Universe Likely Has Many Extinct Civilizations: Study
Unless a typical civilization lasts much longer than ours, it's likely that others have gone extinct.
Is there life in the universe? If there is, can it communicate - and does it want to talk to us? If such a civilization is out there, how long could it survive? These are some of the fundamental questions astronomers regularly consider when they think about aliens.
Suffice it to say the answers are not as easy as Star Trek or Star Wars would make you believe. The most famous answer took place in 1961, when astronomer Frank Drake proposed what is now known as the Drake equation. You can read it on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) website here in full, but understand that it outlines the variables needed for a technological civilization to communicate with us.
A new paper in Astrobiology suggests there could be a way to simplify the equation, based on the observations of exoplanets that we have made since the first one was discovered in the 1990s. While the result is depressing - life was plentiful, but is likely extinct - it does have applications to help us extend our own civilization, the researchers said. The research was led by Adam Frank, a physics and astronomer professor at the University of Rochester.
"The question of whether advanced civilizations exist elsewhere in the universe has always been vexed with three large uncertainties in the Drake equation," Frank said in a statement.
"We've known for a long time approximately how many stars exist," Frank added. "We didn't know how many of those stars had planets that could potentially harbor life, how often life might evolve and lead to intelligent beings, and how long any civilizations might last before becoming extinct."
Here are the elements that Frank and co-author Woodruff Sullivan (of the astronomy department and astrobiology program at the University of Washington) propose could be changed:
The authors dub their result the "archaelogical form" of the Drake equation. Their equation multiplies the terms "Nast" and "fbt" to get the result. "Nast" refers to the "number of habitable planets in a given volume of the universe," and "fbt" is the "likelihood of a technological species arising on one of these planets."
The researchers say one in 10 billion trillion seems a very low probability that humanity is alone out there. But the vast distances of the universe, coupled with the uncertainty of how long civilizations exist, mean it may never be possible to communicate with anyone out there.
Our civilization is 10,000 years old; unless a typical civilization lasts much longer, over the 13-billion-year lifespan of the universe it's likely the others have gone extinct, the researchers added. But there is a practical application to keep us around longer, the researchers said.
"Our results imply that our evolution has not been unique and has probably happened many times before," Frank said. "The other cases are likely to include many energy-intensive civilizations dealing with their feedback onto their planets as their civilizations grow. That means we can begin exploring the problem using simulations to get a sense of what leads to long lived civilizations and what doesn't."
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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