Once in a while, you might ponder what’s really up there in the night sky. Now, researchers from the Max Planck Institute for the Solar System Research and McMaster University believe that if there is extraterrestrial life, it’s had a good chance to discover our planet.
When a planet passes in front of a star, it can cause it to dim. This transit, as it has been called, can be measurable, depending on the size of the planet. A similar technique involving the scanning of exoplanet atmospheres may eventually help astronomers discover indicators of life.
“It might take us less than a human life span to find out whether or not there are extraterrestrial astronomers who have found the Earth,” said Rene Heller from MPS. “They may have detected Earth’s biogenic atmosphere and started to contact whoever is home.”
The researchers argue that future searches for alien signals should be a focus of the “Breakthrough Listen” project. The $100 million initiative is set to scan more than one million stars in the Milky Way, as well as other nearby galaxies. Specifically, the researchers would like to see a search focused on 10,000 stars that exist within 3,260 light years of Earth, but there are no plans to do so under “Breakthrough Listen.”
Since 2009, NASA’s Kepler spacecraft has found more than 1,000 worlds, according to Nature. Today, there is a notable shift toward discovering extraterrestrial life.
In 2010, the Allen Telescope Array began looking for signals that could be coming from an area of space directly opposite of the sun, according to Seth Shostak, astronomer at the SETI Institute. At the time, researchers wanted to see if aliens were timing any transmissions to reach our planet as it transited the Sun. After no signals were recorded, the group decided to quit.
Within the next five years, the European Space Agency’s Gaia satellite is going to set out to discover the nearby stars in the Earth transit zone. Only time will tell if the initiative will pay off in the form of alien contact.
Heller says that he will continue to use data from the Kepler follow-on mission to look for more planets and, of course, signals of alien life.
In 2024, the European Space Agency intends to launch the PLATO mission, which will use transit methods to find small planets and potentially Earth-like planets around stars. Now is a good time to keep an eye on all things astronomy.
“Eavesdropping on aliens.” Max-Planck-Gesellschaft. Published March 1, 2016.
Merali, Zeeya. “Search for extraterrestrial intelligence gets a $100-million boost.” Nature. Published July 20, 2015.
Witze, Alexandra. “ET Search: Look for aliens looking for Earth.” Nature. Published March 1, 2016.