A slew of new data releases, search programs and advances in telescope technology are setting the stage for the next era in the search for extraterrestrial life, say researchers who participated in a press briefing at the 2020 AAAS Annual Meeting in Seattle, Washington.
The briefing participants included scientists from the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) – an astronomical institute that searches for signs of intelligent life in the universe – who announced a new search program, reviewed progress in existing telescope initiatives, and detailed the largest release of telescope data in the history of the institute.
The panel also included a researcher who has modeled how the James Webb Space Telescope – the upcoming successor to the Hubble Space Telescope – might have difficulty with detecting oxygen, a potential chemical signature of life, on planets outside of the solar system.
Humans have long wondered whether other intelligent civilizations may lie in the stars, but until recently the search for any cosmic neighbors was still in its infancy. The 1984 establishment of by prominent scientists Jill Tarter – a participant in the briefing – Thomas Pierson, Carl Sagan and others kicked off the search for intelligence in earnest.
Since then, SETI and other programs have been combing the skies for any light emissions that might give away the existence of advanced civilizations. These include radiation that is inconsistent with natural astrophysical events, as well as anomalies in the brightness and behavior of stars and other objects.
The recent discovery of thousands of exoplanets orbiting nearby stars has also spurred scientists to begin searching for biological signs of life in planetary atmospheres. One of the of the James Webb Space Telescope will be to study the atmospheres of these exoplanets and search for the building blocks of life, such as water and oxygen.
Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center and lead investigator of Breakthrough Listen, spoke about new results and made several program announcements. Siemion has spent years working at SETI and Breakthrough Listen, a collaborative project that searches for signs of extraterrestrial technology with radio telescopes.