Home Exoplanets Space radio search fails to find alien signals…for now

Space radio search fails to find alien signals…for now

All quiet on the Universal front? - Abell 2218 as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope. | Image: NASA/NASA on The Commons

A team of researchers analyzing radio signals from space have yet to find any signs of intelligent alien life in the first three years of their planned ten-year initiative.

After excluding events with characteristics consistent with terrestrial radio interferences, we are left with zero candidates,” their conclusion revealed.

The research program is being conducted by Breakthrough Listen, a non-profit organization dedicated to searching for signatures of technologically-capable life beyond Earth via radio and optical observations of the local Universe. Beginning in January 2016 through March 2019, a sample of 1,138 stars were observed via telescope on radio wavelengths 1.10 GHz – 3.45 GHz, altogether generating around 219 terabytes of data.

After the results were narrowed by removal of extraneous signals resulting from Earth-based activity or movement, the team did not uncover any evidence indicating alien life. In particular, signs of laser-based communication or propulsion technology were sought after, based on the Kardashev Scale theory which measures a civilization’s level of technological advancement using its energy control and consumption capability. The Breakthrough team has additionally made their data available to the public for independent assessment.

Despite what the headlines appear to be concluding about the still-ongoing project, i.e., we are alone in the Universe after all, the team listening in on our extraterrestrial neighborhood isn’t calling it quits any time soon.

We found no evidence of artificial signals from beyond Earth, but this doesn’t mean there isn’t intelligent life out there: we may just not have looked in the right place yet, or peered deep enough to detect faint signals,” explained Dr. Danny Price, lead author of the paper published detailing the project’s results thus far.

It’s also important to note that, while Breakthrough Listen is the most comprehensive and sensitive search for life outside our solar system ever conducted, the analytical results only represent one of three ongoing efforts with that objective in mind. Breakthrough’s publication itself acknowledges this:

We may find life…by physically examining the environment of our planetary neighbors and their moons. Optical spectroscopy may detect biosignatures in the atmospheres of nearby exoplanets, indicating the presence of life. Or, we may detect evidence of advanced life via technosignatures: signals of engineering that are discernable from astrophysical processes.

Overall, Breakthrough Listen is currently surveying several thousand nearby stars out of at least one million planned, 100 nearby galaxies, and the galactic plane. These initial findings will continue to guide the research team’s search, and further, public availability of the data may yet produce some surprises in the near future. We may find radio alien signals yet. Stay tuned!


This news piece is one of the few times I’ve seen where the scientists in a study were more optimistic about finding aliens than the reporters.

Thinking back to Tabby’s Star (Dyson Sphere!) and Oumuamua (interstellar probe!), headlines practically declared the presence of alien life was confirmed, all while it seemed every scientist in the world was scrambling to provide a mundane explanation (boring!). Instead, the Breakthrough Listen team seems to be saying, “Wait! There could be more!” while the headlines taunt anyone who had alien hope in their heart with “Sorry, guys! Nothing here, probably never will be, either.”

Another point worth mentioning about these findings is that our concept of ‘technosignatures’ is limited by our current human understanding and imagination. We are still developing, refining, and defining what the universe needs to tell us in order to conclude an alien civilization was the message’s originator. The Breakthrough team has discussed this as well, of course, so I’m very happy with what I’ve read about them so far. We always need a healthy dose of skepticism, but closed minds aren’t helpful in any field in my opinion.