What Would It Take To See Artificial Lights at Proxima Centauri B?

Is there an alien civilization next door? It’s…possible(ish). In late 2020, we discovered a signal from the direction of Proxima Centauri (not necessarily from Proxima Centauri), our closest neighbour star. Named BLC- 1 by project Break Through Listen, the signal is still being analyzed to ensure it isn’t simply an echo of our own civilization – typically what they turn out to be. But why not just directly look at planets in Proxima Centauri and see if a civilization is there?

From space, the most obvious sign somebody lives on Earth is the glow from the nightside of our planet. Our cities emit light that’s shed into the Cosmos. Problem is that our current generation of telescopes are not powerful enough to see lights on distant worlds. But several researchers are testing the capabilities of the next generation of telescopes already on the drawing board. The finding? Yes! if advanced enough…or glowy enough…we would be able to see if another civilization has the lights on at Proxima Centauri.

8k compilation of footage taken from the International Space Station orbiting above Earth’s City Lights
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60 Years Later, is it Time to Update the Drake Equation?

On November 1st, 1961, a number of prominent scientists converged on the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia, for a three-day conference. A year earlier, this facility had been the site of the first modern SETI experiment (Project Ozma), where famed astronomers Frank Drake and Carl Sagan used the Green Bank telescope (aka. “Big Ear”) to monitor two nearby Sun-like stars – Epsilon Eridani and Tau Ceti.

While unsuccessful, Ozma became a focal point for scientists who were interested in this burgeoning field known as the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). As a result, Drake and Sagan were motivated to hold the very first SETI conference, wherein the subject of looking for possible extraterrestrial radio signals would be discussed. In preparation for the meeting, Drake prepared the following heuristic equation:

N = R* x fp x ne x fl x fi x fc x L

This would come to be known as the “Drake Equation,” which is considered by many to be one of the most renowned equations in the history of science. On the sixtieth anniversary of its creation, John Gertz – a film producer, amateur astronomer, board-member with BreakThrough Listen, and the three-term former chairman of the board for the SETI Institute – argues in a recent paper that a factor by factor reconsideration is in order.

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We Could Detect Extraterrestrial Satellite Megaconstellations Within a few Hundred Light-Years

Starlink is one of the most ambitious space missions we’ve ever undertaken. The current plan is to put 12,000 communication satellites in low-Earth orbit, with the possibility of another 30,000 later. Just getting them into orbit is a huge engineering challenge, and with so many chunks of metal in orbit, some folks worry it could lead to a cascade of collisions that makes it impossible for satellites to survive. But suppose we solve these problems and Starlink is successful. What’s the next step? What if we take it further, creating a mega-constellation of satellites and space stations? What if an alien civilization has already created such a mega-constellation around their world? Could we see it from Earth?

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We Could Detect Alien Civilizations Through Their Interstellar Quantum Communication

Since the mid-20th century, scientists have been looking for evidence of intelligent life beyond our Solar System. For much of that time, scientists who are engaged in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) have relied on radio astronomy surveys to search for signs of technological activity (aka. “technosignatures“). With 4,375 exoplanets confirmed (and counting!) even greater efforts are expected to happen in the near future.

In anticipation of these efforts, researchers have been considering other possible technosignatures that we should be on the lookout for. According to Michael Hippke, a visiting scholar at the UC Berkeley SETI Research Center, the search should also be expanded to include quantum communication. In an age where quantum computing and related technologies are nearing fruition, it makes sense to look for signs of them elsewhere.

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What are the Best Ways to Search for Technosignatures?

The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) has long roots in human history.  With the advent of modern technologies, scientists were finally able to start scanning the skies for any sign of life.  When the search first started back in the 1960s, it focused almost exclusively on trying to detect radio signals.  Over the decades, no irrefutable evidence of any artificial radio signals was ever found. Financial support started to drift away from the discipline, and where the money goes so do many scientists.

