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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Beyond “Fermi’s Paradox” XVI: What is the “Dark Forest” 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 Earth hasn’t been visited by aliens because interstellar travel is not very practical!

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 Dark Forest Hypothesis, where extraterrestrial civilizations are deliberately avoiding contact.

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Beyond “Fermi’s Paradox” VI: What is the Berserker 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 all the aliens are dead!

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 Berserker Hypothesis. This theory suggests we haven’t heard from any alien civilizations because they’ve been wiped out by killer robots!

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What are the Odds of Life Emerging on Another Planet?

In 1961, famed astronomer and astrophysicist Frank Drake formulated an equation for estimating the number of extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy at any given time. Known as the “Drake Equation“, this formula was a probabilistic argument meant to establish some context for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Of course, the equation was theoretical in nature and most of its variables are still not well-constrained.

For instance, while astronomers today can speak with confidence about the rate at which new stars form, and the likely number of stars that have exoplanets, they can’t begin to say how many of these planets are likely to support life. Luckily, Professor David Kipping of Columbia University recently performed a statistical analysis that indicates that a Universe teeming with life is “the favored bet.”

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Galaxies Like the Milky Way are the Best for Life

Scientists have speculated that given the sheer number of galaxies in our Universe – modern estimates are as high as 2 trillion – that there must be infinite opportunities for life to emerge. It has also been theorized that galaxies (like stars) have habitable zones, where star systems located too close to the core or too far out in the spiral arms will be exposed to too much radiation for life to emerge.

But are certain types of galaxies more likely to produce intelligent life? Not that long ago, scientists believed that giant elliptical galaxies – which are substantially larger than spiral galaxies (like the Milky Way) – are a far more likely place to find advanced civilizations. But according to new research from the University of Arkansas, these galaxies may not be the cradles of civilization they were previously thought to be.

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Riding the Wave of a Supernova to Go Interstellar

When it comes to the challenges posed by interstellar travel, there are no easy answers. The distances are immense, the amount of energy needed to make the journey is tremendous, and the time scales involved are (no pun!) astronomical. But what if there was a way to travel between stars using ships that take advantage of natural phenomena to reach relativistic velocities (a fraction of the speed of light).

Already, scientists have identified situations where objects in our Universe are able to do this – including hypervelocity stars and meteors accelerated by supernovae explosions. Delving into this further, Harvard professors Manasvi Lingam and Abraham Loeb recently explored how interstellar spacecraft could harness the waves produced by a supernova explosion in the same way that sailing ships harness the wind.

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Advanced Civilizations Could be Communicating with Neutrino Beams. Transmitted by Clouds of Satellites Around Neutron Stars or Black Holes

In 1960, famed theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson made a radical proposal. In a paper titled “Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infrared Radiation” he suggested that advanced extra-terrestrial intelligences (ETIs) could be found by looking for signs of artificial structures so large, they encompassed entire star systems (aka. megastructures). Since then, many scientists have come up with their own ideas for possible megastructures.

Like Dyson’s proposed Sphere, these ideas were suggested as a way of giving scientists engaged in the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) something to look for. Adding to this fascinating field, Dr. Albert Jackson of the Houston-based technology company Triton Systems recently released a study where he proposed how an advanced ETI could use rely on a neutron star or black hole to focus neutrino beams to create a beacon.

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Maybe Self-Replicating Robot Probes are Destroying Each Other. That’s Why We Don’t See Them

During the 1940s, Hungarian-American scientist John von Neumann developed a mathematical theory for how machines could endlessly reproduce themselves. This work gave rise to the idea of “von Neumann probes“, a class of self-replicating interstellar probes (SRPs) that could be used to do everything from exploring the Universe to seeding it with life and intervening in species evolution.

Some have naturally suggested that this be a focus SETI research, which would entail looking for signs of self-replicating spacecraft in our galaxy. But as is always the case with proposals like these, the Fermi Paradox eventually reasserts itself by asking the age-old question – “Where is everybody?” If there are alien civilizations out there, why haven’t we found any evidence of their SRPs?

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One Way to Find Aliens Would be to Search for Artificial Rings of Satellites: Clarke Belts

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).

The study – titled “Possible Photometric Signatures of Moderately Advanced Civilizations: The Clarke Exobelt” – was conducted by Hector Socas-Navarro, an astrophysicist with the IAC and the Universidad de La Laguna. In it, he advocates using next-generation telescopes to look for signs of massive belts of geostationary communication satellites in distant star systems.

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.

Graphic showing the cloud of space debris that currently surrounds the Earth. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/JSC

“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.

An exoplanet transiting across the face of its star, demonstrating one of the methods used to find planets beyond our solar system. Credit: ESA/C. Carreau

As for when we might be able to start looking for Exobelts, Socas-Navarro indicates that this will be possible within the next decade. Using instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), and the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), scientists will have ground-based and space-based telescopes with the necessary resolution to spot these bands around exoplanets.

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.”

In this respect, telescopes like the Kepler Space Telescope and the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Telescope (TESS) will still serve an important function in searching for technomarkers. Whereas the former telescope is due to retire soon, the latter is scheduled to launch in 2018.

