Can SETI certify whether or not Proxima b is inhabited by beings using electromagnetic communication?

By certify I mean by past, present or future observations using technologies available.


1 Answer 1


Using current technology (and by that I mean experiments and telescopes that are available now) we would probably be unable to detect life on Earth even if observed from a distance of 4 light years, which is the distance to Proxima Centauri.

A "blind" search could look for radio signatures and of course this is what SETI has been doing for lots of different stars, including, I imagine, Proxima Centauri. If we are talking about detecting "Earth-like" signals, then we must assume that we are not talking about deliberate beamed attempts at communication, and so must rely on detecting random radio "chatter" and accidental signals generated by our civilisation.

As I have remarked in the linked question: The SETI Phoenix project was the most advanced search for radio signals from other intelligent life. Quoting from Cullers et al. (2000): "Typical signals, as opposed to our strongest signals fall below the detection threshold of most surveys, even if the signal were to originate from the nearest star". Quoting from Tarter (2001): "At current levels of sensitivity, targeted microwave searches could detect the equivalent power of strong TV transmitters at a distance of 1 light year (within which there are no other stars)...". The equivocation in these statements is due to the fact that we do emit stronger beamed signals in certain well-defined directions, for example to conduct metrology in the solar system using radar. Such signals have been calculated to be observable over a thousand light years or more. But these signals are brief, beamed into an extremely narrow angle and unlikely to be repeated. You would have to be very lucky to be observing in the right direction at the right time if you were performing targeted searches.

It has been suggested that new radio telescope projects and technology like the Square Kilometre Array may be capable of serendipitously detecting radio "chatter" out to distances of 50 pc ($\sim 150$ light years) - see Loeb & Zaldarriaga (2007) - and so Proxima Centauri would be well within this range. This array, due to begin full operation some time after 2025 could also monitor a multitude of directions at once for beamed signals.

  • $\begingroup$ "this is what SETI has been doing for lots of different stars, including I imaging Proxima Centauri.". Did you mean to say "I imagine", not "I Imaging"? $\endgroup$
    – Dean Kuga
    Commented Jul 19, 2019 at 21:31
  • $\begingroup$ Another thing to bear in mind that I think often gets overlooked in the issue of detecting Earthlike radio chatter from space is the question, for how long do we really expect the Earth to have radio or TV chatter like that, before we either move to some other technology, or change drastically the energy level (either up or down) of our signals? If the answer is "only maybe a few hundred or a thousand years", you see how the question becomes looking for a needle in a haystack. So it's not just is there intelligent life, it's are they in this snapshot of developmental phase. Chances are nil. $\endgroup$
    – Ken G
    Commented Jul 21, 2019 at 2:26

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