Over the next three years, a team of scientists will kick-start a bold project. Funded by the American space agency, NASA, researchers from different universities in the United States will develop a kind of guide to find evidence of extraterrestrial civilizations on other planets.
The project represents a small revolution in the search for intelligent extraterrestrial life (SETI) and is the first of its kind to receive financial support from the agency in three decades.
In an interview with BBC News Brasil, the physicist and astronomer who leads the research, Adam Frank, from the University of Rochester, said that the work will be based on the concept of “techno-signatures”, that is, in the search for evidence of the use of technology by extraterrestrial civilizations.
Unlike previous research, however, the idea is not to depend on signals sent by the aliens. Instead of trying to capture radio waves that may eventually reach us, the project aims to establish how certain technologies we know, also potentially used by intelligent alien races, could be detected visually through telescopes.
“You can think of techno signatures as part of SETI, but in fact they represent an expansion of that search. It is a new direction, which is only possible thanks to the discovery of other planets outside the Solar System,” explains Frank.
The astronomer refers to the official confirmation of the existence of planets orbiting other stars in our galaxy, which occurred in 1995. Since then, it is already known that there are more than 4 thousand exoplanets, as they are known, some of them within regions considered to be conducive to life. .
“The doubt about the existence of planets orbiting other stars dates back to the Greeks, some 2,500 years ago, and was only answered 25 years ago. After we found the first ones, we quickly realized that the galaxy was full of them. And, when you have planets, you also have a place to look in the search for extraterrestrial civilizations “, explains the astronomer.
2 of 3 Physicist and astronomer Adam Frank, from the University of Rochester in the United States, leads the research to ‘hunt down’ signs of alien civilizations – Photo: Disclosure via BBC
Physicist and astronomer Adam Frank, from the University of Rochester in the United States, leads the research to ‘hunt down’ signs of alien civilizations – Photo: Disclosure via BBC
Frank first came into contact with outer space at the age of 5. Her father was a journalist and maintained a library with several editions of science fiction magazines. “I remember going downstairs and taking a look at the covers, which had illustrations of people floating around the moon in their spaceships.”
Later, he began to devour science fiction books. He says he has a special interest in alien life forms from an early age. It was only recently, however, that he addressed the topic professionally, after an academic career mainly dedicated to studying the formation and death of stars.
From the publication of his latest book, Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth, in which he questions how the discovery of alien civilizations could affect our perception of the future of mankind, Frank did dive into that universe.
The research proposal that received support from NASA was born two years ago, during a techno-signatures workshop organized by the agency, in Houston, Texas. Today, the project also includes professors and researchers Avi Loeb, from Harvard University, Jacob-Haqq Misra, from the Blue Marble Space organization, Manasvi Lingam, from the Florida Institute of Technology, and Jason Wright, from Pennsylvania State University.
Frank points out that the research, with a maximum duration of three years, marks the beginning of a much larger project, which should extend for decades, and which initially will cover only two types of techno-signatures.
Looking for signs of intelligence
The choice to look for techno-signatures comes from the insistence of the group of scientists to find intelligent life. The focus differs, for example, from those who choose to search for bio signatures, an area that historically has received more incentives from NASA and that seeks evidence of any kind of life, which would also include beings like plants and microorganisms.
“Nasa has heavily funded searches for bio-signatures, with a big effort to find ‘dumb’ life forms, but would it ever support smart life research? It just doesn’t make any more sense,” says Frank.
Over the next three years, with still relatively modest financial support from the agency (approximately US $ 300,000, or about R $ 1.59 million), scientists will seek to better understand the visual signatures that can be generated by two clues specific to the existence of technology, at a distance of several light years: pollution and the use of solar energy.
“In relation to pollution, we must look specifically for signs of CFC (chlorofluorocarbons), a chemical generated by refrigeration devices and which has been banned here due to the damage it causes to the ozone layer. We also want to establish which signature would leave the light reflected solar panels, in case a civilization, like ours, had the idea to collect energy from a star on a large scale. ”
If all goes well, these should be the first topics to be included in a catalog of techno-signatures that will be developed more extensively over the next few decades and will serve as a guide for astronomers looking at other planets for clues to intelligent life.
The researcher adds that scholars should have plenty of time to complete the catalog until the records can actually be put into practice, as the instruments to capture this information with the necessary effectiveness are yet to be developed.
According to Frank, only the next generations of optical telescopes, with diameters that “can reach the size of a football field” (approximately 110 meters), will have a range that will allow analyzing the techno signatures of these planets. “Only then will we be able to observe whether the spectrum found in the light emitted by them corresponds to the digital ones we are predicting.”
The quest that never happened
3 of 3 Scientists will seek to better understand the visual signatures that can be generated by pollution and the use of solar energy – Photo: Getty Images via BBC
Scientists will seek to better understand the visual signatures that can be generated by pollution and the use of solar energy – Photo: Getty Images via BBC
Contrary to conspiracy theories, many of which claim that the American government and scientists have been studying alien specimens on the sly for decades, the astronomer says that very little scientific research on intelligent life off Earth has actually been done so far.
In fact, according to him, humanity has been crawling scientifically in this area, which still suffers from a lack of significant funding and whose main advances would have happened “thanks to a handful of astronomers willing to spend their free time looking through the lens of the telescope”.
“People have this notion that there are scientists looking for signs of intelligent civilizations every day. They think that we are deeply engaged in this search, that we have mapped the whole sky and found nothing,” explains Frank. “This couldn’t be further from reality.”
The researcher also recalls that there was an attempt on the part of NASA to launch a more ambitious program of search for intelligent life in the 1990s. The initiative, however, ended up being blocked by the American Congress, for reasons that vary from the control of expenses to the prejudice that still existed against the search for aliens.
For the astronomer, the importance of the enterprise is obvious. Learning about other civilizations would help us to better understand the future of ours, especially in relation to the challenges we must face for the survival of humanity. Among them, climate change.
“We don’t even know if the nature of the Universe allows for the creation of long-term civilizations. Perhaps every civilization, if there really are others, will get to where we are, start something like global warming, and then be extinct 200 years later “, says Frank.
On the other hand, discovering the existence of much older civilizations can mean that there is a possible future for us and that we have many lessons to learn from our neighbors, even though establishing this dialogue is an extremely complicated task – depending on the distance, a message could take hundreds of years to arrive and the same time to return to us.
This is one of the reasons why the astronomer is betting that observing traces of technology and the way of life of an extraterrestrial civilization from Earth could be enough to study its trajectory and, who knows, learn something from it.
Frank assures that today the environment is much more conducive to the search for intelligent life, both thanks to the discovery of habitable planets and the popularization of science fiction, which is no longer the “nerd thing” that was 50 years ago and has become an integral part of our culture.
“Before, it used to be a laughing matter. If you were a scientist in 1975 and …