NASA is Funding a Search for Alien Civilisations Powered by Solar Cells

Alien Solar
An artist rendering of solar panels overlaying a CJ aerial photograph of the Respess property surrounding the Terra Ceia Christian School. (CJ graphic) (modified)

Guest essay by Eric Worrall

Maybe someone out there has solved the problem of renewable energy intermittency.

With intelligent life in scant supply on Earth, boffins search for technosignatures of civilizations in the galaxy

Pollution, sprawling cities of megastructures, any sign aliens are screwing up just like us…

MON 22 JUN 2020 // 07:52 UTC

Astronomers are on the hunt for signs of alien civilizations in space by searching for things like extraterrestrial solar panels or planetary atmospheres spewing pollutants.

The team, from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the University of Rochester in the US, believe these so-called “technosignatures” are evidence of intelligence in other places than Earth. If advanced life forms exist they’ll be using electronics, the thinking goes, and that means emissions that could be detected.

“Technosignatures relate to signatures of advanced alien technologies similar to, or perhaps more sophisticated than what we possess,” Avi Loeb, chairman of Harvard University’s Department of Astronomy, saidthis month. “Such signatures might include industrial pollution of atmospheres, city lights, photovoltaic cells, megastructures, or swarms of satellites.”

Loeb told us his team will be awarded a total of $286,926 by NASA over two years to scour space for technosignatures. They will kickstart their search by trying to find signs that civilizations are trying to harvest star light for energy with the use of solar panels.

The researchers pointed to the example of Proxima b, the closest Earth-like planet that may be habitable located some 4.25 light years away. Proxima b is believed to be rocky and is tidally locked to its parent star Proxima. That means that the same side of the planet faces the small yellow star as it orbits, and the other side is permanently shrouded in darkness.

“If a civilization wants to illuminate or warm up the night side, they would place photovoltaic cells on the day side and transfer the electric power gained to the night side,” said Adam Frank, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester working on the study.

Read more: https://www.theregister.com/2020/06/22/if_you_want_to_find/

The NASA funded team are also looking for pollution signatures. Perhaps all that pollution was emitted when the aliens strip mined their entire planet in an effort to power their civilisation with solar energy.

72 thoughts on “NASA is Funding a Search for Alien Civilisations Powered by Solar Cells

      • Since John Glenn never set foot on ISS, I guess that means NASA should never be defunded.

        • He might be thinking of the John Glenn that was once an American hero but then disgraced himself as a Senator by acting as a defacto defense counsel in the Senate for Bill Clinton scandals. The payoff was a ride on the space shuttle.

    • Im looking forward to the amazing breakthrough of space travel so we can forget the speed of light barrier and get to these exciting planets within a reasonable time period.

      Anybody aware of any research along these lines?

      What’s time anyway?

      Cheers

      Roger

      • So far, nothing has broken Relativity over quantum scale, nor has Causality been breached. Sorry.

        • Oh C’mon Patrick.
          Causality is not a derived principle, it is a metaphysical assumption

          There are plenty of things that happen without cause. Like radioactive decay. Or women buying new shoes.

          We simply assume that we haven’t worked out the cause yet

          As far as Relativity goes, it is an adjustment to a classical mind set that regards space and time as infinitely divisible, whereas quantum theory shows that at least in terms of spatial entities, infinitely small dimensions break the sums apart with nasty infinities. Hence string theory. Quantised space.

          It all becomes much easier when you realise that the world as you understand it to be is not there as you understand it. That is merely a way that we have developed of regarding it, for the purposes of surviving in it.

          Reality is a model. And assumptions like space, time, energy, matter and so on are simply the axes of that model. We map our experience onto them in order to navigate the great mystery of whatever is actually out there.

          Anyone who owns a cat knows that cats actually can manage to emerge hungry from parallel dimensions out of cupboards that simply contained no cat the last time you opened the door.

          It is clear that cats have a Dream Time, that is not of this world 🙂

          • Chuckle. Thank you for possibly the most reasoned and insightful thing I will see all day!

          • No, no, no, that cat died. There was some radioactive decay event inside that cupboard that gave the cat a form of rapid onset cancer that killed the poor thing. But a NEW cat which looked exactly like the other cat by sheer coincidence, spontaneously appeared from out of the quantum foam and then walked out of the cupboard. And because of the false expectation of only one cat being in the cupboard was met when the second cat walked out, no one ever looked inside the cupboard to find the corpse of the original cat. The first, dead cat was named Schrodinger, and the second, living cat was named Tiger, although their names are not important to this story.

