NASA is all in, again: new grant is awarded to find alien civilizations
NASA have awarded the first search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI)-specific research grant in over 30 years. The news was announced on June 19th by researchers at Harvard & Smithsonian and the University of Rochester, who in a collaborative study will search for signs of advanced alien technologies, which are known as “technosignatures”.
Federal agencies stopped all SETI funding in 1993, shortly after a more thorough exploration of our solar system had revealed no obvious traces of life. Much of the scientific community became disinterested, SETI was shunned, and the pursuit for intelligent life was secured as science fiction by The X-files, ET, and Contact. It’s taken a few decades for NASA to get fully behind SETI again – so why now?
First, the development of human technology has given us a much better idea of what to look for in alien technology. As a technological civilization, we’re young – only around 100 years old – and in the 1950s, it was assumed that intelligent alien life would be using the same ‘sophisticated’ technology as us, and so we looked for radiofrequency signals. Now, this can be considered as quite a primitive approach – we ourselves have a much cleaner radio footprint and instead use cables and fibers to transmit information. For this reason, the University of Rochester-headed team will use the grant to look for technosignatures that are indicative of industrial action, such as artificial atmospheric pollutants unlikely to be found in nature (e.g. CFCs) and wavelengths specific to reflections from photovoltaic cells.
According to Avi Loeb, who is the Frank B. Baird, Jr., Professor of Science at Harvard University and joint recipient of the NASA grant, the renewed interest in SETI also comes after some astonishing recent revelations in astrophysics, not least of which is the discovery of exoplanets. “Now, we know where to look”.
However, a paper published in The Astrophysical Journal on June 15th suggests that only a handful of planets in our galaxy have the potential to host intelligent civilizations; could this be discouraging for SETI researchers? The University of Nottingham-based authors, Christopher Conselice and Tom Westby, have estimated that there are at least 36 alien civilizations in the Milky Way, which means finding intelligent life might be a little like finding a needle in a world made of haystacks. “the prospect of contact feels remote – perhaps it is a bit like living in lockdown in the Milky Way,” Tom Westby told me. That said, it’s better than a result of zero. “[The results] seemed to indicate that our own existence is by no means an extreme outlier,” Westby said in an email. “It was immensely satisfying.”
NASA are no longer the only way to secure funding for SETI research – breakthrough projects can also be funded privately by curious billionaires – remember Yuri Milner? And keeping our eyes on the prize could mean this search will one day pay off, perhaps even as soon as in the next couple of decades, according to Professor Loeb. Also worth remembering is that the stakes are high, “Finding any trace of ancient alien civilizations could tell us more about our own civilization – including its lifespan,” says Christopher Conselice.
Thank you to Professor Avi Loeb, Professor Christopher Conselice, and Assistant Professor Tom Westby. Professor Loeb’s next book, ‘Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth’, will be published on Jan 26th 2021.