Which Missions and Observatories can Detect Technosignatures?

The search for technosignatures has always taken a back seat in the broad search for extraterrestrial life forms. Biosignatures, such as methane in an exoplanet’s atmosphere, have long been front and center. But while we are searching for signs of biology, signs of technology might be hiding in plain sight. According to a new report from the members of the TechnoClimes conference, humanity could potentially find signs of technology by simply using data that will already be collected for other purposes. To prove their point, they came up with a list of possible technosignatures and cross-referenced them with a list of observatories that could potentially find them. The result is a framework of how to best search for technosignatures and a plethora of references for those seeking them out.

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Next Generation Telescopes Could Search for Intelligent Civilizations Directly

An artist's illustration of the LUVOIR-A telescope concept. Image Credit: NASA

We’re still in the early days of searching for life elsewhere. The Perseverance rover is on its way to a paleo-delta on Mars to look for fossilized signs of ancient bacterial life. SETI’s been watching the sky with radio dishes, listening for signals from distant worlds. Our telescopes are beginning to scan the atmospheres of distant exoplanets for biosignatures.

Soon we’ll take another step forward in the search when new, powerful telescopes begin to search not just for life but for other civilizations.

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Does the Entire Planet Have a Mind of its Own?

In a self-described "thought experiment," University of Rochester astrophysicist Adam Frank and colleagues David Grinspoon at the Planetary Science Institute and Sara Walker at Arizona State University use scientific theory and broader questions about how life alters a planet, to posit four stages to describe Earth's past and possible future. Image Credit: (University of Rochester illustration / Michael Osadciw)

What is humanity? Do our minds set us apart from the rest of nature and from the rest of Earth? Or does Earth have a collective mind of its own, and we’re simply part of that mind? On the literal face of it, that last question might sound ridiculous.

But a new thought experiment explores it more deeply, and while there’s no firm conclusion about humanity and a planetary mind, just thinking about it invites minds to reconsider their relationship with nature.

Overcoming our challenges requires a better understanding of ourselves and nature, and the same is true for any other civilizations that make it past the Great Filter.

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James Webb Might be Able to Detect Other Civilizations by their Air Pollution

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), launched last December, has been slowly powering up its instruments and unfurling its sunshield, and is now in the process of aligning its mirrors in preparation for operation. Within a few months, the most powerful space telescope ever built is going to set its sights on the stars. Astronomers are hoping that what JWST sees will change the way we understand our universe, just as the Hubble Space Telescope did decades before.

One tantalizing capability that JWST offers that Hubble could not is the opportunity to directly image planets orbiting distant stars, and maybe, just maybe, detect signs of life.

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

An artist's conception of how common exoplanets are throughout the Milky Way Galaxy. Image Credit: Wikipedia

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.

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What are the Best Ways to Search for Technosignatures?

The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) has long roots in human history.  With the advent of modern technologies, scientists were finally able to start scanning the skies for any sign of life.  When the search first started back in the 1960s, it focused almost exclusively on trying to detect radio signals.  Over the decades, no irrefutable evidence of any artificial radio signals was ever found. Financial support started to drift away from the discipline, and where the money goes so do many scientists.

But more recently, the spike in interest in exoplanet research has breathed new life into the search for intelligent life, now commonly referred to as the search for “technosignatures”. In 2018, NASA sponsored a conference where scientists who were involved with the field came to discuss its current state.  That meeting was followed up by a meeting last year sponsored by the Blue Marble Institute, which NASA also helped to sponsor.  Now a working paper has come out from the group of SETI scientists that attended the conference. Numerous potential mission ideas to find technosignatures are described in the paper. It’s clear the search for extraterrestrial intelligence isn’t limited just to radio astronomy anymore.

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We Could Find Extraterrestrial Civilizations by Their Air Pollution

Exoplanet Kepler 62f would need an atmosphere rich in carbon dioxide for water to be in liquid form. Artist's Illustration: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

Upcoming telescopes will give us more power to search for biosignatures on all the exoplanets we’ve found. Much of the biosignature conversation is centred on biogenic chemistry, such as atmospheric gases produced by simple, single-celled creatures. But what if we want to search for technological civilizations that might be out there? Could we find them by searching for their air pollution?

If a distant civilization was giving our planet a cursory glance in its own survey of alien worlds and technosignatures, they couldn’t help but notice our air pollution.

Could we turn the tables on them?

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Weekly Space Hangout: October 21, 2020, Dr. Jill Tarter and the Search for Technosignatures

This week we are excited (and honored) to welcome Dr. Jill Tarter to the Weekly Space Hangout. Best known for her work in the field of SETI, tonight Jill will be discussing the search for technosignatures.

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Extraterrestrial Hunters Figure Out a Way to Expand Their Search for Signals by a Factor of 200

Credit: Breakthrough Listen/Univ. of Machester/Daniëlle Futselaar

In 2015, Russian-American billionaire Yuri Milner established Breakthrough Initiatives, a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing space exploration. Central to this effort is Breakthrough Listen, a ten-year international research program dedicated to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and the largest and most sophisticated effort to find intelligent life beyond Earth to date.

In the past five years, the project has made two major data releases (in the June of 2019 and February of 2020) and announced that it found no signs of alien transmissions from the 1,327 nearest star systems. But thanks to an analytical breakthrough recently proposed by researchers from the University of Manchester, it looks as though Breakthrough Listen’s search efforts could be expanded by a factor of more than 200!

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Breakthrough Listen Releases its one-of-Everything “Exotica” Catalog

Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF; J. Hellerman

In July of 2015, Breakthrough Initiatives announced that it was embarking on a ten-year initiative to conduct the largest Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) to date. This initiative was aptly named Breakthrough Listen, which combines state-of-the-art software and data obtained by premier observatories around the world to look for signs of extraterrestrial technological activity (aka. technosignatures).

In recent years, Breakthrough Listen has made two major releases of data, and announced a lucrative collaboration with NASA’s Transitting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission. And most recently, Breakthrough Listen announced the release of their catalog of “Exotica” – a diverse list of objects that could be of interest to astronomers that are searching for signs of technosignatures and extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI).

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