Last week we talked about the various ways that astronomers could detect the presence of intelligent civilizations by observing technosignatures. This week we’ll give you an update on the state of searching for extraterrestrials. This field has gone from a collection of pariahs to a completely legitimate field of research. What’s changed?
PODCAST: Ep. 611: What is Required to Confirm Alien Life: Intelligence Edition (Astronomy Cast)
PODCAST: Ep. 23: Counting Aliens With the Drake Equation (Astronomy Cast)
Drake Equation (SETI Institute)
Jill Tarter (SETI Institute)
Astrobiology at NASA (NASA)
New Search for Extraterrestrials Waits for No One, Er…, Everyone (Universe Today)
Looking for Life on Mars: Viking Experiment Team Member Reflects on Divisive Findings (Scientific American)
SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (Planetary Society)
Allen Telescope Array Overview (SETI Institute)
NASA Astrobiology Institute (NASA)
Water on Mars (Wikipedia)
‘Alien’ Life Could Exist High in Earth’s Atmosphere (Live Science)
The Microbes That Keep Hydrothermal Vents Pumping (Smithsonian)
Breakthrough Initiatives to Fund Study Into Search For Primitive Life in the Clouds of Venus (Breakthrough Initiatives)
NASA Exoplanet Archive (Caltech)
LaserSETI (SETI Institute)
Fast Radio Bursts (Swinburne)
VIDEO: Searching for SETI Artifacts (SETI Institute)
Transcriptions provided by GMR Transcription Services
Fraser: Astronomy Cast episode 612, the SETI renaissance. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, your weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos, where we help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know. I’m Fraser Cain, publisher of Universe Today. With me, as always, is Dr. Pamela Gay, a Senior Scientist for the Planetary Science Institute and the director of CosmoQuest. Hey Pamela, how you doing?
Dr. Gay: I’m doing well, how are you doing?
Fraser: I’m good, although, I’m sure you’re all aware, I just went through the craziest heat wave Canada has ever seen. We hit just shy of 40 degrees Celsius in my hometown, which is just not right. Nobody has air conditioning, it was madness. And we have wildfires everywhere, so hopefully, I’m still here when we return in the fall. And speaking of returning in the fall, it’s our time – we regret to inform you that we are now – this is the last episode before we do our summer hiatus.
Dr. Gay: This was our 15th season, and here in the states, that means our show gets to learn how to drive next year.
Fraser: Right, exactly. So, we’ll be back in two months. We return with new shows in September. And this just gives us a chance to spend a couple of months not having to stay within arm’s reach of high-speed internet all the time. So, we can do things like go places and do things. So, all right. Pamela, what – how should people keep track of you over the course of the summer if they wanna still stay in touch?
Dr. Gay: I think the best thing to do, as always, is to follow me on Twitter @starstryder, spelled with a Y. And like Universe Today, CosmoQuest has a newsletter where we’re going to be putting out all the information of what we’re up to all summer long. Check that out, cosmoquest.org.
Fraser: And I’m still gonna be working as well. I never stop. But go to universetoday.com/newsletter and you can get my weekly email newsletter which Pamela just mentioned. All right. Last week, we talked about the various ways that astronomers could detect the presence of intelligent civilizations by observing technosignatures. This week, we’ll give you an update on the state of the search for extra-terrestrials. This field has gone from a collection of pariahs to a completely legitimate field of research. What’s changed?
All right. So, yeah. Last week, we just sort of talked about the techniques, but I think it’s really important to talk about those techniques in the larger arc of SETI history, and the fact that for the longest time, you were – if you even proposed doing any kind of SETI research, you were a bad person, and should feel bad. What happened?
Dr. Gay: It, it’s – you were a pariah. It, like – bad person, is the wrong word. Because there’s a ton of bad people in science, just read the news. No, you were the crazy person that like, no one wanted to talk to in case your crazy cooties somehow – yeah. Yeah.
Fraser: So, I mean, let’s go back a bit and just sort of talk about the development of the field and how it made that switch over.
Dr. Gay: Well, it largely started in the ‘70s and ‘80s with people starting to think about, “Well just how far could radio signals go?” You had Frank Drake, with his Drake equation, which we did an entire episode on years and years ago. And people started thinking about, “So, how do we estimate how common life is?” And it even became a homework assignment that you regularly gave undergraduates to figure out. But, at that point, it was simply a interesting sidenote, a asterisk in the margins. Of – well, radio is leaking, maybe we can hear someone else.
