Hunting For Alien Civilizations: SETI To Survey A Million Star Systems In Next 20 Years

Technological advances in telescopes, observational equipment, and computers are at the forefront of what portends to be rapid advancements in the continuing search for extraterrestrial intelligence, scientists told House lawmakers last week. Such developments in the next 20 years will enable the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute and other alien-hunting agencies to gather information faster and more reliably, thus aiding in the search for alien civilizations.

As Space reported last week, scientists involved in research for SETI, which has been on the hunt for signs of alien life and tell-tale markers of extraterrestrial civilizations for over half a century, were in Washington to lobby for government funding for astronomical projects, testifying before the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. Among them was Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, who provided congress with details concerning the current state of SETI initiatives, one of which is the ongoing search for artificial radio signals that could possibly be productions of intelligent aliens.

“This experiment will only succeed if we can look at about a million or so star systems,” Shostak told the House committee. “That would have taken thousands of years with the current technology. Thanks to improvements, mostly in computers, that is speeding up by orders of magnitude. Over next 20 years we will be able to look at about a million other star systems.”

Still, Shostak could not guarantee that after perusing those million star systems that even a single alien civilization would be detected. He was hopeful, betting the assembled congresspersons a cup of coffee that extraterrestrials would be found by SETI in the next couple decades, but he quickly added, “I may have to buy a lot of coffee.”

Shostak’s prediction was a simple updated reiteration of the claim he made in 2014, where he told a gathering of scientists at a 2014 NASA symposium at Stanford University that aliens would be discovered within the next quarter century. He said then that in the coming years, SETI will have scanned enough star systems to give it a good shot at detecting alien electromagnetic signals.

“I think we’ll find E.T. within two dozen years using these sorts of experiments.”

Alien civilization with aircraft
SETI scientist Seth Shostak has predicted that an alien civilization will be detected within the next two decades. [Image by Juan Manuel Rodriguez/Shutterstock]

Improvements that will be implemented in the next few years will include the ever-increasing power of computer processing capabilities. Such capabilities will enable scientists to write computer software to analyze the increased data flow.

“Instead of looking at one star at a time, which is what we’ve done … you could look at tens, hundreds, even thousands of stars at a time with enough computer-processing capability,” Shostak said. “And of course that capability is coming down the pipe.”

Shostak also said that machine learning would be incorporated in future endeavors. This would allow computers to search for multiple patterns that could signify artificiality (as opposed to the limited single pattern searched for at present), thus broadening the chances of signal recognition. It would also significantly speed up the search.

Shostak also told House lawmakers about the current SETI effort to find artificial radio signals among the closely grouped exoplanets in the recently discovered TRAPPIST-1 star system; all seven of whose planets orbit within a distance closer than Mercury to our own sun. He was joined by Adam Burgasser, a professor of physics at the University of California and a co-discoverer of the TRAPPIST-1 exoplanets, who said that it was possible that the worlds, three of which are known to be in the red dwarf star’s habitable zone, may have developed life, perhaps even life that has evolved into a planet-spanning civilization.

Likening the alien civilization to a “mini federation of planets,” Burgasser stated that SETI was using its Allen Telescope Array in California to search for potential radio signals between the TRAPPIST-1 planets. He explained that the astronomers “wait for planets to line up and then see if there’s any difference in the amount of radio radiation coming our way. Because at that point, you’re looking down a communication pipeline between these planets.”

Alien civilization on dying planet
Civilizations on exoplanets such as exist in the TRAPPIST-1 system may communicate between each other, making them prime targets for SETI searches. [Image by Angela Harburn/Shutterstock]

Candidates for exoplanets that might be found potentially habitable are being found more and more often, which also increases the chances of detecting an alien civilization. As of May 4, the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia listed 3,610 confirmed exoplanets. Although only a small portion of these worlds might be home to alien life, and even a smaller portion of those may have developed into a civilization capable of producing artificial radio waves, the more that are detected gives rise to hope that one day humanity will be found to share the universe with other intelligent beings.

And if that alien civilization should be found in the next 20 years, a few people will owe Seth Shostak a cup of coffee.

[Featured Image by Angela Harburn/Shutterstock]