            As far as you know, this story is true.

      • Speaking of “what is time?”, the arrival of such ‘signs’ will have happened so long after they were generated that they would say nothing at all about what is, but would be great fertilizer for even more speculation (and modelling) about what used to be, aeons ago and far far away.

  1. The ending of Monty Python’s Galaxy Song:

    So remember, when you’re feeling very small and insecure,
    How amazingly unlikely is your birth;
    And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere out in space,
    ‘Cause there’s bugger all down here on Earth!

  2. The Hubble Telescope couldn’t even take a proper picture of Pluto before New Horizons arrived and took stunning up close HD photography. It was just a blurry fuzzy few pixels of light, and Pluto is only 4-6 billion Km away depending on orbit (0.000628 light years average about 4.6 light hours away) as compared to Proxima Centauri b, the closest Earth-like planet that may be habitable located some 4.25 light years away. That is 8000 times further away than Pluto from Earth. Although if it is tidally locked to always having a hot side and a cool side, what are the chance for life near a Red Dwarf star? And we going to be able to identify any of that that from here? Maybe a focused radio wave of some type might be identified some day, but making inferences to a solar PV powered civilization is delusional and probably some form of dim wit promotion of solar PV electricity here on the good Earth.

    • Hubble is cool and all, but the limit of optical resolution is an unyielding tyrant. A constellation of space telescopes in distant solar orbits would be a start.

  3. “NASA is Funding a Search for Alien Civilisations Powered by Solar Cells”

    How do they determine that the Alien civilizations are powered by solar cells?

        • That is an excellent response, yes, but I was going to say, “good luck with even finding such a civilization — what will be found is a highly advanced civilization that has figured out how to maximize the power of slugmog, which is an unknown miracle-energy mineral (not of this Earth), formed by millions of years of compressed skeletons of people having perished in previous civilizations on this other world who tried, but failed, at implementing an unimplementable fantasy. The primary signature of such a world will be green-colored CO2.

          Remember … slugmog … energy of the future.

          • slugmog is just gomguls from a dimension where time travels in the opposite direction, and the Universe will get hotter and hotter until it collapses to a pin prick and vanishes.

    • Your point above identifies the resolution problem with just imaging a Solar System object. I would guess extensive PV coverage of a planet surface would produce distinctive sunlight reflection signatures. Which might look somewhat like the specular or diffuse hotspot reflections you get off the ocean surface. Just brighter and these reflections would be heading out at odd angles – that is mostly back at the source no matter what part of the planet surface.
      So, lets say the orbital plane isn’t all that far from us angle wise. And the PV units track the star fairly well. The light reflected would be fairly concentrated (high BRDF) back toward the source. As the planet nears the farside of the star in its orbit the light detected from the planet would drastically increase over the normal Lambertian scatter from a diffuse planet surface. If it wasn’t for that pesky star being in the way I could see this being a fairly noticeable effect. I can see where 280K can fund a couple grad interns to semi quantify the SNR against the nearly line of sight star (my gut says its near zero).

        • Well, if it’s silicon probably more reflective – Fresnel reflection of untextured silicon is about 20 percent, vs 3 percent for water. Lets say most of the star side of the planet is covered with PV. And the panels are pointed to be roughly perpendicular (permanently tracked) to the star. There will be a very intense back reflection toward the star. This back reflection probably subtends a few degrees at least and so most of it makes it past the star and shines out making a grand 360 degree searchlight sweep of the orbit plane every year.

          If you could somehow be between the planet and the star, the disc of the planet would be brilliantly illuminated. Incredibly bright compared to an ordinary dirt and water lambertian sphere. From our viewpoint, way away on the other side of the star, the beam would be many many orders of magnitude less bright than the star itself. Detectable? Maybe.

          This is fairly simple radiometric calculations. I’m curious but not enough to make the calc. My gut says the ratio between the star and planet is about 10^15. If a planet can be detected by the down blip change in the star signal due to occulting, I guess this inverse (up) blip detection might be feasible.

      • Why would solar panels from a more advanced civilization reflect any light at all? Wouldn’t it use it all?

