Back around 1960 Frank Drake proposed an idea to search for alien civilizations by looking for their radio signals. He thought that any technological society would have developed some form of electromagnetic communication, and any technologically advanced society would realize that the best place to announce their existence was in a specific range of frequencies known then as “the waterhole.” Drake proposed a search of certain stars close to Earth that would most likely have developed life and to scan the waterhole radio frequencies. The effort failed.
There were a number of assumptions that were made here, one of which suggested that most stars had planetary systems. In 1960 we didn’t know if our solar system was rare or common. The assumption seemed to be that as the gases and debris were drawn together by gravity to form stars that the leftover material would form planets. But in 1960 we didn’t know about dwarf planets, the Kuiper Belt, the Oort Cloud and that the Solar System extended nearly two light years from the sun.
In today’s world we know that many stars have planetary systems and our first searches for exoplanets seemed to identify only the huge planets with masses that rivaled and surpassed Jupiter. As the techniques were refined we began to find smaller planets some of them about the size of Earth, or rather just a bit larger.
This was done, not by seeing the planet’s reflected light, but by finding their shadows as they crossed the disk of their stars. By following that, by seeing these regular transits, planets were found and their sizes could be calculated. Today literally thousands of exoplanets have been found.
And while SETI has found some radio transmissions that seemed to suggest an artificial source meaning something created by an intelligent extraterrestrial race, these signals did not repeat. I am reminded of the old days in which we had analog television and large antennae to receive the signals. Sometimes, when the conditions were right, television signals would “skip” around the atmosphere. While living in Iowa I remember a signal from a Miami television station that lasted for some twenty minutes. Another time there was a signal from a station in southern Missouri that lasted for about an hour. These were onetime events that were not repeated which made me wonder if the conditions had been just right for those alien signals to skip through interstellar space to reach us. A onetime event that is not repeated because the conditions weren’t right again.
|The Very Large Array on the Plains of San Agustin in New Mexico.|
Now we have something found by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope that suggests some of our assumptions about the detection of alien life might have been wrong and we have found an intelligent civilization through their construction of a massive object in space near their home world. A star, named KIC 8462852 (what a horrible name and I suggest we change it to Randle’s World) had provided repeating transits that appear strange.
This isn’t some wild-eyed, tinfoil hat wearing group claiming this, but scientists who have presented a paper to the Journal of Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. According to the report, "Over the duration of the Kepler mission, KIC 8462852 was observed to undergo irregularly shaped, aperiodic dips in flux down to below the 20 percent level.”
Tabetha Boyajian, a postdoc at Yale said, “We’d never seen anything like this star. It was really weird.”
The scientists said that they had thought of various natural phenomena that might account for these irregular dips in light from the star, but nothing seemed to fit. A second paper is being written that will explore the theory that this is some kind of gigantic engineering project by the aliens (which, of course, if they’re operating in their own system means they are the indigenous population and not aliens, but I digress).
While all this is preliminary and there will probably be a solution for the anomaly that doesn’t involve an advanced civilization, it does give us a hope that we have finally found the answer about other life in the galaxy. And, if we have found another intelligent civilization that close to us, it suggests that the galaxy is teeming with life, but most would be very far away.
This star is some 1500 light years from Earth which isn’t exactly our neighborhood, but it is certainly close by, in relative terms… our galaxy is some 110,000 light years in diameter and some 30,000 light years deep. We won’t be dropping in on them for a long time so they have nothing to worry about from us. But, if they can construct something large enough to be detected by us, it means that we might see them dropping in for a visit.