Upcoming missions could search for ancient alien technology in the solar system
Over sixty years ago, the first search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), known as Project Ozma, was conducted. This campaign was led by legendary astronomer Frank Drake, who relied on the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT) in West Virginia to listen to Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani for any signs of radio transmission. Since then, the field of SETI has become more sophisticated thanks to more advanced radio telescopes, better data analysis and international collaboration. In the years to come, SETI will also benefit from advances in exoplanet studies and next-generation instruments and surveys.
In addition to examining exoplanets for signs of technological activity (aka “technosignatures”), there are also those who recommend that we look for them here at home. Examples include the Galileo project, which is dedicated to the study of interstellar objects (ISO) and unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP). There’s also the Penn State Extraterrestrial Intelligence Center, a research group dedicated to advancing SETI through the search for technosignatures. In a recent article, they discuss how future SETI efforts should consider searching for alien technology in our solar system.
The PSETI Center is made up of researchers from Penn State University, the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science (BMSIS), the SETI Institute, the Planetary Science Institute (PSI), NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory ( JPL) and several universities. . The paper they recently authored was the subject of a report titled “Opportunities for Technosignature Science in the Planetary Science and Astrobiology Decadal Survey” presented at the First Penn State SETI Symposium – which took place from 27 to June 30th.
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Throughout its history, the SETI domain has focused primarily on observing distant star systems and galaxies for signs of technological activity. These investigations have all looked for signs of radio transmissions as this is the most effective method of communication based on well-known physics (by our standards). But in the years to come, SETI researchers hope to expand their network and look for other means of communication, such as directed energy, neutrinos and even gravitational waves. These and other possibilities were described in NASA’s Technosignature report, published in 2019.
Additionally, there is a growing movement among SETI researchers who want to expand the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) here at home. Dr. Jacob Haqq-Misra, senior scientist at the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science and lead author of the report, is one such person. Haqq-Misra’s research focuses on the conditions that allow life to emerge and thrive in the Universe and the ability to detect life on other planets through signs of biological activity (“biosignatures”). ) or technological. As he told Universe Today via email:
“Most SETI research has focused on finding technosignatures in other star systems, [while] only a handful have searched for technosignatures in our own solar system. We can’t rule out the possibility of technosignatures in the solar system yet, so it would be interesting to watch. »
For years, Haqq-Misra’s work has also focused on the types of technosignatures we should be looking for. This included a NASA-funded study he conducted in 2020 alongside Professor Adam Frank of the University of Rochester, Avi Loeb and Manasvi Lingam of the Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and Jason Wright of the Pennsylvania State University. This study aimed to look for traces of chlorofluorocarbons (CFS) – specifically tetrafluoromethane (CF4) and trichlorofluoromethane (CCl3F) – in the atmospheres of exoplanets and large arrays of solar panels.
Earlier this year, Haqq-Misra teamed up again with Frank, Wright, Lingam and other colleagues to author a study on how the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) could search for extraterrestrial civilizations by looking for signs of air pollution. But as Haqq-Misra expressed, SETI research must also expand to take into account technological activity and objects that might be here in our solar system. These efforts have received a boost in recent years, thanks to interstellar objects (ISOs) like ‘Oumuamua (which flew past Earth in 2017) and 2I/Borisov, detected two years later.
The detection of these objects confirmed what astronomers had suspected for some time, that ISOs regularly enter the solar system. Other research has shown that some of these visitors are periodically captured by the solar system and has even suggested where some of them might be found today. Last but not least, multiple proposals have been made since 2017 for missions that could encounter ‘Oumuamua or intercept future ISOs and recover samples from them. If even one of these ISOs were of artificial origin, the scientific fallout would be immeasurable.
If there are Von Neumann probes in the solar system – particularly in the main asteroid belt, the Kuiper belt and the Oort cloud, where they would be most difficult to detect – then relatively inexpensive missions to search for them might provide similar returns. Haqq-Misra described the form these missions could take and how they could search for possible technosignatures:
“Orbiters, rovers and probes that explore planetary bodies would be well suited to limit the presence of technosignatures on surfaces. Missions that observe small bodies such as asteroids and Kuiper Belt Objects would be ideal for searching for artifacts floating or orbiting in space. Ground and space observatories may also be able to help with research.
These goals are consistent with the Decade Survey of Planetary Science and Astrobiology (2023-2032) compiled by the National Research Council (NRC) and published on April 19, 2022. The survey recommends several missions for the next decade, such as a Uranus Orbiter and Probe (UOP), an Enceladus orbiter and lander, and crewed exploration of the Moon and Mars. An ISO interceptor mission is also recommended, like the Comet Interceptor mission that the European Space Agency (ESA) and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) are developing. As stated in the survey:
“Over the next decade, the rate of discovery of ISOs is expected to increase significantly. By discovering and characterizing other ISOs, we can compare them to small populations of solar system bodies and potentially narrow down their birthplace. Haqq-Misra and his colleagues note in their report that such a mission would also offer opportunities to limit the presence of technosignatures on ISOs. As he explained, this would require no changes to the mission architecture or instrumentation:
“We encourage scientists and mission planners to consider the kind of technosignature science they can already do with their existing solar system exploration program. Our report highlights a number of ways the recommendations of the 10-Year Survey could advance the science of technosignature without the need to add new instrumentation. For example, the current Mars exploration program may impose constraints on technosignatures on the surface of Mars by analyzing high-resolution images from other Mars sciences.
The objectives of the PSETI report are also consistent with those of the Galileo project, which will rely on astronomical, atmospheric and space observations (combined with machine learning algorithms) to characterize ISOs and UAFs. The project will rely on instruments such as the Vera C. Rubin Observatory (VRO), which will detect ISOs as they enter our solar system (at the rate of two per month) once it begins its Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST). Along with the many next-generation observatories that will soon be operational, the number of known ISOs is expected to increase exponentially.
In the meantime, Haqq-Misra and his team hope their paper will inspire aspiring SETI researchers and veterans to look beyond traditional boundaries. With a few simple modifications, missions destined for locations throughout the solar system in the coming years could also become frontline SETI missions. As Haqq-Misra summarizes:
“We hope our report will encourage scientists, mission planners and administrators to consider the relevance of technosignature science for their existing and planned missions. We have many capabilities to limit the prevalence of technosignatures in the solar system, and so it is worth considering this possibility as we continue to explore the solar system.
Throughout our solar system, there are countless places where extinct alien spacecraft could linger. According to recent research, ISOs captured by the solar system are most often found between the orbits of Jupiter and Neptune. As for working probes and Von Neumann machines, smart money says they would be beyond Neptune’s orbit, residing in the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud. As far as we know, there could be dozens of probes in our solar system searching for biosignatures and technosignatures themselves!
Further reading: arXiv