        Hmmm … maybe all those black holes out there are the more advanced civilizations they’re looking for? They’re so advanced that they’ve developed a way to use gravity to draw more resources to themselves from space to replace the resources they wasted building solar panels!

        • I think nano-textured silicon has very low reflection. It has higher efficiency for sure. I remember reading about it but it doesn’t seem to have hit our tech mainstream. In that case the planet would be pretty dark – albedo of a few percent, I think it would look really cool from nearby. But I’m just speculating on what detection mechanism might be in their study. I’m not advocating this, just speculating.

    • Perhaps they mis-read their brief from NASA;

      NASA: “We want you to do a search for alien civilization, powered by solar cells.”

      Scientist: “Okay, we will look for evidence of alien civilizations using solar cells”

  4. “they would place photovoltaic cells on the day side and transfer the electric power gained to the night side,”

    Or they could skip the solar cells and just heat the night side with fossil/nuclear energy.

    • It could be smoke and mirrors…mainly mirrors. They would just put up a 100,000 square miles of mirrors into geosynchronous orbit to reflect and light up the dark side of the planet with a permanent soft red light that would be easy on the eyes. Then they could plaster the surface with high efficiency solar panels (.42% efficient) from the red light of the reflected light of Proxima b. Then the Ladies of the Night that inhabit the Red Light districts will at least have a tiny amount of electricity to make them a bit more comfortable than their kerosene lamps.

  5. Environmental blight and they want to believe in something, even if it’s only inference from signals of assumed/asserted/unknown fidelity.

  6. After the next big asteroid strike takes out all higher forms of life, there will only be I Love Lucy TV episode transmissions and maybe some AGW warnings for aliens to ponder what happened here other than any obvious impact markers. The humans were as distracted as the dinosaurs when their respective tickets were punched. They will never find Carl Sagan’s travelogue in space though.

  7. The idiots at NASA, probably Harvard graduates, who signed off on this should be fired for incompetence. Oh, wait…
    Firing is not possible unless he is a racist.

  8. Oh ! Boy ! more of our tax dollars going up in smoke.
    It’s a quest for more stupid crap that can’t be verified.
    GOD is not dead , but Science is…………………………….

  9. “Loeb told us his team will be awarded a total of $286,926 by NASA over two years to scour space for technosignatures.”

    FIFY: “Loeb told us a taxpayer-contributed $286,926 will be thrown down the outhouse hole for no good reason.”

    • Loeb told us $286,926 will be used to help fund his university salary and that of a post-doc working on the project.

  10. Have they tried broadcasting the alien’s theme song – the one that goes Re- Mi -Do- Do- Soooo?

  11. The problem of intermittency would be reduced if the planet was tidally locked with the same side always facing their sun, such as Mercury does. Or, if there were multiple suns illuminating the planet for more than half the ‘day’ in the case of non-tidally locked planets. Then they would just have to worry about dissipating clouds, perhaps with powerful lasers powered by the photovoltaic arrays, and hope that there was enough power left over to do other useful things!

  12. Look for a signal that contains 97%-97%-97% repeated indefinitely.
    Or “any deniers out there”.

  13. Someone has been smoking weed again.

    In order for humans and other semi intelligent life we have to look at the cook book.

    Location (times ) various extinctions + close calls + geochemistry/ geology + cosmic rays and other various events that cause mutations = earth at the present.

    Some fellow came up with an equation that insists life like ours is all over the universe.

    I beg to differ. The same exact conditions that resulted in humans has not happened anywhere else.

    Even more horrifyingly, those conditions created a simian forms of liberals and socialists.

    Had another comet hit or a nearby supernova occurred…

    • Yes john you hit the nail on the head.
      Part of those conditions was the moon turning up when it did, and it’s influence on the great bodies of water on the this planet. All those tides stirring up the oceans.
      I would also contend that it would have been very unlikely that life would have left the ocean if their was not lunar tides filling then retreating from coastal area of land.

  14. ” the planet faces the small yellow star as it orbits..”

    Proxima Centauri (PC) is not a yellow star.
    PC surface temperature is about 3,000 K. By way of comparison, the red giant star in constellation Orion Betelgeuse has a surface temp of 3,500 K. We can see Betelguese is red with our naked eye vision because it is so large and luminous. PC, if we could see it within a few AU would appear an even duller red-brown than red Betelguese to our visible light sensitive eyes. Most of its emission energy are in IR like all M class dwarf stars of similar temperature.

