“Somewhere in the cosmos, perhaps, intelligent life may be watching these lights of ours, aware of what they mean,” Stephen Hawking said at Monday’s Breakthrough Initiative’s press conference, which was held to announce a $100 million venture geared toward finding extraterrestrial life, the most ambitious search of its kind to date. Over the course of the next 10 years, the project will use the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia — and the CSIRO Parkes Radio Telescope in New South Wales, Australia — to survey the closest one million stars; the scope is 10 times larger than any previous project.
All the data from the two telescopes will be available to the public and hopefully will lead to further analysis and ventures into space exploration, but the main goal here is finding life outside of our own. NASA recently predicted that we’ll find extraterrestrial life within the next decade, and this project is likely one of the foremost studies into finding creatures in space.
“This new project is a much bigger, much more grand attempt at this where a far, vastly large number of stars are going to be looked at and in much more depth to try to see if any signs of life can be found,” the Green Bank Telescope’s site director, Dr. Karen O’Neil, told Uproxx in an interview. “As far as I know, this will be by far the deepest and most expensive search ever made for extraterrestrial life.”
How Close Have We Come Before?
We’ve actually been close to finding life outside of our planet before. In 1976, NASA Viking Landers analyzed the soil on the surface of Mars. The mission was initially thought to have found no evidence of life, but that’s been disputed in the years since. Some traces of chlorohydrocarbon — an organic compound — were found in the soil samples taken from the planet, but they were dismissed as contaminants. What wasn’t known to the scientists studying the samples at the time was the strong presence of perchlorate, a martian salt; perchlorates have oxidizing properties, and they were not detected in the Viking mission.
In 2008, the Phoenix lander discovered perchlorates in the Martian soil, and in light of the discovery, scientists combined soil containing organic material from the Atacama Desert in Chile — known as the closest thing to Mars we have on Earth — with perchlorate and heated the sample. What resulted were the same kind of chlorohydrocarbons found on Mars in 1976. The study confirmed the building blocks of life were present, but it did not prove that life can or has prospered on the planet.
In 1996, David McKay — a lead researcher for NASA — published a paper in the Science journal claiming that evidence pointing to fossilized microbial life was found in a Mars meteorite that was discovered in Antarctica 10 years earlier. At the time, the finding was significant enough to warrant then-President Bill Clinton to issue a statement about it. Since then, the findings have been put into question by other studies and the result is the same: We still have yet to find “hard” evidence.
One for the keys to this new study in finding life outside of our own is the GBT (Green Bank Telescope).
“Because of the design of the telescope, it can see 85 percent of the celestial sphere, so it can see the majority of the sky and that’s unusual for a very large dish,” Dr. O’Neil said. “On top of that, the GBT has a very wide frequency range so the GBT can observe from about .02 up to about 115 GHz, so that allows the organization to have the broadest possible spectrum across the radio wave lengths to do their search.”
The Breakthrough Initiatives isn’t the only project attempting to find extraterrestrial life. There’s NASA’s NExSS program, which is an amalgamation of four research communities hellbent on studying the nearest exoplanets (planets that orbit a star like ours). The program will receive help from the James Webb Space Telescope (due for launch in 2018), the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (due for launch in 2017), and the Wide-field Infrared Survey Telescope which will launch sometime in the 2020s. Furthermore, there will be another Mars rover mission in 2020, as well as a mission to one of Jupiter’s moons — which contains ice — in 2022. All these mission have a primary purpose of finding life out there in the cosmos. For now, though, the Breakthrough Initiatives project may be our greatest hope in making contact with extraterrestrials.
“The plan is for 10 years,” Dr. O’Neil said, “but if any true signal is found, I suspect the search will stop at that point and focus instead on the strategy on decoding that signal and understanding it.”
So, what exactly is the GBT looking for?
