What do coal, crude oil, and truffles have in common? Go ahead. We’ll wait.
The answer is thiophenes, a molecule that behaves a lot like benzene. Crude oil, coal, and truffles all contain thiophenes. So do a few other substances. MSL Curiosity found thiophenes on Mars, and though that doesn’t conclusively prove that Mars once hosted life, its discovery is an important milestone for the rover. Especially since truffles are alive, and oil and coal used to be, sort of.
When it comes to the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI) in the Universe, there is the complicated matter of what to be on the lookout for. Beyond the age-old question of whether or not intelligent life exists elsewhere in the Universe (statistically speaking, it is very likely that it does), there’s also the question of whether or not we would be able to recognize it if and when we saw it.
Given that humanity is only familiar with one form of civilization (our own), we tend to look for indications of technologies we know or which seem feasible. In a recent study, a researcher from the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC) proposed looking for large bands of satellites in distant star systems – a concept that was proposed by the late and great Arthur C. Clarke (known as a Clarke Belt).
This proposal is based in part on a paper written by Arthur C. Clarke in 1945 (titled “Peacetime Uses for V2“), in which he proposed sending “artificial satellites” into geostationary orbit around Earth to create a global communications network. At present, there are about 400 such satellites in the “Clarke Belt” – a region named in honor of him that is located 36,000 km above the Earth.
This network forms the backbone of modern telecommunications and in the future, many more satellites are expected to be deployed – which will form the backbone of the global internet. Given the practicality of satellites and the fact that humanity has come to rely on them so much, Socas-Navarro considers that a belt of artificial satellites could naturally be considered “technomarkers” (the analogues of “biomarkers”, which indicate the presence of life).
As Socas-Navarro explained to Universe Today via email:
“Essentially, a technomarker is anything that we could potentially observe which would reveal the presence of technology elsewhere in the Universe. It’s the ultimate clue to find intelligent life out there. Unfortunately, interstellar distances are so great that, with our current technology, we can only hope to detect very large objects or structures, something comparable to the size of a planet.”
In this respect, a Clarke Exobelt is not dissimilar from a Dyson Sphere or other forms of megastructures that have been proposed by scientists in the past. But unlike these theoretical structures, a Clarke Exobelt is entirely feasible using present-day technology.
“Other existing technomarkers are based on science fiction technology of which we know very little,” said Socas-Navarro. “We don’t know if such technologies are possible or if other alien species might be using them. The Clarke Exobelt, on the other hand, is a technomarker based on real, currently existing technology. We know we can make satellites and, if we make them, it’s reasonable to assume that other civilizations will make them too.”
According to Socas-Navarro, there is some “science fiction” when it comes to Clarke Exobelts that would actually be detectable using these instruments. As noted, humanity has about 400 operational satellites occupying Earth’s “Clarke Belt”. This is about one-third of the Earth’s existing satellites, whereas the rest are at an altitude of 2000 km (1200 mi) or less from the surface – the region known as Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
This essentially means that aliens would need to have billions more satellites within their Clarke Belt – accounting for roughly 0.01% of the belt area – in order for it to be detectable. As for humanity, we are not yet to the point where our own Belt would be detectable by an extra-terrestrial intelligence (ETI). However, this should not take long given that the number of satellites in orbit has been growing exponentially over the past 15 years.
Based on simulations conducted by Socas-Navarro, humanity will reach the threshold where its satellite band will be detectable by ETIs by 2200. Knowing that humanity will reach this threshold in the not-too-distant future makes the Clarke Belt a viable option for SETI. As Socas-Navarro explained:
“In this sense, the Clarke Exobelt is interesting because it’s the first technomarker that looks for currently existing technology. And it goes both ways too. Humanity’s Clarke Belt is probably too sparsely populated to be detectable from other stars right now (at least with technology like ours). But in the last decades we have been populating it at an exponential rate. If this trend were to continue, our Clarke Belt would be detectable from other stars by the year 2200. Do we want to be detectable? This is an interesting debate that humanity will have to resolve soon.
As for how these belts would be detected, that would come down to the most popular and effective means for finding exoplanets to date – the Transit Method (aka. Transit Photometry). For this method, astronomers monitor distant stars for periodic dips in brightness, which are indications of an exoplanet passing in front of the star. Using next-generation telescopes, astronomers may also be able to detect reflected light from a dense band of satellites in orbit.
“However, before we point our supertelescopes to a planet we need to identify good candidates,” said Socas-Navarro. “There are too many stars to check and we can’t go one by one. We need to rely on exoplanet search projects, such as the recently launched satellite TESS, to spot interesting candidates. Then we can do follow-up observations with supertelescopes to confirm or refute those candidates.”
While these space-telescopes would search for rocky planets that are located within the habitable zones of thousands of stars, next-generation telescopes could search for signs of Clarke Exobelts and other technomarkers that would be otherwise hard to spot. However, as Socas-Navarro indicated, astronomers could also find evidence of Exobands by sifting through existing data as well.
“In doing SETI, we have no idea what we are looking for because we don’t know what the aliens are doing,” he said. “So we have to investigate all the possibilities that we can think of. Looking for Clarke Exobelts is a new way of searching, it seems at least reasonably plausible and, most importantly, it’s free. We can look for signatures of Clarke Exobelts in currently existing missions that search for exoplanets, exorings or exomoons. We don’t need to build costly new telescopes or satellites. We simply need to keep our eyes open to see if we can spot the signatures presented in the simulation in the flow of data from all of those projects.”
