The Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute has announced its latest effort to find life beyond the Solar System. For two years, they will study 20,000 red dwarf stars for signs of life.
Why are red dwarfs of interest? Well, initially scientists thought life was unlikely to exist on worlds around red dwarfs, as they are smaller and dimmer than stars like our Sun, providing a smaller “habitable zone” in which life can exist.
“Red dwarfs – the dim bulbs of the cosmos – have received scant attention by SETI scientists in the past,” said SETI Institute engineer Jon Richards in a statement. “That’s because researchers made the seemingly reasonable assumption that other intelligent species would be on planets orbiting stars similar to the Sun.”
But recent research has suggested that worlds that could cling onto an ocean or atmosphere could retain habitable environments around a red dwarf. Considering also that red dwarfs are the most abundant stars in the universe – making up about 75 percent of all known stars – it probably makes sense to at least have a look.
In addition, they are old, with lifetimes longer than the current age of the universe. This would give life plenty of time to arise. “This may be one instance in which older is better,” said SETI Institute astronomer Seth Shostak in the statement. “Older solar systems have had more time to produce intelligent species.”
SETI will use its Allen Telescope Array in the Cascade Mountains of northern California to search for artificial signals similar to those that are emitted by humanity on Earth. The 20,000 stars to be studied will be whittled down from a larger list of 70,000, and the survey will also use data from NASA’s upcoming Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), due to launch in 2017, to investigate the most promising stars.
Previous SETI searches have mostly focused on Sun-like main sequence stars, obviously with no success so far or you probably would have heard something. But the growing attraction of red dwarfs has now seen them take center stage. “This is the first time that these dim bulbs of the galaxy are given priority,” Shostak told IFLScience.
Whether this latest hunt will be successful is anyone’s guess. But evidence continues to mount that there should be other habitable planets out there, so it’s not ridiculous to suggest there could also be other intelligent life apart from us. At the very least, there’s no harm in looking – who knows what we might find.