Understanding others: A smarter way to search for aliens?

The best way to discover extraterrestrial life might be to consider that they could already be looking for us, scientists say.

(Jin Ma/Beijing Planetarium/The Kavli Foundation via AP)
An artist’s impression of the superluminous supernova ASASSN-15lh as it would appear from an exoplanet located about 10,000 light-years away in the host galaxy of the supernova. On Thursday, astronomers announced the discovery of the brightest star explosion ever - easily outshining the entire Milky Way galaxy.

Maybe a team effort is the best way to search for aliens. That is, teaming up with the extraterrestrials themselves.

A new study suggests that perhaps we should be looking for aliens who are looking for us in the hope of finding each other and communicating.

The idea is to flip our current apprach around. NASA's Kepler spacecraft has discovered more than 1,000 exoplanets by watching for the light of a star to dim as an orbiting planet passes by. Scientists now suggest that we target worlds that could use that same method to spot us in a new paper to be published in the journal Astrobiology.

"It's impossible to predict whether extraterrestrials use the same observational techniques as we do," study author René Heller said in a news release. "But they will have to deal with the same physical principles as we do, and Earth's solar transits are an obvious method to detect us."

Here's how it would work: Earth can be detected using the same methods from only a small strip of space. The dimming of our Sun as our planet passes by could only be spotted from what's called Earth's "transit zone." And that region boasts some 100,000 potential alien habitats.

So if they're there and they're looking for us, perhaps they've broadcast a signal in an attempt to get in touch with us. And if we listen, we may discover each other.

"The key point of this strategy is that it confines the search area to a very small part of the sky. As a consequence, it might take us less than a human life span to find out whether or not there are extraterrestrial astronomers who have found the Earth. They may have detected Earth’s biogenic atmosphere and started to contact whoever is home," Dr. Heller explained in another press release.

Heller and his co-author Ralph Pudritz's work suggests that efforts such as the Breakthrough Listen Initiative, a $100 million, 10-year hunt for extraterrestrial life, should focus on the "transit zone."

The Breakthrough Listen Initiative, an unprecedented push in this quest that began last year, is already trying to tune into any possible alien broadcasts using high-tech radio receivers and hunting for laser signals.

"Will we detect something? There's a high probability that we won't," Karen O'Neil, site director for the National Radio Astronomy Observatory's site in Green Bank West Virginia, where one of the telescopes used in the project is operated, told The Christian Science Monitor's Pete Spotts in July. "But boy, if we detected something, it would be amazing."

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