The Search for Extraterrestrial Artifacts

SETI research is picking up on the other side of the Atlantic.

If aliens sent probes the size of these cubesats to observe us from space, our chances of detecting them would be very close to zero.

The first workshop of the new German SETI initiative recently convened in the southern town of Freiburg, with experts in fields ranging from social science to satellite imaging on hand to discuss how to advance the search for extraterrestrial intelligent life.

Michael Schetsche from the University of Freiburg started things off with a talk on the possible consequences of first contact with an extraterrestrial species, and how we might prepare for such an encounter. A symposium held at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. three years ago had a similar theme, but Schetsche’s talk focused more on contact with artificial intelligence or machine-based life.

Other talks had to do with SETA, the search for extraterrestrial artifacts, which will be one subject of future research by the German research network. Hakan Kayal from the University of Würzburg outlined today’s technical state of the art in detecting and identifying objects in space, whether natural phenomena such as meteorites and sprites, or presumed extraterrestrial probes. It was sobering that even in Earth’s vicinity we could only detect very large (kilometer-size!) probes, or those that had a huge energy output.

Other experts in the research network are addressing questions of possible cultural exchange and communication between a putative extraterrestrial civilization and humans. Advanced alien civilizations might use probes to engage in interstellar communication or observe other planets such as Earth. This intriguing idea led Robert Freitas and Francisco Valdes in the 1970s to conduct a photographic search of the Earth-Moon Lagrange points, where a probe could be “parked” without any energy expenditure. They did not find anything, down to a detection limit of about 14th magnitude. But that was 40 years ago, and with today’s technology a more thorough search could be conducted of the Lagrange points and other localities.

Funding for this type of research is hard to come by, however, and is more likely to come from private sponsors rather than traditional government sources—a possibility the German research network is looking into. After many years where SETI was pursued almost solely in the United States—primarily by the SETI Institute—Germany is finally stepping up to join in the search, as are other countries in Europe, including France. That means we can look forward to significant contributions from scientists on both sides of the Atlantic in the near future.

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