The first early humans to use fire had no inkling of what it would lead to.
Fire was one of our first technologies, and humans have been making changes to their environments since the advent of controlled fire hundreds of thousands of years ago. Fast forward to current times, and our modern technological and global civilization is changing the Earth’s entire biosphere. From carbon emissions that acidify the oceans and weaken the shells of marine life to microplastics that find their way into organisms’ bloodstreams, our technology is intersecting, or combining, with the biosphere.
Is humanity alone in the Universe? Is anyone out there? Where is everybody? And what happens if and when we make contact with them? These and other questions were the subjects of the 2023 Penn State SETI Symposium hosted by the Penn State Extraterrestrial Intelligence Center (PSETI) from June 19th-22nd, 2023. The event featured prominent speakers from various research fields and disciplines discussing the challenges, history, and future of SETI. In the great tradition established by Dr. Frank Drake, they also addressed key issues related to the search for intelligent life and what we might find someday.
The summit opened with a series of overviews, a review of the past year (since the last summit), and a presentation by Dr. Rebecca Charbonneau, a science historian and Jansky Fellow at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). Her presentation, titled “Frank Drake and his Place in History,” provided a retrospective on the life and accomplishments of famed radio astronomer and SETI pioneer Dr. Frank Drake (for whom the Drake Equation is named), how he altered the character of the field, and how history will remember him.
It has been over sixty years since the first Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) survey occurred. This was Project Ozma, a survey led by Dr. Frank Drake (who devised the Drake Equation) that used the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Green Bank, West Virginia, to listen for radio transmissions from Epsilon Eridani and Tau Ceti. While the search revealed nothing of interest, it paved the way for decades of research, theory, and attempts to find evidence of technological activity (aka. “technosignatures”).
The search continues today, with researchers using next-generation instruments and analytical methods to find the “needle in the cosmic haystack.” This is the purpose behind Breakthrough Listen Investigation for Periodic Spectral Signals (BLIPSS), a collaborative SETI project led by Cornell graduate student Akshay Suresh to look for technosignatures at the center of the Milky Way. In a recent paper, Suresh and his team shared their initial findings, which were made possible thanks to data obtained by the Greenbank Observatory and a proprietary algorithm they developed.
Someday, humanity might receive a message from space that will answer one of the greatest existential questions: is anybody out there? Regardless of the content, a message from an extraterrestrial civilization will be the single greatest event in human history. How would such an event happen, and how would it play out? What will be the repercussions of billions of people suddenly learning that we are NOT alone in the Universe? This question has inspired countless works of science fiction and scientific studies that have attempted to predict (and even quantify) our collective reaction.
This was the purpose behind A Sign in Space, a revolutionary art project designed to simulate a First Contact scenario. This project was the brainchild of Daniela de Paulis, a contemporary artist, and licensed radio operator currently serving as the Artist in Residence at the SETI Institute and the Green Bank Observatory. Together with a team of international experts, including SETI researchers, space scientists, and artists, de Paulis created this campaign to engage the global SETI community and the general public about the possibility of First Contact.
If we ever detect an Extraterrestrial Civilization (ETC) and start communicating with them, the messages could take years, decades, or even centuries to travel back and forth. We face a challenging 49-minute long delay just communicating with the Juno spacecraft orbiting Jupiter, and that’s well within our Solar System. Communicating with an ETC that’s hundreds of light-years away or even further is a daunting task.
According to new research led by the Advanced Propulsion Laboratory at Applied Physics (APL-AP), GWs could also be used in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). As they state in their paper, LIGO and other observatories (like Virgo and KAGRA) have the potential to look for GWs created by Rapid And/or Massive Accelerating spacecraft (RAMAcraft). By combining the power of these and next-generation observatories, we could create a RAMAcraft Detection And Ranging (RAMADAR) system that could probe all the stars in the Milky Way (100 to 200 billion) for signs of warp-drive-like signatures.
At least once, you’ve looked up at the night sky and asked the same longstanding question we’ve all asked at least once, “Are we alone?” With all those points of light out there, we can’t be the only intelligent beings in the universe, right? There must be at least one technological civilization aside from us in the great vastness that we call the cosmos.
Science fiction is the realm where people traditionally wrestle with the idea of contact with an ETI (Extraterrestrial Intelligence.) But now, those discussions are migrating from science fiction into more serious realms. Academics are going back and forth, one paper at a time, concerning the response and geopolitical fallout from potential contact with an ETI.
The discussion is interesting whether you think it’s likely or even remotely possible that humanity ever contacts an ETI. And it might tell us more about humanity than it does about an ETI.
Over sixty years ago, the first search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), known as Project Ozma, was conducted. This campaign was led by legendary astronomer Frank Drake, which relied on the 85-1 Tatel Telescope at the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia to listen to Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani for any signs of radio transmissions. Since then, the field of SETI has become more sophisticated thanks to more advanced radio telescopes, improved data analysis, and international collaboration. In the coming years, SETI will also benefit from advances in exoplanet studies and next-generation instruments and surveys.
In addition to examining exoplanets for signs of technological activity (aka. “technosignatures”), there are also those who recommend that we look for them here at home. Examples include the Galileo Project, which is dedicated to studying interstellar objects (ISOs) and unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP). There’s also the Penn State Extraterrestrial Intelligence Center, a research group dedicated to advancing SETI through the search for technosignatures. In a recent paper, they explain how future SETI efforts should consider looking for extraterrestrial technology in our Solar System.
In about 5 billion years, the Sun will leave the main sequence and become a red giant. It’ll expand and transform into a glowering, malevolent ball and consume and destroy Mercury, Venus, Earth, and probably Mars. Can humanity survive the Sun’s red giant phase? Extraterrestrial Civilizations (ETCs) may have already faced this existential threat.
Could they have survived it by migrating to another star system without the use of spaceships?