Home Science Space Have We Been Looking in the Wrong Place For Extraterrestrials?

Have We Been Looking in the Wrong Place For Extraterrestrials?

Are we the only intelligent species in the universe? Astronomers have asked this question for decades, and for the most part, so has the human race.

Space is huge, with billions of stars in our galaxy alone. So, how do we narrow down where to listen? Well, researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Germany and from McMaster University in Canada may have come up with the solution.

NASA’s Kepler spacecraft has discovered more than 1,000 exoplanets. However, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) has not been so successful. Does this mean that there are no extraterrestrials out there? Are really we alone?

Researchers René Heller and Ralph Pudritz believe the best chance we have to finding a signal would be to presume that any extraterrestrial observers would be using the same methods to search for us, that we are using to search for life in the universe.

The method

Researchers on earth focus their search efforts on planets and moons that are too far away to see directly. So they have to study them by tracking their shadows as they pass in front of their own host stars, called transit.

A wealth of information can be collected by measuring the dimming of starlight as a planet crosses the face of its star during orbit, even without seeing these worlds directly.

In a paper published in the journal Astrobiology, Heller and Pudritz ask: “What if extraterrestrial observers discover the earth as it transits our sun?”

Once the orbital period is known, Kepler's Third Law of Planetary Motion can be applied to determine the average distance of the planet from its stars. (Image:
Once the orbital period is known, Kepler’s Third Law of Planetary Motion can be applied to determine the average distance of the planet from its stars. (Image: NASA Ames)

What should be done?

If our interstellar neighbors are using the same methods that we are using on earth, then it makes sense for humanity to turn its collective ear to earth’s “transit zone,” which is a small piece of the universe from which our planet’s path in front of the sun can be distinguished.

Heller said in a statement:

Potential targets

There are approximately 100,000 potential targets within the transit zone. Each one has the potential to be orbited by habitable planets and moons, and that’s just the number we can see with today’s radio telescope technologies, say the researchers.

This narrows the area to look to about two thousandths of the entire sky. Heller said:

Narrow band: the image illustrates the transit zone, in which distant observers could see the Earth pass in front of the Sun. (Image: Axel Quetz (MPIA) / Axel Mellinger, Central Michigan University)
Search area: the image illustrates the transit zone, in which distant observers could see the earth pass in front of the sun. (Image: Axel Quetz (MPIA)/Axel Mellinger, Central Michigan University)

Heller and Pudritz wrote in their study:

Heller and Pudritz believe that with efforts like the “Breakthrough Listen Initiative,” which is part of a $100 million project over 10 years, hunting for extraterrestrial life should be focused on the “transit zone.”

More about the Breakthrough Initiatives:

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Troy Oakes
Troy was born and raised in Australia and has always wanted to know why and how things work, which led him to his love for science. He is a professional photographer and enjoys taking pictures of Australia's beautiful landscapes. He is also a professional storm chaser where he currently lives in Hervey Bay, Australia.

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