Skip to main content

NASA's Planet-Hunting Probe Joins the Search for Intelligent Aliens

Artist's illustration of HD 21749c, the first Earth-size planet found by NASA's Transiting Exoplanets Survey Satellite, as well as its sibling, HD 21749b, a warm sub-Neptune-sized world. In a new study, a research team led by Björn Benneke, a professor at the Institute for Research on Exoplanets at the Université de Montréal, discovered water vapor and likely even raining clouds in the atmosphere of the exoplanet K2-18 b.
Artist's illustration of HD 21749c, the first Earth-size planet found by NASA's Transiting Exoplanets Survey Satellite, as well as its sibling, HD 21749b, a warm sub-Neptune-sized world. In a new study, a research team led by Björn Benneke, a professor at the Institute for Research on Exoplanets at the Université de Montréal, discovered water vapor and likely even raining clouds in the atmosphere of the exoplanet K2-18 b.
(Image: © Robin Dienel, courtesy of the Carnegie Institution for Science)

NASA's newest planet hunter is joining the hunt for intelligent aliens.

Scientists working on the space agency's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission will collaborate with the $100 million Breakthrough Listen project in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), members of both teams announced today (Oct. 23).

"It's exciting that the world's most powerful SETI search, with our partner facilities across the globe, will be collaborating with the TESS team and our most capable planet-hunting machine," Pete Worden, executive director of Breakthrough Initiatives, a program that includes the Breakthrough Listen project, said in a statement

"We're looking forward to working together as we try to answer one of the most profound questions about our place in the universe: Are we alone?" Worden added.

Related: 13 Ways to Search for Intelligent Aliens

TESS launched to Earth orbit in April 2018, on a mission to hunt for alien planets circling bright, relatively nearby stars. The spacecraft does this work via the "transit method," which looks for slight dips in star brightness caused when an orbiting planet crosses the star's face from TESS' perspective.

This strategy was used to great effect by TESS' predecessor, NASA's Kepler space telescope, which discovered about 70% of the 4,000 or so known alien worlds. But TESS will likely be even more prolific, finding perhaps 10,000 or more new exoplanets over the course of its two-year primary mission, team members have said.

To date, TESS has spotted more than 1,000 "objects of interest," 29 of which are confirmed alien planets.

Because TESS is focusing on stars in the sun's cosmic neighborhood, some of the mission's finds will be suitable for follow-up studies by other instruments. For example, NASA's powerful James Webb Space Telescope, an $8.8 billion observatory scheduled to launch in 2021, should be able to probe the atmospheres of multiple TESS-discovered planets for biosignature gases, agency officials have said.

Breakthrough Listen plans to do scans of its own, but the organization will be looking for "technosignatures" coming from TESS worlds. Technosignatures are indicators of advanced alien civilizations, and they come in many possible forms — including "leakage" from TV and radio broadcasts,  which could theoretically betray humanity's presence to intelligent aliens.

Breakthrough Listen will now add TESS objects of interests to its target list, scanning promising worlds with a range of instruments, including the Green Bank and Parkes radio telescopes in West Virginia and Australia, respectively; the MeerKAT radio array in South Africa; and the Automated Planet Finder optical telescope in California. The two teams will also work together to help refine Breakthrough Listen's data analysis strategy. 

"We are very enthusiastic about joining the Breakthrough Listen SETI search," TESS Deputy Science Director Sara Seager, a planetary scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in the same statement. "Out of all the exoplanet endeavors, only SETI holds the promise for identifying signs of intelligent life."

Researchers will also look for anomalies in the stellar "light curves" TESS collects. Such oddities could potentially be caused by orbiting megastructures built by advanced civilizations — a hypothesis that's gotten an airing recently thanks to analyses of Kepler observations.

"The discovery by the Kepler spacecraft of Boyajian's Star, an object with wild, and apparently random, variations in its light curve, sparked great excitement and a range of possible explanations, of which megastructures were just one," Andrew Siemion, leader of the Breakthrough Listen science team at the University of California, Berkeley's SETI Research Center, said in the same statement.

"Follow-up observations have suggested that dust particles in orbit around the star are responsible for the dimming, but studies of anomalies like this are expanding our knowledge of astrophysics, as well as casting a wider net in the search for technosignatures," Siemion added.

Breakthrough Initiatives was founded in 2015 by billionaire tech investor Yuri Milner to investigate life in the universe. Other Breakthrough Initiative projects include Breakthrough Watch, which aims to study nearby rocky exoplanets, and Breakthrough Starshot, which is developing technology to explore alien worlds up close.

Mike Wall's book about the search for alien life, "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), is out now. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at: community@space.com.