Hunt for alien spacecraft begins, as planet-spotting scientist Geoff Marcy gets funding

Artist rendering of alien spaceship Photo: Ray Edgar

In the field of planet hunting, Geoff Marcy is a star. After all, the astronomer at the University of California at Berkeley found nearly three-quarters of the first 100 planets discovered outside our solar system. But with the hobbled planet-hunting Kepler Templeton Foundation, a philanthropic organisation dedicated to investigating what it calls the “big questions” – which, unsurprisingly, include “Are we alone?” – awarded Marcy $US200,000 to pursue his search for alien years or more. We have no idea.”

To answer that question Marcy has begun to sift through the Kepler data and to search the heavens for a galactic laser Internet that might be in use somewhere out there. (More on that in a bit.)

Launched in 2009, Kepler was designed as a four-year mission to detect planets – habitable or otherwise – around distant stars by measuring the dimming of those stars as orbiting bodies pass in front of them. In May, a component of the spacecraft designed to keep it pointing precisely failed, dealing a crushing blow to Marcy and his colleagues who last year convinced years. To date, it has found 132 exoplanets – that is, planets outside our solar system – and possibly 3216 more that await confirmation. Researchers have extrapolated from Kepler data that our Milky Way galaxy alone contains at least 100 billion exoplanets, as many planets as there are stars. Still, with the

Marcy hopes that hiding within it will be hints about intelligent years more advanced than our own would probably be vastly greater than those of even the most profligate earthlings. The greatest source of energy could be captured by building a massive structure tiled with solar panels enveloping the star – the ultimate green jobs initiative.

Under the second law of thermodynamics, the structure would produce incredible amounts of waste heat in the form of infrared radiation. In September, a Penn State team led by astrophysics professor Jason Wright began searching the sky for just that by combing through data from NASA‘s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. The Penn State work is also being funded by Templeton.

If Dyson spheres pop up in the data, Marcy thinks they would more likely appear as a patchwork of solar panels rather than a solid sphere. Perhaps the dimming of a star would be erratic or quasi-periodic, unlike the regular transit of planets.

To detect such aberrant dimming patterns, Marcy’s Templeton grant is funding the salary of a Berkeley student to write software that will chew through the Kepler data.”Writing the computer code is not easy,” Marcy says. “There’s no prescription in any computer science book about how to search for aliens.”

Galactic laser internet

The rest of the $200,000 grant is buying Marcy time on the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, the largest telescope in the world, to search for – what else? – a galactic laser internet.

While the movie Contact, based on Carl Sagan’s book of the same name, popularised the idea of aliens dozens of light-years away picking up an old telecast of the 1936 Berlin Olympics that was unintentionally transmitted into Keck Observatory, he hopes to spy an errant beam flashing from a distant star system, an observation that would be strikingly obvious on a spectrum.

Brannen is a freelance science writer - Washington Post