When searching for extraterrestrial intelligence, it's a really tricky job to know where to look. Space is big, and the odds of detecting a transmission from an alien are vanishingly small. But with the help of NASA's Kepler Space Telescope, some of the guesswork is about to be cut out of the SETI equation.
On Monday, the Kepler science team announced the confirmation of a "super-Earth" orbiting right in the middle of the habitable zone of its sun-like star. The world, called Kepler-22b, therefore has some of the qualities of a world where life as we know it may exist.
The habitable zone is a region surrounding a star where its energy is just right for liquid water to exist on its surface. Any closer, the water would turn to vapor, any further, and the water would turn to ice.
We have no clue whether Kepler-22b is a rocky world (like Earth) or a gaseous world (like Neptune). However, we do know its location would make it a rather cozy place for Earth Brand™ Life to live - if there's water, that is.
Though there are plenty of unknowns, Kepler-22b would make a nice place to begin searching for extraterrestrial intelligence. If there's water, and if it's a rocky world, then perhaps some intelligent lifeforms had the chance to evolve.
"This is a superb opportunity for SETI observations," said Jill Tarter, the Director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute. "For the first time, we can point our telescopes at stars, and know that those stars actually host planetary systems - including at least one that begins to approximate an Earth analog in the habitable zone around its host star (Kepler-22b). That's the type of world that might be home to a civilization capable of building radio transmitters."
Although the highest priority will be for SETI's Allen Telescope Array (ATA) to focus on worlds Kepler discovers inside stars' habitable zones, with enough time and funding, Tarter wants to widen the ATA's scope.
"In SETI, as with all research, preconceived notions such as habitable zones could be barriers to discovery," adds Tarter. "So, with sufficient future funding from our donors, it's our intention to examine all of the planetary systems found by Kepler."
Using the immense collective power of the ATA's 42 radio antennae, many frequencies can be monitored simultaneously. If intelligent extraterrestrials have evolved to use similar technologies as us, then perhaps we'll be able to listen into their transmissions.
It may still be a long-shot, but with the help of Kepler, at least SETI will find a good place to start.
Image credit: SETI Institute