The SETI Institute's Allen Telescope Array (ATA) is hunting for radio signals from hypothetical intelligent alien life in our galaxy.
Nov. 8, 2011 --
Despite the occasional report of an extraterrestrial sighting, be it through a microscope revealing curious shapes in a meteorite or a photo of wispy lights taken at the blurry end of a camera lens, aliens have yet to make contact with humans. Even the White House yesterday put out a statement declaring that the federal government "has no evidence that any life exists outside our planet, or that an extraterrestrial presence has contacted or engaged any member of the human race." Humans may not yet have encountered life outside of our planet, but many scientists see it as an inevitability. In 1960, astronomer Frank Drake came up with the now eponymous equation which provided an estimate of the number of civilizations in our galaxy. Although scientists continue to debate the application of his formula as well as alternatives, Drake's own solution to the equation is 10,000 civilizations, suggesting intelligent, technologically advanced life outside our planet is common. How these different civilizations, including our own, find each other is an important question for anyone here on Earth looking for extraterrestrials. Explore how aliens might stumble upon our planet -- and how we might actually spot them first.
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Before we can began to search the skies, we have to start by narrowing down our options. Sticking within our own galaxy is a good start, since we're more likely to spot a neighbor closer to us than one further away. Astronomers may also elect to focus their attention on stars closer to the center of the Milky Way, where 90 percent of its stars are clustered. Furthermore, the stars here are a billion times older than the sun, giving life more time to develop biologically and technologically. Many stars are unsuitable for nurturing life, and even stars that do have the appropriate "spectral type" may host exoplanets inhospitable to life due to their location relative to their parent star, size or composition. These criteria would not only help us find aliens, but also help them find us. After all, Earth would stand out as a hospitable planet, according to a paper published in 2007 in Astrophysical Journal.
If aliens are looking for us, they're scanning the same, vast, dark and mostly empty expanse of space that we are. It's a good thing then that we're leaving the lights on to make it easier to find us. According to Abraham Loeb, of Harvard University and Edwin Turner, from Princeton University, by scanning the skies for artificial illumination as opposed to naturally occurring light sources, both human and extraterrestrial astronomers might be able to find signs of life. Existing telescopes would be able to see a city the size of Tokyo as far as the edges of our solar system.
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For more than 25 years, the SETI Institute has been scouring the skies for signs of alien life. However, long before the institute was established, scientists have tried to catch a communication signal from another world. Scientists looking for alien signals use a combination of optical and radio telescopes, such as the one seen here. Dropping in on a signal without knowing the source of the communication is the tricky part, however, and researchers narrow down their search by targeting specific kinds of stars. With their citizen science program, SETI@home, the institute has enlisted three million additional observers analyzing data for traces of an alien signal.
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Have aliens already stopped by for a visit, even though we weren't at the door to meet them? If they have, shouldn't they have left something behind? An artificial object of alien origin could be lurking in our solar system without our knowledge. As Discovery News' Ray Villard explains: "In a paper published in the 1960s, Carl Sagan, using the Drake Equation, statistically estimated that Earth might be visited every few tens of thousands of years by an extraterrestrial civilization." Further out beyond our solar system, aliens may have left what essentially amount to interstellar billboards large enough to be seen by, say, a planet-hunting telescope like Kepler. These last two scenarios, of course, envision an extremely technologically advanced civilization well beyond the engineering capabilities of humankind. At the same time, humans have sent spacecraft beyond the solar system, including Pioneer 10 and 11 as well as Voyager 1 and 2. All of these spacecraft are equipped with what are essentially calling cards for the human race -- small plaques in the case of the Pioneer spacecraft and golden records for the Voyager spacecraft (seen here).
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Humans may rely primarily on fossil fuels as their primary means of energy, but that doesn't mean extraterrestrials in a far off civilization have the same power source. Solar power could be one option, though not quite with the same black panels we use on Earth. A super civilization could even tap into a black hole to meet its energy needs. If aliens are tapping to these cosmic bodies, that should make them all the more detectable from Earth. How would we know whether an alien race was relying on a black hole as a source of energy? As Discovery News' Ray Villard explains: "Tell-tale evidence would come from measurements that showed the black hole weighed less than 3.5 solar masses. That's the minimum mass for crushing matter into a black hole via a supernova core-collapse."
In one of the most unusual -- and highly unlikely -- first-contact scenarios, aliens would be able to recognize us by the level of greenhouse gas emissions we pump into our atmosphere. Not only that, according to a hypothesis put forward by researchers affiliated with NASA and Pennsylvania State University (though not directly tied with either institution), but aliens may use that as cause to wipe out the human race. In this bizarre set of circumstance, aliens view human advancement as a destructive force spiraling out of control. To avoid the threat of a future adversary, extraterrestrials clear out the competition.
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Curious about whether there is life beyond Earth? The answer should come within 20 years, astronomers told members of a Congressional science committee on Wednesday.
A three-way race is under way to learn if life exists elsewhere in the solar system or beyond, Seth Shostak, senior astronomer with the California-based SETI Institute, said during a hearing before the House Science and Technology Committee.
So far, most efforts -- and funding -- to find extraterrestrial life have focused on Mars and potential life-bearing moons in the outer solar system.
“At least a half-dozen other worlds (besides Earth) that might have life are in our solar system. The chances of finding it, I think, are good, and if that happens, it’ll happen in the next 20 years, depending on the financing,” Shostak said.
A second initiative scans the atmospheres of distant planets for telltale signs of oxygen or methane, gases which, on Earth, are mostly tied to life. These searches likewise could yield results in the next two decades, Shostak added.
The third project hunts for technologically advanced aliens that are sending radio or other signals out into space. The idea behind the Search of Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, is to eavesdrop on signals that are deliberately or accidentally leaked from another world.
“That makes sense because in fact even we, only 100 years after ... the invention of practical radio, already have the technology that would allow us to send bits of information across light years of distance to putative extraterrestrials,” Shostak said.
Humans’ first television broadcasts, including “I Love Lucy,” and “The Ed Sullivan Show,” have passed 10,000 stars, noted SETI hunter Dan Werthimer, with the University of California, Berkeley.
“The nearby stars have seen 'The Simpsons.' If we’re broadcasting, maybe other civilizations are sending signals in our direction -- either leaking signals the way that we unintentionally send off signals, or maybe a deliberate signal,” Werthimer told legislators.
“The fact that we haven’t found anything means nothing,” Shostak added. “We’ve only just begun to search.”
NASA's Mars rover Curiosity is currently seeking out evidence for past habitability on the red planet.NASA/JPL-Caltech
Though there is no proof of any life beyond Earth, circumstantial evidence is mounting. Results from NASA’s Kepler space telescope and other hunts for planets beyond the solar system have shown that at least 70 percent of the 200 billion to 400 billion stars in the Milky Way have planets, many well-positioned for liquid water, which is believed to be necessary for life.
More recent results from the ongoing Curiosity rover mission on Mars proved there are habitats beyond Earth suitable for microbial life.
“In our own galaxy there are tens of billions of other planets that are the kind you might want to build condos on,” Shostak said. “And if that isn’t adequate for your requirements, let me point out there are 150 other galaxies we can see with our telescopes, each with a similar complement of Earth-like worlds.
“What that means is that the numbers are so astounding that if this is the only planet in which not only life, but intelligent life, has arisen, then we are extraordinarily exceptional. It’s like buying trillions of lottery tickets and none of them is a winner. That would be very, very unusual,” Shostak said.
“The history of astronomy shows that every time we thought we were special we were wrong,” he added.