A NASA search for evidence of alien life in about 100,000 galaxies across the universe was either a complete disappointment — or the most exciting discovery in decades, depending on which scientists you listen to.
In a new study released last week, a team of astronomers using data and images from the NASA WISE observatory satellite, said that despite scouring a huge number of galaxies for signs of unusual amounts of radiation which could indicate highly advanced civilizations, they found, well, nothing that jumped out at them.
“The idea behind our research is that, if an entire galaxy had been colonized by an advanced spacefaring civilization, the energy produced by that civilization’s technologies would be detectable in mid-infrared wavelengths — exactly the radiation that the WISE satellite was designed to detect for other astronomical purposes,” said Penn State University astrobiologist Jason T. Wright.
The idea — first proposed about 50 years ago by theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson — is that if a super-advanced civilization had somehow managed to colonize an entire galaxy, the galaxy itself would give off tiny but detectable signs of excess radiation.
The radiation would come from the super-civilization’s use of highly advanced technology. Just as an ordinary laptop computer, cell phone, or microwave oven here on Earth gives off small amounts of radiation, the accumulated energy from hundreds of billions of alien computers and cell phones — and so on — throughout an inhabited galaxy would be detectable from light years away by trained astronomers working with sophisticated equipment.
Though in the case of a super-civilization capable of taking over an entire galaxy Star Wars-style, the radiation would come from unimaginable technology that sucks energy from the galaxy’s stars themselves.
But out of 100,000 galaxies, the research team based at Penn State saw nothing that obviously indicated the type of radiation they were looking for.
Or did they?
“We found about 50 galaxies that have unusually high levels of mid-infrared radiation,” noted another Penn State researcher, Roger Griffith. “Our follow-up studies of those galaxies may reveal if the origin of their radiation results from natural astronomical processes — or if it could indicate the presence of a highly advanced civilization.”
Wright added that even in the other 99,950 galaxies in the study, more research is needed, using technology that can detect even lower levels of radiation that could indicate the presence of somewhat less advanced mega-civilizations.
“As we look more carefully at the light from these galaxies, we should be able to push our sensitivity to alien technology down to much lower levels, and to better distinguish heat resulting from natural astronomical sources from heat produced by advanced technologies,” Wright said, adding that the quest for evidence of alien life is just getting started.