As we puzzle out the best observing strategies to pick up a bio- or technosignature, we’re also asking in what ways our own world could be observed by another civilization. If such exist, they would have a number of tools at their disposal by which to infer our existence and probe what we do. Extrapolation is dicey, but we naturally begin with what we understand today, as Brian McConnell does in this, the third of a three-part series on SETI issues. A communications systems engineer, Brian has worked with Alex Tolley to describe a low-cost, high-efficiency spacecraft in their book A Design for a Reusable Water-based Spacecraft Known as the Spacecoach (Springer, 2015). His latest book is The Alien Communication Handbook — So We Received A Signal, Now What? recently published by Springer Nature. Is our existence so obvious to the properly advanced observer? That doubtless depends on the state of their technology, about which we know nothing, but if the galaxy includes billion-year old cultures, it’s hard to see how we might be missed.
by Brian McConnell
In SETI discussions, it is often assumed that an ET civilization would be unaware of our existence until they receive a signal from us. I Love Lucy is an often cited example of early broadcasts they might stumble across. Just as we are developing the capability to directly image exoplanets, a more astronomically advanced civilization may already be aware of our existence, and may have been for a long time. Let’s consider several methods by which an ET could take observations of Earth:
- Spectroscopic analysis of Earth’s atmosphere
- Deconvolution of Earth’s light curve
- Solar gravitational lens telescopes
- Solar system scale interferometers
- High speed flyby probes (e.g. Starshot)
- Slow traveling probes that loiter in near Earth space (Lurkers, Bracewell probes)
We are already capable of conducting spectroscopic analysis of the light passing through exoplanet atmospheres, and as a result, are able to learn about their general characteristics. This capability will soon be extended to include Earth sized planets. An ET astronomer that had been studying Earth’s atmosphere over the past several centuries would have been able to see the rapid accumulation of carbon dioxide and other fossil fuel waste gases. This signal is plainly evident from the mid 1800s onward. Would this be a definitive sign of an emergent civilization? Probably not, but it would be among the possible explanations, and perhaps a common pattern as an industrial civilization develops. Other gases, such as fluorocarbons (CFCs and HFCs) have no known natural origin, and would more clearly indicate more recent industrial activity.
There is also no reason not to stop at optical/IR, and not conduct similar observations in the microwave band, both to look for artificial signals such as radars, but also to study the magnetic environment of exoplanets, much like we are using the VLA to study the magnetic fields of exoplanets. It’s worth noting that most of the signals we transmit are not focused at other star systems, and would appear very weak to a distant observer, though they might notice a general brightening in the microwave spectrum, much like artificial illumination might be detectable. This would be a sure sign of intelligence, but we have not been “radio bright” for very long, so this would only be visible to nearby systems.
Even if we can only obtain a single pixel image of an exoplanet, we can use a technique called deconvolution to develop a low resolution image of it by measuring how its brightness and color varies as the planet rotates. This is not unlike building an image by moving a light meter across a surface to build a map of light levels that can be translated into an image. It won’t be possible to build a high resolution image, but it will be possible to see large-scale features such as oceans, continents and ice caps. While it would not be possible to directly see human built structures, it would be clear that Earth has oceans and vegetation. Images of Pluto taken before the arrival of the New Horizons probe offer an example of what can be done with a limited amount of information.
Comparison of images of Pluto taken by the New Horizons probe (left) and the Hubble Space Telescope via light curve reconstruction (right). Image credit: NASA / Planetary Society.
Svetlana Berdyugina and Jeff Kuhn presented a presentation on this topic at the 2018 NASA Techno Signatures symposium where they simulated what the Earth would look like through this deconvolution process. In the simulated image, continents, oceans and ice caps are clearly visible, and because the Earth’s light curve can be split out by wavelength, it would be possible to see evidence of vegetation.
Solar Gravitational Lens Telescopes
A telescope placed along a star’s gravitational lens focal line will be able to take multi pixel images of exoplanets at considerable distances. Slava Turyshev et al show in this NASA NIAC paper that it will be possible to use an SGL telescope to image exoplanets at 1 kilometer per pixel resolution out to distances of 100 light years. A SGL telescope pointed at Earth might be able to see evidence of large scale agriculture, urban centers, night side illumination, reservoirs, and other signs of civilization. Moreover, pre-industrial activity and urban settlements might be visible to this type of instrument, which raises the possibility that an ET civilization with this capability would have been able to see evidence of human civilization centuries ago, perhaps Longer.