Artist’s impression of an extra-solar planet transiting its star. Credit: QUB Astrophysics Research Center

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:

Further Reading: IAC, The Astrophysical Journal

Exoplanet-Hunting Aliens Could Be Looking at Earth Right Now!

In the past few decades, the search for extra-solar planets has turned up a wealth of discoveries. Between the many direct and indirect methods used by exoplanet-hunters, thousands of gas giants, rocky planets and other bodies have been found orbiting distant stars. Aside from learning more about the Universe we inhabit, one of the main driving forces behind these efforts has been the desire to find evidence of Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (ETI).

But suppose there are ETIs out there that are are also looking for signs of intelligence other than their own? How likely would they be to spot Earth? According to a new study by a team of astrophysicists from Queen’s University Belfast and the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany, Earth would be detectable (using existing technology) from several star systems in our galaxy.

This study, titled “Transit Visibility Zones of the Solar System Planet“, was recently published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Led by Robert Wells, a PhD student at the Astrophysics Research Center at Queen’s University Belfast, the team considered whether or not Earth would be detectable from other star systems using the Transit Method.

Diagram of a planet (e.g. the Earth, blue) transiting in front of its host star (e.g. the Sun, yellow). The lower black curve shows the brightness of the star noticeably dimming over the transit event, when the planet is blocking some of the light from the star. Credit: R. Wells.

This method consists of astronomers observing stars for periodic dips in brightness, which are attributed to planets passing (i.e. transiting) between them and the observer. For the sake of their study, Wells and his colleagues reversed the concept in order to determine if Earth would be visible to any species conducting observations from vantage points beyond our Solar System.

To answer this question, the team looked for parts of the sky from which one planet would be visible crossing the face of the Sun – aka. “transit zones”. Interestingly enough, they determined that the terrestrial planets that are closer to the Sun (Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars) would easier to detect than the gas and ice giants – i.e.  Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

While considerably larger, the gas/ice giants would be more difficult to detect using the transit method because of their long-period orbits. From Jupiter to Neptune, these planets take about 12 to 165 years to complete a single orbit! But more important than that is the fact that they orbit the Sun at much greater distances than the terrestrial planets. As Robert Wells indicated in a Royal Astronomical Society press statement:

”Larger planets would naturally block out more light as they pass in front of their star. However the more important factor is actually how close the planet is to its parent star – since the terrestrial planets are much closer to the Sun than the gas giants, they’ll be more likely to be seen in transit.”

How the transit zone of a Solar System planet is projected out from the Sun. The observer on the green exoplanet is situated in the transit zone and can therefore see transits of the Earth. Credit: R. Wells

Ultimately, what the team found was that at most, three planets could be observed from anywhere outside of the Solar System, and that not all combinations of these three planets was possible. For the most part, an observer would see only planet making a transit, and it would most likely be a rocky one. As Katja Poppenhaeger, a lecturer at the School of Mathematics and Physics at Queen’s University Belfast and a co-author of the study, explained:

“We estimate that a randomly positioned observer would have roughly a 1 in 40 chance of observing at least one planet. The probability of detecting at least two planets would be about ten times lower, and to detect three would be a further ten times smaller than this.”

What’s more, the team identified sixty-eight worlds where observers would be able to see one or more of the Solar planets making transits in front of the Sun. Nine of these planets are ideally situated to observe transits of the Earth, though none of them have been deemed to be habitable. These planets include HATS-11 b, 1RXS 1609 b, LKCA 15 b, WASP-68 b, WD 1145+017 b, and four planets in the WASP-47 system (b, c, d, e).

On top of that, they estimated (based on statistical analysis) that there could be as many as ten undiscovered and potentially habitable worlds in our galaxy which would be favorably located to detect Earth using our current level of technology. This last part is encouraging since, to date, not a single potentially habitable planet has been discovered where Earth could be seen making transits in front of the Sun.

Image showing where transits of our Solar System planets can be observed. Each line represents where one of the planets could be seen to transit, with the blue line representing Earth; an observer located here could detect us. Credit: 2MASS/A. Mellinger/R. Wells.

The team also indicated that further discoveries made by the Kepler and K2 missions will reveal additional exoplanets that have “a favorable geometric perspective to allow transit detections in the Solar System”. In the future, Wells and his team plan to study these transit zones to search for exoplanets, which will hopefully reveal some that could also be habitable.

One of the defining characteristics in the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has been the act of guessing about what we don’t know based on what we do. In this respect, scientists are forced to consider what extra-terrestrial civilizations would be capable of based on what humans are currently capable of. This is similar to how our search for potentially habitable planets is limited since we know of only one where life exists (i.e. Earth).

While it might seem a bit anthropocentric, it’s actually in keeping with our current frame of reference. Assuming that intelligent species could be looking at Earth using the same methods we do is like looking for planets that orbit within their star’s habitable zones, have atmospheres and liquid water on the surfaces.

In other words, it’s the “low-hanging fruit” approach. But thanks to ongoing studies and new discoveries, our reach is slowly extending further!

Further Reading: RAS, MNRAS