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Will 2020 Be the Year We Find Intelligent Alien Life?

The Allen Telescope Array in northern California is dedicated to astronomical observations and a simultaneous search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI).
The Allen Telescope Array in northern California is dedicated to astronomical observations and a simultaneous search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI).
(Image: © Seth Shostak/SETI Institute)

In the past three decades, scientists have found more than 4,000 exoplanets. And the discoveries will keep rolling in; observations suggest that every star in the Milky Way galaxy hosts more than one planet on average.

Given a convergence of ground- and space-based capability, artificial intelligence/machine learning research and other tools, are we on the verge of identifying what is universally possible for life — or perhaps even confirming the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence?

Is 2020 the celestial payoff year, in which objects of interest are found to offer "technosignatures," indicators of technology developed by advanced civilizations? 

Related: 13 Ways to Hunt Intelligent Aliens asked top SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) experts about what next year may signal regarding detecting other starfolk.

Gaining speed

"Well, despite being the widely celebrated 100-year anniversary of the election of Warren G. Harding, 2020 will not likely gain fame as the year we first discover extraterrestrial life," said Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California.

The search for intelligent beings elsewhere, Shostak said, is largely conducted by checking out nearby star systems for either narrow-band radio signals or brief flashes of laser light. And those might succeed at any time, he told

"But one should remember that this type of search is gaining speed in an exponential fashion, and that particular technical fact allows a crude estimate of when SETI might pay off. If we take — for lack of a better estimate — Frank Drake's opinion that there might be 10,000 broadcasting societies in the Milky Way, then we clearly have to examine at least one [million] – 10 million stellar systems to have a reasonable chance of tripping across one. That goal will be reached in the next two decades, but certainly not in 2020," Shostak said.  

Improved searches

But there are still reasons for intelligent-alien hunters to be excited and optimistic about the coming year. Multiple existing projects will either be expanded or improved in 2020, Shostak said. For example, the SETI Institute will get new receivers for the Allen Telescope Array in northern California, and both the SETI Institute and the University of California, Berkeley, will conduct new searches for possible laser technosignatures.   

"And, of course, there's always the unexpected," Shostak said. "In 1996, the biggest science story of the year was the claim that fossilized Martian microbes had been found in a meteorite. No one really saw that coming. So one can always hope to be taken by surprise." 

Related: 5 Bold Claims of Alien Life

The powerful 330-foot (100 meters) radio telescope at Green Bank, West Virginia, is being used by Breakthrough Initiatives in its SETI efforts. (Image credit: Seth Shostak/SETI Institute)

Previous predictions

"I am skeptical about picking a specific year for the first discovery. Previous predictions of success have been wrong," said Michael Michaud, author of the thought-provoking book "Contact with Alien Civilizations: Our Hopes and Fears about Encountering Extraterrestrials" (Copernicus, 2007). 

"I and others have observed that the continued improvement of our search technologies and strategies could boost the odds for success," Michaud said, noting that the primary focus of SETI remains on radio signals. "However, we still don't cover all frequencies, all skies, all of the time. Other types of searches have failed, too, such as looking for laser signals or Dyson spheres [ET mega-engineering projects]. Those campaigns usually have limited funding and often don't last long." 

A new possibility has arisen because of exoplanet discoveries, Michaud said: "In some cases, astronomers now can look for chemical evidence of life in planetary atmospheres. It is conceivable that we will find simple forms of life before we find signals from a technological civilization." 

Prevailing opinion

If astronomers do someday confirm a SETI detection, how should they announce the discovery? It is an old question that has been answered in several ways.  

"The prevailing opinion among radio astronomers has been that the news will leak quickly. If that is correct, scientific and governmental authorities won't have much time for developing a public-affairs strategy," Michaud said.

"It remains possible that the sophisticated monitoring capabilities of intelligence agencies might be the first to detect hard evidence," Michaud said. "One might think that the government would have a plan to deal with such an event."

But, Michaud said that his own experience suggests that such plans are unlikely to be drawn up due to a "giggle factor" and would be forgotten as officials rotated out of their positions. He previously represented the U.S. Department of State in interagency discussions of national space policy.

NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is on the search for planets outside our solar system, including those that could support life. The mission finds exoplanets that periodically block part of the light from their host stars — events called transits. (Image credit: NASA/GSFC)

Long-term project

"While I'm enthusiastic at the reinvigoration of technological-signatures work, and in particular the growth in looking across much of the electromagnetic spectrum, I think this is going to be a long-term project. I estimate a very small probability of success in any given year," said Pete Worden, executive director of the Breakthrough Initiatives. "But those chances are now orders of magnitude better than they were even a decade ago."

Breakthrough Initiatives is tackling the big question of life in the universe, the notable query about whether or not Earthkind is alone. Breakthrough Initiatives is a multifaceted group that's reinvigorating the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

"The Breakthrough Initiatives is committed to full and immediate disclosure of any and all results," Worden said. "We would rely on the principal investigators of our projects, along with their home institutions, to prepare and release both scientific reports and public announcements."

Related: How Long Will It Take to Find Proof of Alien Life?

Preparing for discovery

Despite the ongoing work by Breakthrough Listen, NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and research into the detection of promising biosignatures and technosignatures, there's no reason to think 2020 would be the year for discovery, said Steven Dick, a recognized astrobiology scholar and writer of the award-winning book "Astrobiology, Discovery, and Societal Impact" (Cambridge University Press, 2018).

"In my view, all these things combine to increase the chances over the next decade of finding extraterrestrial intelligence. I would caution, though, that any discovery will be an extended process, consisting of detection and interpretation before any understanding is achieved," Dick said. "This is clear from the history of discovery, even when we thought we had evidence in hand." 

Like Shostak, he cited the Mars meteorite ALH 84001, which in 1996 generated excitement and debate that ancient, microscopic life existed on the Red Planet.

"One thing that is certain is that we are getting a better handle on the issues of societal impact, should such a discovery be made. Many more social sciences and humanities people are getting involved in astrobiology, which is all to the good. In other words, we are preparing for discovery," Dick said. "So, I see the search advancing incrementally next year, but with an accelerating possibility that life will be discovered in the near future."

NASA's long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope will be able to glimpse the atmospheres of exoplanets at infrared wavelengths. (Image credit: C. Carreau/ESA)

Three-way horse race

"There's plenty of real estate where life could exist," said Douglas Vakoch, president of the nonprofit Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) in San Francisco.

"We are right now on the verge of finding out whether there is life elsewhere in the universe, and there are three ways we could find it. Think of it as a three-way horse race to find ET," Vakoch said.

But will any of the horses cross the finish line in 2020?

It all depends on the prevalence of life beyond Earth, Vakoch said, and the number of targets we can scan with available technologies — whether these instruments are located in Earth-based observatories, in space-based telescopes or in craft that travel to other planets and moons in our solar system, Vakoch told

Related: 10 Exoplanets That Could Host Alien Life

New technologies

So, will scientists find intelligent alien life next year?

"It all depends on how plentiful intelligent extraterrestrials are. If one in 10,00 star systems is home to an advanced civilization trying to make contact, then we're behind schedule in making first contact, and the news we're not alone in the universe could well come in 2020," Vakoch said.

And there are expectations for microbial life, similar to Earth's bacteria, to be even more widely spread throughout space than intelligent life.

But bacteria can't send us radio signals. "We need to develop new technologies to discover them at a distance," Vakoch said. "As the next generation of space telescopes is launched, we will increase our chances of detecting signs of life through changes to the atmospheres of planets that orbit other stars, giving us millions of targets in our search for even simple life in the cosmos."

By the end of 2020, we'll be within a few months of the much-awaited launch of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, Vakoch said, which will be able to study the atmospheres of exoplanets for potential signs of life. But it could take much longer, until after the launch of the European Space Agency's Atmospheric Remote-sensing Infrared Exoplanet Large-survey, or ARIEL, in 2028, before we have "definitive proof" of extraterrestrial microbes through telltale alterations in the atmospheres of exoplanets, Vakoch said.