But then you had folks like Jill Tarter reaching out and saying, “We can actively listen for this.” We had folks like Carl Sagan saying, “We need to plan into our missions that our missions will someday, when they leave the solar system, get scooped up by some alien civilization and what we want to say.” And, while both of them dealt with a fair amount of scorn throughout their careers for various reasons, their determination to keep doing what they felt called to do made space for other people to come up and say, “Hey, I want to study astrobiology. I want to figure out what life as we do not know it looks like. Hey, I want to figure out other ways of communicating.”
And today we have major powerhouses like the SETI Institute here in the United States. We have small nonprofits like the METI Association. We even have whitepapers by silly ideas like WETI that are designed to get people thinking about what might be out there.
Fraser: But you had this – this sort of nascent community of people. As you said, Jill Tarter and Carl Sagan were definitely spearheading this idea of, “Let’s search and let’s –” and they brought those ideas forth and were actively using radio telescope time. And then the science community took this turn and said, “Nope, that’s enough of that. We will not be using our precious radio telescopes to search for bug-eyed monsters.
Dr. Gay: And it was worse than that. In 1975, the Viking landers on Mars did experiments to try and find out if life as we know it could exist in the Martian soil and the results were inconclusive. And the –
Fraser: The worst kind of conclusive.
Dr. Gay: Right. And so, there have been people calling to replicate those experiments ever since. And everyone’s been like, “Nope. Don’t wanna know.” And so, instead of saying, until recently, that we’re going to look for life, people instead said, “We’re gonna look for signs of water. That’s as far as we’re willing to go, is we will look for water.”
Fraser: Sure, physically. But – but how did that play against the radio observatories?
Dr. Gay: Well, there was overall – and it actually came from Congress that there would be no funding dedicated to looking for aliens.
Fraser: God, that’s madness.
Dr. Gay: Yeah.
Fraser: Like, the most important scientific question that – or at least one. It’s on the short list. That we could possibly ask. And we now – modern society has the tools to ask – to answer this question. And Congress to tell – said no.
Dr. Gay: And I think part of it comes down to, there’s always gonna be that one Congress critter who’s looking for the thing that they can point to and say, “This is a waste of funding.” And saying that you’re looking for aliens is certainly the kind of thing that you can get your constituents all up in arms over. And so, it can be a fun game, and no one wants to get involved in that particular game because there’s no winners except for the person making fun of it. So, you have that. You also have the problem that, here in the United States, there has been so much popularity around the ideas of aliens and alien abductions and alien probes.
And while it makes for great TV – I grew up on the X-Files – it also leads to people thinking, “That is fiction. We do not actually invest our US science dollars in doing things from the X-Files.”
Fraser: Yeah. Yeah. Right. And so – and so, you talk about this idea of – so there was this sort of dark age through the ‘80s, ‘90s, and early 2000’s that anyone who wanted to do any kind of research into SETI had to get creative.
Dr. Gay: Yes. Or use donations.
Dr. Gay: So, you had both things happening. You had folks doing radio observations that had dual purposes. Where you are observing for your science, but part of observing for your science, that data can also be used to just check, “Hey, does this particular star happen to also have other radio signals that don’t have an explanation that can come from nature?” And nothing has been found, but people kept looking. And I think the real change came when, during the same dark ages of the radio SETI, we also had a dark ages for water and the solar system. You and I grew up learning that there really isn’t water out there. Moon, dry, Mars, dry, everything, dry.
Fraser: Asteroids, dry. Yeah. And – Jupiter.
Dr. Gay: We were so wrong. We were raised wrong. We were raised wrong, Fraser.
Fraser: Right, right, right. So, you’ve got this – you’ve got this target – and you talked about this idea of, like, you’ve got donations, you’ve got things like the SETI Institute. Which feels like it’s this fairly well-known research institution funded by Universities and NASA and blah, blah, blah. But it’s not. It’s literally donations from people like you and me –
Dr. Gay: Well, to be fair, so the SETI Institute is a research institute, a lot like the Planetary Science Institute, where I work. They’re bigger. And they do have a lot of researchers that are doing NASA-funded and National Science Foundation funded science. They run programs for the SOFIA Airborne Observatory, they were part of the Kepler mission.
