• SETI scientists developing state-of-the-art techniques to detect 'technosignatures' within planets' atmospheres.
  • Uses data from the Very Large Array (VLA) telescope based in Mexico.
  • Breakthrough Listen Initiative releases two petabytes of data, inviting the public to search the data for signals.

Scientists are ramping up their efforts in the search for signs of alien life.

Experts at the SETI Institute, an organisation dedicated to tracking extraterrestrial intelligence, are developing state-of-the-art techniques to detect signatures from space that indicate the possibility of extraterrestrial existence.

These so-called “technosignatures” can range from the chemical composition of a planet’s atmosphere, to laser emissions, to structures orbiting other stars, among others, they said.

Dr Tony Beasley, director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) telescope based in Virginia, US, said: “Determining whether we are alone in the universe as technologically capable life is among the most compelling questions in science.”

SETI scientists plan to develop a system that will “piggyback” on the Very Large Array (VLA) telescope based in Mexico and provide data to their technosignature search system.

Dr Beasley added: “As the VLA conducts its usual scientific observations, this new system will allow for an additional and important use for the data we’re already collecting.”

Read more the search for alien life:

Alien life forms, whether intelligent or not, can produce detectable indicators such as large amounts of oxygen, smaller amounts of methane, and a variety of other chemicals, the experts said.

So in addition, scientists are also developing computer models to simulate extraterrestrial environments that can help support future searches for habitable planets and life beyond the solar system.

Victoria Meadows, principal investigator for NASA's Virtual Planetary Laboratory at the University of Washington, which studies to detect exoplanetary habitability, said: “Upcoming telescopes in space and on the ground will have the capability to observe the atmospheres of Earth-sized planets orbiting nearby cool stars, so it’s important to understand how best to recognise signs of habitability and life on these planets.

“These computer models will help us determine whether an observed planet is more or less likely to support life.”

Meanwhile, SETI’s Breakthrough Listen Initiative, which launched in 2015 to “listen” for signals of alien life, has released nearly two petabytes of data from the most comprehensive survey yet of radio emissions from the plane of the Milky Way galaxy and the region around its central black hole.

The organisation is now inviting the public to search the data, gathered from various telescopes around the world, and look for signals from intelligent civilisations.

Yuri Milner, an entrepreneur and founder of the Breakthrough initiative, said: “For the whole of human history, we had a limited amount of data to search for life beyond Earth.

“So, all we could do was speculate.

“Now, as we are getting a lot of data, we can do real science and, with making this data available to general public, so can anyone who wants to know the answer to this deep question.”


The initiatives and strategies in expanding the search for extraterrestrial life were presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Seattle.

Reader Q&A: Why hasn’t intelligent alien life found us?

Asked by: Ray Pravel, Reading

Sceptics have a simple answer: intelligent aliens have not contacted us because they don’t exist. But others argue that, given the enormous size of the Universe, it’s pretty much guaranteed that intelligent life must be out there somewhere.

Maybe so, but there’s no guarantee it exists nearby, or has learned of our existence through the ‘leakage’ of our TV and radio signals into space. So unless they’ve found a way of travelling far faster than the speed of light, we might be in for a long wait until they get here. Another explanation for what’s been called the Great Silence is that as soon as aliens attempt to make themselves known to others, they are attacked by a race of marauding ETs.

Alternatively, perhaps they’re already here and we’re just too stupid to realise.


Alexander McNamaraOnline Editor, BBC Science Focus

Alexander is the former Online Editor at BBC Science Focus.