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How might we detect possible intelligent life beyond Earth?

September 28, 2018
artist illutration of a compact soloar system with five planets around a central bright starThe discover of exoplanets orbiting sun-like stars has changed the whole nature of how we look for life on other planets, says University of Rochester astrophysicist Adam Frank. (NASA/JPL-Caltech photo)

If all the stars in the universe are compared to the ocean, then researchers have so far only looked at a hot-tub’s worth.

“There’s so much to look at, and we’ve done so little of it so far,” Rochester professor of astrophysics Adam Frank told NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly in a segment of All Things Considered. “If you’re interested in whether or not there are dolphins in the ocean and you’ve looked at one hot tub and you didn’t find a dolphin, would you then say, oh, there are no dolphins in the ocean?”

Frank appeared on NPR to discuss NASA’s Technosignatures Workshop, which he recently attended in Houston. At the invitation-only conference, researchers explored possible ways to discover intelligent life beyond Earth.

“A technosignature is basically any signal or evidence you can find that there is a technology-using civilization out there,” Frank said. Conference participants discussed alternatives to merely waiting for “intentional signals” sent by intelligent life, including looking for satellites or pollution in the atmosphere of distant planets or using heat signatures to detect possible industrial civilizations.

“What has really changed now is the discovery of exoplanets—we’ve found all these planets orbiting other stars whereas, 20 years ago, we didn’t know whether there were any planets orbiting any other stars,” Frank said. “And that changes the whole nature of how we go about looking for them.”

These are themes Frank explores in his recent book, Light Of The Stars: Alien Worlds And The Fate Of The Earth, which poses questions about alien civilizations, climate change, and what life on other worlds tells us about our own fate on Earth.

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Category: Voices & Opinion