“Is there life beyond Earth?” is one of the most fundamental and far-reaching questions we can ask. For the past generation, our search for life in the cosmos has focused on the foundations: the search for planets capable of sustaining liquid water, and evidence of basic biological processes like methane production, evidence called “biosignatures.”
While finding signs of microbes would be fascinating, it’s not what we really want to know: is there intelligent life out there?
Finally we’re seriously looking, and the initiative is called the search for “technosignatures,” or evidence of advanced technology in the galaxy. While radioastronomy searches for signals have been conducted for fifty years (as fans of the movie Contact know), new technologies and a new openness by the US Congress to fund NASA initiatives in the area have led to a flourishing of research.
In 2018, NASA kicked off the modern search for technosignatures with a major conference of experts, including astronomer Jill Tarter, the real-life inspiration for Ellie Arroway from Contact. Participants came up with a list of markers of manufacturing and spacefaring civilizations, from atmospheric pollutants to unusually stable planetary orbits that might indicate the ability to move worlds and create mega-structures, like Dyson Spheres, which would capture the entire energy output of a star for use by an advanced civilization.
There are a huge number of currently operating space probes and ground-based observatories that can easily add the search for technosignatures into their missions, according to a recent article by a global team of researchers. We already have the ability to detect artificial atmospheric gasses, the glint of city lights, and even interstellar spacecraft.
Other researchers argue that there might even be more technosignatures than biosignatures out there – that our junk might outlive us. Even if humanity destroys itself, the evidence of our existence will continue for eons: radio and TV broadcast signals, the Voyager space probes that have left the solar system, and of course whatever signs of environmental destruction we leave behind.
Who knows, someday we might come across a spaceship carrying people in suspended animation, the genetically-enhanced leaders of an attempt to conquer their far off world…
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Dyson, Freeman J. (1960). “Search for artificial stellar sources of infrared radiation.” Science 131.3414 (1960): 1667-1668. https://fermatslibrary.com/s/search-for-artificial-stellar-sources-of-infrared-radiation
Gertner, Jon (2022). “The Search for Intelligent Life Is About to Get a Lot More Interesting.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/15/magazine/extraterrestrials-technosignatures.html
Haqq-Misra, Jacob, et al. (2021). “ for technosignatures in exoplanetary systems with current and future missions.” DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.actaastro.2022.05.040
Kaufman, Marc (2018). “Technosignatures and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.” https://astrobiology.nasa.gov/news/technosignatures-and-the-search-for-extraterrestrial-intelligence/
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Wright, Jason T. et al. (2022). “The Case for Technosignatures: Why They May Be Abundant, Long-lived, Highly Detectable, and Unambiguous.” DOI: https://doi.org/10.3847/2041-8213/ac5824