Humanity has been actively searching for signs of extra-terrestrial intelligence for decades. To know that our technology and methods are becoming more refined, and that more sophisticated searches could begin within a decade, is certainly encouraging. Knowing that we won’t be visible to any ETIs that are out there for another two centuries, that’s also encouraging!
And be sure to check out this cool video by our friend, Jean Michael Godier, where he explains the concept of a Clarke Exobelt:
Astronomers and planetary scientists thought they knew how to find evidence of life on planets beyond our Solar System. But, a new study indicates that the moons of extrasolar planets may produce “false positives” adding an inconvenient element of uncertainty to the search.
More than 1,800 exoplanets have been confirmed to exist so far, with the count rising rapidly. About 20 of these are deemed potentially habitable. This is because they are only somewhat more massive than Earth, and orbit their parent stars at distances that might allow liquid water to exist.
Astronomers soon hope to be able to determine the composition of the atmospheres of such promising alien worlds. They can do this by analyzing the spectrum of light absorbed by them. For Earth-like worlds circling small stars, this challenging feat can be accomplished using NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in 2018.
They thought they knew how to look for the signature of life. There are certain gases which shouldn’t exist together in an atmosphere that is in chemical equilibrium. Earth’s atmosphere contains lots of oxygen and trace amounts of methane. Oxygen shouldn’t exist in a stable atmosphere. As anyone with rust spots on their car knows, it has a strong tendency to combine chemically with many other substances. Methane shouldn’t exist in the presence of oxygen. When mixed, the two gases quickly react to form carbon dioxide and water. Without some process to replace it, methane would be gone from our air in a decade.
On Earth, both oxygen and methane remain present together because the supply is constantly replenished by living things. Bacteria and plants harvest the energy of sunlight in the process of photosynthesis. As part of this process water molecules are broken into hydrogen and oxygen, releasing free oxygen as a waste product. About half of the methane in Earth’s atmosphere comes from bacteria. The rest is from human activities, including the growing of rice, the burning of biomass, and the flatulence produced by the vast herds of cows and other ruminants maintained by our species.
By itself, finding methane in a planet’s atmosphere isn’t surprising. Many purely chemical processes can make it, and it is abundant in the atmospheres of the gas giant planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, and on Saturn’s large moon Titan. Although oxygen alone is sometimes touted as a possible biomarker; its presence, by itself, isn’t rock solid evidence of life either. There are purely chemical processes that might make it on an alien planet, and we don’t yet know how to rule them out. Finding these two gases together, though, seems as close as one could get to “smoking gun” evidence for the activities of life.
A monkey wrench was thrown into this whole argument by an international team of investigators led by Dr. Hanno Rein of the Department of Environmental and Physical Sciences at the University of Toronto in Canada. Their results were published in the May, 2014 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.
Suppose, they posited, that oxygen is present in the atmosphere of a planet, and methane is present separately in the atmosphere of a moon orbiting the planet. The team used a mathematical model to predict the light spectrum that might be measured by a space telescope near Earth for plausible planet-moon pairs. They found that the resulting spectra closely mimicked that of a single object whose atmosphere contained both gasses.
Unless the planet orbits one of the very nearest stars, they showed it wasn’t possible to distinguish a planet-moon pair from a single object using technology that will be available anytime soon. The team termed their results “inconvenient, but unavoidable…It will be possible to obtain suggestive clues indicative of possible inhabitation, but ruling out alternative explanations of these clues will probably be impossible for the foreseeable future.”
One big challenge in astronomy is everything is so darn far away. This makes it hard to see the signs of life in planets, which are usually but tiny dots of light using the telescope technology we have today.
There are signs in Earth’s atmosphere that life is on the surface — methane from microbes, for example — and already scientists have years of research concerning ideas to find “biomarkers” on other planets. A new model focuses on a theoretical Earth-sized planet orbiting a red dwarf star, where it is believed biomarkers would be easier to find because these stars are smaller and fainter than that of the sun.
“We developed computer models of exoplanets which simulate the abundances of different biomarkers and the way they affect the light shining through a planet’s atmosphere,” stated Lee Grenfell, who is with the German Aerospace Center (DLR) institute of planetary science.
Preliminary work has already been done to find chemicals in the planet’s atmosphere (by looking at how they affect light that pass through the chemicals) particularly on large exoplanets that are close to their star (sometimes called “hot Jupiters“). Signs of life would be found through a similar process, but would be much fainter.
The research team constructed a model of a planet similar to Earth, at different orbits and distances from a red dwarf stars. Their work shows a sort of “Goldilocks” effect (or, a condition that is “just right”) to find ozone when the ultraviolet radiation falls into the medium of a given range. If it is too high, the UV heats the middle atmosphere and obliterates the biomarker signal. Too low UV makes the signal very hard to find.
“We find that variations in the UV emissions of red-dwarf stars have a potentially large impact on atmospheric biosignatures in simulations of Earth-like exoplanets. Our work emphasizes the need for future missions to characterise the UV emissions of this type of star,” said Grenfell.
The research has plenty of limitations, he added. We don’t know what alien life would look like, we don’t know if planets near red dwarfs are a good place to search, and even if we found a signal that looked like life, it could have come from another process. Still, Grenfell’s team expects the model is a good basis on which to continue asking the question: is life really out there?
The research has been submitted to the journal Planetary and Space Science.