And the question of finding life is the driving factor of it all. We’ve got no idea if life like that on our planet is common, or if we’re a rare gem in a dead universe. We may be able to answer that question inside our own Solar System, with places like Enceladus and Europa looking like they may have the necessary conditions for life. But exoplanets carry an almost equal allure.
“It’s an amazing time to be involved in the search for life,” Lisa Kaltenegger, director of the Carl Sagan Institute at Cornell University in New York, told IFLScience. “This is the first time in human history we have the means to do it, and if we get really lucky and find life starts everywhere, we could actually have the proof that we’re not alone in hand pretty soon.”
Enceladus looks like a great bet for life in our Solar System. NASA/JPL-Caltech
The idea that life might be common in the universe has also driven SETI for decades, with early pioneers like Frank Drake in 1960 suggesting we might be able to hear signals from advanced civilizations around other stars. SETI has struggled for funding over the years, but Milner’s injection of $100 million ensures the search will continue for at least 10 years as part of Breakthrough Listen.
“We’ll take funding from any source we can,” said Tarter. “If we discover a signal, or if we discover life beyond Earth, that information is not coming to California, it’s coming to the planet. These kinds of scientific explorations should be international and global.”
Truth be told, it was somewhat of an odd marriage seeing SETI discussed alongside more grounded science at Breakthrough Discuss. The prospect of finding a signal from an alien civilization is still far-fetched; in six decades of searching, we’ve found nothing. It’s often said that if we don’t look we’ll never know, but SETI remains somewhat fanciful.
“I’m working on the search for life on other planets, planets orbiting alien suns,” said Kaltenegger. “And at this conference, it’s the most conservative thing that’s being talked about!”
That’s not to say there might be nothing out there, and it might well be worth the search. Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center, presented the first scientific results from the first year of the Breakthrough Listen project, on which he is also the lead. While nothing was found, this is one of the most extensive searches to date. If it draws a blank after a decade, well, that may force a rethink.
“At what point do we give up on SETI?” a panel of experts at Breakthrough Discuss was asked. “Not any time soon,” replied Tarter.
TRAPPIST-1 may have three potentially habitable worlds. NASA/JPL-Caltech