But more recently, the spike in interest in exoplanet research has breathed new life into the search for intelligent life, now commonly referred to as the search for “technosignatures”. In 2018, NASA sponsored a conference where scientists who were involved with the field came to discuss its current state.  That meeting was followed up by a meeting last year sponsored by the Blue Marble Institute, which NASA also helped to sponsor.  Now a working paper has come out from the group of SETI scientists that attended the conference. Numerous potential mission ideas to find technosignatures are described in the paper. It’s clear the search for extraterrestrial intelligence isn’t limited just to radio astronomy anymore.

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According to the Math, it’s Highly Unlikely That an Intelligent Civilization is Located at Alpha Centauri

In December of 2020, the world got a bit of a pre-holiday surprise when it was announced that astronomers at the Parkes radio telescope in Australia had detected a “tantalizing” signal coming from Proxima Centauri (the red dwarf companion of the Alpha Centauri system). Afterward, researchers at Breakthrough Listen consulted the data on the signal – Breakthrough Listen Candidate 1 (BLC1) – and noted the same curious features.

However, the scientific community has since announced that the signal is unlikely to be anything other than the result of natural phenomena. This was also the conclusion reached by Amir Siraj and Prof. Abraham Loeb of Harvard University after they conducted a probability assessment on BLC1. Like the vast majority of candidate radio signals discovered to date, this one appears to be just the forces of nature saying hello.

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A Very Interesting Radio Signal was Just Detected Coming from Proxima Centauri

There’s a powerful scene in the movie “Contact” (one of my favs) where lead character Ellie Arroway is sitting among an array of telescopes and hears the first alien signal – an ominous pulse – received by humanity. She races back to the control center where the array is pointed off target and then back to verify the signal. Contact is made. Shortly after, a message is found in the signal and we’ve confirmed the existence of alien life!

Ellie Arroway was inspired by a real-life pillar of the SETI community, Dr. Jill Tarter. I had the privilege of interviewing Jill Tarter last year and asked about that scene. She laughed saying “There’s not a lot of sitting around with headphones on. It’s not really that simple.” When it comes to analyzing signals from the stars for alien life, distinguishing a potential alien message from the noise of our own planet is quite complicated.

Excitingly, we’re watching that analysis play out right now as a signal which appears to originate from our closest neighbour star, Proxima Centauri, was recently detected by the Breakthrough Listen Project

Simulation of Proxima b, a known planet in the habitable zone of the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri – SpaceEngine Pro by author
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Beyond “Fermi’s Paradox” XIII: What is the “Ocean Worlds” Hypothesis?

Welcome back to our Fermi Paradox series, where we take a look at possible resolutions to Enrico Fermi’s famous question, “Where Is Everybody?” Today, we examine the possibility that the reason for the Great Silence is that most life out there exists in warm water oceans under sheets of ice!

In 1950, Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi sat down to lunch with some of his colleagues at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he had worked five years prior as part of the Manhattan Project. According to various accounts, the conversation turned to aliens and the recent spate of UFOs. Into this, Fermi issued a statement that would go down in the annals of history: “Where is everybody?

This became the basis of the Fermi Paradox, which refers to the disparity between high probability estimates for the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) and the apparent lack of evidence. Since Fermi’s time, there have been several proposed resolutions to his question, which include the possibility that Oceans Worlds (and not rocky planets) might be the best candidates for finding life.

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Beyond “Fermi’s Paradox” XII: What is the Waterworlds Hypothesis?

Welcome back to our Fermi Paradox series, where we take a look at possible resolutions to Enrico Fermi’s famous question, “Where Is Everybody?” Today, we examine the possibility that the reason for the Great Silence is that many planets out there are just too watery!

In 1950, Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi sat down to lunch with some of his colleagues at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he had worked five years prior as part of the Manhattan Project. According to various accounts, the conversation turned to aliens and the recent spate of UFOs. Into this, Fermi issued a statement that would go down in the annals of history: “Where is everybody?

This became the basis of the Fermi Paradox, which refers to the disparity between high probability estimates for the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) and the apparent lack of evidence. Since Fermi’s time, there have been several proposed resolutions to his question, which includes the possibility that many exoplanets are Waterworlds, where water is so plentiful that life will be less likely to emerge and thrive.

Continue reading “Beyond “Fermi’s Paradox” XII: What is the Waterworlds Hypothesis?”