But in addition to the more traditional science – searching for exoplanets, trying to figure out what is natural and unnatural chemistry and planetary atmospheres – in addition to all of that work, they also have their Allen Telescope Array, which is privately funded, which is looking for the radio signals of alien civilizations, and lives and dies by donations and sponsorships, private funding.
Fraser: All right. Through the ‘80s, through the ‘90s, early 2000’s, the only people doing any kind of SETI research pretty much at all was through donations privately funded, privately built telescopes. You could not ask for a penny from NASA, from the government. And a similar situation was happening really across the world in countries. So, how did things shift suddenly that now it’s not a bad thing to be an astrobiologist, it’s not a bad thing to search for some kind of evidence of smart aliens?
Dr. Gay: The difference came in the kinds of science that we can do, and in the fact that we finally found planets. Fairly normal planets, orbiting other stars. Up until 1995, we didn’t know if there would be planets everywhere, planets nowhere. And in 1995, we finally started to find planets that are big, old, round things, not the crazy little things found around pulsars. Big, old, round things. Hot Jupiters, snuggled up next to giant and sun-like stars. And this difference in going from not knowing if there are planets to knowing there are probably more planets than stars in our galaxy meant that it really made sense to start saying, “What kind of chemistry? What kind of biology can exist out there?”
And NASA did their first call for proposals for the Astrobiology Institutes in the early 2000’s. And out of those Astrobiology Institutes, you saw multidisciplinary collaborations arising for the first time under public dollars that were geared saying, “Okay, Titan. Titan has methane. Discuss.” And figuring out what’s possible.
Fraser: Yeah. Yeah. Mars has evidence of water. Discuss. Europa has oceans of ice. And also, all of the amazing places they were finding life here on Earth. I mean, our modern idea of life can exist wherever there’s liquid water – a lot of those discoveries have been made in the last couple of decades, with life found in nuclear reactors, under Antarctic ice, high, high up in the atmosphere in incredible salinity, temperatures, down at the bottom of the ocean with black smokers, completely separate ecosystems. Like, life really found ways, and we’ve only finally discovered how all the shenanigans that life had gotten up to while we weren’t looking very well.
Dr. Gay: Pretty much you can’t find an ecosystem that doesn’t have something living in it. And while you might be able to grab up a couple tablespoons of non-occupied soil, rocks, whatever, go much further than that and there’s gonna be something alive there.
Fraser: Yeah. Yeah. So, then, as you said, sort of in the early 2000’s, NASA started to make the call. And the budgetary floodgates – I wouldn’t call that – trickled, started to trickle some funding into fairly, a fairly narrow idea of astrobiology. Like, let’s look – we found bacteria living in hot thermal vents here on Earth. Let’s consider what it’s gonna be like to find bacteria in hot thermal vents on Europa. But that’s not smart aliens. So, what finally started to shift people’s attitudes about starting to search for intelligent signals of aliens? Have we crossed into the renaissance yet?
Dr. Gay: I think we’re in the process due to foundations. There’s the Breakthrough Institute, for instance, that is funding exploration to go to Venus and figure out what’s up in that atmosphere. And by having these foundations with enough money to actually fund new research initiatives, it opens up the possibility of new things that might not be competitive when you have to ask, “Is this in the best interests of the nation?” Which is one of the questions in NASA and NSF funding. And so, now you have private foundations that are saying, “This is worth exploring. We now know there are thousands of planets that we can point to. Let’s look, let’s dream.”
And then, all the discoveries of water that have been going on since Messenger got to Mercury, since LCROSS impacted into the moon, since we first saw the dark lineations on Mars. Every world, it seems, that we now send a spacecraft to, we’re finding volatiles. Better to use those volatiles to throw rocks at the side of the tracks.
Fraser: Yeah. So, then what is the current state? Now you, we talked about SETI, METI, WETI. What is the current state now of the search for extraterrestrials across the globe? Of intelligent civilizations?
Dr. Gay: So, the SETI institute is the one that is most classic, and there are models like it in other nations. And this is the idea of bringing together people who are understanding star formation, who are understanding that planet formation, and are then looking at the chemistry involved to say, “What are the necessary ingredients to get to organic molecules, and potentially to life? And if you can get potentially to life, what are the organic molecules that you’ll only see if there is life?” So that, that’s the traditional approach that NASA and NSF are throwing money at.
