To discover potentially intelligent life out there in the great beyond, you must first cast a net wide using a range of techniques and technologies.
Each “fishing expedition” for ET includes close-in studies of life in extreme environments here Soilto help us recognize signatures we may encounter Mars or diving deep through the icy shell of Jupiter’s moon, Europe. The search can also be combined with the use of space-based telescopes for inspection Earth-like planets circling their house stars. Then there’s a proverbial ear to the cosmos using radio telescopes to pick up every vibrant interstellar civilization or perhaps search for distant laser-pulsed communiqués from alien housemates.
These and other efforts are being actively pursued by the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, right there in the high-tech heartbeat of Silicon Valley. More than a hundred institute scientists are busy with research astronomy And astrophysics, astrobiologyas well as exoplanets, climate and bio-geosciences and the Search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI).
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Space.com spoke with Bill Diamond, president and CEO of the SETI Institute for an exclusive, mind-bending, up-close discussion about the mounting evidence for extraterrestrial intelligence.
Spoiler alert! It’s not the old, tried and tired question, “Are we alone?” It’s more like “how busy is it anyway?”
There is a lot going on these days in terms of searching for and trying to understand potential extraterrestrial life the universesaid Diamond.
“For much of SETI’s first few decades, the effort was quite minimal, looking at fairly narrow swaths of the radio spectrum in random parts of the sky with fairly ‘insensitive’ instruments. So hardly something that could be considered a comprehensive undertaking considered,” Diamant said.
But even today, SETI work is in many ways still in its early stages. However, more and more is happening with an increasing number of instruments and technologies around the world. “There is a comprehensive and comprehensive effort underway now,” Diamond said.
For example, there is the Commensal Open-Source Multimode Interferometer Cluster Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence – mercifully abbreviated to COSMIC SETI.
All 27 antennas that make up the Very large range (VLA) in New Mexico are equipped with new equipment to conduct 24/7 SETI observations in a partnership between the SETI Institute and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, the group that operates the VLA.
Yep, that’s the same VLA shown in the 1997 sci-fi film “Contact,” starring actress Jodie Foster sporting a form-fitting stereo headset. In reality, the VLA was never used for SETI, Diamond noted, but now it is.
“COSMIC is truly the most comprehensive SETI search on a single instrument in history. That’s very exciting,” Diamond said, and gives the COSMIC effort access to a complete and independent copy of the data streams from the entire VLA.
COSMIC will analyze data for the possible presence of ‘technosignatures’ – detectable signatures and signals that scream the presence of distant advanced civilizations.
In scientific circles, technosignatures are seen as part of the much more established search for ‘biosignatures’ – evidence of microbial or other primitive life hanging out on some of the billions exoplanets we now know they exist.
“For classical radio SETI, there is more going on now around the world than ever before,” Diamond said. This revival also includes the SETI Institute’s newly expanded Allen Telescope Array, located northeast of San Francisco. It is named after Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, for his generous financial support of the facility in its early stages.
The Allen Telescope Array (ATA) has undergone a new antenna design and is now equipped with advanced computers, signal processors and other electronics, making it much faster than ever before, Diamond added. “The instrument is performing at a level it has never performed at since it was built. That’s all quite new in two to three years.”
One result of ATA is its use by scientists at the SETI Institute to delve into powerful Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs), a mind-boggling phenomenon that needs no explanation.
A passionate driver of the ATA overhaul was Franklin Antonio, co-founder of Qualcomm, a communications chip company. Antonio’s support as a technical advisor to the institute continues with his $200 million philanthropic gift to the SETI Institute following his death last May.
This donation will lead to an action plan that will enhance the institute’s multidisciplinary, multicenter research, education and outreach makeup, Diamond said.
Also on the institute’s agenda is recording and evaluating ideas from SETI researchers anywhere in the world to tap funding for things like technology, software or to conduct an experiment.
“If we like what you’re doing, we’ll fund it,” Diamond said. “We’ll kind of take the place of NASA for now as the only place in the world where you can submit a proposal to do SETI work.”
Those three words
Roll back time until Columbus Day in 1992, when NASA initiated a formal, more intensive SETI program. But less than a year later, Congress ended the program.
Is it time for the government to re-embrace the search for extraterrestrial intelligence?
“Yes, absolutely,” Diamond replied. NASA, he said, is spearheading three scientific questions: How does the universe work? How did we get here? Are we alone?
Nearly every time NASA leadership speaks publicly, Diamond says, they invoke these three words: Are we alone?
“We all want to know. NASA obviously wants to know because it’s one of their science priorities,” Diamond said. “Isn’t it time for them to get back to answering that question?”
Planets are everywhere
NASA’s own Kepler space telescope served as the space agency’s first planet-hunting mission. For nine years deep room Exploration, Diamond pointed out, revealed that our galaxy contains billions of exoplanets. “It told us that planets are everywhere and that many of them are potentially habitable.”
NASA SETI work is starting to break down, Diamond noted. A NASA-funded grant to a SETI Institute scientist uses observations from the space agency’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). The aim is to remove possible technosignatures from the TESS data, aided by artificial intelligence/machine learning tools.
“So yeah, I think the winds of change are blowing a little bit in favor of the government getting back into this business. And in my opinion, I think they need to step up and do that,” Diamond said.
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With all the ongoing SETI research underway, how prepared are we for a confirmed revelation from the Neighborhood Watch?
“The clear answer to that question is no. We’re not necessarily ready for it, although it depends on what the answer is,” Diamond replied. It’s only a matter of time before this question is answered at some level, he added.
We need to start thinking about how to convey this information and its potential impact on society, religion, politics, technology and governments, Diamond said.
“I think with all these technologies, modalities and instruments that look in different ways,” Diamond concluded, “it’s definitely getting closer.”