Looking For Solar Panels On Distant Planets – The Atlantic

3 min

Updated on December 28, 2018.

What are the aliens thinking? That’s always been a problem for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). Until recently, SETI’s focus has been on alien “beacons,” signals that somebody somewhere intentionally beamed into space. But this traditional method involves making informed guesses about what the aliens were thinking when they built their beacons, and those guesses may turn out to be laughably wrong.

There’s an entirely new way to do SETI now, and understanding its promise begins with considering the properties of solar panels. Rather than just looking for beacons, SETI researchers now want to also search for unintentional “technosignatures” from alien industrial civilizations. An example of an unintentional technosignature could be pollutants in a distant planet’s atmosphere, or the shadow of a large artificial structure orbiting a planet.

The best way to find a technosignature is to search for the observable byproducts of activities that are necessary for all civilizations. For instance, industrial civilizations, by their very nature, must extract energy from their surroundings to do work and keep themselves running. In a creative paper published last year, the astronomers Manasvi Lingam and Avi Loeb wondered what technosignatures would radiate out from a civilization that powered its world by harvesting solar energy on a planetary scale.

It’s easy to imagine a civilization covering a fraction of its world with solar panels. This is something we might try in, say, the Sahara desert. What Lingam and Loeb did was calculate how the large-scale deployment of solar technology would leave a mark in light that bounces off a planet’s surface.

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