Are there civilizations somewhere else in the Universe? Somewhere else in the Milky Way? That’s one of our overarching questions, and an answer in the affirmative would be profound.
Humanity’s pursued the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) in one form or another since shortly after the advent of radio waves in the early 20th century. Efforts have waxed and waned over the decades, but the search has never been completely abandoned.
The search detected transient hints in the form of unexplained radio waves in the past, but nothing that comprises reliable evidence. Now a new search for technosignatures in the Milky Way’s center has turned up nothing.
On November 16th, 1974, a coded radio message was broadcast from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. The message contained information on mathematics, humanity, the Solar System, DNA, and the Observatory itself. The destination for this message was Messier 13 (NGC 6205 or “The Great Hercules Cluster”), a globular star cluster located about 25,000 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Hercules.
How do you power a super advanced alien civilization? Soak up a star. We harness the power of the Sun using solar panels. What if you were to scale this idea to astronomical proportions? Surround an entire star with solar collecting structures or satellites to power your sprawling alien galactic empire. Such massive structures are known as a “megastructures” – in this case a “Dyson Sphere.” We are already trying to detect possible megastructures in space using the dimming of a star and the glow of megastructure components in infrared light. But recent research provides a new detection method – a Dyson Sphere may cause its host star to swell and cool.
Turns out we were hearing ourselves! Earth can be a noisy place when listening to stars.
Late last year, a story was leaked indicating that the Murriyang radio telescope in Australia had detected a “signal-of-interest”. Dubbed “blc1” (Breakthrough Listen Candidate 1), the signal appeared to originate from the direction of Proxima Centauri, the closest neighbouring star to the Sun. The signal had yet to be fully analyzed when the story was leaked. Now that the analysis is complete, research shows blc1 is in fact “RFI” – radio frequency interference – and not an interstellar signal.
But while it’s not aliens – or “Proxima Centaurians” as lead author on the signal analysis Dr. Sofia Sheikh whimsically refers to them – new methodologies for conducting radio-based SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) have been developed by analyzing blc1; further honing our ability to distinguish future potential ET signals from our own planet.
E.T. managed to call home with a Speak and Spell, buzzsaw blade, and an umbrella. The reality of interstellar communication is a bit more complicated. Space is really, really big. The power needed to transmit a signal across the void is huge. However, rather than using super high power transmitters, recent research by Stephen Kerby and Jason T. Wright shows that we could make use of a natural signal gain boost built into solar systems – the gravitational lensing of a solar system’s star. Networking a series of stars as nodes could get signals across vast tracts of the Milky Way. And we may be able to detect if our Sun is already part of an alien galactic communication network.
As a field, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence suffers from some rather significant constraints. Aside from the uncertainty involved (e.g., is there life beyond Earth we can actually communicate with?), there are the limitations imposed by technology and the very nature of space and time. For instance, scientists are forced to contend with the possibility that by the time a message is received by an intelligent species, the civilization that sent it will be long dead.
Harvard astronomers Amir Siraj and Abraham Loeb tackle this very question in a new study that recently appeared online. Taking their cue from the Copernican Principle, which states that humanity and Earth are representative of the norm (and not an outlier), they calculated that if any transmissions from Earth were heard by an extraterrestrial technological civilization (ETC), it would take about 3000 years to get a reply.
On October 19th, 2017, astronomers made the first-ever detection of an interstellar object (ISO) in our Solar System. This body, named 1I/2017 U1 (‘Oumuamua), was spotted shortly after it flew by Earth on its way to the outer Solar System. Years later, astronomers are still hypothesizing what this object could have been (an interstellar “dust bunny,” hydrogen iceberg, nitrogen icebergs), with Harvard Prof. Abraham Loeb going as far as to suggest that it might have been an extraterrestrial solar sail.
Roughly three years later, interest in extraterrestrial visitors has not subsided, in part because of the release of the Pentagon report on the existence of “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.” This prompted Loeb and several of his fellow scientists to form the Galileo Project, a multi-national, multi-institutional research team dedicated to bringing the search for Extraterrestrial Technological Civilizations (ETC) into the mainstream.
The Milky Way is 13 BILLION years old. Some of our Galaxy’s oldest stars were born near the beginning of the Universe itself. During all these eons of time, we know at least one technological civilization has been born – US!
But if the Galaxy is so ancient, and we know it can create life, why haven’t we heard from anybody else? If another civilization was just 0.1% of the Galaxy’s age older than we are, they would be millions of years further along than us and presumably more advanced. If we are already on the cusp of sending life to other worlds, shouldn’t the Milky Way be teeming with alien ships and colonies by now?
Maybe. But it’s also possible that we’ve been looking in the wrong place. Recent computer simulations by Jason T. Wright et al suggest that the best place to look for ancient space-faring civilizations might be the core of the Galaxy, a relatively unexplored target in the search for extra terrestrial intelligence.
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.
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.