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.

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