You also have the traditional approach of looking in radio signals, for looking for technosignatures. Now, where it starts to get different is where you look at the METI Institute. This is Messaging Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. And this is where, instead of looking for the leaked signals, instead of looking for the atmospheric signals, they are actually working to put together a network of observers and an observatory in Panama that work together to look for directed laser beam communications that are pointed at us by someone who knows we’re here or thinks we’re here.
Fraser: Right. Yeah. So, you talked about one observatory in South America that will be specifically looking for lasers being shined at humanity. There’s the Allen Array. Can any radio telescope do this job? Do you think we really are gonna be needing more custom-built observatories to be able to do this job?
Dr. Gay: The issue becomes one of sensitivity. If you want to really detect leaked signals, you’re gonna need something like the Square Kilometre Array. If you want to look for directed signals, then you’re gonna need a network of smaller facilities that are just monitoring a whole lot of the sky. And this is the direction that METI is trying to go into of looking for directed signals, using an array of – they’re starting with optical telescopes, looking for laser signals. But you should be, if radio astronomy ever gets truly popular, you’ll be able to do the same thing with amateur radio dishes. So, it’s just a matter of saying, “We believe aliens would try and communicate with us.”
And the other side of METI is they’re trying to figure out how to communicate back. What are the ways that you would want to encode a message? What are the ways you would want to deliver the message? And they’ve drawn the ire of folks like, before he passed, Stephen Hawking, who was like, “That’s a bad idea, folks. Don’t let them know we’re here. Stop it.”
Fraser: Yeah. Like, one – like, there’s a couple of interesting things that have happened. So, just a couple of years ago, NASA hosted a technosignatures workshop, where you had some of the leading minds in this field around the world all coming together and discussing ways that you could scan for evidence of technosignatures. And we covered a lot of those ideas this last episode. But the team that thought these up had really only came together in the last couple of years. And they’re meeting now on a fairly regular basis. So, you’ve got these really clever ideas that are out of the box, but you’ve also got things like, even the precursor to the Square Kilometre Array.
The Murchison Array in Australia was recently used to search for signals coming from civilizations. So, the – researchers are starting to get time on these big radio observatories to do these kinds of searches. Same thing with the Chinese FAST Telescope. So, now you can ask for telescope time. You can get funding. It’s a different world now.
Dr. Gay: And so, this gets us to that final thing that we haven’t really talked too much about, which is WETI. Waiting for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence.
Dr. Gay: And this has largely been a joke. But while it’s a joke with an excellent Twitter account, it has written some really interesting working group papers that point out that if aliens really are visiting us, so we can sit around wait for them to appear and say, “Hi. We’re here.” So, really don’t need to do much for WETI. If they actually are appearing, we’d be able to find out the same way we track illness and earthquakes, just by looking at people’s Google searches. And so, they’ve talked about setting up Google alerts, and have even run some historical ones to see how over time, certain keywords search frequency is changed.
And of course, this pops up all sorts of different movies premiering. But it also pops up weird events. There was a nominal UFO spotting over Mexico City a number of years ago that turned out, I believe, to be a balloon. And all of the searches of people looking up alien and UFO caused a dual spike in the two terms simultaneously. So, there actually isn’t overwhelming evidence that we’ve actually been visited. So, clearly, we need to keep waiting, but it’s interesting that one of the ways we might be able to separate real from fake is just by looking to see how many people go googling all at once.
Fraser: Yeah, that’s interesting. They use a similar technology for seeing if there are illnesses, like colds, or flus, or COVID, sweeping through various populations. You can just see by what people are googling to see what’s out there. So, with this, I guess, newly found, rediscovered excitement about the search for extraterrestrials, the scanning for technosignatures, do you think this makes a dramatic, increases our chances of finding out if we’re alone?
Dr. Gay: I – I don’t know.
Fraser: Or really, if we’re not finding out if we’re alone? Finding out if we’re not alone?
Dr. Gay: So, this is a complicated question. Because how are we going to find it first? We don’t know the amount of time that a civilization is easily spotted. And not knowing that duration means we can’t tell how easy or hard it’s going to be to be able to spot civilizations. If civilizations are loud and polluting and obnoxious for centuries, versus a century or two. Or even if they’re loud and obnoxious for millennia.
