The word “SETI” pretty much brings to mind the search for radio signals come from distant planets, the movie “Contact,” Jill Tarter, Frank Drake and perhaps the SETI Institute, where the effort lives and breathes.
But there was a time when SETI — the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence — was a significantly broader concept, that brought in other ways to look for intelligent life beyond Earth.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s — a time of great interest in UFOs, flying saucers and the like — scientists not only came up with the idea of searching for distant intelligent life via unnatural radio signals, but also by looking for signs of unexpectedly elevated heat signatures and for optical anomalies in the night sky.
The history of this search has seen many sharp turns, with radio SETI at one time embraced by NASA, subsequently de-funded because of congressional opposition, and then developed into a privately and philanthropically funded project of rigor and breadth at the SETI Institute. The other modes of SETI went pretty much underground and SETI became synonymous with radio searches for ET life.
But this history may be about to take another sharp turn as some in Congress and NASA have become increasingly interested in what are now called “technosignatures,” potentially detectable signatures and signals of the presence of distant advanced civilizations. Technosignatures are a subset of the larger and far more mature search for biosignatures — evidence of microbial or other primitive life that might exist on some of the billions of exoplanets we now know exist.
And as a sign of this renewed interest, a technosignatures conference was scheduled by NASA at the request of Congress (and especially retiring Republican Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas.) The conference took place in Houston late last month, and it was most interesting in terms of the new and increasingly sophisticated ideas being explored by scientists involved with broad-based SETI.
“There has been no SETI conference this big and this good in a very long time,” said Jason Wright, an astrophysicist and professor at Pennsylvania State University and chair of the conference’s science organizing committee. “We’re trying to rebuild the larger SETI community, and this was a good start.”