Will Powerful New Tools Finally Let Us Hear Alien Civilizations?
The most potent effort yet to find extraterrestrial life is searching for beings that may not want to be found
By Seth Shostak
What could motivate extraterrestrial civilizations to beam electromagnetic signals into space? They might be using them for navigation or entertainment, or as a way of pinging our solar system to see if anyone’s home. Whatever the case, detecting such transmissions would be the easiest way for humankind to prove that someone else is out there, and astronomers have made intermittent attempts to eavesdrop on alien broadcasts for six decades.
These initiatives are collectively known as SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Its history dates back to 1960, when astronomer Frank Drake aimed an 85-foot antenna at two relatively close star systems, hoping to pick up an alien signal. It was a simple, two-week experiment using already-existing equipment. Although Drake failed to discover any transmissions, his work excited the public and spawned further attempts.
Early this year, the SETI Institute (where I work) and the University of California, Berkeley, launched COSMIC, a new project that is about a thousand times more comprehensive than Drake’s pioneering effort. It will search for alien signals—both intentional and unintentional—from some 40 million star systems by analyzing massive amounts of data from the Very Large Array, an ensemble of 27 antennas dotting the scrub deserts of western New Mexico. The researchers have also deployed cameras designed to look for powerful flashing lasers that could be used by extraterrestrials to beam information between star systems, much like a ship semaphore.