SETI Scientists Look at Kepler 452b

Yesterday NASA announced the discovery of an “Earth 2.0” far away in the sky. The planet, named Kepler 452b, is about 60 percent larger than Earth and is about 1,400 light-years away. The planet orbits a star similar to the Sun, slightly brighter and larger. Kepler 452b is the first Earth-sized world that has been found in the habitable zone of a sun-like star.

The widely circulated NASA image is an artist’s conception of Kepler 452b, and we shouldn’t expect real images anytime soon. The Kepler space observatory finds planets around other stars by analyzing very small changes in a star’s luminosity when an orbiting planet passes in front of the star.

The Importance of Kepler 452b for SETI

452b_artistconcept_beautyshotA few days ago, in an event at The Royal Society in London appropriately timed to coincide with the 46th anniversary of the first manned landing on the Moon, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, with the enthusiastic support of top scientists including Stephen Hawking and Martin Rees, announced that he is funding two $100 million Breakthrough Initiatives for SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), 50 times more sensitive than previous SETI programs.

The launch of the Breakthrough Initiatives and the discovery of Kepler 452b represent a double boost for SETI. So far the Kepler program has confirmed that more than 1,000 planets orbit other stars. But we haven’t detected signals from alien intelligences yet. The Breakthrough Initiatives website suggests that a more comprehensive, intensive and sensitive search for artificial radio and optical signals could discover alien civilizations.

Of course, SETI researchers are looking at the planets discovered by Kepler. SETI Institute senior astronomer Seth Shostak confirmed that the Institute is using the Allen Telescope Array – a group of 42 antennas north of San Francisco – to monitor various frequencies for radio signals from Kepler 452b. Hopefully, new funding and resources will permit a more extensive search. Shostak hosted a video chat with other SETI Institute scientists to analyze the discovery of Kepler 452b and its implications for SETI.

But the real importance of Kepler 452b for SETI is that the discovery of the planet indicates that other stars similar to the Sun are surrounded by planets similar to the Earth, which may be able to support life and intelligence.

The Fermi Paradox is the apparent contradiction between the theorized abundance of alien civilizations in the universe and the lack of evidence for their existence. Scientist Enrico Fermi asked:

Where is everybody?

The ListenersBut perhaps we just haven’t been looking long enough and hard enough. In James Gunn’s science fiction masterpiece “The Listeners,” heroic SETI scientists look real hard for decades, and eventually succeed. The discovery of a planet far away that could harbor life gives a much needed motivational boost to SETI Institute researchers and [email protected] citizen scientists.

Another interesting feature of Kepler 452b is that its star is much older – 1.5 billion years older – than our sun, and therefore an alien civilization out there could be much older and more advanced than ours. Perhaps instead of primitive radio waves they use signals that we aren’t able to detect, which is a possible answer to Fermi. Or perhaps they prefer to communicate only with their galactic peers and leave infant civilizations like ours alone.

Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, who participated in the Breakthrough Initiatives announcement at the Royal Society, suspects that many alien civilizations could be machine civilizations of intelligent robots, and warns that really advanced civilizations could be as different from us as we are from a bacterium.

Images from NASA and Wikimedia Commons.

Giulio Prisco is a freelance writer specialized in science, technology, business and future studies.