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A new study puts into perspective exactly how much of the universe that scientists have been able to search so far for signs of alien life. The research in The Astronomical Journal reveals that humans are just barely getting warmed up in the quest to find out if we have intelligent distant neighbors in the cosmos. Although we may not have found an alien signal or “techno-signature” yet, that is probably because we don’t know what to look for and haven’t really even begun to search.
Alien life is the needle in the cosmic haystack. But how much of that stack have we looked through? If we don’t know what that needle looks like in the first place, how do we begin to look? For all we know, aliens could be sending a loud an clear “Hey! Over here!” and we may have missed it because we aren’t looking in the right place for the right signal.
Graduate students in astronomy from Penn State University took part in a September 26 NASA techno-signature workshop in Houston. The astronomers wanted to calculate exactly how extensive searches for extraterrestrial intelligence or SETI have been up to this date.
To summarize, the group built a mathematical model based on a sphere of space 33,000 light-years in diameter, with Earth at the center. They examined 60 years worth of SETI projects to reconcile with the defined area and factored in eight dimensions of possible alien search methods.
Their calculations revealed just how minuscule the search has been so far.
“The researchers determined that humanity’s collective search for extraterrestrials added up to about 0.00000000000000058% of the haystack’s volume.
“This is about a bathtub of water in all of Earth’s oceans,” Kanodia said. “Or about a five-centimeter-by-five-centimeter patch of land on all of Earth’s surface area.”
To make that even clearer, hold your cell phone in your hand and consider that scientists haven’t covered nearly that much surface area in the search for extraterrestrial life. So you see, the search has barely scratched the surface. What’s more, if we don’t know what to look for, you could compare it to another analogy: Drinking a glass of ocean water to discover fish in the sea.
At least modern telescopes are getting better at searching, and there are many exciting ideas for how to search for advanced alien civilizations. For example, astrophysicist, astrobiologist and science educator, Dr. Brendan Mullan, believed that one way we might find alien civilizations is to look for infrared radiation and heat given off from Dyson spheres or swarms.
In 1960, the Physicist and astronomer Freeman J. Dyson proposed that advanced alien civilizations would inevitably come up with a way to harness the power of suns by using a Dyson sphere. The sphere could be an enormous solar power collection system, perhaps even encircling an entire star. On the other hand, it could be a swarm of objects orbiting a star to harness the unlimited energy.
If alien civilizations have taken the same road that modern humans have, then they would use more and more energy every year, until they finally needed to tap into the ultimate source: a sun. However, after Mullan and his colleagues studied data of infrared radiation in the universe, they found no sign of any Dyson swarms at all.
While it doesn’t prove there aren’t alien civilizations, perhaps it does show us something else: Advanced civilizations must still work within the laws of physics. If that civilization uses up too much energy, then it could self-destruct.
“If we keep building this bridge as we have done. If we keep using more and more energy every year, our energy use will render the planet uninhabitable by the end of the 24th century, if not sooner. The bridge is dangerous,” noted Dr. Mullan.
In the end, the ways that we search for alien civilizations could teach us that we have much to learn about how to create a sustainable and prosperous future for ourselves here on earth. We might also consider: A truly advanced civilization might not want to be found by a species as hell-bent on self-destruction as ours currently seems to be. In that case, we’ve only just begun to search for intelligent life in the universe that doesn’t want to be found.
See Dr. Brendan Mullan discuss “How Searching for Aliens Can Guide Our Future” below: