Astronomers are hoping to make looking for alien technology an official science goal of NASA.
Some scientists are pushing for NASA to make looking for alien technology an official goal
Long an underfunded, fringe field of science, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence may be ready to go mainstream.
Astronomer Jason Wright is determined to see that happen. At a meeting in Seattle of the American Astronomical Society in January, Wright convened “a little ragtag group in a tiny room” to plot a course for putting the scientific field, known as SETI, on NASA’s agenda.
The group is writing a series of papers arguing that scientists should be searching the universe for “technosignatures” — any sign of alien technology, from radio signals to waste heat. The hope is that those papers will go into a report to Congress at the end of 2020 detailing the astronomical community’s priorities. That report, Astro 2020: Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics, will determine which telescopes fly and which studies receive federal funding through the next decade.
“The stakes are high,” says Wright, of Penn State University. “If the decadal survey says, ‘SETI is a national science priority, and NSF and NASA need to fund it,’ they will do it.”
SETI searches date back to 1960, when astronomer Frank Drake used a radio telescope in Green Bank, W.Va., to listen for signals from an intelligent civilization (SN Online: 11/1/09). But NASA didn’t start a formal SETI program until 1992, only to see it canceled within a year by a skeptical Congress.
Private organizations picked up the baton, including the SETI Institute, founded in Mountain View, Calif., in 1985 by astronomer Jill Tarter — the inspiration for Jodie Foster’s character in the movie Contact (SN Online: 5/29/12). Then in 2015, Russian billionaires Yuri and Julia Milner launched the Breakthrough Initiatives to join the hunt for E.T. But the search for technosignatures still hasn’t become a more serious, self-sustaining scientific discipline, Wright says.
“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,” Wright says. “Then we could catch up” to more mature fields of astronomy, he says.
Wright himself is a relative newcomer to SETI, entering the field in 2014 with a study on searching for heat from alien technology. He was also one of a group to suggest that the oddly flickering “Tabby’s star” could be surrounded by an alien megastructure — and then to debunk that idea with more data (SN: 9/30/17, p. 11).
nline, November 1, 2009.