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- American astronomer
Astronomer Jill Tarter wants the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) to be taken seriously.
Why it matters: SETI as a scientific field has long played second fiddle to other, well-funded searches for direct and indirect signs of life — like NASA’s Mars program and the hunt for alien planets around distant stars.
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What's happening: Instead of generally referring to SETI as a search for smart aliens, Tarter is focusing on the search for "technosignatures" — signs of technology like geoengineering or large structures in orbit from distant civilizations.
"We can't define intelligence, and we certainly don't know how to find it at a distance, directly," Tarter told me. "What we can do is to look for evidence of somebody else's technology that might be discernible over interstellar distances."
If scientists on Earth happen to discover those massive signs of intelligent civilizations, however, they were likely created by a more advanced society because anything scientists could pick up from this far away would need to be particularly large for researchers to see it.
Between the lines: By putting technosignatures in the same conversation as biosignatures — biological signs of life on other planets like Mars — Tarter hopes both searches will be able to play off of one another.
"The exoplanets and extremophiles are pointing out that there is a lot more potentially habitable real estate out there than we ever imagined," Tarter said.
She also added that "the next obvious question is are they inhabited by intelligent beings?"
The intrigue: In the U.S., SETI efforts have largely been funded through philanthropy.
Yuri Milner's Breakthrough Listen is the most high-profile example of a philanthropy-funded SETI project in recent years.
But relatively new, international radio telescopes — like China's FAST and South Africa's MeerKAT — have come online, with the search for alien life built into their DNA, potentially giving a boost to the search for technosignatures globally.
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