We’re looking for spaceships, monitoring wavelengths and sending out signals of our own in an effort to find aliens — but one NASA scientist notes there’s still one more thing we can do that might help locate E.T.
The secret? Create a real-life smell-o-scope. Well, kind of. Shawn Domagal-Goldman, a scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, noted at a recent panel discussion reported by Space that monitoring chemicals and “smells” could be an excellent method to identify alien planets that are most likely home to alien civilizations.
Domagal-Goldman noted there are certain chemicals that could serve as likely indicators of life on a planet, and looking for those certain chemical combinations in the atmospheres of alien planets could give us a leg up in figuring out if anyone is living there. Obviously, they could also look for pollution, because a potential advanced civilization might be just as rough on their planet as we are on ol’ Mother Earth:
"I joke often that maybe you want to smell for life on other planets instead of look for it with a telescope … [Oxygen and methane] destroy each other. If they're both there together, you know someone is bringing the methane in an atmosphere rich in oxygen, so that's what you're looking for. The most likely explanation is, it's life that's bringing the methane and oxygen to the party."
As University of California-Riverside scientist Tim Lyons points out, there are also ways to look for microbial life that might thrive on planets that are not rich in oxygen. By studying microbes that lived in our planet’s early days, he says scientists can look for the potential sulfur-methyl gases that might be released by those creatures:
“They don't last long in modern-day Earth's environment because they get oxidized. But if you went back to the Archaean, or any planet without oxygen, and you had life making these gases — which they clearly do; I detected them myself — then they might have built up enough for us to see with a telescope from far away.
We have chemical principles, and we hope that those are universal," Lyons said. "Life today is about the flow of electrons amongst bacteria, simple, single-celled organisms. And so if you had a sense for the chemistry on that [alien] planet that you're inferring from an atmosphere, you could start to envision reactions that could lead to that chemistry that could be a source of energy.”
You know what this means, right? It’s time to dig out those old Futurama DVDs and figure out exactly how Professor Farnsworth built that Smell-O-Scope. Just, you know, be careful not to point it at Uranus.