Scientists have launched a major new search for alien life. The new scheme uses the latest techniques to scour the skies in the hope of finding data that could be an indication of extraterrestrial intelligence. And they will also make the data from their searches available to the public in the hope that citizen scientists can spot potential evidence in what they have found.
The researchers at the SETI Institute, which is devoted to looking for alien life, are hunting for “technosignatures”, or hints in the data that suggest they could be coming from planets that are home to other beings. They could be anything from sniffing hints of chemicals on alien worlds to indications that there could be structures or lasers on other planets. Dr Tony Beasley, director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) telescope based in Virginia, US, said: “Determining whether we are alone in the universe as technologically capable life is among the most compelling questions in science.”
SETI scientists plan to develop a system that will “piggyback” on the Very Large Array (VLA) telescope based in Mexico and provide data to their technosignature search system. Dr Beasley added: “As the VLA conducts its usual scientific observations, this new system will allow for an additional and important use for the data we’re already collecting.”
Life forms, whether intelligent or not, can produce detectable indicators such as large amounts of oxygen, smaller amounts of methane, and a variety of other chemicals, the experts said. So in addition, scientists are also developing computer models to simulate extraterrestrial environments that can help support future searches for habitable planets and life beyond the solar system.
Victoria Meadows, principal investigator for Nasa’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory at the University of Washington, which studies to detect exoplanetary habitability, said: “Upcoming telescopes in space and on the ground will have the capability to observe the atmospheres of Earth-sized planets orbiting nearby cool stars, so it’s important to understand how best to recognise signs of habitability and life on these planets. The organisation is now inviting the public to search the data, gathered from various telescopes around the world, and look for signals from intelligent civilisations.
Scientists hope that citizen scientists will be able to find interesting things in the data – whether that is unknown natural phenomena, or something even more unexpected, such as alien life.
“Since Breakthrough Listen’s initial data release last year, we have doubled what is available to the public,” said Breakthrough Listen’s lead system administrator, Matt Lebofsky. “It is our hope that these data sets will reveal something new and interesting, be it other intelligent life in the universe or an as-yet-undiscovered natural astronomical phenomenon.” Yuri Milner, an entrepreneur and founder of the Breakthrough initiative, said: “For the whole of human history, we had a limited amount of data to search for life beyond Earth. “So, all we could do was speculate. “Now, as we are getting a lot of data, we can do real science and, with making this data available to general public, so can anyone who wants to know the answer to this deep question.”
The initiatives and strategies in expanding the search for extraterrestrial life were presented at the the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Seattle.