In 1950, while sitting down to lunch with colleagues at the Los Alamos Laboratory, famed physicist and nuclear scientist Enrico Fermi asked his famous question: “Where is Everybody?” In short, Fermi was addressing the all-important question that has plagued human minds since they first realized planet Earth was merely a speck in an infinite Universe. Given the size and age of the Universe and the way the ingredients for life are seemingly everywhere in abundance, why haven’t we found any evidence of intelligent life beyond Earth?
This question has spawned countless proposed resolutions since Fermi’s time, including the infamous Hart-Tipler Conjecture (i.e., they don’t exist). Other interpretations emphasize how space travel is hard and extremely time and energy-consuming, which is why species are likely to settle in clusters (rather than a galactic empire) and how we are more likely to find examples of their technology (probes and AI) rather than a species itself. In a recent study, mathematician Daniel Vallstrom examined how artificial intelligence might be similarly motivated to avoid spreading across the galaxy, thus explaining why we haven’t seen them either!
Among the many outstanding questions in science, ‘Are We Alone’ must be the one that captivates scientists and public alike. I have very fond memories watching the SETI screensaver on my laptop churn through data while and wondering if the big peaks in the fascinating looking graphs meant something had been found! That was a good few years back now but the search for ET continues. One such organisation spearheading the hunt is the SETI Institute and they have just announced a whacking great alien busting $200 million gift.
The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has evolved considerably in the past sixty years since the first experiment was conducted. This was Project Ozma, which was conducted in 1960 by Dr. Frank Drake and his colleagues using the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Green Bank, West Virginia. While the experiment did not reveal any radio signals from space, it established the foundation upon which all future SETI is based. Like Ozma, the vast majority of these experiments have searched for possible technosignatures in the radio spectrum.
Unfortunately, this search has always been plagued by the problem of radio interference from Earth-based radio antennas and satellites in orbit, which can potentially flood SETI surveys with false positives. In a recent study, an international team of astronomers (including researchers with Breakthrough Listen) recommended that future technosignature searches rely on multi-site simultaneous observations. This has the potential of eliminating interference from terrestrial sources and narrowing the search for extraterrestrial radio signals.
The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has always been plagued by uncertainty. With only one habitable planet (Earth) and one technologically advanced civilization (humanity) as examples, scientists are still confined to theorizing where other intelligent life forms could be (and what they might be up to). Sixty years later, the answer to Fermi’s famous question (“Where is Everybody?”) remains unanswered. On the plus side, this presents us with many opportunities to hypothesize possible locations, activities, and technosignatures that future observations can test.
One possibility is that the growth of civilizations is limited by the laws of physics and the carrying capacity of the planetary environments – aka. The Percolation Theory Hypothesis. In a recent study, a team from the University of the Philippines Los Banos looked beyond traditional Percolation Theory to consider how civilizations might grow in three different types of Universes (static, dark energy-dominated, and matter-dominated). Their results indicate that, depending on the framework, intelligent life has a finite amount of time to populate the Universe and is likely to do so exponentially.
Barnard’s Star is a small red dwarf just six light-years from Earth. Despite its proximity, it was only noticed in 1916 when E. E. Barnard found it had a particularly high proper motion. It had appeared in photographic plates taken by Harvard Observatory in the late 1800s, but as a small dim star, no one took notice of it. Since its discovery, Barnard’s Star has been one of the most studied red dwarfs.
In 1960, Freeman Dyson proposed how advanced civilizations could create megastructures that enclosed their star, allowing them to harness all of their star’s energy and multiplying the habitable space they could occupy. In 2015, the astronomical community was intrigued when the star KIC 8462852 (aka. Tabby’s Star) began experiencing unexplained changes in brightness, leading some to speculate that the variations might be due to a megastructure. While the final analysis of the star’s light curve in 2018 revealed that the dimming pattern was more characteristic of dust than a solid structure, Tabby’s Star focused attention on the subject of megastructures and their associated technosignatures.
Dyson’s ideas were proposed at a time when astronomers were unaware of the abundance of exoplanets in our galaxy. The first confirmed exoplanet was not discovered until 1992, and that number has now reached 5,514! With this in mind, a team of researchers from Bangalore, India, recently released a paper that presents an alternative to the whole megastructure concept. For advanced civilizations looking for more room to expand, taking planets within their system – or capturing free-floating planets (FFP) beyond – and transferring them into the star’s circumsolar habitable zone (HZ) is a much simpler and less destructive solution.
In 1960, legendary physicist Freeman Dyson published his seminal paper “Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infrared Radiation,” wherein he proposed that there could be extraterrestrial civilizations so advanced that they could build megastructures large enough to enclose their parent star. He also indicated that these “Dyson Spheres,” as they came to be known, could be detected based on the “waste heat” they emitted at mid-infrared wavelengths. To this day, infrared signatures are considered a viable technosignature in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).
So far, efforts to detect Dyson Spheres (and variation thereof) by their “waste heat” signatures have come up empty, leading some scientists to recommend tweaking the search parameters. In a new paper, astronomy and astrophysics Professor Jason T. Wright of the Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds and the Penn State Extraterrestrial Intelligence Center (PSTI) recommends that SETI researchers refine the search by looking for indications of activity. In other words, he recommends looking for Dyson Spheres based on what they could be used for rather than just heat signatures.
Life on Earth is a glorious dance of data. From the songs of backyard birds to the chemical exchanges of forest trees, the exchange of information between living things is an essential part of its existence and evolution. Humans, too, are a part of that dance, with friendship chats over morning coffee, bold headlines in newspapers, and TikTok videos of teenagers. Right now human data is just one part of Earth’s living data exchange, but it could soon become the overwhelming dominant part. If the same is true for all advanced civilizations, it could impact our search for alien life.
Imagine we detect an interstellar object entering our Solar System. At first, astronomers think it’s just another natural interloper like Oumuamua or comet Borisov. We’re warming up to the idea of visitors from other parts of the galaxy, though they’ve been inanimate so far.
But then, what if it becomes clear that something’s different about this visitor? What if it moves unnaturally or somehow behaves purposefully? What if it takes up a stable orbit somewhere? What if, as we gather more evidence, it becomes clear that it’s a probe of some sort sent to us intentionally? What if it communicates with us?
Suddenly, as if thrust into a science fiction plot, humanity is in a totally different situation. What do we do?
Yesterday I presented a rather pessimistic view about our chances of finding evidence of alien civilizations. That work focused on detecting physical structures on an alien planet, which would take an optical telescope array the size of Saturn’s orbit. Today I’ll talk about a more optimistic view, one which focuses not on physical structures, but the fingerprint of molecules in an alien atmosphere. It’s a task that is not only much easier, it’s something we could do now using the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).