    On another note on this article I find it laughable that a Professor of physics Adam Frank would think this:

    ““If a civilization wants to illuminate or warm up the night side, they would place photovoltaic cells on the day side and transfer the electric power gained to the night side,” said Adam Frank, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester working on the study.

    So many things wrong. Our best silicon photovoltaics would perform very poorly in the dull light that would be from Proxima Centauri, and mostly IR photovoltaics would need some kind of material besides silicon to produce usable power. That professor of physics needs to go back to school on work function and band gap in photovoltaics.

    A silicon photovoltaic needs IR light of a maximum wavelength of 1,110 nm or shorter to move an electron into the band gap. 1,110 nm IR light has photons of energy ~1.1 eV, which is just above the minimum needed to displace an electron from silicon into the band gap. Photons with energy above 3.0 eV are too energetic and send the electron out of the band gap and wasted. 3 eV photons correspond to 414 nm blue light. Shorter violet and and UV light is too energetic. In practice photovoltaics use photons of energies between 1.1 eV to 3.0 eV, which is near-IR thru most of the visible spectrum to drive the photovoltaic effect to produce an electrical current. Therein lie the problem with photovoltaics using PC’s light as an energy source. PC’s surface temp of 3,042 K has a peak emission of 952 nm, but most of it extends in a long tail far into the IR, well below the 1.11 eV photon energy cut-off needed to drive the photovoltaic effect. So for photovoltaic cells to work on Proxima b, some other material would be needed. What that would be I don’t know and whatever would work would have a different technosignature from human-made Earthly silicon photovoltaics.

    A better source of power rather than photovoltaics in such a tidally-locked world would simply be a thermoelectric arrangement, as design similar to what is used in radiothermal (Pu-238) power generators (RTGs). Thermoelectric power between the 500K front is would be abundant “free” energy. What kind of technosignature that would be would simply be a guess filled from untestable assumptions about the technical porwess of such a civilization.

    Which is all nonsense anyway, since all the Proxima exoplanets are tidally locked and blasted by a strong stellar wind, and then blasted regularly with scorching levels of radiation and proton flaring from their host dwarf star. Any life would be underground, deep under an ice-shield on the dark side. And life like that would if anything be likely to be some sort of anaerobic sludge microbiota.

    • “Any life would be underground… And life like that would if anything be likely to be some sort of anaerobic sludge microbiota.”

      Oh…just like ole Senile Joe hiding in his basement, all covered in moss.

    • Germanium (0.74 eV)
      Gallium Antimonide (0.81 eV)
      Indium Arsenide (0.43 eV)
      Indium Gallium Arsenide (0.35 – 1.0 eV) depending on In/Ga ratio

      None as abundant as silicon.

  15. Someone has been smoking weed again.

    In order for humans and other semi intelligent life we have to look at the cook book.

    Location (times ) various extinctions + close calls + geochemistry/ geology + cosmic rays and other various events that cause mutations = earth at the present.

    Some fellow came up with an equation that insists life like ours is all over the universe.

    I beg to differ. The same exact conditions that resulted in humans has not happened anywhere else.

    Even more horrifyingly, those conditions created simian forms of liberals and socialists.

    Had another comet hit or a nearby supernova occurred…

  16. I think that there’s a better chance of another lifeform on earth ascending to consciousness before we find intelligent alien life.

    Will it be mammalian or an octopus?

  17. Recently Hubble telescope ‘found a super-Earth’ with liquid water some 110 light-years away (our galaxy radius is about some 50,000 light years). A possible advanced civilisation, of this or other planets in our galactic neighbourhood, far superior to us would have received just few years of our noisy and polluting electromagnetic interference. In few short decades, our radio, tv, satellite and all other kinds of ‘communications’ growing exponentially might be too much for an advanced technology to put up with. They might decide, unless they have done it already but we have not found out yet, to silence us for ever. Spaying this tiny planet with a prolong and intense gamma rays radiation jets might do it, but in order to find out if they were successful they might to irradiate our planet for up to 200 years. An advanced civilisation might have access to a technology generating the relativistic gamma rays jets of superluminal speeds, in which case about 100-150 years might do and we are a goner. Forget climate change, CV, asteroids, etc. a mass extinction might be somewhere beyond horizon speeding in our direction. Humanity needs to change over to a ‘point to point’ low power laser light transmissions and infra/ultra sound waves or flickering led street lights for a bare minimum of mobile communications. (s/c)

    • Once they watch I Love Lucy broadcasts from 1951 in 40 more years while seeing the occasional nuclear flashes from atmospheric H-bomb tests about the same time, they’ll know to stay the Hell away from here.

