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.
BLOG: CITY LIGHTS COULD REVEAL ET
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.
BLOG: MAN LOOKS FOR ALIENS, LOSES JOB
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.
BLOG: TO SAVE THE GALAXY, DESTROY HUMANITY
- While looking for his lost cat, an Austrian farmer discovered a deep, perfectly round hole that apparently had appeared in his field overnight.
- When he dropped a stone down the hole he heard a metallic clunk.
According to news reports, an Austrian farmer discovered a mysterious, deep, perfectly round hole that apparently had appeared in his field overnight. And, of course, extraterrestrial activity was assumed.
Farmer Franz Knoglinger discovered the hole while looking for a lost pet. In an interview with the Austrian Times newspaper, Knoglinger said: "I was looking for our family cat, Murlimann, when I noticed the hole. I didn't know how deep it was, so I dropped the stone down there and heard a metallic clunk. From the time it took for the stone to reach the bottom, I realized it was very deep."
Intrigued, Knoglinger used a rope to lower a magnet into the hole, and he concluded that whatever was at the bottom was metallic. This only deepened the puzzle, and soon the mystery drew local, national and, finally, international attention. Curiosity-seekers, geologists and UFO buffs flocked to the farm to see the hole for themselves. A buried UFO became a favorite explanation.
A few clues shed some light on the mystery.If the hole was indeed erfectly round, then the obvious source was a drill. In fact, the hole's perfect roundness would make it less mysterious, if anything, because drills leave round holes. A perfectly square, rectangular, or even oval shape would be more extraordinary.
Perhaps a more interesting question was why, of all the possible explanations — an abandoned well, a long-forgotten underground storage tank — the idea of an underground extraterrestrial spacecraft was the one Knoglinger and others focused on. [7 Things that Create Convincing UFO Sightings]
Part of the answer is that an extraterrestrial craft has become a default explanation in recent years for any large unknown (and presumably round and/or metallic) object. For example, a large round object was recorded on sonar on the ocean floor by a Swedish archaeology team last year. The image has not been confirmed as real (and many experts suspect it's actually a false reading), but by far the most popular explanation is that the round object is a spacecraft. Human imagination almost always creates far more exotic and interesting possibilities than reality can provide, and anything just out of reach, be it deep underwater or underground, can conjure visions of alien spaceships.
The case in Austria stumped many until a local historian decided to do a bit of digging — not in the dusty field but in the local land-use archives. It turns out the hole had not appeared overnight as Knoglinger assumed, but had been there for decades.
In fact, a half-century ago an oil company had drilled there looking for oil. A large metal drill bit became stuck and broke before workers could find anything, so they left the drill bit at the bottom of the hole and never bothered to fill it in. That's what attracted the magnet dropped down to the bottom: not a spaceship but a large metal bit stuck in rock.
Over the years the area became farmland and people stopped noticing the hole, either because it had been covered by grass or a piece of wood or simply because, with the advent of modern farming machinery, there were fewer people working in the field.
As for the missing cat, it was eventually found hiding in a cupboard.
Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and author of Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries. His Web site is www.BenjaminRadford.com.
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