Maybe humans are some of the first players to the cosmic life game, or it could be we’re one of the last. Whatever our standing in the cosmic biological order it, we may never know. Space is big – and old. The unimaginable distances of empty, black space stretching between stars remain one of our biggest hurdles in the race to detect what life, if any, lies elsewhere in the universe. Not only do these distances make travel near impossible (for now), but they also mean we’d have to be pretty lucky, chronologically speaking, to successfully sync up any kind of transmission to or from an alien civilization.
To that end, lasers have recently been proposed as a novel solution for directing transmissions of information or energy to far away stars or planets. Since lasers resist interference and signal degradation over long distances, they might make for an ideal method of sending information quickly across the terrifying vacuum of space. NASA is looking into using lasers as propulsion systems for tiny postage stamp-sized spacecraft which could be directed towards far away planets and stars, while SETI has meanwhile suggested that distant alien races might communicate with intergalactic laser pulses.
Picking up on SETI’s hunch, astronomers from the University of California Berkeley set out to search for any such laser pulses right here in our cosmic neighborhood. The researchers analyzed optical images of 5,600 stars in our own Milky Way galaxy taken by the Keck telescope in Hawaii between 2004 and 2016. The images were through a computer algorithm which scanned each one for signs of any acute light bursts which might be too powerful to attribute to background light sources.
And the results? Bad news, alien hunters: according to their published data, the researchers believe that aside from a few false alarms and hopeful candidates, their data shows no laser transmissions of sufficient transgalactic power in our galaxy:
Our blind search algorithm identified several dozen candidate laser emission lines. But our initial eyeball vetting rejected obvious false positives caused by unusual cosmic ray tracks, instrumental flaws, or Earth-borne atmospheric emission, leaving 12 surviving candidate laser lines. Subsequent detailed examination of those 12 candidates compelled us to reject a laser origin for each, as described in Section 4. Thus, we found no compelling evidence for extraterrestrial laser emission among any of our 5600 stars.
Keep your chin up, though. This doesn’t necessarily rule out extraterrestrial life, just extraterrestrial laser bursts in our galaxy. There could be tons of alien light shows we don’t know about in the deepest reaches of space. Sadly, those of us currently living are likely born too soon for true intergalactic travel. There’s always the chance we might be able to be revived later though…
At any rate, who knows what types of energy and matter other forms of life might communicate with? Our methods of communication and subsequently much of our entire consciousness is based on our senses, themselves based on our funny little face-holes. Different alien face-holes could mean different alien senses, which in turn could mean different alien communication methods. Maybe we’re being bombarded with alien communications right now and don’t even know it because we don’t have the senses (or instruments) to detect them. Better not share that one with your shrink, though.