Future missions may search for ancient alien technology in the solar system

More than sixty years ago, the first search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), known as Project Ozma, was conducted. This campaign was led by legendary astronomer Frank Drake, who relied on the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT) in West Virginia to listen to Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani for any signs of radio transmission. Since then, the SETI field has become more advanced thanks to more advanced radio telescopes, improved data analysis, and international collaboration. In the coming years, SETI will also benefit from advances in exoplanet research and next-generation instruments and surveys.

In addition to examining exoplanets for signs of technological activity (aka “technosignatures”), there are those who recommend looking for them here at home. Examples include the Galileo project, which is dedicated to the study of interstellar objects (ISOs) and unidentified aerial phenomena (UAPs). There’s also the Penn State Extraterrestrial Intelligence Center, a research group dedicated to advancing SETI by searching for technosignatures. In a recent paper, they explain how future SETI efforts should consider the search for extraterrestrial technology in our solar system.

The PSETI Center is comprised of researchers from Penn State University, the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science (BMSIS), the SETI Institute, the Planetary Science Institute (PSI), NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and multiple universities. The paper they recently co-authored was the subject of a paper titled “Opportunities for Technosignature Science in the Decadal Survey of Planetary Science and Astrobiology,” presented at Penn State’s First SETI Symposium, which took place June 27-30.

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Artist’s impression of an alien civilization. Credit: Harvard & Smithsonian CfA

Throughout its history, the SETI field has focused primarily on monitoring distant star systems and galaxies for signs of technological activity. All these studies have looked for signs of radio transmission, as this is the most efficient communication method based on well-known physics (by our standards). But in the coming years, SETI researchers hope to cast a wider net and look for other means of communication — such as directed energy, neutrinos and even gravitational waves. These and other possibilities were outlined in NASA’s Technosignature report published in 2019.

There is also a growing movement among SETI researchers who want to expand the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) here at home. Dr. Jacob Haqq-Misra, senior research scientist at the Blue Marble Space Institute and lead author of the report, is one such person. Haqq-Misra’s research is focused on the conditions that allow life to emerge and flourish in the universe and the possibility of detecting life on other planets through signs of biological (“biosignatures”) or technological activity. As he told Universe Today via email:

“Most SETI searches are focused on looking for technosignatures in other star systems, [while] only a handful have looked for technosignatures in our own solar system. We still can’t rule out the possibility of technosignatures in the solar system, so it would be worth a look.”

For years, Haqq-Misra’s work has also focused on the types of technosignatures we should be looking for. This included a NASA-funded study he conducted in 2020 with Prof. Adam Frank of the University of Rochester, Avi Loeb and Manasvi Lingam of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and Jason Wright of Pennsylvania State University. This study aimed to look for traces of chlorofluorocarbons (CFS) – specifically tetrafluoromethane (CF4) and trichlorofluoromethane (CCl3F) – in atmospheres of exoplanets and large arrays of solar panels.

The Pan-STARRS 1 telescope discovered the first interstellar object ‘Oumuamua’ on October 19, 2017 in Hawaii. Credit: ESO/M. Grain fairs

Earlier this year, Haqq-Misra teamed up again with Frank, Wright, Lingam and other colleagues to write a study on how James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) can search for extraterrestrial civilizations by looking for signs of atmospheric pollution. But as Haqq-Misra expressed, SETI research also needs to expand to look at technological activity and objects that could be here in our solar system. Such efforts have received a boost in recent years thanks to interstellar objects (ISOs) such as ‘Oumuamua (which flew past Earth in 2017) and 2I/Borisov, discovered two years later.

The discovery of these objects confirmed what astronomers had suspected for some time, namely that ISOs enter the Solar System on a regular basis. Other research suggests that some of these visitors are periodically captured by the solar system and even suggests where some of them might be found today. Last but not least, numerous proposals have been made since 2017 for missions that could rendezvous with ‘Oumuamua or intercept future ISOs and retrieve samples from them. If even one of these ISOs were of artificial origin, the scientific results would be immeasurable.

If there are von Neumann probes in the Solar System – especially in the main asteroid belt, Kuiper belt and Oort cloud, where they would be most difficult to detect – then relatively inexpensive missions to search for them could provide similar results. Haqq-Misra described what form these missions might take and how they might look for possible technosignatures:

“Orbiters, rovers and probes that explore planetary bodies would be well suited to constrain the presence of technosignatures on surfaces. Missions that observe small bodies such as asteroids and Kuiper belt objects would be ideal for searching for free-floating or orbiting artifacts in space. Ground-based and space-based observatories can also help with the search.

These goals are consistent with the Decadal Study of Planetary Science and Astrobiology (2023-2032), prepared by the National Research Council (NRC) and released on April 19, 2022. The study recommends several missions for the next decade, such as the Uranus Orbiter and a probe (UOP), the Enceladus orbiter and lander, and the manned exploration of the Moon and Mars. An ISO intercept mission, such as the Comet Intercept Mission being developed by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), is also recommended. As stated in the study:

“Over the next decade, ISO detection rates are expected to increase dramatically. By discovering and characterizing additional ISOs, we will be able to compare them to the populations of small bodies in the Solar System and potentially constrain their birthplace. Haqq-Misra and colleagues note in their report that such a mission would also provide opportunities to limit the presence of technosignatures on ISO. As he explained, this would require no changes to the mission’s architecture or instrumentation:

“We encourage scientists and mission planners to consider the kind of technosignature science they can already do with their existing solar system exploration program.” Our report highlights a number of ways in which the Decadal Survey recommendations could advance technosignature science without the need to add new instruments. For example, the current Mars exploration program can place constraints on the technosignatures of the Martian surface by analyzing high-resolution images that derive from other scientific studies of Mars.

The goals of the PSETI report are also aligned with those of the Galileo project, which will rely on astronomical, atmospheric and space observations (combined with machine learning algorithms) to characterize the ISO and UAF. The project will rely on instruments such as the Vera C. Rubin Observatory (VRO), which will detect ISOs as they enter our Solar System (at a rate of several per month) after it begins its Legacy Space and Time Survey (LSST). Along with the many next-generation observatories soon to become operational, the number of known ISOs is expected to grow exponentially.

In the meantime, Haqq-Misra and his team hope their paper will inspire aspiring SETI researchers and field veterans to look beyond traditional boundaries. With some simple modifications, missions destined for locations throughout the Solar System in the coming years could also become front-line SETI missions. As Haqq-Misra sums up:

“We hope our report will encourage scientists, mission planners, and administrators to consider the relevance of technosignature science to their existing and planned missions.” We have many options for limiting the spread of technosignatures in the Solar System, and so it is worth considering as we continue to explore the Solar System.

There are countless places in our solar system where non-existent extraterrestrial spaceships can be held. According to recent research, ISOs captured by the Solar System are most likely to be found between the orbits of Jupiter and Neptune. As for working von Neumann probes and machines, the smart money says they will be beyond the orbit of Neptune, residing in the Kuiper belt and Oort cloud. For all we know, there could be dozens of probes in our solar system looking for biosignatures and technosignatures themselves!

More information: arXiv

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