Space & Innovation

Aliens May be Out There, but Too Distant for Contact

The Milky Way may be home to some 3,000 extraterrestrial civilizations but the vast distances between our galactic cousins will make contact extremely rare, a new study concludes.

The Milky Way may be home to some 3,000 extraterrestrial civilizations but the vast distances between our galactic cousins will make contact extremely rare, a new study concludes.

Data collected by NASA's Kepler space telescope and other observatories scouting for planets beyond the solar system indicate Earth is one of some 40 billion potentially habitable worlds in the galaxy, with about one new life-friendly planet forming every year, astronomer Michael Garrett, head of the Dutch astronomy research foundation ASTRON, said at the International Astronomical Congress in Toronto.

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Sounds promising, until you consider the sheer size of the Milky Way, which spans more than 100,000 light-years in diameter. Light travels at about 186,000 miles per second, but a signal will still take more than 4 years to reach neighboring system Alpha Centauri and 100,000 years to travel from one end of the galaxy to the other.

"On average, you'd expect the civilizations to be separated by at least 1,000 light-years in the Milky Way. That's a large distance, and for communication purposes you need to allow for twice the travel distance, so you're talking about civilizations that have to be around for at least a few thousand years in order to have the opportunity to talk to each other," Garrett said.

"We don't really know the time scales in which civilizations persist," he added.

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The one example available -- Earth -- indicates that life essentially developed as soon as the conditions were right, but intelligent life arose comparatively late.

"It's really just essentially in the last few minutes of the overall evolution of life on the planet," Garrett said. "I don't want to be too negative about this, but ... my basic conclusion is that SETI signals will be rare in the Milky Way."

That doesn't mean astronomers shouldn't look, he added. Quite the contrary, given the huge technological leaps in radio astronomy and in data processing techniques compared to what was available for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, programs 60 years ago.

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SETI also is benefitting from sister radio astronomy projects, such as the ongoing quest to find the source of mysterious transient radio bursts.

"SETI is not easy, but it's a pursuit that is well worth doing. The question is so important," Garrett said. "Everyone is interested, not just scientists and space enthusiasts. People in the street are interested to know what else is out there."

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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