In recent years, the explosive nature of exoplanet discovery (over 4,164 confirmed so far!) has led to renewed interest in the timeless question: “are we alone in the Universe?” Or, as famed Italian physicist Enrico Fermi put it, “Where is everybody?” With so many planets to choose from and the rate at which our instruments and methods are improving, the search for life beyond Earth is really kicking into high gear.
At the same time, these discoveries have inspired a plethora of new studies regarding the ongoing Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). This includes the Alien Civilization Calculator, which is the brainchild of physicists Steven Woodling and Dominick Czernia. Inspired by recent attempts to address the statistical likelihood of advanced life in our galaxy, they offer a mathematical tool that can crunch the numbers for you!
To date, astronomers have discovered 4,164 extrasolar planets in 3,085 star systems, with another 5,347 awaiting confirmation. With this many planets available for study, researchers have been able to apply new constraints on how likely habitable planets are. In fact, the latest estimates say there could be 6 billion in the Milky Way alone! Understandably, these discoveries have renewed interest in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).
But whereas the search for habitable planets is focused on finding evidence of biological processes (aka. “biosignatures”), SETI has historically been focused on evidence of technological activity – aka. “technosignatures.” With a grant from NASA, researchers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) and the University of Rochester are gearing up for a new study that will look for different kinds of potential technosignatures.
Over the years, scientific estimates of potential intelligent life in our galaxy have ranged widely. Some estimates say just one (only us Earthlings) to just a handful, to possibly thousands or even millions. A new study attempts to quantify the number of other worlds we could potentially talk to by estimating the number of intelligent civilizations within the Milky Way that are actively communicating.
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.”
In 2016, China’s Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope – the largest single-aperture radio telescope in the world – gathered its first light. Since then, the telescope has undergone extensive testing and commissioning and officially went online in Jan of 2020. In all that time, it has also been responsible for multiple discoveries, including close to one hundred new pulsars.
According to a recent study by an international team of scientists and led by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) suggests that FAST might have another use as well: the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI)! Building on their collaboration with the non-profit science organization Breakthrough Initiatives, the authors of the study highlight the ways in which FAST could allow for some novel SETI observations.
In May of 1999, the Berkeley SETI Research Center launched a citizen-science program that would make the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) open to the public. The brainchild of computer scientist David Gedye, this program would rely on large numbers of internet-connected computers to sort through the volumes of data collected by institutions participating in SETI efforts.
The program was appropriately named [email protected] and would rely on the computers of volunteers to process radio signals for signs of transmissions. And after twenty years, the program recently announced that it has gone into hibernation. The reason, they claim, is that the program’s network has become too big for its own britches and the scientists behind it need time to process and share all the results they’ve obtained so far.
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.
Last week (Friday. Feb. 14th), the Breakthrough Listen Initiative released about 2 petabytes of optical and radio data that they have accumulated over the past four years. This is the second data release by the non-profit effort (as part of Breakthrough Initiatives) and the public is once again invited to search through the data for possible signs of extraterrestrial communications.
Tonight we are very excited to welcome Dr. Kathryn Bywaters, Research Scientist at the SETI Insitute where she is currently working on the development of life-detection instrumentation for future space exploration. Additionally, she is investigating the nutrient constraints microbes would have on Mars as well as performing experiments in Mars analog environments.
This week, the non-profit research organization Breakthrough Listen announced that it was entering into a partnership with scientists from the NASA Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission. This new collaboration will direct the resources of the former with data and expertise of the latter to the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI) like never before!