Science 5 min read

How METI, or Active SETI, is Looking for Alien Intelligence

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oneinchpunch /

Are we alone in the immensity of the universe?

There are two possible answers to this question, and, in the words of Arthur C. Clarke, “both are equally terrifying.”.

If yes, indeed, we’re alone, this means that life on Earth is a unique miracle. We’ll need a new understanding of what it is to be human.

While if we can detect signs of alien intelligence, or life whatsoever, this will undoubtedly be transformative in so many respects.

Our conception of the world and life will change. The meaning of our existence as a leading species in our world will change.

Our knowledge of the universe has greatly expanded in the last decade thanks to advances in space sciences. The more we know, however, the more uncertain we get.

You’re probably familiar with SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. It is the world-leading institution devoted to the hunt for aliens.

But now we also have METI.

METI: Active Search for Alien Intelligence

The SETI Institute is the world’s biggest and only organization entirely dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial life or other alien intelligence in the known universe. SETI, as a not-for-profit research organization, represents humanity’s thirst for knowledge about life and the exploration of the universe.

Any Extraterrestrial Intelligence (ETI) out there would emit radio signals all over the place, either intentionally or not. And this is where SETI’s mission comes in.

Since its foundation in 1984, SETI has been listening to the sky in the hope of catching ET’s signal.

SETI’s Allen Telescope Array in California now counts 42 dishes and will be adding more and more elements in the future. Other than its targeted search capabilities, SETI has also been improving its computational power resources.

The SETI@home project, launched in 1999, exploits computer time offered by volunteers around the world to crunch radio telescope data. (anyone can join SETI at home).

However, radio astronomers have found nothing except for some false alarms, or at least indefinitive candidates like the Wow! Signal. So far, there’s still no actual proof.

Some scientists at SETI thought about kicking it up a notch by taking a more active approach to the search for ET. Instead of just “listening” to the sky, why not send messages?

Hence the METI initiative was born.

Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI), a.k.a. Active SETI (Active Searches for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is what its name suggests. METI programs aim to broadcast powerful electromagnetic signals to nearby stars, in the hope of getting a reply from unknown ET.

METI is actively seeking to contact ET. Is it a good idea, though, reaching out to alien civilizations?

Do we Want Them to Find us

The Observable Universe is 13.8 billion years old and 92 billion light-years wide.

The Milky Way, with all its heft, is but a tiny smudge on the cosmic fabric. It is one of hundreds of billion galaxies, each with innumerable stars and planets.

Since the launch of the Kepler telescope in 2009, astronomers have cataloged thousands of potentially habitable exoplanets just in our neighborhood. They estimate there are around 10 billion Earth-like planets in the Milky Way alone.

Statistically speaking, our home galaxy and the universe at large should be teeming with life. There should be plenty of type I, II, and III civilizations according to the Kardashev Scale.

But if this is the case, “where is everybody?”

METI is one of the most proactive initiatives geared toward answering this question.

What if that happens? What could be the consequences as far as our species and the world are concerned? Do we want to alert aliens about our existence in the first place?

Like Stephen Hawking and other scientists, METI admits there’s some risk involved with helping ET find us. In a statement, METI researchers wrote:

“We feel the decision whether or not to transmit must be based upon a worldwide consensus, and not a decision based upon the wishes of a few individuals with access to powerful communications equipment. We strongly encourage vigorous international debate by a broadly representative body prior to engaging further in this activity.”

Human civilization has been sending all kinds of radio signals into space for around a century.

A nearby alien civilization that’s just a couple of thousand years older should be able to pick up on the faintest of our signals anyway. If they intend to hurt us in any way, they’d go ahead and do it.

Any civilization with interstellar travel capabilities can already catch random TV signals leaking into space. There’s no point in trying to hide. That’s the belief among the METI community.

Also, they think a technologically advanced civilization would be altruistic. However, the beings that we may establish contact with may not be biological at all.

With a highly advanced alien civilization, it’s more likely that an AI would be on the other end of the line.


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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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