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Detecting industrial pollution could be an effective approach to finding ET

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July 31, 2014

Scientists suggest looking for industrial pollution as a new way of searching for extrater...

Scientists suggest looking for industrial pollution as a new way of searching for extraterrestrial intelligence (Image: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)

According to researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), we might soon be able to detect hints of technologically advanced alien civilizations by measuring high levels of polluting gases in the atmospheres of distant exoplanets. The approach should become viable soon after the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is launched in late 2018.

The new and more powerful space telescopes set to replace Hubble in the coming years will be able to uncover new details on very small and very distant celestial objects throughout the universe. In particular, the JWST will make observations mainly in the infrared spectrum, which is ideal for targeting exoplanets and, through spectral observations, even pinpoint which planets might be (to the best of our knowledge) the best candidates for hosting extraterrestrial life.

Using the limited data at our disposal, scientists have recently speculated that as many as one hundred million exoplanets in our galaxy alone may host complex forms of life. But if life does indeed exist outside of Earth, how could we tell from a distance whether it is a primordial bacterial form or a highly advanced technological civilization?

Researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics have suggested a possible method to do just that. In a recently published study, they have concluded that the JWST will be able to spot the fingerprints of specific atmospheric pollutants which, if found in meaningful concentrations, would reliably indicate the presence of a technologically advanced civilization.

Though seemingly far-fetched, the authors argue that this approach has merit. We expect the atmosphere of life-bearing planets to contain oxygen and methane in abundance, but their detection would not be a conclusive sign of intelligent life. By contrast, some chemicals causing atmospheric pollution are purely artificial and so, according to the scientists, they should be interpreted as a reliable sign that technologically advanced little (not-so-) green men are close-by.

Harvard student Henry Lin and professor Avi Loeb estimate that the JWST should be able to detect tetrafluoromethane (CF4 and trichlorofluoromethane (Ccl3F), two types of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), if they are present in concentrations approximately ten times higher than on Earth. These two chemicals are found in aerosols and chemical solvents and have been known to cause the thinning of the ozone layer in our own atmosphere.

"It is ironic that high concentrations of molecules with high global warming potential (GWP), the worst-case scenario for Earth's climate, is the optimal scenario for detecting an alien civilization, as GWP increases with stronger infrared absorption and longer atmospheric lifetime," say the authors.

But the researchers note that the molecules could also be there not as harming and unwanted pollution, but also, and perhaps more likely, as a way to terraform a planet on the edge of the habitable zone.

"Targeting pollutants like CFCs is ideal, as they are only produced in significant quantities by anthropogenic activities," say the authors. Moreover, the gases could remain in the atmosphere for tens of thousands of years, which increases our chances to spot such a planet even if the civilization had annihilated itself.

Unfortunately, the JWST will only be powerful enough to detect such pollutants on Earth-like planets orbiting white dwarf stars, which are incredibly dense stellar remnants of Sun-like mass and Earth-like size. However, these systems would be an interesting place to look for life, since we have already found a number of promising exoplanets in similar environments.

With JWST, a few hours of integration time will be enough to detect Earth-like levels of water vapor, molecular oxygen, carbon dioxide and other generic biosignatures on planets orbiting a white dwarf; beyond that, observing the same planet for up to 1.7 days will be enough to detect the two CFCs in concentrations of 750 parts per trillion, or 10 times greater than on Earth.

Though admittedly a long shot, this method is more easily achievable than other approaches that have been advanced in recent years, such as looking for city lights, which would demand optics well outside our current capabilities (you'd need a mirror 100 times larger than Hubble's just to detect lights on the planetary system closest to our own). It also doesn't rely on the alien civilization having already found us, as is the case with the more "conventional" method of scouring the electromagnetic spectrum for alien transmissions.

The new method should already become viable for white dwarf systems in five years' time as the JWST goes online. After that, we will most likely be able to expand our search to Earth-like planets orbiting Sun-like stars with the very next generation of space telescopes.

A paper describing the advance appears in The Astrophysical Journal.

Source: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

About the Author
Dario Borghino Dario studied software engineering at the Polytechnic University of Turin. When he isn't writing for Gizmag he is usually traveling the world on a whim, working on an AI-guided automated trading system, or chasing his dream to become the next European thumbwrestling champion.   All articles by Dario Borghino
7 Comments

This assumes they are as stupid and short sighted a species as we are. Not necessarily a good assumption!

Max Kennedy
31st July, 2014 @ 06:38 pm PDT

Yet based on how we have treated earth it would not be an indication of intelligent life.

Warren Roberts
31st July, 2014 @ 08:41 pm PDT

As suggested by the 2 posters above me -

If they are that intelligent they should have solved the pollution problems by the time their light reaches us!

If they have not, they have probably perished!

The Skud
31st July, 2014 @ 09:53 pm PDT

If I time this post correctly, I can be the fourth horseman of the apocalypse by saying that I agree with the first three posters above.

Mel Tisdale
1st August, 2014 @ 03:28 am PDT

There's something weirdly humorous about this article. I suppose on the Bell curve of ET intelligence scattered across a speculated 100 million exoplanets, at least half of them would be of "below average" intelligence. I suppose that there could be many dwarf or small yellow stars with tiny planets which could harbor dumb little ETs who have polluted their own little worlds. I could also imagine those ETs looking through a telescope at us and declaring that they may have found their lost brothers. Using the limited data at my disposal, I speculate that there could be 50 million planets(lower half of the Bell curve) like that in our galaxy alone. Aren't statistics wonderful? It would seem that we have gotten speculation down to a real science. To save time and money, let's consider the problem solved and move on.

Bob
4th August, 2014 @ 06:53 am PDT

That sounds like a good way to start... but what if the aliens are smart like the French who produce 80% of their electricity with nuclear power plants? LOL

Kevin E. James
4th August, 2014 @ 08:44 am PDT

might also be how the Aliens know not to bother with this place... :)

Michiel Mitchell
7th August, 2014 @ 10:15 am PDT
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