“Anything that can’t be readily explained in nature, and that’s where it’s both exciting and also quite difficult to do,” Dr. O’Neil said. “So, first, you have to take your signals, receive them, and then you have to separate any Earth-made, Earth-based, and man-made signals out of this. And even though we’re still in the radio quiet zone, there’s still plenty of signals you might see from satellites over head, from man-made objects on the ground. So, first, you have to remove those signals. And then, you’ll have plenty of wonderfully exciting astronomical signals, signals that are coming from natural objects, whether its stars or collections of stars, galaxies, gases out in the space, things like that.” She added, “Basically, you have to eliminate those things, and then you’ll be looking for signals that seem to have some sort of clear pattern to them. If you can’t explain it through human interference, if you can’t explain it through a natural phenomenon, then what’s left over is something that’s going to be quite exciting to this project.”
Let’s say we do see some sort of astronomical pattern that we can’t quite explain. What then? Do a team of scientists and researchers scatter to an underground bunker and debate the seriousness of these findings? Are we notified immediately of the discovery?
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there were procedures that existed,” Dr. O’Neil said, “but I do know that, within the astronomical community, that the first thing that would happen is that numerous telescopes around the world would be turned to this signal that we’re finding to confirm that it’s not a man-made signal. Astronomers would announce this quite quickly; there’s a number of different networks where astronomers can pass information about new discoveries, and then people would start analyzing it. And, to be honest, if a new signal was announced, if signs of extraterrestrial intelligence were announced, the first thing the astronomy and the scientific community would do is look at the data numerous times to make sure there’s not somehow another explanation for it. The fact of this would be quite readily known to the media and everyone else out there. If we’re able to confirm it, I don’t know what the exact steps would be, but certainly one of the next things to do would be to sit down with some of the best scientists we have around the world to see if we can decode the signal, see if we can understand it in any way.”
Should we fear the unknown?
Finding alien lifeforms outside of our own definitely sounds exciting, but are we prepared for the existence of unknown entities in the universe? Dr. O’Neil thinks that the media and the public should be ecstatic at a new discovery.
“I hope they would be thrilled,” she said. “I hope they would be incredibly excited about it. The chance of finding life is small, but it would be incredibly exciting to know that not only is there life out in the universe, but that there’s intelligent life out in the universe. That would be amazing to think about, amazing to start imagining, and to try and learn more from decoding the signals being sent out. You have to remember, too, that any type of signal we see is going to come from something that’s hundreds to thousands of light years away, so this isn’t a civilization that we can just pack our bag and go visit them, or vice versa, they’re not going to pack their bag and visit us. So, instead, it’s going to be a very slow process of learning about them and trying to find out what’s going on and a lot would really depend on the type of signal we receive and the type of information in it. But it would be — I hope — very exciting for everybody.”
Well, let’s say that we do find a signal out there that denotes an intelligent being that we’re not accustomed to. Do we make contact? Are there any dangers in creating a communication pipeline to some sort of entity that we have no knowledge of?
“I’ve certainly heard a few people say that there might be (dangers), because of concerns of them knowing physics that we’re not aware of. But, to be honest, I’ve got pretty good faith in fundamental physics and in our understanding of the universe and knowing that, I simply think it would be very exciting. The chance of us contacting a civilization, learning about them. Remember, this project is passive, so we’re not reaching out to talk to them. If we received a signal and we chose to respond, I would hope that we had some of our best minds, and any communication is going to be incredibly slow: Hundreds, if not thousands of years between us sending something to them and receiving any sort of reply.”
The Green Bank Telescope and the Parkes Radio Telescope in Australia are currently figuring out a gameplay for which site is to search which part of the cosmos, with the GBT looking over a larger field of stars in the project. What will they find? Your guess is as good as any. But, if it’s out there in the closest million stars, chances are that we’ll be confronting a new civilization or lifeform within the next 10 years. Will it be slim, green men? Small bacteria growing on the surface of a moon? We’ll just have to wait and see.