  18. I see no reason why planet earth should be the only planet in the universe that has the past, present or future ability to sustain life (not necessarily as we know it). There are trillions of stars out there, so a one in a billion chance still provides the likelihood that there are some that have a life supporting capability. But…. bear in mind that even if life exists on a million such stars, it is absolutely certain that this life has not reached the stage at which it has generated a signal that we (or others) can pick up and thereby establish any form of common existence. We’ve only been generating these signals for, at most, 200 years, which is a blip in our existence, let alone the universe’s. Then factor in the time these signals will take to pass across space and it seems to me that, sad though it is, the zeros don’t work in our favour. I hope I’m wrong but I don’t think I’ll ever find out (I’m 72).

    I’d still like to know, tho’.

  19. And there’s the problem that human life has been present on Earth For about 0.1% of Earth’s 4.5 billion years, civilized human life for about 1% of that, and electricity-utilizing human life for less than 5% of that. And we have no way to predict how long our present use of electricity will persist. Perhaps generally detectable electricity use will be replaces be something else. Solar energy likewise

    So what is the chance that any planet we observe will be in a period of observable electricity using civilization? Seems like a probably unproductive line of research, though very noble and wonderfully signaling of virtue, no doubt….

  20. If a civilization wants to illuminate or warm up the night side, they would place photovoltaic cells on the day side and transfer the electric power gained to the night side.

    But only if there were sufficient government subsidies!

  21. From the article: “With intelligent life in scant supply on Earth, boffins search for technosignatures of civilizations in the galaxy”

    I busted out laughing again!

    Intelligent life does seem to be scant on Earth at the present time. Maybe it’s just temporary insanity.

  22. $287K hardly pays the loaded year salary of one full NASA employee. This is intern level or part time funding. It’s a joke on the scale of things. I think this is window dressing (cross dressing?) for a few astronomy and say environmental grad students. You can bet who is going to do the larger share of the work.

  23. They should probably study planets with G-type stars if they are looking for civilizations.

    It’s doubtful a civilization will develop on a planet around a red dwarf star, like Proxima Centauri, considering where the habitable zone has to be.

  24. Wait.
    Are they seeking a civilization powered by solar panels?
    Or are they seeking evidence of other civilizations using solar panels?

    Funny thing those solar panels might actually be effective when placed in space,with constant access to sunlight.
    Was this not the thesis of O’Neall? and the idea of moving all production processes to the Larange Points?

    If NASA is hoping to spot a solar dependent civilization,they need only look to Earth.
    Coal is Solar Energy.

    • John “Are they seeking a civilization powered by solar panels?”

      I think they were referring to ‘Intelligent Life’ so using that description and solar panels in the same sentence would be an oxymoron, wouldn’t it? 🙂

  25. Consider that the $286,926 so cavalierly pissed away by NASA could have paid for more than 1,000 third world children to get their cleft lips and palates surgically repaired by Operation Smile. With a benefactor providing a ‘doubling’ match, as often happens, the number becomes 2,000 surgeries that allow children to eat normally, smile, and not be ostracized. This is the real world cost of opportunity lost.

    • Thank you for this. Outstanding. Applies equally to the trillions slated for “climate change mitigation.”

      Amazing isn’t it, how our “thought leaders” keep saying it’s all about making life better in the developing world? That might be the biggest lie of all.

  26. “Proxima b is believed to be rocky and is TIDALY LOCKED to its parent star”
    ————————–
    Which precludes the possibility that life could exist there in the first place. What a moronic waste of money!

  27. This is no surprise. NASA could not even build a launch system to put astronauts into low orbit. So I guess they had to find another task they could spend our money on that had a better chance of “success”. They are truly a bunch of Bozos. Apologies to Bozo the clown, he was successful at his job.

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