The discovery of alien life would count as the most dramatic discovery of all time. Yet the search for alien life among infinite space is a daunting task, and primarily the preserve of conspiracy theorists and the private sector. But all that could be about to change, with the US space agency NASA deciding on a strategic shift and “aggressive” atttitiude to accelerate the search for alien life.
NASA has been looking for evidence of alien life for years, as part of its legendary Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program.
We might have a real problem in predicting technological evolution even for the next thousand years
Although significant progress has been made on locating potentially habitable planets close to Earth, actually finding aliens has proved much harder.
But despite this apparent lack if progress, NASA researchers are increasingly optimistic a breakthrough could happen relatively soon.
A report called Biosignature False Positives written by the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre outline their optimism’s reason.
It said: “When trying to detect life on planets orbiting other stars, the direct observation of life (e.g. focusing on a single tree in an alien forest, or seeing an alien, or having the alien shake our hand) is incredibly unlikely.
NASA search for alien life: NASA has decided upon a strategic shift to accelerate the search
NASA search for intelligent alien life: NASA will now concentrate on observing indirect evidence
“They might not even have hands to shake, which would make it impossible, in fact.
“Within the next several decades, however, it may be possible to observe indirect evidence for that life using the so-called biosignatures.”
According to NASA, we need to hunt for “biosignatures”, which might be far less exciting than actually discovering aliens.
Biosignatures are observations requiring a biological origin to be explained.
So biosignatures on Earth would include “fossils, empty candy wrappers” and even oxygen.
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The report said: “Each of these observations provides indirect evidence, of varying strength, for the presence of extant,or extinct life.”
However the Biosignature False Positives report warns about “false positives” that may erroneously imply alien life exists.
The paper said: “In our search for life – whether within the earliest part of Earth’s geologic record, on planets within our solar system such as Mars, or especially for extrasolar planets – we must infer the presence of life from its impact on the local or global environment.
“These biosignatures, often identified from the known influence of terrestrial organisms on the Earth’s atmosphere and surface, could be misdiagnosed when we apply them to alien worlds.
“The so-called false positives may occur when another process or suite of processes masks or mimics a biosignature.”
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NASA alien search: Biosignatures are observations requiring a biological cause
In that paper, Professor Silvano P Colombano, of NASA’s Ames Research Centre suggested that alien life may have already visited us.
Professor Colombano claimed that aliens could look so different from how we expect, and that they may be able to travel huge distances – because we simply can’t comprehend their existence or technology.
Professor Colombano said: “I simply want to point out the fact that the intelligence we might find and that might choose to find us (if it hasn’t already) might not be at all be produced by carbon based organisms like us.
“How might that change the above assumptions about interstellar travel? Our typical life-spans would no longer be a limitation (although even these could be dealt with multi-generational missions or suspended animation), and the size of the ‘explorer’ might be that of an extremely tiny super-intelligent entity.”
According to Professor Colombano, scientists are too preoccupied with modern human technology.
This, he says, makes it difficult for us to imagine technology that could have been produced by aliens living on planets older than Earth.
He said: “We need to re-visit even our most cherished assumptions”, including that “interstellar travel is impossible or highly unlikely”.
“Considering further that technological development in our civilisation started only about 10,000 years ago and has seen the rise of scientific methodologies only in the past 500 years, we can surmise that we might have a real problem in predicting technological evolution even for the next thousand years, let alone 6million times that amount,” the professor explained.
He added: “Even if the speed of light continues to be an unbreakable barrier, over spans of thousands of years civilisations could probably make interstellar journeys.”
In his paper, titled New Assumptions to Guide SETI Research, Professor Colombano said that recent discoveries of Earth-like planets by the Kepler space telescope offered hope.
NASA: The space agency is now focussing its attention on detecting signs of alien life
Professor Colombano said this should prompt NASA to “focus our attention on detecting signs of life and technology in specific planetary systems”.
“I feel we need to become more flexible in our assumptions,” he explained.
“The reason is that, while it is still reasonable and conservative to assume that life is most likely to have originated in conditions similar to ours, the vast time differences in potential evolutions render the likelihood of ‘matching’ technologies very slim.”
Professor Colombano is advocating a more “aggressive approach” to the search for alien life.
He also said scientists shouldn’t rule out possible “signals” of alien life, thanks to their own doubtful prejudices.
The professor wrote: “In the very large amount of ‘noise’ in UFO reporting there may be ‘signals’ however small, that indicate some phenomena that cannot be explained or denied.
“If we adopt a new set of assumptions about what forms of higher intelligence and technology we might find, some of those phenomena might fit specific hypotheses, and we could start some serious enquiry.”