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Ways to detect alien civilizations

Space discoveries have absolutely erupted in recent years thanks to incredible scientific technology like the Kepler space telescope, the Cassini spacecraft, and the Herschel Space Observatory, just to name a few.

NASA's Kepler telescope. (credit: NASA)
NASA’s Kepler telescope. (credit: NASA)

Scientists continue discovering new places in the far reaches of the galaxy where life might exist. Articles discussing alien planets and the increasing number of potentially habitable worlds have become common in the media.

It’s hard to believe that the first planets outside our solar system were only discovered in 1992. In the short span of two decades, the number of confirmed exoplanets has grown to more than 1,700, based on the tally maintained by the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo’s Planetary Habitability Laboratory. Twenty or so of these worlds are potentially habitable.

NASA’s Kepler space telescope has been a valuable tool in the hunt for alien worlds. Since its launch in 2009, Kepler has identified more than 3,800 planet candidates, and scientists expect at least ninety percent of those will end up being confirmed. But hunting for potentially habitable worlds isn’t the only method scientists are using in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

SETI's Allen Telescope Array. (credit: SETI)
SETI’s Allen Telescope Array. (credit: SETI)

On Friday, April 11, io9 posted an article titled “14 Intriguing Ways We Could Detect Signs Of An Alien Civilization.” Naturally, using radio telescopes to listen for extraterrestrial communication is included in this list. For many, the radio signal research of the SETI Institute is the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about efforts to detect alien civilizations. SETI primarily utilizes the Allen Telescope Array in Hat Creek, California in the organization’s survey of radio transmissions, as depicted in the movie Contact. A much more powerful radio telescope array called the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) is scheduled to begin construction in 2016. As the South African Government News Agency explains, these thousands of antennas spread across nearly 2,000 miles will work together “as one gigantic, virtual instrument – creating a radio telescope at least 50 times more powerful, and 10,000 times faster than any other radio telescope currently in existence.”

But University of California at Berkeley astronomer Geoff Marcy believes that more advanced and precise technology, like lasers, would be a more likely method of communication utilized by an advanced alien civilization. So he and his team are using the Keck Observatory in Hawaii to look for beams of light flashing from distant star systems that could indicate an alien laser-based internet.

Plato spacecraft concept. (Credit: ESA)
Plato spacecraft concept. (Credit: ESA)

Pollution is another way scientists could detect alien civilizations. The European Space Agency’s Plato (Planetary Transits and Oscillations of stars) space telescope, scheduled to launch in 2024, will be able to study the atmospheres of alien worlds. The Science Coordinator for the Plato mission, Professor Don Pollacco of the University of Warwick, explains, “There are certain things you would not expect to occur naturally, and pollution is the obvious one . . . I’m talking about various kinds of metals that would not occur in that state in that atmosphere . . . You would have to interpret that as a sign of some kind of civilisation.”

Obviously, looking for extraterrestrial spacecraft could be another way to detect alien civilizations. And Geoff Marcy was recently awarded a grant to do just that. Marcy is credited with finding nearly three-quarters of the first one hundred exoplanets discovered with data collected by Kepler. These planets are detected using the transit method, where scientists look at a star’s dimming to calculate the presence of planets. Marcy will use this same technique to look for extraterrestrial spacecraft.

Visit io9 to see the full list of the 14 Intriguing Ways We Could Detect Signs Of An Alien Civilization.

Jason McClellan

Jason McClellan is a UFO journalist and the producer/co-host of the web series Spacing Out! He is also the web content manager and staff writer for OpenMinds.tv, and a co-organizer and technical producer of the International UFO Congress. As a founding member of Open Minds, Jason served as a writer and editor for the now defunct Open Minds magazine. He has appeared on Syfy, NatGeo, and, most recently, he co-starred on H2's Hangar 1: The UFO Files. ------ Follow Jason on Twitter @acecentric and subscribe to Jason's updates on Facebook.

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  1. Then, perhaps, is there fossils or life expressions elsewhere? Isn’t the emergence and maintenance of life a process of radical contingency? That is, is a unique and unrepeatable past totally necessary? Or does life emerge through space like mushrooms when some conditions are present? So, how many conditions are necessary: three, four, trillions, infinite? Only one, water or any sort of God? Is God the word that means infinite conditions, absolute necessity? Anyway, how did the life that emerge in a given conditions resist when switching to a different moment? How does life resist time itself, the effects of entropy? But, is it possible for human beings to recognize a simpler life than their own brain only? On the other hand, beyond likeness, is it possible to recognize a complex life than their brain, is this the extra-terrestrial life that some people are searching unsuccessfully? However, is there an origin of life or would it be as finding a cut in the material history of the universe, an infinite void that human language patches now? Along these lines, there is a peculiar book, a short preview in http://goo.gl/rfVqw6 Just another suggestion, far away from dogmas or axioms.

  2. Who in his right mind thought that the solar system was unique in the universe.Sheer numbers were enough to provide evidence that ,given the fact that the Milky Way contains billions of stars and that there are billions of galaxies,you needn t be a rocket scientist to assert that our universe universe is teeming with exoplanets,a fair number of them Earth like and orbiting their star in the habitable zone!…..By the same token,you needn t be a genius to state that among the large number of extraterrestrial civilizations lots of them are scientifically and technologically more advanced than ours and ,consequently,are able to travel through space and visit us….It s beyond my comprehension that a great scientist like FERMI could ask the question——BUT, WHERE ARE THEY ?——when they were right under his nose.UFOs,of course.Given the large number of potential visitors,it would be a conundrum indeed,if The Earth hadn t been and wasn t visited……Elementary, my dear WATSON !

  3. There is overwhelming evidence that extraterrestrials are already visiting earth and are in contact with our governments, though without government acknowledgement. It strikes me therefore that this article is a bit irrelevant and ignores this evidence.

  4. I for one do not believe we will likely receive any form of traditional radio signal or beacon from space. Our own communications systems are rapidly becoming spread spectrum and digital only. In many cases so scattered and encrypted that without explicit instructions there is no way to assemble meaning from the intermediate signal. It’d be like texting a video link to Alexander Graham Bell. Worse yet, it’s likely that a large powerful transmitter either here or elsewhere, would only operate briefly to keep costs down. We only sent the Aricebo signal once, and aimed it at only one spot in the sky. Even with a sky literally full of transmitting planets, we’d still miss a similar signal even if it was aimed at us.
    But, I do believe that we may soon have significantly better methods of transmitting information great distances, and also of detecting intentional “spooky action at a distance”. I feel it’s likely we would then be looking in the right place for alien signals and might have more of a problem differentiating the large number of signals than finding them at all. There’s also no reason to think aliens nearby would either transmit a radio signal or want to be overtly detected at all.

  5. Why do so many people believe that advanced alien civilisations would communicate using radio frequencies? We are now utilising microwaves in mobile phones and it is entirely possible that others will be used in future.
    We assume that alien life could not use more advanced and even unknown frequencies to communicate. Although they may be harmful to us, others such as cosmic rays or x-rays could theoretically be used as communication tools by alien life. They are out there, we are looking in the wrong frequency range.

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