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Observations Beyond Earth's Atmosphere

Even if all of the UAP events have conventional origins, the search for signs of life beyond Earth is a compelling scientific quest. For many years, researchers in astrobiology and SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, have focused on developing the techniques and methods needed to spot life's signatures in the cosmos. To do that, they must first identify an anomalous signature—perhaps something suggestive of life—and then determine if that signature has an explanation based on known phenomena or if it reveals previously undetected biological or even technological activity.

These NASA-supported scientific communities have relevant experience in first determining and then communicating whether observations that might at first appear extraordinary actually justify making extraordinary claims[1][2].

Many of NASA's science missions are, at least in part, focused on answering the question of whether life exists beyond Earth. Those investigations include missions looking for biosignatures, perhaps on Mars or the icy moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn—as well as farther afield, in the ratios of molecules present in exoplanet atmospheres.

Searching for signs of alien technology is a natural extension of those investigations. In 2017, Jill Tarter, one of the pioneers in the scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence, coined the term "technosignatures" to capture the breadth of technologies that might be detectable. Today, we consider technosignatures to be the fingerprints of an advanced civilization in the same way that we consider metabolic byproducts, or ratios of atmospheric gases, to be the fingerprints of biology.

NASA funded short-lived searches for radio technosignatures decades ago. More recently, the agency funded a study of potential atmospheric technosignatures on exoplanets; it also supported a survey for the waste heat generated by Dyson spheres in existing infrared data. Such surveys provide useful astrophysical data even in the absence of a technosignature discovery. In addition, solar system exploration offers multiple possibilities for technosignature searches at modest additional costs. These studies could provide scientifically useful results whether or not they identify technosignatures.

NASA is the lead agency for solar system exploration. It already has an active program of detecting objects in our solar neighborhood using both ground-based and space-based facilities, and it could leverage those capabilities to search for objects in space with anomalous motion or trajectories. For example, we are capable of launching spacecraft that can escape Earth's orbit—and even escape the Sun's gravity. A more advanced civilization could be capable of building crafts that can travel much faster than the 45 km/s escape velocity from Earth's orbit, or even the 600 km/s escape velocity from our Galaxy. Interstellar travel would likely require such speeds and may entail travel at relativistic velocities. Searching for high velocity objects moving through our solar system is an example of a high risk of failure/high value of return study. In addition to looking for anomalous velocities in new or existing datasets, search programs could target objects with unusual light curves, acceleration, spectral signatures, or other relevant anomalies.

Currently planned or existing NASA missions can widen their scope to include searching for extraterrestrial technosignatures in planetary atmospheres, on planetary surfaces, or in near-Earth space. These searches generally wouldn't require changes in hardware or data acquisition, but may simply require new directions in data analysis. For example, high sensitivity studies of the stable Earth-Moon Lagrange points might conceivably find technosignatures but would likely have a high scientific payoff, such as possibly finding remnants of the collision that formed our Moon.

At this point there is no reason to conclude that existing UAP reports have an extraterrestrial source. However, if we acknowledge that as one possibility, then those objects must have traveled through our solar system to get here. Just as the galaxy does not stop at the outskirts of the solar system, the solar system also includes Earth and its environs. Thus, there is an intellectual continuum between extrasolar technosignatures, solar system SETI, and potential unknown alien technology operating in Earth's atmosphere. If we recognize the plausibility of any of these, then we should recognize that all are at least plausible.

  1. Community Report From the Biosignatures Standards of Evidence Workshop - https://arxiv.org/abs/2210.14293
  2. National Academies Independent Review of the Community Report from the Biosignature Standards of Evidence Workshop: Report Series Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Sciences (2022) - https://nap.nationalacademies.org/catalog/26621/independent-review-of-the-community-report-from-the-biosignature-standards-of-evidence-workshop

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