As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (S.E.T.I.) as a bona fide branch of legitimate scientific inquiry we cannot help but wonder when humanity will get its first direct call from E.T.
Seth Shostak, the Senior Astronomer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, predicts that we will make first contact by 2025. Perhaps we will serendipitously stumble upon a radio transmission that just happens to be beamed our way or the aliens may find us interesting enough that they deliberately choose to try to send us a direct transmission. I have my doubts that this approach alone will allow humanity to successfully discovery extraterrestrial civilizations. The Search For Extraterrestrial Artifacts (SETA) and the Search for Extra Terrestrial Visitation (SETV) past and current may provide a reasonable alternate strategy in the search for Extraterrestrial Civilizations concurrently with the current radio searches.
I believe success lies with the next generation space based advanced astronomical observatories such as NASA’s Terrestrial Planet Finder, the James Webb Space Telescope and their successors. These telescopes in tandem with the various proposals for the New Worlds Missions will help us image the surfaces of any terrestrial planets that the Kepler space observatory happens to find. If we can image the surfaces of these planets then perhaps we will be able see the evidence of any advanced technological civilizations that happen to inhabit these worlds. I think success lies in spotting the lights of cities, spectroscopic evidence of industrial activity and using these telescopes in Optical SETI (OSETI) – the search for powerful lasers pulses used for interstellar communications at optical wavelengths by extraterrestrial societies.
Our best chances of success in this endeavor will be finding direct visual evidence of technological activity over astronomical distances. Along with evidence of large scale engineering on planetary and astronomical scales. And, finally wouldn’t it be wonderful to find evidence of extraterrestrial technology on Earth and the rest of the solar system?
My favorite scenario is the one first outlined by Arthur C Clarke in his short story “The Sentinel” written in 1948 for a BBC competition (in which it failed to place) and was first published in the magazine 10 Story Fantasy in 1951, under the title “Sentinel of Eternity”. In this scenario humanity stumbles upon an alien artifact of immense antiquity.
The story deals with the discovery of an artifact on Earth’s Moon left behind eons ago by ancient aliens. The object is made of a polished mineral and tetrahedral in shape, and is surrounded by a spherical forcefield. The first-person narrator speculates at one point that the mysterious aliens who left this structure on the Moon may have used mechanisms belonging “to a technology that lies beyond our horizons, perhaps to the technology of para-physical forces.”
For millennia (evidenced by dust buildup around its forcefield) the artifact has transmitted signals into deep space, but it ceases to transmit when the astronauts who discover it breach the forcefield. The narrator hypothesises that this “sentinel” was left on the moon as a “warning beacon” for the possible intelligent and spacefaring life that might develop on Earth.
This quotation illustrates the idea, and its ramifications:
It was only a matter of time before we found the pyramid and forced it open. Now its signals have ceased, and those whose duty it is will be turning their minds upon Earth. Perhaps they wish to help our infant civilization. But they must be very, very old, and the old are often insanely jealous of the young.
Later in the novel and motion picture 2001: A Space Odyssey, the operation of the sentinel is reversed. It is the energy of the sun, falling for the first time on the uncovered artifact that triggers the signal that creatures from the Earth had taken the first step into space. The sentinel in 2001 takes the form of a Monolith.
The Monoliths in the Space Odyssey universe serve several functions as teaching machines of backward species that have the potential to be elevated to higher sentience, cosmic gateways reminiscent of worm holes, advanced self replicating Von Neumann machines and the ultimate doomsday device and destroyer of worlds.
As to the question- Will This Be the Year We Make Contact? I hope so but, I have my doubts. In the meantime dear reader enjoy today’s motion picture features –“2001: A Space Odyssey” and “2010 The Year we Make Contact”.
2001 A Space Odyssey
Please note dear reader that at first you willbe greeted by a black screen but, the motion picture will start in about three minutes.
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2010 The Year we Make Contact