According to astronomers who met this past January, Congress, scientists and the rest of the world need to start taking the potential of finding extraterrestrial life more seriously. Not just by searching for alien life, but anything that could indicate the presence of that potential life.
Decades of study and developing powerful telescopes to peer into the universe, and the number and type of exoplanets found as a result of those telescopes have turned into troves of data. And the discovery of hundreds of exoplanets.
Recently, a group of astronomers met at a Seattle, Washington, American Astronomical Society meeting with an agenda determined to figure out how the SETI program will continue, but going forward, having NASA at the helm.
SETI research began in 1960 when the author of the Drake Equation, Frank Drake, used radio telescopes to search for intelligent life via radio signals. It wasn’t until 1992 that NASA took an interest and Congress allowed funding, but then canceled it a year later.
The astronomers hope to get Congress to fund the program again with a report put together using data from their decades of research, and that comes from a NASA request. They intend to deliver the report to Congress in 2020, and it will tell NASA how to look for extraterrestrial life without looking for actual life signs, or the building blocks of life.
Essentially, astronomers have been looking for a needle in a haystack that amounts to about the size of a cup of water from the ocean, with that cup of water being about the size of the sky we’ve been able to search to date. Believing that no extraterrestrial life exists just because we can’t find it in a cup of water is absurd.
So scientists want to use SETI to start looking for things like other, non-biological or exoplanetary signs of life, including what they’re calling technosignatures. This can include anything from technology that appears alien in origin, heat emitted from things other than stars, radio signals, and more.
According to Jason Wright, an astronomer at Penn State University said that the meetings’ attendees believe that:
“The stakes are high … If the decadal survey says, ‘SETI is a national science priority, and NSF and NASA need to fund it,’ they will do it … If NASA were to declare technosignatures a scientific priority, then we would be able to apply for money to work on it. We would be able to train students to do it. Then we could catch up [to more mature fields of astronomy].”
The report the astronomers are preparing will essentially determine which astrophysical and astronomical studies will receive federal funding. Called the Astro 2020: Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics, it will also determine which telescopes and other equipment get funding over the next decade.
Currently, the SETI Institute funds SETI, which is a private investor founded by the inspiration for the main character that Jodi Foster played in Contact, Jill Tarter. Although Congress funded it for some time at various points since the SETI’s inception through NASA, getting SETI back on NASA’s agenda is a high priority for multiple reasons.
NASA has technology and access to other resources SETI doesn’t because of funding issues. Tarter hopes that ultimately, SETI will be funded by a mix of state, federal, and private funding. Hence, the meet and report because at a minimum, it takes $2 million a year to fund SETI locally.
The data generated for part of the report, which NASA asked for in 2018, details the different types of technosignatures could exist that scientists could look for. It also covers the technology available, limitations, and potential for the future.
Since the discovery of so many exoplanets, and the frequency with which they’re found, scientists have seen a surge in NASA activity in activities deemed to be part of SETI. For this and other reasons, the group hopes that NASA and Congress are finally ready to take back over and get serious about searching for alien life.
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