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Updated: Jun 29, 2020

In good news for alien hunters, the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence is taking a new approach and scientists already believe they know where to look.

Space agency NASA has awarded a grant to a group of astronomers to search the universe for signs of alien civilizations via technosignatures, reports Forbes. These are scientific evidence of past or present technology, which of course would indicate the presence of life in another star system. Some astronomers believe that these technosignatures should 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.”

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.

The theory is that other civilizations would probably use solar panels to produce energy, and would likely pollute their planet’s atmosphere with artificial chemicals and gases, just like us.

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.”

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