The Gemini Observatory is operated by a partnership of six countries: the United States, Canada, Chile, Brazil, Argentina and South Korea. (Image credit: Joy Pollard)

Living with uncertainty

There are a number of spacecraft in the proposal stage that could conceivably detect extraterrestrial life within our solar system, "but don't hold your breath for discovery by 2020," Vakoch said. "But if we do someday find even microbial life elsewhere in our solar system that has an independent origin from terrestrial life, then we would know that the entire universe is chock-full of life."

Humans cannot control whether or not there is life elsewhere in the universe, of course. 

"Either it's there or it's not," Vakoch said. "We may not be able to decide whether we'll find it in 2020, but we have a tremendous capacity to decide whether we will find it eventually, if it's out there to be discovered."

"To be human is to live with uncertainty," Vakoch concluded. "If we demand guarantees before we begin searching, then we are guaranteed to find nothing. But if we are willing to commit to the search in the coming year and long afterwards, even without knowing we will succeed, then we are sure to discover that there is at least one civilization in the universe that has the passion and the determination to understand its place in the cosmos — and that civilization is us."

Leonard David is author of the recently released book, "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published by National Geographic in May 2019. A longtime writer for, David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook. 

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  • rod
    After reading this report and others like it- there seems to be a critical assumption at the foundation. The well attested scientific law of abiogenesis is at work throughout the universe so we will likely find E.T. phoning home, some day :) A good theory needs to be testable - and falsifiable too.
  • ChrisA
    Every time I read about someone running their assumptions through the Drake Equation they get a result. But what I don't see is people careful putting the "error bars" through the equation. I know why. Because the errors if computed correctly would make the results look stupid.

    What wants to be the one to publish something that reads. "There must be between 0.000001 and 100,000,000,000 technological civilizations." When you multiply 10 numbers that each have two orders of magnitude of uncertainty you get something about as meaningless as the above. At least the above can conclusively be shown to be correct.

    I have another way to make an estimate. I can be applied only to Earth-like planets but there might be many of these. This also solves the problem that we only know of one planet with life and therefore have very poor statistics. Try this: Let's pretend there is an alien scientist who has been observing Earth from the beginning, from the time before the Moon was formed until today. Every day he observes if there is life on Earth and records the type of life he observes. He has many trillions of observations that say "only bacteria, nothing else" He has far less but still a lot that say "eukaryotic cells, simple plants, some worms" and a relative few observations labeled "several huminid species found" and even fewer that say "technological society that uses radio."

    So why not take this scientist's notes and assume that planets in the solar system have the kinds of life on them in the same proportions as is present on the daily sample of Earth? We are tempted to extrapolate the alien's notes to say that the radio using society lasted 2 billion years but we have no basis for doing that.

    Doing the above gives us as good of results as anything else, which is "within 20 orders of magnitude."
  • Icepilot
    The rapid development of Life may depend on a small, water rich (exact temperature range for solid/liquid/gas), double planet with tectonic plates & a magnetic field; within the "habitability zone" of a sufficiently metallic (3rd or 4th generation), relatively quiet (yellow & white dwarf) sun, with a not too slow/fast rotation rate, a Jupiter (to act as shield for the inner planetary zone) & a circular galactic orbit, in a quiet part of a quiet galaxy. That may be no more than 1 or 2 per galaxy. Reasonably getting off the planet means it can't be much more massive than Earth. If the production of phosphorus varies widely as a function of the size of the supernova that seeded heavier elements into a new star system, so might the likelihood of life in the system. Life gets very difficult w/o abundant phosphorus.
  • ChrisA
    This is the "Rare Earth Theory" and it very well might be true. Until we get more data we just do not know. Who knows, just maybe the 2020 Mars rover finds a micro-fossil or in 10 years oxygen and water vapor are detected on an Earth-like exoplanet.

    Or like SETI we get 50 years of "nothing".

