After a long hiatus, the space agency gets back into the SETI game.
In July I wrote about innovative approaches for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). In that column I lamented the fact that NASA support for this field dried up in the 1990s and had not returned, even though astrobiology has since flourished. Many of us felt that the bureaucratically maintained distinction between astrobiology and SETI did not make intellectual sense, and we longed for SETI to be let in from the cold.
Sometimes wishes come true.
As that column went to press I received an email asking if I would help organize a workshop on “technosignatures.” The sponsor? NASA. That got my attention. The purpose was to explore how to best use NASA resources in a renewed search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Apparently, Congress’s new federal budget mandated that NASA spend $10 million “to search for technosignatures, such as radio transmissions, in order to meet the NASA objective to search for life’s origin, evolution, distribution, and future in the universe.” Wow!
The workshop, which took place in September, was highly stimulating, and given the renewed government interest in SETI, the mood was bright and optimistic. Along with evaluation of historical and current searches, there was an openness to new ideas born of a kind of humility. We can’t really second-guess the properties or motivations of technological aliens, so we have to cast a wide net. In addition to “traditional” SETI searches for radio signals or laser pulses, we must be alert to more passive signs of technological entities that might not be trying to get in touch with anyone. These include possible artifacts beyond or within our own solar system, or planetary atmospheres altered or engineered by industrial activities.
Attendees made an effort to stick to the prosaic questions: What observing programs can we ramp up in the next few years using NASA’s current or expected assets and instruments? How can NASA best collaborate with private partners such as the SETI Institute and Breakthrough Listen?
But with SETI it’s hard to avoid deep philosophical musings. Some talks at the workshop delved into abstract but necessary puzzles about the properties and behavior of distant, advanced civilizations — even about what we mean by “advanced” and “civilization.” SETI has always combined solid engineering, daring speculation, and profound questioning.
This admixture didn’t always sit well with some. At the first international SETI conference in Byurakan, Soviet Armenia in 1971, organizers Carl Sagan and Iosif Shklovsky welcomed historians, philosophers, linguists, and social scientists along with the scientists. At the time, one young Soviet astrophysicist asked that the humanities be left out, stating he didn’t want to listen to “windbags.” A leading American physicist exclaimed, “To hell with philosophy! I came here to learn about observations and instruments . . .”
This historical tension seemed absent from September’s workshop. Although our prime directive was to guide NASA in the use of its assets to search for technosignatures, there was respectful discussion of the more esoteric and humanistic questions that are naturally evoked, and a recognition that a mature SETI program going forward will involve more than just telescopes and computer models. Out of this will come new calls for proposals to NASA, and then a new era of federally funded SETI research. May it be long and fruitful.
This article originally appeared in print in the January 2019 issue of Sky & Telescope.