If there’s one NASA workshop you’re going to wish you could have been a fly on the wall to check out, it’s definitely this one — because aliens.
Nobody is saying E.T. actually phoned home — yet — but the space agency is exploring how we can search for and recognize signs of intelligent life beyond our planet. Now it wants to level up the search by not just limiting it to biosignatures, or biological signs which could mean extraterrestrial life exists. NASA’s Technosignatures Workshop zeroed in on technosignatures, the evidence that intelligent life far more advanced than microbes is really out there.
No shade to microbes. Just evidence of microbial life, even (hypothetical) fossilized microbes on Mars from billions of years ago before the atmosphere was completely blasted away, would still be an epic breakthrough considering we haven’t actually found anything.
Whether we are alone in this universe has been a question NASA has been trying to answer for decades. Kepler and TESS are already illuminating thousands of exoplanets that may or may not be crawling with some sort of life-forms, but how advanced? Could there be aliens using quantum computers deep in the subsurface oceans of Europa?
"Complex life may evolve into cognitive systems that can employ technology in ways that may be observable,” states NASA’s 2015 Astrobiology Strategy. “Nobody knows the probability, but we know that it is not zero.”
NASA’s SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) efforts were focused primarily on communication signals and eventually defunded by congress (don’t worry, we still have the SETI Institute). Since then, the brains behind the space agency have been trying to expand human understanding of the origins of life and what constitutes habitability, at least for life as we know it. Life as we don’t know it could end up turning biology on its head.
Interest in technosignatures has most recently been fueled by the discoveries of new star systems with exoplanets that seem to surface almost as fast as NASA can get fundamental data on them. Tabby’s Star went viral as a potential alien megastructure until the science was finally separated from the fiction. What it did teach us was how to interpret anomalies in data as potential technosignatures. Emphasis on potential.
Weird signals alone are not enough to cry “Aliens!” NASA needs to be able to factor out radio frequency interference on Earth to prove that a signal is actually coming from space. It will also need to assess where we are in researching technosignatures and how we could advance these efforts. After all, we could run into a distant civilization that is eons ahead of us technologically.
Watch the livestream of the workshop here, and it could change the way you think about finding intelligent life.