The 2nd Annual Penn State SETI Symposium and the Search for Technosignatures!

Artist's impression of a Dyson Sphere, an proposed alien megastructure that is the target of SETI surveys. Finding one of these qualifies in a "first contact" scenario. Credit: Breakthrough Listen / Danielle Futselaar
Artist's impression of a Dyson Sphere, an proposed alien megastructure that is the target of SETI surveys. Finding one of these qualifies in a "first contact" scenario. Credit: Breakthrough Listen / Danielle Futselaar

From June 18th to 22nd, the Penn State Extraterrestrial Intelligence Center (PSETI) held the second annual Penn State SETI Symposium. The event saw experts from many fields and backgrounds gathering to discuss the enduring questions about SETI, the technical challenges of looking for technosignatures, its ethical and moral dimensions, and what some of the latest experiments have revealed. Some very interesting presentations examined what will be possible in the near future and the likelihood that we will find evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence.

Among them, there were some very interesting presentations by Adam Frank, Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Rochester; Ph.D. student Matias Suazo, an astrophysicist and member of Project Haephestos at the University of Uppsala; and Nicholas Siegler, the Chief Technologist of NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program (ExEP). These presentations addressed ongoing issues in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI), technosignatures, the role of oxygen in the evolution of complex life, and what motivations extraterrestrial civilizations (ETC) might have for creating noticeable signatures.

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Penn State SETI Symposium Opens with Commemoration of Dr. Frank Drake

Dr. Frank Drake (1930 -2022). Credit: Danielle Futselaar

Is humanity alone in the Universe? Is anyone out there? Where is everybody? And what happens if and when we make contact with them? These and other questions were the subjects of the 2023 Penn State SETI Symposium hosted by the Penn State Extraterrestrial Intelligence Center (PSETI) from June 19th-22nd, 2023. The event featured prominent speakers from various research fields and disciplines discussing the challenges, history, and future of SETI. In the great tradition established by Dr. Frank Drake, they also addressed key issues related to the search for intelligent life and what we might find someday.

The summit opened with a series of overviews, a review of the past year (since the last summit), and a presentation by Dr. Rebecca Charbonneau, a science historian and Jansky Fellow at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). Her presentation, titled “Frank Drake and his Place in History,” provided a retrospective on the life and accomplishments of famed radio astronomer and SETI pioneer Dr. Frank Drake (for whom the Drake Equation is named), how he altered the character of the field, and how history will remember him.

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Variable Stars can Tell us Where and When to Search for Extraterrestrials

Artist’s impression of the Gaia spacecraft detecting artificial signals from a distant star system. In this synchronization scheme, the star system's inhabitants send the signal shortly after witnessing a supernova, which is also seen by telescopes on Earth. (Credit: Danielle Futselaar / Breakthrough Listen)

The European Space Agency’s Gaia Observatory has been operating steadily at the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrange Point for almost a decade. As an astrometry mission, Gaia aims to gather data on the positions, proper motion, and velocity of stars, exoplanets, and objects in the Milky Way and tens of thousands of neighboring galaxies. By the end of its primary mission (scheduled to end in 2025), Gaia will have observed an estimated 1 billion astronomical objects, leading to the creation of the most precise 3D space catalog ever made.

To date, the ESA has conducted three data releases from the Gaia mission, the latest (DR3) released in June 2022. In addition to the breakthroughs these releases have allowed, scientists are finding additional applications for this astrometric data. In a recent study, a team of astronomers suggested that the variable star catalog from the Gaia Data Release 3 could be used to assist in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). By synchronizing the search for transmissions with conspicuous events (like a supernova!), scientists could narrow the search for extraterrestrial transmissions.

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Astronomers Scan the Skies for Nanosecond Pulses of Light From Interstellar Civilizations

Artist’s impression of Green Bank Telescope connected to a machine learning network. Credit: Breakthrough Listen/Danielle Futselaar.

In 2015, Russian-Israeli billionaire Yuri Milner and his non-profit organization, Breakthrough Initiatives, launched the largest Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project. Known as Breakthrough Listen, this SETI effort relies on the most powerful radio telescopes in the world and advanced analytics to search for potential evidence of technological activity (aka. “technosignatures”). The ten-year project will survey the one million stars closest to Earth, the center of our galaxy, the entire galactic plane, and the 100 galaxies closest to the Milky Way.

