Exoplanet imaging could be humanity’s best chance to find extraterrestrial intelligence

Active messaging may be one way to proceed in searching for extraterrestrial intelligence. Laying low to avoid outer space threat actors could be an alternative course. A better option yet might be investing more in telescopes capable of imaging exoplanets, a leading SETI researcher says.

NASA launches an independent study into unexplained UFO sightings this fall. China has announced that its giant Sky Eye telescope may have picked up on the alien signals – only to retract the report shortly afterward. The race is on to answer one of humanity’s most intriguing questions: are we alone out there?

Logic suggests we are not. The sheer vastness of space, however, and a faint possibility that intelligent alien life might be at the same level of technological development as Earth makes the search an arduous task. Arguments have been made that humanity should therefore be more active in messaging the nearby space instead of just waiting on the receiver’s end.

Critics of this approach – which included Stephen Hawking – say that actively seeking contact with alien civilizations could end in disaster if we attract the wrong kind of attention. Others suggest ignoring even the signals we might receive from extraterrestrials, warning of threats like “cosmic malware” – an idea that a malevolent alien civilization might seek to hack Earth in pursuit of its resources.

Neither of these concerns matter, Franck Marchis, a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute and a Chief Scientific Officer at Unistellar, a telescope company he co-founded, tells me in an interview. Earth’s biosphere is enough for a more advanced alien civilization to conclude that life exists on this planet, while its cities’ light and heat will point to its technological progress.

"Simply pointing the telescopes at our Earth, looking at the atmosphere – they will know that there is some kind of a technological civilization here,"

Franck Marchis, an astronomer, told Cybernews.

All they need is to have already built the equivalents of a Large Ultraviolet Optical Infrared Surveyor (LUVOIR) or a Habitable Exoplanet Observatory (HabEx) – both concept ideas at NASA for next-generation space telescopes. Marchis says that more investment in space-based telescopes to image exoplanets is needed, which could give humanity a chance to find extraterrestrial life – and only then decide what to do.

What is your view of an active search for extraterrestrial intelligence?

I don’t care! It’s probably not the kind of answer you wanted from me. But can I just say that if the species is smart enough – slightly more advanced compared to us – and already built something like LUVOIR or HabEx, then they already know that we are here. Simply pointing the telescopes at our Earth, looking at the atmosphere – they will know that there is some kind of a technological civilization here.

They may not detect small variations of gas, but they will detect an increase in carbon dioxide over the past hundred years. They could probably detect as well the presence of a gas that does not naturally exist on planets. And if they have slightly more powerful instruments, they will also be able to see the heat coming from our cities and their light. Shining light will be visible from far away, and you can detect that.

Earth from space. Image by Shutterstock.

Some people are freaking out about sending messages, but we have already been doing this in space for quite a long time now. Since the invention of radar, we’ve been super noisy on radio, since the invention of fire, we’ve been visible from far away, and since the biosphere evolved, it’s known that our planet has life.

Not really a big debate to my mind. It’s mostly people who are afraid that we are providing information. That’s the debate we need to have. If we start sending messages, what kind of messages shall we send? Shall we send messages stating that we are here or saying we’re here and this is what we look like, this is what we do, this is what we like?

Or should we simply send them something artistic like music, which doesn’t contain any essential meaning but at least shows that we are an intelligent, artistic society and is a good way to start communicating?

Which way would you choose?

I would send a message that shows we are an intelligent species and have developed a relatively advanced civilization. I would definitely not send a map of my country and the map of my planet with all the teeny tiny details about ourselves. I would send music or a mathematical algorithm. Something which is beautiful and shows that we are smart and sensitive species.

But I would certainly not send personal information about myself. That’s common sense. That’s what normal human beings do – we don’t start a conversation by telling each other our height, our weight, what we look like, what we eat, what we had for dinner yesterday. We talk about the weather. We talk first about ourselves in relation to the environment we inhabit. We do not disclose personal information about ourselves. We should do the same when we communicate with extraterrestrial species.

Do you think concerns about “cosmic malware” are something to consider?

Well, that’s a very high level of paranoia here. Maybe I’m a very naive person, but I will say that if a civilization is slightly more advanced than us, they will not use such a complicated way to destroy us. When the Europeans arrived in America, and they faced native Americans, the difference between the years of their technological civilizations was not that enormous. The Inca had a society that was extremely well organized. But they did not have gun power, the use of which as a weapon was quite recent at the time.

This 50 years of difference enabled European civilization to wipe out the entire other side of the planet in a few hundred years. My point is that the likelihood of running into an extraterrestrial civilization exactly on the same level as us is very small. They will be either a little bit more advanced and then will be extremely different to us – having mastered the technology that we don’t have yet – or they will be less advanced than us, and they will never communicate with us.

"I would rather focus on making us a species that is... capable of developing technology to make this planet a better planet instead of starting to think about what would happen if there is an aggressive civilization,"

Franck Marchis said.

If we meet a civilization that is 50 years more advanced than us, they will probably find a very smart way to destroy us if they want to destroy us. Malware is a very complicated way. An easier way is simply to drop some viruses onto our planet, and we are gone. If you want to eliminate a civilization, it’s much easier to do this. I don’t think that the computerized way will be the first option to destroy a civilization.

You don’t think that we should be too concerned about the risks because if it was meant to happen, it would?

If there is a civilization 10 light-years away from us, which is 50 years more advanced than us, and they are, for some reason, aggressive species, they will destroy us no matter what. And there is nothing we can do to stop them. Sending messages would not change that.

I would rather focus on making us a species that is reliable and capable of developing technology to make this planet a better planet instead of starting to think about what would happen if there is an aggressive civilization. In the meantime, we should continue to fund research in astronomy and other fields, so we can do the search as well.

It is sad that we have the technology to build space-based telescopes that could directly image exoplanets 10 to 20 light-years away from us, but we still do not have that in funding, not even in the roadmap.

That would be the way for us to know whether or not there is another civilization besides us. That would tell us if that is an aggressive civilization or not. So, let’s first do research, look around, and when we find something, then we can decide what to do.

James Webb Space Telescope. Image by Shutterstock.

What you are saying is that we should keep doing what we are doing, but we need more investment in scientific research?

Yes. The problem is that every time I talk to people about building telescopes to image exoplanets, everybody’s super excited about it, but then when you go to Congress, and you ask for money to do it, which is a tiny piece of the budget in the US, there is no real progress because people probably find it as not very important at the moment.

Building a $1bn telescope to image exoplanets is a noble endeavor, and we are missing the boat here because we are fighting against ourselves. We spend our time arguing about whether or not we should be vaccinated or wear a mask. All of these endless arguments we have now, thanks to social media, makes us lose track as a society of what really matters and what is truly important.

Do you think finding intelligent alien life is a possibility within our lifetimes?

I’m one of the optimistic people who believe that we are going to have a picture of an exoplanet with a biosphere or at least a presence of some kind of biosphere – a signature of gas that should not exist in a natural state – in 10 to 15 years.

I was betting on this two years ago – I won’t say it now because of the state of the world at the moment – but someone will step in. I’m hoping that someone from the younger generation will one day remember this discussion about space telescopes capable of imaging exoplanets and they will have made a ton of money with cryptocurrency, and they will put $1bn dollars on the table, so we do it.

That’s what I’m hoping is going to happen. The moment when we say let’s do it instead of talking about it.

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