Does Failing to Detect Aliens Mean We’ll Never Be Contacted?

Image of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) Parkes radio telescope taken in 1969. (Credit: CSIRO; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.)

In a recent paper submitted to The Astronomical Journal in November 2022, a scientist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne quantifies how the Earth has not heard a radio signal from an extraterrestrial technological civilization over the course of approximately the last 60 years, which is when the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) began listening for such signals. They also quantify the potential likelihood pertaining to when we might hear a signal, along with recommending potential strategies that could aid in the ongoing search for detecting a signal from an extraterrestrial technological civilization.

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Game of Probes: The First Probe Sent to Another Civilization Won’t Be the First to Arrive

An artist's concept of Voyager 1's view of the Solar System. Voyager 1 is one of our first interstellar probes, though it's an inadvertent one. It has no particular destination. Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Zachary and S. Redfield (Wesleyan University); Artist's Illustration Credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI).

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.

It’s even worse if we’re sending probes.

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Astronomers Scanned 12 Planets for Alien Signals While They Were in Front of Their Stars

TOI 1338 b is a circumbinary planet orbiting its two stars. It was discovered by TESS. Image Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Chris Smith

The Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT), part of the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia, is the world’s premiere single-dish radio telescope. Between its 100-meter dish (328-foot), unblocked aperture, and excellent surface accuracy, the GBT provides unprecedented sensitivity in the millimeter to meter wavelengths – very high to extremely high frequency (VHF to EHF). Since 2017, it also became one of the main instruments used by Breakthrough Listen and other institutes engaged in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).

Recently, an international team of researchers from the SETI Institute, Breakthrough Listen, and multiple universities scanned twelve exoplanets for signs of technological activity (aka. “technosignatures”). Their observations were timed to coincide with the planets passing in front of their sun relative to the observer (i.e., making a transit). While the survey did not detect any definitive evidence of technosignatures, they did identify two radio signals of interest that warrant follow-up observation. This new technique could vastly expand the field of SETI and create all kinds of opportunities for future research.

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How Should the World’s Governments Respond if We Detect an Alien Civilization?

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Image Credit: SETI

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.

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Upcoming Missions Could Search for Ancient Alien Technology Within the Solar System

An artist’s overview of the mission concept for the Comet Interceptor spacecraft. Credit: ESA

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.

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Alien Artifacts Could Be Hidden Across the Solar System. Here’s how we Could Search for Them.

Galileo Project members (from left: Carson Ezell, Ezra Kelderman, Abby White, Alex and Lily Delacroix) with the audio tower (left), radar spectrum tower (middle) and radar imaging tower (right) behind them on the roof of the Harvard College Observatory.
Galileo Project members (from left: Carson Ezell, Ezra Kelderman, Abby White, Alex and Lily Delacroix) with the audio tower (left), radar spectrum tower (middle) and radar imaging tower (right) behind them on the roof of the Harvard College Observatory. Image credit: The Galileo Project

Do aliens exist? Almost certainly. The universe is vast and ancient, and our corner of it is not particularly special. If life emerged here, it probably did elsewhere. Keep in mind this is a super broad assumption. A single instance of fossilized archaebacteria-like organisms five superclusters away would be all it takes to say, “Yes, there are aliens!” …if we could find them somehow.

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Legendary Astronomer Frank Drake has Passed Away

Frank Drake by the Green Bank Telescope. Credit: NRAO/NSF/AUI

Legendary astronomer Frank Drake has passed away at the age of 92. Known primarily for his Drake Equation — an estimate of the probability of intelligent extraterrestrial life — he pioneered the field of SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, and was a noted astronomer and astrophysicist. His work and life have left an indelible mark on humanity and given hope and wonder to all our hearts.

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Before we Develop Self-Replicating Machines to Explore the Universe, we Should Figure out how to Turn Them off Again

An early NASA concept of an interstellar space probe. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

In 1948/49, famed computer scientist, engineer, and physicist John von Neumann introduced the world to his revolutionary idea for a species of self-replicating robots (aka. “Universal Assemblers”). In time, researchers involved in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) adopted this idea, stating that self-replicating probes would be an effective way to explore the cosmos and that an advanced species may be doing this already. Among SETI researchers, “Von Neumann probes” (as they’ve come to be known) are considered a viable indication of technologically advanced species (technosignature).

Given the rate of progress with robotics, it’s likely just a matter of time before humanity can deploy Von Neumann probes, and the range of applications is endless. But what about the safety implications? In a recent study by Carleton University Professor Alex Ellery explores the potential harm that Von Neumann Probes could have. In particular, Ellery considers the prospect of runaway population growth (aka. the “grey goo problem”) and how a series of biologically-inspired controls that impose a cap on their replication cycles would prevent that.

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Snooping on Alien Messages Passing Through the Solar System

Researchers at Penn State University have studied a new technique that could use a star’s ability to focus and magnify communications which could be passing through our own solar system, and has been accepted for publication in The Astronomical Journal and was part of a graduate course at Penn State covering the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI. The study describes our Sun as potentially acting as a kind of node as part of an interstellar communication network involving probes or relays near our Sun, acting like cellular telephone towers in space.

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Chinese Astronomers Detect an Interesting (But NOT Alien) Signal With the FAST Radio Observatory

The Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) has just finished construction in the southwestern province of Guizhou. Credit: FAST

The 500-Meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST), (aka. Tianyan, “Eye of Heaven”), is the largest radio observatory in the world. Since the observatory became operational in January 2020, this facility has made significant contributions to radio astronomy and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). In particular, the observatory has been instrumental in detecting Fast Radio Burts (FRBs) and other cosmic phenomena that could be (but probably aren’t) possible indications of extraterrestrial communications.

Last week, while sifting through FAST data, the China Extraterrestrial Civilization Research Group (CECRG) from Beijing Normal University revealed that they discovered several signals that might be artificial in origin (a possible indication of an advanced civilization). These signals consisted of narrow-band electromagnetic radio transmission and were considered one of the best candidates for an extraterrestrial signal. Ah, but there’s a snag. According to subsequent news releases, those radio transmissions were apparently from Earth!

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