February 20, 2006

Narrowing the starfield in the search for extra–terrestrial life

Writing about web page http://news.independent.co.uk/world/science_technology/article346547.ece

From the article:

Dr Turnbull selected her top five from an initial catalogue of 17,129 stars that could be "habitable stellar systems" where the physical conditions would not be too extreme to limit the evolution and development of intelligent life and its technology.

I really hope this is not the first time this has been done.

I thought about doing something similar literally years ago when I first heard of SETI. I mean if we are assuming life is a result of complex physical processes at least narrow the search field a little by considering stars that are similar to where we know the process can yield results – i.e our star.


If this is really the first time this has been attempted then does anyone have any insights as to why it took so long? Has there only recently been a sufficiently detailed star catalogue on which to base such a study?

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  1. A line in The Sunday Times' version of the story mentioned that it is only around now that we are building strong enough telescopes to be able to detect satellites of stars very close to us. You can postulate all you like about which stars are most likely to host life-supporting planets; it's proving it that's the difficult bit!

    21 Feb 2006, 00:48

  2. Visiting Scientist


    "One of the grand challenges of NASA's search for new worlds is to develop technologies that will allow us to obtain the first images of planets circling distant stars.

    While the parent star is the source of light that will make any planet visible, its glare is between a million and 10 billion times brighter than the faint little speck we are looking for. Therefore, any detailed study of extrasolar planets will require methods to cover up or otherwise control the glare of the parent star so that we can study its immediate surroundings.

    Another challenge stems from the fact that, compared to the separation between most things in the universe, planets are located extremely close to their parent stars. For this reason, we need very high resolution to separate the planet from its nearby host.

    21 Feb 2006, 02:05

  3. link

    21 Feb 2006, 02:56

  4. Leigh Robinson

    Ah I was not aware of the other articles, interesting.

    I dont think the hold has been due to the fact we can't yet image extra-solar planets – as detecting life and imaging are two very different things indeed.

    I meant that surely some of the SETI programs have targeted likely candidates for signals with radio telescopes before? Is this list truely new or is it just considered to be more accurate than others?

    21 Feb 2006, 03:03

  5. Visiting Atheist

    Have you come across the Fermi paradox? To quote:

    "The story goes that, one day back on the 1940's, a group of atomic scientists, including the famous Enrico Fermi, were sitting around talking, when the subject turned to extraterrestrial life. Fermi is supposed to have then asked, "So? Where is everybody?" What he meant was: If there are all these billions of planets in the universe that are capable of supporting life, and millions of intelligent species out there, then how come none has visited earth? This has come to be known as The Fermi Paradox.

    "Fermi realized that any civilization with a modest amount of rocket technology and an immodest amount of imperial incentive could rapidly colonize the entire Galaxy. Within a few million years, every star system could be brought under the wing of empire. A few million years may sound long, but in fact it's quite short compared with the age of the Galaxy, which is roughly ten thousand million years. Colonization of the Milky Way should be a quick exercise.

    "So what Fermi immediately realized was that the aliens have had more than enough time to pepper the Galaxy with their presence. But looking around, he didn't see any clear indication that they're out and about. This prompted Fermi to ask what was (to him) an obvious question: "where is everybody?"

    21 Feb 2006, 10:00

  6. Visiting Scientist

    Have you read the books by Stephen Baxter. Good books based around this paradox.

    It is possible to just look at stars that are similar to ours and hope for a signal – as I understand it that is what they were doing previously. That however is still an (if you'll excuse the pun) astronomically high number.

    Now telescopes are getting to the point were we can tell if there is a planet in that system and whether that planet is within a certian region of that solar system (not to close, not to far) they can now start to narrow the search futher.

    We are still talking big numbers, but a reduction of a few orders of magnitude.

    21 Feb 2006, 10:25

  7. Leigh Robinson

    It is possible to just look at stars that are similar to ours and hope for a signal as I understand it that is what they were doing previously.

    Yeah thats what I mean. Surely this 'filtering' has been done before?

    22 Feb 2006, 01:58

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