Astronomers estimate 29 habitable planets are positioned to see Earth transit and intercept human broadcasts
For centuries, Earthlings have gazed at the heavens and wondered about life among the stars. But as humans hunted for little green men, the extraterrestrials might have been watching us back.
In new research, astronomers have drawn up a shortlist of nearby star systems where any inquisitive inhabitants on orbiting planets would be well placed to spot life on Earth.
The scientists identified 1,715 star systems in our cosmic neighbourhood where alien observers could have discovered Earth in the past 5,000 years by watching it “transit” across the face of the sun.
Among those in the right position to observe an Earth transit, 46 star systems are close enough for their planets to intercept a clear signal of human existence – the radio and TV broadcasts which started about 100 years ago.Advertisement
The researchers estimate that 29 potentially habitable planets are well positioned to witness an Earth transit, and eavesdrop on human radio and television transmissions, allowing any observers to infer perhaps a modicum of intelligence. Whether the broadcasts would compel an advanced civilisation to make contact is a moot point.
“One way we find planets is if they block out part of the light from their host star,” said Lisa Kaltenegger, professor of astronomy and director of the Carl Sagan Institute at Cornell University in New York. “We asked, ‘Who would we be the aliens for if somebody else was looking?’ There is this tiny sliver in the sky where other star systems have a cosmic front seat to find Earth as a transiting planet.”
Earthly astronomers have detected thousands of planets beyond the solar system. About 70% are spotted when alien worlds pass in front of their host stars and block some of the light that reaches scientists’ telescopes. Future observatories, such as Nasa’s James Webb Space Telescope due to launch this year, will look for signs of life on “exoplanets” by analysing the composition of their atmospheres.
To work out which nearby star systems are well placed to observe an Earth transit, Kaltenegger and Dr Jackie Faherty, an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History, turned to the European Space Agency’s Gaia catalogue of star positions and motions. From this they identified 2,034 star systems within 100 parsecs (326 light years) that could spot an Earth transit any time from 5,000 years ago to 5,000 years in the future.
One star known as Ross 128, a red dwarf in the Virgo constellation, is about 11 light years away – close enough to receive Earth broadcasts – and has a planet nearly twice the size of Earth. Any suitably equipped life on the planet could have spotted an Earth transit for more than 2,000 years, but lost the vantage point 900 years ago. If there is intelligent life on any of the two known planets orbiting Teegarden’s star, 12.5 light years away, it will be in a prime position to watch Earth transits in 29 years’ time.https://04d10349443cb018b282b3a98518c963.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
At 45 light years away, another star called Trappist-1 is also close enough to eavesdrop on human broadcasts. The star hosts at least seven planets, four of them in the temperate, habitable zone, but they will not be in position to witness an Earth transit for another 1,642 years, the scientists write in Nature.
The findings come as the US government prepares to publish a hotly anticipated report on unidentified flying objects (UFOs). The report from the Pentagon’s Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force, which was set up to gain insights into the nature and origins of unknown aircraft, is not expected to reveal evidence of alien antics, or rule it out.
Prof Beth Biller at Edinburgh University’s Institute for Astronomy, who was not involved in the Nature study, said the work could change how scientists approach Seti, the search for extraterrestrial life. “What was striking to me was how few of the stars within 100 parsecs could have viewed a transiting Earth,” she said.
“The transit method requires a very precise alignment between the transiting planet, its star, and the sun for a given planet to be detectable, so this result is not surprising. Now I am curious about what fraction of the stars in the Gaia catalogue of nearby stars have the right vantage point to detect the Earth via other exoplanet detection methods, such as the radial velocity method or direct imaging!”