August 27

How to Contact Extraterrestrial Life With Radio Telescopes


Posted by Gonzo on August 27, 2023 4:41 PM

Scientists have spent decades using radio telescopes to look for signs of life elsewhere. One such program, SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), stands out in particular.

Carl Sagan championed this theory in both his novel and film Contact, in order to increase our chances of interstellar contact.


Scientists have spent 60 years looking for intelligent life in the universe by using radio telescopes to focus on planets circling distant stars. This project, known as SETI or Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, has yet to yield any fruit; some scientists are becoming impatient. Some have advocated for an active program sending messages out in hopes of finding alien life – this approach is known as METI or Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

Messages intended for ET could contain information on Earth and its culture or scientific facts like the foundations of physics, biology and mathematics. Scientists have also experimented with sending musical tunes and images of our natural environment – for instance the Voyager Golden Records included with both Voyager spacecrafts launched in 1977 contained sounds and visuals depicting life on Earth.

Other scientists are exploring ways to communicate with intelligent animal species. One researcher attempted to teach dolphins English using rhythms – although he wasn’t successful, he gained more insight into why humans speak differently from dolphins.

METI requires astronomers to design an encoded message in such a way that an intelligent alien civilization could interpret. This may prove an immense challenge; global cooperation will likely be necessary, bringing together experts from varying fields and cultures; it could take decades until first contact is made.


Astronomers frequently utilize telescopes to search for signals that might originate from alien civilizations; one such effort is known as SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). Scientists have recently been surprised to find that most of the radio waves they have detected do not come from alien sources – many could actually come from natural or man-made sources instead. Researchers have developed Rio 2.0 to help prevent false alarms from increasing excitement during alien-hunting discoveries. Scientists can rate signals on a scale of one to ten, with 10 being worth getting excited about. Scores will be assigned based on potential implications for life on Earth and whether the signal appears real rather than being caused by natural means or humans. Individual scientists will make these assessments, though these ratings will also be reviewed by their colleagues before being published.

Some astronomers are growing frustrated with SETI’s slow progress, and are pushing for another program known as METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence). This would involve sending powerful messages toward other stars in hopes that intelligent alien civilizations will respond. Elon Musk of Tesla and Jeff Bezos of Amazon both favor this approach, pouring millions into projects to search for alien intelligences.


Telescopes are instruments designed to collect electromagnetic radiation and form magnified images of celestial objects, providing magnified views from visible light to radio waves. Astronomers utilize telescopes as part of their study of planets, stars, galaxies and any signs of life beyond Earth.

Scientists have been searching for signs of life outside Earth since Project Ozma first launched as a modern SETI project in 1960. Its goal was to listen for alien transmissions and look for biosignatures on distant planets; nowadays astronomers also search for technological evidence of alien civilizations like our own.

One way to identify whether a signal from alien transmitters, rather than our own equipment, is whether its frequency changes over time. Alien transmitters would likely be on moving planets that produce doppler shifts that cause their frequencies to shift in response to doppler shifts from surrounding planets; otherwise, any stable signal could simply be noise generated here on Earth and not an alien communication source.

Marcelo Lares is an astronomer at Argentina’s National University of Cordoba. His research includes data-rich statistical analyses of stellar populations, large-scale structure in the universe and gravitational-wave events; but more specifically he’s trying to solve what’s known as the Fermi paradox, named for Enrico Fermi who wondered why, in such an expansive universe with so many stars and planets out there, no signs of life have yet been detected?


Astronomers have used radio telescopes for over 60 years to search for signs of life beyond Earth and other galaxies, but have never detected a signal. Frustrated with this lack of progress, some scientists are advocating for a more active program called METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence) that would involve both listening and sending signals directly to ETs.

Scientists hope to send signals that would be easy for ETs to understand, such as ones using narrow bandwidths with repeating patterns. At the same time, scientists are also listening for other forms of alien signal emissions such as radar emissions, TV transmissions or radio greetings that might indicate their existence.

MeTI is an ambitious endeavor with no guarantee that it will work, yet the astronomers leading this effort have secured time at some of the world’s most powerful telescopes to search for signs of extraterrestrial life (technosignatures) as well as begin testing new technologies for receiving ET signals (such as using multiple smaller dishes that may be less costly and easier to operate than larger ones).

But even if the theory works, we might not be ready for encounters with alien life forms. Colonial history suggests that contact could cause global political upheaval and social disruption.

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