We have an easier chance of spotting them. What I’m really hoping is that as we start getting more and more survey telescopes going that these recurring survey systems like the Vera Rubin Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, the Square Kilometre Array. As these systems go out and peer at the sky, they will, in the course of their everyday science, identify things that warrant follow-up. I want it to be that common.
Fraser: Yeah. When you think about, say, fast radio bursts, that you’ve got this. You’ve got this weird thing that’s showing up in the data, that’s worthy of follow-up observations. And you can definitely see something like Vera Rubin, which is gonna be scanning the entire sky, any star which is extra bright briefly, for some reason, would be an interesting follow-up. Especially if it didn’t follow any models of variable stars that we’re aware of today. So, place your bets. Which is of all of the methods will give us some kind of an answer to the question, “Are we alone in the universe?”
Dr. Gay: So, I don’t know if you remember this, but I actually placed a bet with Seth Shostak that, within our lifetime, intelligent life would be identified first via its atmospheric impact. That some scope out there, and I’d hoped it would be TESS, would find the worlds that the follow-up scope, that was supposed to be JWST, would slew over to and go, “Okay. Looking at the atmosphere. Ooh! There is pollution.” Would-be life. JWST really needs to just get off the ground.
Fraser: It’ll fly.
Dr. Gay: It’ll fly.
Fraser: So, that’s your guess. Your guess is that we will discover, in our lifetimes, evidence of a polluted atmosphere somewhere out there in the nearby, relatively nearby Milky Way, and that will tell us that we’re not alone in the universe.
Dr. Gay: Yeah. That’s my hope.
Fraser: Did Seth have a counter-bet?
Dr. Gay: He’s still looking at the radio waves. But that’s kind of his thing.
Fraser: Right, right. So, he thinks that we’ll – that we will detect a signal from a civilization?
Dr. Gay: Yes.
Fraser: All right. I think that we will detect an artifact in the solar system before we do either of those things. I think we will find an alien probe on the moon, a factory floating in the asteroid belt, something like that. That’s my guess.
Dr. Gay: I love how science fiction impacts all of our thinking.
Fraser: It’s true, yeah. Yeah. It’s fairly driven entirely by science fiction. It’s hard to know where we begin and the Star Trek ends, and we begin.
Dr. Gay: Yeah.
Fraser: Pamela, super fascinating. I hope you win your bet. I hope we all win our bet.
Dr. Gay: I – I actually am now hoping that you’re the one that’s right. Because that would be cool.
Fraser: That would be very cool, yeah. All right, well thanks Pamela.
Dr. Gay: Okay, thank you. And, as always, we are here thanks to the generous contributions of people like you. We do everything that we can because of you. And during the summer, we’re gonna be doing our best to make you proud by updating our website and just getting everything put together better than ever.
This week, I would like to thank Kimberly Rieck, Nial Bruce, Corinne Dmitruk, Kseniya Panfilenko, Claudia Mastroianni, Daniel Loosli, Matthew Horstman, Abraham Cottrill, Alex Raine, Jeff Wilson, Joe Wilkinson, David Gates, J. AlexAnderson, Justin Proctor, Saebre Lark, Eran Segev, Jeremy Kerwin, Paul L. Hayden, Tim Gerrish, Ronald McCoy, John, Brent Kreinop, Arthur Latz-Hall, Roland Warmerdam, Michelle Cullen, Omar Del Rivero, Aron Tannenbaum, Dustin A Ruoff, Brian Kilby, Mark Steven Rasnake, Marco Iarossi, Leigh Harbone, Mark Phillips, Kathleen Mattson, Bob the cat, The Lonely Sand Person, Janelle Duncan, Benjamin Davies, Chris Wheelwright, Ruben McCarthy, and Geoff MacDonald.
Thank you all so very much.
Fraser: Thank you everyone, and we will see you in September.
Dr. Gay: Okay, thank you. Astronomy Cast is a joint product of Universe Today and the Planetary Science Institute. Astronomy Cast is released under a Creative Comments Attribution license. So, love it, share it, and remix it, but please credit it to our hosts Fraser Cain and Dr. Pamela Gay. You can get more information on today’s show topic on our website, AstronomyCast.com. This episode was brought to you thanks to our generous patrons on Patreon. If you want to help keep this show going, please consider joining our community at Patreon.com/AstronomyCast.
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