Scientists around the world have turned their telescopes in the direction of the Ursa Major constellation to gaze at a supernova discovered there last month.
When something awesomely bright and powerful explodes, humans are instinctively compelled to look.
That’s exactly what James R. A. Davenport and his team of collaborators were thinking when they designed a new study that will scan the space around the supernova over the next few months. What they’re looking for are potential radio signals from an advanced alien civilization that might use the star’s blast as something akin to a flare gunshot or a Batman-esque bat signal.
Astronomers have mulled this concept since at least the 1970s, Davenport told Mashable, though this is the first observation coordinated to look for alien technology around a supernova.
“It’s an old idea that goes back to how you get somebody’s attention, especially if you don’t have the ability to just put up a giant neon sign that says ‘We are here,'” he said. “It’s hard to transmit a signal over light-years, even for presumably an advanced civilization.”
NASA’s finally talking about UFOs with Americans. Here’s what they said.
The team, composed of astronomers from the University of Washington, the SETI Institute, Yale University, and Smith College, believe if there were extraterrestrial beings in the supernova’s vicinity, they might try to take advantage of the natural beacon to grab our attention while we’re looking.
Though they know the probability of finding something is slim, not searching would be a missed opportunity, according to a brief paper about their project(opens in a new tab) published in the Research Notes of the American Astronomical Society.
The supernova, dubbed SN2023ixf, was discovered by Japanese astronomer Koichi Itagaki on May 19, 2023. It lies in one of the spiral arms of the Pinwheel Galaxy. The explosion is one of the closest in decades, at only 21 million light-years away. That may seem extremely far, but most have come from between 6 and 13 billion light-years away. By that measure, this supernova, the last hurrah of a dying star at least eight times the sun’s mass, is in our cosmic backyard.
The colossal flash will likely brighten and continue to be visible for many months, if not years.
Scientists will monitor an oval-shaped zone around the supernova with the Allen Telescope Array in California and the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia.
Credit: NRAO / GBO
The researchers will focus on what they describe as a “SETI ellipsoid,” an oval-shaped region around the supernova to look for alien signals. SETI stands for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence(opens in a new tab). They’ll monitor this target area with the Allen Telescope Array in California and the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia.
This special shape was selected based on the notion that an extraterrestrial civilization would see the star explode at a different time than astronomers on our planet, the timing based on each distance from the blast. The piggybacking signal from the other civilization would then take time to travel to us through space. The shape uses this invisible triangle in space between the supernova, us, and them. Within the zone are over 100 stars.
The team will observe it monthly as new stars continue to enter the sample area.
Want more science and tech news delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for Mashable’s Light Speed newsletter today.
“It’s an old idea that goes back to how you get somebody’s attention, especially if you don’t have the ability to just put up a giant neon sign that says ‘We are here.'”
The project was borne from Davenport’s idle time during the COVID-19 pandemic. The astronomer, based at the University of Washington in Seattle, has spent most of his career studying low-mass stars the size of the sun or smaller and their changes over time. But grant funding was drying up, and Davenport had little time to focus on work with young children at home.
The researchers will focus on what they describe as a “SETI ellipsoid,” an oval-shaped region around the supernova, to look for alien signals.
Suddenly, he was concerned he might be forced to switch career paths. It was a sort of do-or-die moment, he said.
“If that’s going to happen, I should just focus on the things that I really want to do. I should make that inner 8-year-old happy,” he said.
His inner child was begging to search for life beyond Earth. But what exactly was he searching for?
A profound mystery of our existence is whether life is elsewhere in the universe. Is there anyone out there like us, with intellect and technology? And, furthermore, are they looking for us?
“Technosignatures” are the broad term scientists use for evidence of technology. That could mean an intentional message, like Morse code, or something that wasn’t meant for our consumption but is nevertheless a sign of technology, like pollution or a lighthouse beacon for ships we just happen to observe.
In general, scientists searching for these signals are looking for some kind of narrow pulse or frequency that couldn’t be explained by a natural phenomenon, like a star, quasar, or supernova. It’s admittedly a fishing expedition, Davenport said, and it’s sometimes difficult to get good, classically trained scientists involved because of a seemingly unavoidable “tinfoil hat vibe” that comes with the territory.
If the team happened to find something extraterrestrial in their data, its source would likely no longer exist. That’s not a thought that depresses or deters Davenport, who compares the scenario to archaeologists who find purpose in studying the pyramids, created by a bygone Egyptian civilization.
“They are a one-way message through time that they were here,” he said. “It’s a little sad if we think that the only other civilization out there is either so far away or so long gone, we can’t reach out. But the idea of knowing whether or not we’re alone is deeply moving, and deeply motivating.”