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NASA teams with alien hunters to find signs of intelligent E.T. life

By Benjamin Bullard
A concept rendering of an exoplanet outside our solar system

Discovering alien life would no doubt sweep Planet Earth right off its gobsmacked, E.T.-smitten feet. But what if our newfound alien pals actually turn out to be super-intelligent?

Tapping into that idea, NASA is teaming up with an established data-checking organization to combine each group’s strengths into a brand-new effort to listen for signs of alien life — the intelligent kind, that is. The space agency has joined forces with the Breakthrough Listen SETI initiative (SETI stands for Search for Extraterrestrial Life) to comb telescope radio signals for non-natural, aberrant signatures that would suggest something more advanced than the typical background space noise. 

In a release, the Berkeley, California-based Breakthrough Listen Initiative said NASA will share data transmitted from its Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) as it canvasses “technosignatures” from the ever-growing array of newly-discovered planets that lie beyond our own solar system. The partnership will greatly expand Breakthrough Listen’s “target list” of celestial objects of interest while sharpening the group’s current strategies for parsing out the best opportunities to tune in for signs of life from the skies. 

Right off the bat, the new arrangement will put more than 1,000 new exoplanets and other orbiting bodies in Breakthrough’s crosshairs. But the far-ranging power of NASA’s survey satellite, combined with years’ worth of data already collected from the now-retired Kepler space telescope, promises to increase the opportunity to hear something extraordinary as the initiative goes along. 

“In the past three decades over 4,000 exoplanets have been discovered – many by TESS’ predecessor, the Kepler spacecraft," Breakthrough explained in a release. "According to recent estimates, the average number of planets per star is greater than one. As a result, technosignature searches operate in a ‘target-rich’ environment, observing stars whether or not confirmed planets are known to exist around them.”

What kind of signals could set off the project’s E.T. alarm bells? The kind that stand out from what researchers are accustomed to hearing in their day-to-day observations; the kind, in short, that suggest organized civilization-building activity on a large scale.

“A planet transit produces a well-understood variation in detected light from the star, but large-scale engineering projects (for example, ‘megastructures’ constructed in orbit) could block the stellar light in more complex ways,” Breakthrough said, adding that the TESS satellite system “is in essence a wide-field anomaly detector.”

While NASA and Breakthrough Listen keep doing their thing, we’ll do our part and keep our eyes (and ears) turned skyward. We just hope, once we’ve made first contact with an advanced alien species, that the green guys waiting on the other side turn out to be the friendly kind. (Place your bets: Mars Attacks! or Killer Klowns?)