What is the Arecibo Message?

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.

This historic signal was the Arecibo Message, humanity’s first attempt at Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI). Almost fifty years later, the Message remains a focal point in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), the ethics of messaging, and why we haven’t heard from any extraterrestrial civilization (the Fermi Paradox). What’s more, a growing movement today would like to see more METI efforts mounted in the future.

Continue reading “What is the Arecibo Message?”

A New Way to Detect Alien Megastructures

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.

Dyson Sphere as depicted in the videogame “Stellaris”, developed and published by Paradox Interactive. Used with permission. Screenshot by author
Continue reading “A New Way to Detect Alien Megastructures”

NASA is Getting Serious About the Search for Life in the Universe

Frameworks are a valuable tool in science.  They give context to sometimes abstract concepts such as “how powerful can an alien civilization be” (Kardashev scale) or “how developed is this technology?” (Technology Readiness Levels).  Now, NASA has developed a new scale to help give context to what some consider one of the agency’s most critical missions – the search for extraterrestrial life.

Continue reading “NASA is Getting Serious About the Search for Life in the Universe”

The Radio Signal From Proxima Centauri Came From Earth After All

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.

Simulation of Proxima Centauri b , Rocky World in the Proxima Centauri System – SpaceEngine by author
Continue reading “The Radio Signal From Proxima Centauri Came From Earth After All”

Beyond “Fermi’s Paradox” XVII: What is the “SETI-Paradox” 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 we haven’t heard from any aliens is because no one is transmitting!

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, including the possibility that everyone is listening, but no one is broadcasting – otherwise known as the “SETI-Paradox.”

Continue reading “Beyond “Fermi’s Paradox” XVII: What is the “SETI-Paradox” Hypothesis?”

If Aliens Are Out There, We’ll Meet Them in a Few Hundred Million Years

Seventy years ago, Italian-American nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi asked his colleagues a question during a lunchtime conversation. If life is common in our Universe, why can’t we see any evidence of its activity out there (aka. “where is everybody?”) Seventy years later, this question has launched just as many proposed resolutions as to how extraterrestrial intelligence (ETIs) could be common, yet go unnoticed by our instruments.

Some possibilities that have been considered are that humanity might be alone in the Universe, early to the party, or is not in a position to notice any yet. But in a recent study, Robin Hanson (creator of the Great Filter) and an interdisciplinary team offer a new model for determining when the aliens will get here. According to their study, humanity is early to the Universe and will meet others in 200 million to 2 billion years from now.

Continue reading “If Aliens Are Out There, We’ll Meet Them in a Few Hundred Million Years”

We’ll Have to Wait About 3,000 Years for a Reply From Intelligent Civilizations

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.

Continue reading “We’ll Have to Wait About 3,000 Years for a Reply From Intelligent Civilizations”

A New Plan to Search for Extraterrestrial Artifacts at Earth and Across the Solar System

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.

Continue reading “A New Plan to Search for Extraterrestrial Artifacts at Earth and Across the Solar System”

The Center of the Milky Way is the Most Likely Place to Find a Galactic Civilization

Aim for the Center

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.

Animation showing the settlement of the galaxy. White points are unsettled stars, magenta spheres are settled stars, and white cubes represent a settlement ship in transit. The spiral structure formed is due to galactic shear as the settlement wave expands. Once the Galaxy’s center is reached, the rate of colonization increases dramatically. Credit: Wright et al
Continue reading “The Center of the Milky Way is the Most Likely Place to Find a Galactic Civilization”

What Would It Take To See Artificial Lights at Proxima Centauri B?

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.

8k compilation of footage taken from the International Space Station orbiting above Earth’s City Lights
Continue reading “What Would It Take To See Artificial Lights at Proxima Centauri B?”