Space agency NASA has awarded a grant to a group of astronomers to search the Universe for signs of alien civilizations via “technosignatures”—and it will focus first on finding evidence of solar panels and chemical pollution.

Technosignatures are scientific evidence of past or present technology, which of course would indicate the presence of life in another star system. Some think that these technosignatures may be simpler to find than direct evidence of microbial life—known as biosignatures.  

“Technosignatures relate to signatures of advanced alien technologies similar to, or perhaps more sophisticated than, what we possess,” said Avi Loeb, Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard. “Such signatures might include industrial pollution of atmospheres, city lights, photovoltaic cells (solar panels), megastructures, or swarms of satellites.”

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Put simply, the scientists at the Center for Astrophysics at Harvard and Smithsonian, and the University of Rochester, will look for exactly the same technosignatures that we produce.

It’s believed that other civilizations would probably use solar panels to produce energy, and also probably pollute their planet’s atmosphere with artificial chemicals and gases.

How and why to find solar panels around distant planets

How does an astronomer look for sunlight reflected off solar panels around a distant exoplanet? As long as they know the wavelength band to search in—which is what this study will try to establish—astronomers training their telescopes on exoplanets may be able to spot these technosignatures.

Any alien civilisation is bound to have thought of solar power generation, think the scientists. “There are only so many forms of energy in the Universe,” said Adam Frank, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester, and the primary recipient of the grant. “Aliens are not magic.”

There’s also a specific example relatively close to home. “The nearest star to Earth, Proxima Centauri, hosts a habitable planet, Proxima b. The planet is thought to be tidally locked with permanent day and night sides,” said Loeb. “If a civilization wants to illuminate or warm up the night side, they would place photovoltaic cells on the day-side and transfer the electric power gained to the night side.”

How and why to find chemical pollution around distant planets

The team also think that astronomers should look for the presence of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in exoplanet atmospheres, which could indicate the presence of industrial activity.

Astronomers already seek biosignatures in the atmospheres of exoplanets, which are detected as chemicals such as oxygen and methane. “We pollute Earth’s atmosphere with our industrial activity,” said Loeb. “If another civilization had been doing it for much longer than we have, then their planet’s atmosphere might show detectable signs of artificially produced molecules that nature is very unlikely to produce spontaneously, such as CFCs.”

Is the search for extraterrestrial intelligence becoming mainstream?

This could help bring the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) into mainstream astronomy. The study, called Characterizing Atmospheric Technosignatures, is the first NASA non-radio technosignatures grant ever awarded, and the first NASA grant in over three decades connected with SETI. It’s no coincidence that in the past five years many thousands of exoplanets have been discovered, some of which are in their star systems’ habitable zones and could have water vapor in their atmospheres.

“My hope is that using this grant, we will quantify new ways to probe signs of alien technological civilizations that are similar to or much more advanced than our own,” said Loeb. “The fundamental question we are trying to address is: are we alone? But I would add to that: even if we are alone right now, were we alone in the past?”

Most importantly, now with a hit-list of promising-looking exoplanets, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence can at last be targeted. “The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) has always faced the challenge of figuring out where to look. Which stars do you point your telescope at and look for signals?” said Frank. “Now we know where to look. We have thousands of exoplanets including planets in the habitable zone where life can form. The game has changed.”

The scientists eventually want to begin an online library of technosignatures that astrophysicists can use when gathering data.

Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.