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Why Searching for Technosignatures is Important?

posted Jul 21, 2020, 3:03 AM by Abel Mendez   [ updated Jul 21, 2020, 3:04 AM ]

The search for technosignatures is the most cost-effective way to search for life in the universe. It is not surprising that the first formal attempt to detect extraterrestrial life was Frank Drake’s SETI Project Ozma (1960), followed later by the Viking Landers on Mars (1976), and soon by James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) (>2021) look at the atmosphere of exoplanets. The traditional detection of biosignatures is very expensive and limited to a few locations while technosignatures projects are very inexpensive and able to sample a larger volume of the universe.

That said, astrobiologists expect that intelligent life should be much rarer than any other life forms, which probably makes the detection of technosignatures much less likely than biosignatures. Nevertheless, it is surprising that we are not making all possible attempts to detect life in the universe. NASA made the decision to cancel SETI projects in the early 1990s. However, funding for SETI projects and more generally, any technosignature project, was restored by NASA starting with the Exobiology Program1 and the Exoplanet Research Program2. In fact, the first technosignature project was funded3 last year by the Exobiology Program.

It is commonly believed that the success of a biosignature experiment depends on the detection of life, i.e. the biosignature experiment fails if life is not detected. Imagine looking for life on a subsurface habitable environment of Mars, by terrestrial standards, and not finding any life. That would mean that the paradigm that all habitable environments converge to life is not universal. A profound discovery. Similarly, not detecting any transmitting civilization would be a profound discovery and equally valuable knowledge.

The search for technosignatures is not only of scientific interest but also supported and encouraged by the general public. Scientists are not searching for an impossible thing. Earth shows that planets with intelligent life are possible, however small that probability might be. Only a small sample of the universe has been explored by technosignature techniques, in part due to lack of funding. New exoplanets discovered by Kepler, K2, and now TESS provide new targets of opportunity to potentially determine if we are alone in the universe, at least among the nearby stars, or not.

(1) Exobiology Program Solicitation, ROSES-2019 (Page C.5-2): “Additionally, research focused on defining, understanding or characterizing technosignatures as specific types of biosignatures indicative of intelligent life are included in this area.”

(2) Exoplanet Research Program (XRP) Solicitation, ROSES-2020 (Page E.3-3): “Observational, archival, theoretical, and modeling proposals focused upon the detection of technosignatures are in scope of the XRP.”