Let's See Them Aliens - The Tech We'll Need in the Hunt for ET

The radio search for extraterrestrial intelligence at the SETI Institute - Gerry Harp
The radio search for extraterrestrial intelligence at the SETI Institute - Gerry Harp

From 2009 through 2015, the SETI Institute used the Allen Telescope Array to observe stars with high probability of hosting exoplanets. Nearby stars were cho...

Nikki Diefenbach

Astrobiologists research includes many aspects like seeking out the answers to how life on Earth began and evolved, studying the composition of extraterrestrial objects, and hunting through space or even on other planets for ET. The scientific method naturally involves years of planning to create productive and legitimate research. At a workshop run by the Earth-Life Science Institute at Tokyo Institute of Technology, 20 scientists gathered from all over the world to plan the current trajectory as well as the near future of life-detection technology. The resultant paper, which is currently awaiting review outlines what tech will be needed over the next 20 years. They sought to understand which tech would be best to include on the coming space probes sent to Mars or Enceladus, a moon of Saturn that contains the ingredients for life. The idea being that these localized studies will give them a foundation to extrapolate data from more distant worlds.

First up in the study of planet habitability would be the newest telescopes which are bigger than ever and more sensitive, like the James Webb Space Telescope and Extremely Large Telescope, both scheduled to launch within the next six years.

The next line of tech in the search for life is robotic. According to the paper, they will have to be “agile robotic probes that are robust, able to seamlessly communicate with orbiters and deep space communications networks, be operationally semi-autonomous, have high-performance energy supplies, and are sterilisable to avoid forward contamination.”

But will we even recognize life if it is completely unfamiliar to our concept of what constitutes life on Earth? This most interesting question gets at our inherent biases that we hold, having only our own evolutionary history as a frame of reference. This leads us to the third and multi-faceted approach, utilizing a collection of tech that would “think outside the box” in detecting organisms that exist beyond of our comprehension.

The paper outlines the following list of life-detecting instruments:

  • spectroscopy techniques (to analyse potential biological materials)
  • quantum tunnelling (to find DNA, RNA, peptides, and other small molecules)
  • fluorescence microscopy (to identify the presence of cell membranes)
  • gas chromatography (to spot amino acids and sugars formed by living organisms)
  • microfluidic devices and microscopes (to check for “homocrial” molecules)
  • High-resolution, miniaturized mass spectrometers (to characterize biopolymers created by living organisms and get detailed analysis of elemental composition which will help with isotopic dating)

The paper stressed that machine learning, artificial intelligence, and pattern recognition will all play a part in identifying just which samples are biological. Of course, with all this advanced technology comes the need for storage and processing of massive amounts of data and deep space communications network will need upgrades as well. The goal is to have these recommendations peer-reviewed, included in decadel surveys, receive funding, and inspire future collaboration between a variety of scientific fields.

With several hundred billion other stars in our Galaxy, and over 100 billion other galaxies in the visible universe, to presume we were the only “thinking” beings places an unnecessary limit on a God that is limitless.

Read more here.

Reality Changing Observations:

Q1. What aspects of astrobiology interest you the most?

Q2. Why do you think astrobiologists place so much emphasis on searching for life on Mars?

Q3. What are the arguments for or against the potential that life is out there?