The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) has long had to rely on private funding, being regarded somewhat as a fringe science. That could all be set to change though, as NASA is looking to fund SETI for the first time in more than 20 years.
That revelation comes from a new House of Representatives bill, as picked up by The Atlantic, which sets out a vision and funding for NASA’s future. The bill, which still needs to make its way through the House and the Senate, discusses how NASA might go about searching for life in the universe. While that's historically referred to looking for microbial life or potentially habitable planets, things could be all set to change.
“NASA shall partner with the private sector and philanthropic organizations to the maximum extent practicable 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,” the bill states.
It goes on to add that NASA will be awarded $10 million in both 2018 and 2019 to search for technosignatures. This would be the first time NASA has directly funded SETI since the 1990s.
Back then, NASA planned to use two radio telescopes to study the night sky and look for evidence of signals from intelligent aliens, called the High Resolution Microwave Survey. But in 1993, Nevada Senator Richard Bryan introduced an amendment that culled funding for the program after just one year, noting it had failed to find any “little green men”.
“Not a single Martian has said 'take me to your leader,' and not a single flying saucer has applied for FAA approval,” he wrote in a press release.
Since then, SETI has relied on benefactors to continue its efforts. Most recently this has included Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, who in 2015 pledged $100 million to the search for intelligent signals via his Breakthrough Listen project. NASA’s involvement could be a big boon.
“This initiative – if passed by the Senate – could reinstate SETI into the NASA budget,” Seth Shostak, the director of the SETI Institute, told IFLScience. “It’s always been incomprehensible to me that NASA funds all sorts of work to try and find life in the Solar System, and even biomarkers such as oxygen in the atmospheres of exoplanets, and yet won’t put any money into looking for the most interesting kind of life – the intelligent variety.”
SETI continues to be controversial, in more ways than one, not least because it has never found anything. But as is often said, if we don’t look, we’ll never know. Perhaps NASA can bring some gravitas to the search once again.