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After searching 10 million stars for signs of life, researchers find nothing

Published Sep 8th, 2020 9:08PM EDT
search for aliens
Image: NASA

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  • Scientists using a powerful radio telescope array scanned over 10 million stars in the hunt for technological signatures that would indicate the presence of intelligent life.
  • After scouring the data, the researchers found no evidence of the signals they were searching for.
  • There are some big “what ifs,” however, and the search for life will continue.

If you’ve been dreaming of the day when humans will finally detect intelligence somewhere far off in space, you’re going to have to wait a while longer. Astronomers are eager to detect signs of life somewhere other than Earth, and a team using a powerful radio telescope array in Australia took it upon themselves to scan the cosmos for hints of intelligent life.

This was no small project: The scientists examined over 10 million stars in their effort to detect signals that would indicate the presence of some kind of alien technology. If we believe that technological advancements are a mark of intelligent life, we should be able to detect them from far away, but after examining the data the researchers came up empty-handed.

The study, which was published in Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia, explains how the team went about searching for signs of advanced life. It gets pretty technical, but the general idea is that when a civilization reaches a certain level of technological advancement — as humans have — the radio signals it both intentionally and unintentionally beams into space can be detected from a great distance.

There are, of course, limitations to this approach. For one, the farther away a star and its planets are from Earth, the longer it would take for those signals to reach us. In a scan of over 10 million stars (and presumably many exoplanets orbiting those stars), the researchers didn’t hear anything that would indicate the presence of life. However, it’s still possible that intelligent life has emerged on those unseen worlds, and the signals just haven’t reached us yet.

The other limitation is the fact that we really can’t be certain that radio signals are a reliable indicator of intelligent life. Humans had accomplished a great many things before they started beaming signals into space, so it’s not a stretch to imagine an alien race that is intelligent but hasn’t yet dabbled in the same kinds of technology that humans have.

So, no, scientists haven’t been able to detect technological signatures that would indicate an alien race with a similar level of technical knowhow as humans. Still, that doesn’t mean they aren’t out there. Alien life may exist in abundance on many planets that haven’t followed the same technology path as we have. At this point, we simply don’t know.

In the not-so-distant future, more powerful space telescopes may be able to scan the atmospheres of distant exoplanets in search of biosignatures, which would indicate the presence of life, but not necessarily intelligent life. When that data starts to come in, things may get a lot more interesting.