Searching for technologically advanced civilizations inhabiting distant exoplanets is the astrobiological equivalent of swinging for the fences.
While much of the search of extraterrestrial life is now focused on microbes and chemical biosignatures in exoplanet atmospheres that would likely be byproducts of life, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (or SETI) takes a very different approach.
SETI practitioners scan the skies for radio signals, and now laser signals, that are irregular and different from what is naturally produced. Were such a signal to be detected, then it would be studied as the potential work of extraterrestrial life that is highly advanced — perhaps far more so than we Earthlings.
This search has been going on since Cornell University astronomer Frank Drake began it 1960 and has advanced (in steps large and small) ever since. The biggest financial boost to the search took place five years ago when techno-billionaire Yuri Milner, in partnership with Stephen Hawking and other prominent scientists, set up the Breakthrough Listen project with $100 million to buy telescope time and to greatly expand the SETI search.
And as part of that expanded search, radio telescopes focused on the crowded galactic center of the Milky Way for 600 observing hours. The thinking was that stars and likely exoplanets are most plentiful in that central region — some 60 million stars in the line of sight into the galactic center at low astronomical frequencies; 500,000 at higher frequencies — and so the chances of finding a signal were perhaps higher.
Some preliminary and partial results of that effort were recently released and, unfortunately, no signals were found. That has been the fate of all SETI searches so far.
But as SETI scientists explain, the night sky is huge and the percentage of stars (and their exoplanets) that have been sampled remains quite small.
This latest effort was unique in that it was the “most sensitive and deepest targeted SETI” survey ever done of the galactic center, as the SETI scientists write in a study set to be published in the Astronomical Journal (a preprint is currently available on the arXiv).… Read more