NASA news: Space agency funds Harvard hunt for alien technosignatures
NASA has awarded a grant to aid the search for e̳x̳t̳r̳a̳t̳e̳r̳r̳e̳s̳t̳r̳i̳a̳l̳ intelligence (SETI) by hunting for signs of advanced a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳ civilisations.
Given just how impossibly enormous the universe is, the chances are statistically almost infinite ours is the only planet with life on it. Searching for signs of a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳ life beyond Earth is, therefore, a growing priority for space agencies such as NASA.
This is a landmark new project because it is the first to receive a NASA grant for SETI-specific research in more than 30 years.
Technosignatures relate to signatures of advanced a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳ technologies similar to, or perhaps more sophisticated than, what we possess
Harvard Professor Avi Loeb
Avi Loeb, a Harvard Professor on the new project, said: “Technosignatures relate to signatures of advanced a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳ technologies similar to, or perhaps more sophisticated than, what we possess.
“Such signatures might include industrial pollution of atmospheres, city lights, photovoltaic cells [solar panels], megastructures, or swarms of satellites.”
Most scientists are engaged in looking for natural biosignatures on exoplanets.
NASA news: Searching for signs of a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳ life is a growing priority for space agencies (Image: Getty)
NASA news: This is the first study to receive a NASA grant for SETI-specific research in 30 years (Image: Getty)
These are gases like methane or oxygen potentially indicative life.
This a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳ life will likely take the form of simple as microorganisms or plants.
However, the most obvious signs of life on Earth are far from natural.
H̳u̳m̳a̳n̳s̳ have, for example, been pumping large quantities of pollutants into the atmosphere for centuries.
NASA news: Most scientists are engaged in looking for natural biosignatures on exoplanets (Image: Getty)
Vast swathes of the planet’s surface now sparkle at night from artificial lights.
And our species has visibly exploited the terrain and erected huge constructions.
Even the space around Earth is increasingly clogged with satellites, such as SpaceX Starlink.
A growing scientific consensus believes if our civilisation leaves these fingerprints in and around Earth, a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳ may do too.
Detecting these signatures could be an obvious sign of the existence of a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳ life.
NASA has consequently now funded a study called “Characterising atmospheric technosignatures” that is intended to do just that.
The study will initially focus on just two of these technosignatures: solar panels and air pollution.
Solar panels, for instance, are designed to absorb certain wavelengths of light, while others would be reflected.
The team hopes this could create a specific spectral signature capable of being detected when observing exoplanets.
NASA news: The most obvious signs of life on Earth are far from natural (Image: Express)
The team will also focus more on artificial polluting gases that rarely occur in nature.
An example is chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which we once commonly used as refrigerants and aerosols until it was discovered that they were destroying the ozone layer.
Adam Frank, a University of Rochester Professor on the project, said: “Our job is to say, ‘this wavelength band is where you might see certain types of pollutants, this wavelength band is where you would see sunlight reflected off solar panels’.
“This way astronomers observing a distant exoplanet will know where and what to look for if they’re searching for technosignatures.”