Alien-hunting astronomers demand more money

First contact? A mysterious signal from another galaxy is being repeated every 16 days.

Does the search for intelligent life in space deserve more funding? Mysterious radio signals have been picked up from the depths of the Universe. Scientists want us to pay more attention.

You are aiming 27 giant radio telescopes somewhere far away. The laws of physics dictate that you are looking into the past itself.

Then, against the pitch black of space, you see something has moved – maybe something has flashed. Could it be the very first sign of intelligent life beyond our small blue planet?

It is the dream of many scientists and space enthusiasts and it might soon come true. A private donor has paid for the Very Large Array observatory to be used by researchers hunting for alien civilisations.

The observatory has some of the world’s most powerful radio telescopes and would be a major boost for the vertiginous quest for intelligent life.

The funding has come from an ambitious project called Breakthrough Listen, which was set up by the billionaire Yuri Milner.

But scientists have used this news to call for more public funding to go towards the search for intelligent extraterrestrials. For decades, governments had neglected putting money towards Seti.

But last week, Dr Anthony Beasley, director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Virginia, USA, said, “Determining whether we are alone in the Universe as technologically capable life is among the most compelling questions in science.”

Technology is improving fast, potentially paving the way for history-defining encounters. In the last few years, we have discovered thousands of exoplanets and, only recently, researchers in Canada identified the first-ever pattern in fast radio bursts picked up from the depths of the Universe.

The signal in question came from 500 million light years away. Over the course of four days, it would release a burst or two each hour. Then it would go silent for another 12 days before repeating.

Without more funding, it will be difficult to decipher such mysterious cosmic signals.

But let us not forget Fermi’s famous paradox: despite the high probability of life being elsewhere in our huge Universe, there is no sign of it anywhere.

Other prominent physicists like Stephen Hawking have also warned that alien life forms might not want to be discovered. Worse, aliens might really like the look of our planet.

So, does the search for intelligent life in space deserve more funding?

To infinity and beyond

No. Searching the cosmos for creatures that might not even exist cannot be a high priority for governments that must feed the hungry and cure the sick. We do not have to look to the stars to find solutions for the pressing needs of today. Furthermore, any aliens we might find will either be too far away to affect us, or too advanced to ignore us. We might not like what we come across.

On the other hand, the thought of shooting off into the sky and discovering new planets has stimulated our imagination for decades. The great unknowns of the galaxy are the most exciting questions we can ask. This means we should feel no shame in seeking to pursue them. Funding the search for extraterrestrials does not mean cutting healthcare budgets. A healthy, curious society would want both.

You Decide

  1. What would be the first thing that you would try to communicate to an intelligent alien life form?
  2. Do you think it is better to spend scientific grants on medical research or on space exploration?

Activities

  1. Imagine that you are sent to investigate the radio signals coming from a faraway planet. Write a short story (two sides of paper) in the style of a diary, describing your arrival on the planet.
  2. Research the cost of a historical alien-hunting science experiment. Make a list of the things that a government could have achieved for the same price.

Some People Say...

“Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not – both are equally terrifying.”

Arthur C Clarke (1917-2008), British science-fiction writer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
In 1993, Nasa’s $10 million (£7.7m) funding for Seti was scrapped when US senator Richard Bryan referred to it as the “Martian hunting season at the taxpayer's expense”. Breakthrough Listen, the private company behind many recent initiatives, is set to last until 2026 and will search the Universe for lasers and radio signals.
What do we not know?
We have no idea how worthwhile any search for aliens might be. We have not seen any signs of life in the Universe so far, and we do not know how long we have to search before we can think that we have searched enough. Lastly, we don’t fully know the popularity of using public funds for alien hunts.

Word Watch

Very Large Array
The name of the observatory on a mountain in New Mexico, with dozens of massive radio telescopes.
Vertiginous
From up high, that makes your head spin.
Yuri Milner
Russian entrepreneur who invests in technology companies.
Extraterrestrials
Aliens.
Seti
The search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
Exoplanets
Planets in other solar systems.
Fast radio bursts
Intense, millisecond-long bursts of radio waves produced by unidentified sources in the distant cosmos. They are thought unlikely to be caused by aliens.
Fermi
Enrico Fermi (1901-1954) was an Italian-American physicist known as the father of the nuclear age.

Subjects

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.