SETI Wants New Ideas: Search Is On For Alien Life Forms Of All Kinds, Not Just The Intelligent Ones

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has been an ongoing endeavor for over six decades now, and given the ever-expanding possibilities for the potential detection of alien life, the SETI Institute has announced it is seeking out different, perhaps even somewhat iconoclastic perspectives and ideas that will enhance the search for extraterrestrial life — both intelligent and otherwise — in the universe. A recent paper is asking the astronomy community to aid in the search, and those on the hunt will be able to most efficiently target exoplanets that are most likely to sustain some form of alien life.

Space.com reported on July 14 that Nathalie Cabrol, SETI Institute’s senior research scientist and director of the Carl Sagan Center, believes that the search for extraterrestrials should not be as restricted in its guidelines as has been the case in the past, where the search for alien life has centered around ideas geared toward the existence of intelligent and/or technological life forms. In a paper published by Astrobiology magazine, Cabrol proposes that SETI open itself to simply finding life in the universe and embracing ideas that would aid in providing the most efficient search methods.

Cabrol is looking for ideas — in essence “a new scientific roadmap for SETI” — that go beyond the search for intelligent extraterrestrials and push the margins further than the anthropocentric ideas that have guided SETI searches in the past. Her proposal, she thinks, will vastly increase the possibilities of actually discovering alien life forms in the universe.

“Ultimately, SETI’s vision should no longer be constrained by whether ET has technology, resembles us, or thinks like us. The approach presented here will make these attributes less relevant, which will vastly expand the potential sampling pool and search methods, ultimately increasing the odds of detection.”

And Cabrol has every reason to be hopeful that alien life can and will be found. NASA just announced a trove of 104 newly confirmed exoplanets via its Kepler Space Telescope’s K2 mission. This now increases the number of confirmed Kepler exoplanets to 2,453, according to Smithsonian magazine. The NASA Exoplanet Archive lists 3,368 confirmed exoplanets from a multitude of astronomical research sources as of July 18. Given technological improvements to both telescopes and computational platforms, the chances of actually detecting at least some form of alien life rise precipitously with the increasing number of exoplanets.

Cabrol points out in her paper that alien life does not necessarily conform to our more established conceptions of how some life forms exist, noting that a disequilibrium in an exoplanet’s atmospheric signature might be a clue as to whether or not it sustains or has sustained life.

Space.com presents the following example.

“If scientists see a lot of silicon in an atmosphere that physics predicts would have little, perhaps that could show silicon-based life there.”

Such thinking is borne out by none other than her SETI Institute colleague, Seth Shostak, who presented just such a fact with regard to Earth on his SETI.org blog. He pointed out the Earth’s oxygen signature has broadcast the presence of life for extraterrestrials that might be on the lookout for more than two billion years.

The senior research scientist even admits that SETI’s mission has been driven by the end results of the Drake Equation (the fame mathematical formula conceived by astronomer Frank Drake that calculates the existence of intelligent alien life in the universe) and that searching for intelligent extraterrestrials excludes aliens that cannot or have yet to develop communicating skills and/or technology. In short, such searching leaves out quite a bit of potential harbors of alien life that might not have risen — or might never rise — to certain levels of intelligence or become sophisticated enough to form civilizations and advanced technology.

Nathalie Cabrol’s hope is that the astronomy community will come together next year when the SETI Institute plans to host a workshop in brainstorming other methods of searching for alien life.

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