A simulated image of an exoplanet as seen from an SGL telescope. Image credit: NASA/JPL
A spacefaring civilization that happens to have access to a nearby black hole would have an even better lens to use (the Sun’s gravitational lens is slightly distorted because of the Sun’s rotation and oblate shape).
Solar System Scale Interferometers
The spatial resolution of a telescope is a function of its aperture size and the wavelength of the light being observed. Using interferometry, widely separated telescopes can combine their observations, and increase the effective aperture to the distance between the telescopes. The Black Hole Event Horizon Telescope used interferometry to create a virtual radio telescope whose aperture was the size of Earth. With it, we were able to directly image the accretion disc of galaxy M87’s central black hole, some 53 million light years away.
Synthetic microwave band image of M87’s central black hole’s shadow and nearby environment. Image credit: Event Horizon Telescope
Now imagine a fleet of optical interferometers in orbit around a star. They would have an effective aperture measuring tens to hundreds of millions of kilometers, and would be able to see small surface details on distant exoplanets. This is beyond our capabilities to build today, but the underlying physics say they will be possible to build, which is to say it is an expensive and difficult engineering problem, something a more advanced civilization may have built. Indeed, we began to venture down this path with the since canceled SIM (Space Interferometry Mission) and LISA (Laser Interferometer Space Antenna) telescopes.
A solar system scale constellation of optical interferometers would be able to resolve surface details of distant objects at a resolution of 1-10 meters per pixel, comparable to satellite imagery of the Earth, meaning that even early agriculture and settlements would be visible to them.
Fast Flyby Probes
Fast lightsail probes, similar to the Breakthrough Starshot probes that we hope to fly in a few decades, will be able to take high resolution images of exoplanets as the probes fly past target planets. Images taken of Pluto by the New Horizons probe probably give an idea of what to expect in terms of resolution. It was able to return images at a resolution of less than 100 meters per pixel, smaller than a city block.
The primary challenges in obtaining high resolution images from probes like these are: the speed at which the probe flies past its target (0.2c in the case of the proposed starshot probe),and transmitting observations back to the home system. Both of these are engineering problems. For example, the challenge of capturing images can be solved by taking as many images as possible during the flyby and then using on board post processing to create a synthesized image. Communication is likewise an engineering problem that can be solved with better onboard power sources and/or large receiving facilities at the home system. If the probe itself is autonomous and somewhat intelligent, it can also decide which parts of the collected imagery are most interesting and prioritize their transmission.
The Breakthrough Starshot program envisions launching a large number of cheap, lightweight lightsails on a regular cadence, so while an individual probe might only be able to capture a limited set of observations, in aggregate they may be able to return extensive observations and imagery over an extended period of time.
Slow Loitering Probes (Lurkers and Bracewell Probes)
An ET civilization that has worked out nuclear propulsion would be able to send slower traveling probes to loiter in near Earth space. These probes could be long lived, and could be designed for a variety of purposes. Being in close proximity to Earth, they would be able to take high resolution images over an extended period of time. Consider that the Voyager probes, among the first deep space probes we built, are still operational today. ET probes could be considerably more long lived and capable of autonomous operation. If they are operating in our vicinity, they would have been able to see early signs of human activity back to antiquity. One important limitation is that only nearby civilizations would be able to launch probes to our vicinity within a few hundred years.
The implication of this is not just that an ETI could be able to see us today, they could have been able to study the development of human civilization from afar, over a period spanning centuries or millennia. Beyond that, Earth has had life for 3.5 billion years, and life on land for several hundred million years. So if other civilizations are surveying habitable worlds on an ongoing basis, Earth may have been noticed and flagged as a site of interest long before we appeared on the scene.
One of the criticisms of SETI is that the odds of two civilizations going “online” within an overlapping time frame may be vanishingly small, which implies that searching for signals from other civilizations may be a lost cause. But what if early human engineering projects, such as the Pyramids of Giza, had been visible to them long ago? Then the sphere of detectability expands by orders of magnitude, and more importantly, these signals we have been broadcasting unintentionally have been persistent and visible for centuries or millennia.
This has ramifications for active SETI (METI) as well. Arguments against transmitting our own artificial signals, on the basis that we might be risking hostile action by neighbors, may be moot if most advanced civilizations have some of the capabilities mentioned in this article. At the very least, they would know Earth is an inhabited world and a site for closer study, and may well have been able to see early signs of human civilization long ago. So perhaps it is time to revisit the METI debate, but this time with a focus on understanding what unintentional signals or techno signatures we have been sending and who could see them.