In 2018, they partnered with the Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System (VERITAS) Collaboration, a ground-based system of gamma-ray telescopes operating at the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory (FLWO) atop Mt. Hopkins in southern Arizona. In a recent paper, the VERITAS Collaboration shared the results of the first year of their search for “optical technosignatures” (from 2019 to 2020). Their results are a vital proof of concept demonstrating how future searches for extraterrestrial civilizations can incorporate optical pulses into their technosignature catalog.

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We Could See the Glint off Giant Cities on Alien Worlds

Midjourney image of Coruscant

How large would an extraterrestrial city have to be for current telescopes to see it? Would it need to be a planet-sized metropolis like Star Wars’ Coruscant? Or could we see an alien equivalent of Earth’s own largest urban areas, like New York City or Tokyo?

A recent preprint by Bhavesh Jaiswal of the Indian Institute of Science suggests that, in fact, we could see cities a mere fraction of that size, using a feature of light known as specular reflection.

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Astronomers are Searching for a Galaxy-Wide Transmitter Beacon at the Center of the Milky Way

Artist's impression of a Dyson Sphere, an proposed alien megastructure that is the target of SETI surveys. Finding one of these qualifies in a "first contact" scenario. Credit: Breakthrough Listen / Danielle Futselaar
Artist's impression of a Dyson Sphere, an proposed alien megastructure that is the target of SETI surveys. Finding one of these qualifies in a "first contact" scenario. Credit: Breakthrough Listen / Danielle Futselaar

It has been over sixty years since the first Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) survey occurred. This was Project Ozma, a survey led by Dr. Frank Drake (who devised the Drake Equation) that used the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Green Bank, West Virginia, to listen for radio transmissions from Epsilon Eridani and Tau Ceti. While the search revealed nothing of interest, it paved the way for decades of research, theory, and attempts to find evidence of technological activity (aka. “technosignatures”).

The search continues today, with researchers using next-generation instruments and analytical methods to find the “needle in the cosmic haystack.” This is the purpose behind Breakthrough Listen Investigation for Periodic Spectral Signals (BLIPSS), a collaborative SETI project led by Cornell graduate student Akshay Suresh to look for technosignatures at the center of the Milky Way. In a recent paper, Suresh and his team shared their initial findings, which were made possible thanks to data obtained by the Greenbank Observatory and a proprietary algorithm they developed.

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SETI Researchers Are Simulating Alien Contact — and You Can Help

Radio telescopes monitor the sky at the Allen Telescope Array in California. Finding a signal from a distant civilization is one way we could experience first contact with ET. (SETI Institute Photo)
Radio telescopes monitor the sky at the Allen Telescope Array in California. Finding a signal from a distant civilization is one way we could experience first contact with ET. (SETI Institute Photo)

Is it a multimedia art project? Or a rehearsal for alien contact? Let’s call it both: Researchers specializing in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, are working with a media artist to stage the receipt of an interstellar message — and a global effort to decode the message.

The project, titled “A Sign in Space,” is orchestrated by media artist Daniela de Paulis in collaboration with the SETI Institute, the European Space Agency, the Green Bank Observatory and the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics (also known as INAF).

The metaphorical curtain rises on May 24, when ESA’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter transmits an encoded radio message from Martian orbit to Earth at 19:00 UTC / noon PDT.

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A Lack of Alien Signals Actually Tells Us a Lot

Credit: iStock

In a  recent study published in The Astronomical Journal, a researcher from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) discusses the potential reasons why we haven’t received technoemission, also called technosignatures, from an extraterrestrial intelligence during the 60 years that SETI has been searching, along with recommending additional methods as to how we can continue to search for such emissions.

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How Many Intergalactic Radio Stations Are Out There?

The Stephans Quintet captured by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Credit: NASA/ESA/CSA

It has been over sixty years since Dr. Frank Drake (father of the Drake Equation) and his colleagues mounted the first Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) survey. This was known as Project Ozma, which relied on the “Big Ear” radio telescope at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Greenbank, West Virginia, to look for signs of radio transmissions in Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani. Despite the many surveys conducted since then, no definitive evidence of technological activity (i.e., “technosignatures”) has been found.

This naturally raises the all-important question: are we going about the business of SETI wrong? Instead of looking for technosignatures within our galaxy, as all previous SETI surveys have done, should we look for activity beyond our galaxy (from possible Type II and Type III civilizations)? This premise was explored in a recent paper led by researchers from the National Chung Hsing University in Taiwan. Using data from the largest SETI project to date, Breakthrough Listen, the team looked for potential radio technosignatures from extragalactic sources.

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