    The counter-argument to "Rare Earth" is that, yes you need all those unlikely things to create Earth-like life. But other kinds of life will arise in other environments. My personal guess is that there was life n Mars but it never got even to the bacteria level and some people will call is only "pre-biotic chemistry" But I think what we'll find is a fossilized "RNA World". Very simple like where DNA had not yet come into being and the cells were 10X smaller than Earth-like bacteria. This is what was on Earth before DNA.

    Next, I'll even add another rare step in the process that might only happen once in a thousand times, RNA is replaced by DNA as the store of genetic information.

    It is an important and interesting question and even negative results are informative.

    Today I can argue on either side of all these theories. They are all plausible and they all points pro and con. That is what makes science interesting. The only way to be dead-wrong is if you say you know for sure.
  • voidpotentialenergy
    When you think about the bulk of stars being in supernova country, to near the center.
    The number of stars that are to big or to small or to active.
    The number of earth like worlds with a decent moon to make them stable places or being the moon of a big planet in the right place and made up of just the right stuff.
    And lord help most of those places with a much more than our asteroid belt or a decent planet with a less than circular orbit.

    Then the unknown question of life beginning on one of those perfect places and getting past the bottleneck it did here.

    ET IMO will be pond scum.
    Could be a very long search for smart ET.
  • Joel
    Sometimes people ask a question that is baseless wishful thinking. This is one of those instances. It ignores the obvious.

    In all of earths history, where is the HARD evidence that there is alien life out there?

    It doesn't exist.

    I enjoy reading I've subscribed to it for a couple of years now. I get emails quite frequently that keep me informed on what is happening in the cosmos. I can't always read them right when I open the email, so I set them aside so I can go back later and catch-up on those articles that caught my eye.

    This week is the week after Thanksgiving and EVERYTHING I see on is all about what I can buy on Cyber Monday. I'm glad I just didn't delete the older emails, but this article in particular seems to be in the same genre as all of the stories about Cyber Monday that are actually commercials for those of us that get caught up in wishful thinking and spend too much time and money trying to buy everything our hearts desire when our desires are void of realistic critical thought.

    I fear that this article is void of realistic critical thought and is just wishful thinking of a heart desiring to meet ET so he can fix all of the problems in the world and save us from ourselves.
  • rod
    Searching for intelligent life is a hot topic for many :). Today, we have 4139 confirmed exoplanets unlike 1961 when the Drake equation was presented. The host or parent stars range in distance from Earth from 4 to 35882 light-years with the mean or average near 2018 light-years distance. Is there a confirmed E.T. phoning home broadcast? I have not seen any. Unlike 1961, there are plenty of known exoplanets now confirmed but no E.T. phoning home. The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia
  • Mm70rj
    It is possible that intelligent life or intelligent life footprint is far more scarce than it was expected... I remember the in the 70s and 80s (Carl Sagan's time) it was believed that the signs of alien life were out there waiting for us... but today it is more than evident that this search is more like a needle in the haystack... and scientifically we need to consider the possibility that there may be no needle to be found... at least in our neighborhood...
  • voidpotentialenergy
    Mm70rj said:
    It is possible that intelligent life or intelligent life footprint is far more scarce than it was expected... I remember the in the 70s and 80s (Carl Sagan's time) it was believed that the signs of alien life were out there waiting for us... but today it is more than evident that this search is more like a needle in the haystack... and scientifically we need to consider the possibility that there may be no needle to be found... at least in our neighborhood...
    It's a big galaxy but very limited in the places for a place for life to advance beyond the basic.
    Most of the galaxy is in super nova country.
    Of the remaining all the big stars short lived, red dwarfs will need to be the moon of a big planet or you get tidal locked and lots of our sort of stars are temper mental .

    What is remaining needs to have a planet/moon or moon of big planet in just the right place at just the right size and be in a friendly solar system.
    We also need to be alive and listening at the right time, we missed billions of years already :)

    ET could be in our galaxy a few times or not at all.
    Life on many worlds i think so, ET my guess maybe just us or 1 or 2 others per galaxy.
    300 billion ET types spread 1 or 2 per galaxy.
  • Hawkstein