Astronomers have been down on their luck when it comes to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). Echoes into the void in the quest to be heard have been met with silence. Not all hope is lost, however. Researchers are currently in the process of developing a vast radio telescope to search for signs of alien civilizations.
The telescope, known as the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), is expected to begin construction in 2018 in South Africa and Australia. The first phase of the project should be completed by 2020. It’s funded by many countries, and will blend thousands of tiny antennas from across the globe. The sensitivity of the telescope will be unmatched by any other telescope in the history of astronomy, enabling scientists to detect the faintest signals in the depths of outer space.(1)
Equally unmatched will be the amount of funding invested into the project. But the telescope won’t just be used to search for E.T. In addition, SKA may be able to shed light on the nature of dark energy, gravity and how the first stars formed in the early universe.(1)
What radio stations are aliens jamming to?
SKA is expected to survey roughly 10,000 stars during the first five years of its first phase. When finished, SKA could detect signals from stars 200 light-years away.(1)
Scientists began their quest for extraterrestrial life by sending radio waves into space. Theoretically, alien civilizations should be able to pick up on these radio waves. Given the wide spectrum of radio waves, astronomers have narrowed their search for radio waves emitted by extraterrestrial beings down to a specific number of frequencies.(1)
Specifically, SKA will invest its efforts in detecting a frequency region known as “the terrestrial microwave window.” This shade of frequencies can travel through both Earth’s atmosphere and interstellar space with minimum interference. Scientists suspect that if an extraterrestrial society were to send a signal to other intelligent beings, they would use this frequency region.(2)
Not only will SKA attempt to detect these radio waves; it will also try to listen in on conversations between interplanetary societies. If aliens send radio waves to different planets using a single system, it’s possible they would use these outposts to talk with each other. If the Earth aligns with those signals, astronomers could eavesdrop on a conversation.
A futile project?
Nevertheless, SKA is not without its critics. Spending a vast amount of money on such a speculative project is a huge gamble. It could be that SKA will detect absolutely nothing, in which case billions of dollars will be wasted. The thirty year quest to detect signs of extraterrestrial life has proven fruitless. Why is SKA any different?
In addition, radio technology is less than a century old and is already being superseded by new digital technologies on the horizon. If alien civilizations really developed technology similar to our own, then their artificially created radio waves will have a very limited presence in the observable universe.
Furthermore, all the efforts to find intelligent life are based upon assumptions about how an advanced civilization would try to communicate with other species. Yet this assumes advanced civilizations actually want to be heard. Perhaps alien life has visited Earth, but has intentionally shielded its presence from detection. It’s very difficult to predict how an advanced civilization would behave which is literally light years ahead of us.
If SKA doesn’t detect signs of intelligent life, it will suggest that are we alone in our pocket of the universe. Such a scenario would be just as frightening if SKA did detect signs of intelligent life. The greatest source of anxiety, however, is not knowing at all.
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