be Accurate or Anything – Alien Mining”.

    Nerlich’s article mentions “anthropomorphizing” which helps explain why his articles read thematically more like “infotainment” than anything else. If I want a big dose of “anthropomorph” type stuff, I can surf over to ET from UT anytime.

  10. Dark Gnat says

    I dunno. If you sprinkle sugar grains on a black surface as randomly as possible. there tends to be patterns in the feild. Humans are really good at picking up visual patterns, even ones that don’t mean anything.

    Also, as space is 3-D, these patterns would look quite different from another angle.

  11. Member
    Aqua says

    Perhaps evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial life is right in front of us?

    Quite often while observing through my telescope I have noticed what appears to be long trails or tracks of stars. That is to say apparently co-joined lines of stars that appear regularly spaced, of similar luminosity, and in easily observable linear tracks These tracks are not segments of constellations or other known associations but are long, continuous curving arcs and/or straight lines. They are found all over the sky and are usually composed of stars with similar luminosity and color.

    At frst blush these features appear to be simple chance alignments and/or an artifact of the brain’s tenancy to see patterns in chaos. Then, if you will indulge me for a moment, imagine the fantastic energies required to achieve FTL speeds. Could these tracks of stars NOT be chance alignment but instead the tracks of FTL spaceship passages? Again, think about the energy’s involved with FTL travel…

    Speculation is fun… oui? WERE this quaint observation to prove true, it would indicate that our galaxy is PACKED with interstellar travelers. Now wouldn’t that be nice?

  12. Karthik Kumar Viswanathan says

    I think the best way to do it is visual. Apparently Light IS the BEST KNOWN universal communication medium, and we should use it to the best – video (may be still images), perhaps. No combination of any other signals we send may be easy to send, nor perfectly decodable ….

    BTW: If the aliens can’t decode light or sound or electricity, you can’t do ANYTHING.

  13. inbtween says

    I predict that in the next few years we will find reasonable proof that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe. Furthermore, I predict it wont be proven by observing things from afar. The proof will come not from our telescopes but from quite a more surprising source, our microscopes (metaphorically speaking of course)

    As we strive to further develop the ability to teleport atoms as well as light, we will confirm that this is a sound basis for transmitting information across the universe. Like Columbus we will arrive at the shores of a new world only to find out that there are already people there.

    One should presume that intelligent life has existed for billions of years and that this ability also has existed for billions of years. That provides for plenty of time for 1/2 of an entangled pair to have arrived at our present location. All we have to do is put our ears to the ground and listen.

    Perhaps there are already people listening to the obscure chatter of intelligent life spread across the universe. The real question is, are people ready for what is being conveyed?

    Add to this the proposition that I am neither the first nor the five hundredth person to consider this. So we must further presume that there are those that are already listening to the chatter. Perhaps they understand what they are observing, perhaps not; but clearly it is reasonable to assume that there is at least a few folks listening in.

    My guess is that intelligent life would want us to know that our future is what we choose to make it.

    I guess I would add another theory to this little story. If we presume that the ability to teleport is at its core fundamentally a remote control mechanism far more that true teleportation mechanism, then its safe to say that more substantial forms or remote influence can be projected.

    🙂 Interesting theory at very least….

  14. FleetFoot says

    Who can put 2+2 together:

    Could our spectrum be mistaken for natural?

  15. Paul Eaton-Jones says

    Reading some of these postings makes me long for the days of the ‘sanity’ of Anaconda and Oils.

  16. kehvan says

    I don’t like the Kardashev scale, because a truly advanced civilization would also understand the concepts of diminishing returns, and would realize the effort that went into harnessing 100% of anything would approach infinity. Are we humans really less than a class 1 civilization? I’d say we’re closer to a type 1 than is being proposed in literature, because we’re very near the point of harnessing a part of the energy of a star, our Sun, using exoatmospheric collectors that will use microwaves to beam energy back to Earth, which would certainly put us in the position of a nascent type 2 civilization.

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