What if early SETI investigations had focused on our own solar system, rather than distant stars?

Given the technology that existed around the 1950s, how much surveillance would humanity be able to do? This is in the era between Sputnik and Apollo 1, so various governments and scientific organizations would have had different equipment and personnel to devote to the task. So this change of focus would have impacted the way various governments, scientific organizations and civilian groups approached the search for intelligent life in space, and altered the focus of technological development.

What were the near-space observation capabilities of radio telescopes and related devices at that time? For example if Cornell University's Project Ozma or Ohio State University's Big Ear were used to look more closely at our own solar system, rather than distant stars, what would they have been able to detect or confirm?

If answers can address what kinds of information mid-20th-century technology could have detected, what level of detail, how often various regions could be scanned etc - that would be wonderful. I would also love recommendations about other scientific developments from that era which might be relevant to this topic.

(Note: I'm doing this research for an alternate-history science fiction writing project. I've edited the question to only ask about real, historical science, since the goal is a narrative that accurately represents the past as much as possible.)

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    $\begingroup$ Is your question like "What we could see in space in the year 1960 with what we had?" or "What we could see in space in the year 1960 if we made a big technological push for it, lasting 5 years or so?" $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Commented Oct 15, 2020 at 20:19
  • $\begingroup$ I am interested in the answers to both of those! But if I had to pick one, I'd say the first - what capabilities would 60s-era tech have had? If I have a better understanding of that, it will be a good place to start extrapolating which technologies would have been developed more quickly in an alternate history where aliens arrived. $\endgroup$
    – Crystal E
    Commented Oct 15, 2020 at 21:02
  • $\begingroup$ This SETI-type question seems reasonably scoped and perfectly clear to me, no need to close. I've made some small edits. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Oct 17, 2020 at 1:18
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    $\begingroup$ Can you explain how the "aliens" part makes any difference? Isn't mapping just that? $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 17, 2020 at 18:43
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    $\begingroup$ The why part of your question is ok, IMHO. We don't really care why you're asking a question, as long as it's about real science related to natural astronomical objects (questions about spacecraft are more suited to the Space Exploration stack). $\endgroup$
    – PM 2Ring
    Commented Oct 18, 2020 at 4:25

2 Answers 2


The data about the various bodies in the Solar System available from ground-based observations in that era was rather crude. Optical and radio telescopes have improved a lot since then. We now have various ways of compensating for the distortion due to Earth's atmosphere, and sophisticated computer techniques for enhancing the raw data.

Sure, they could have built telescopes with more power and higher resolution, but those devices would still have been limited due to sitting at the bottom of Earth's atmosphere. So it was a major breakthrough when space probes like the Mariner series started sending us up-close data of the planets.

Astronomy books from that era (i.e., the ones I read when I was at school) didn't have a lot of information about the planets, apart from their size, mass, revolution & rotation periods, and approximate atmospheric composition for the gas giants (Uranus & Neptune were classed as gas giants back then). And the number of (major) moons. As for the moons themselves, we knew their orbital periods, but only had a very rough idea of their sizes. It was known that Titan has an atmosphere, though.

Before Mariner 4 (launched on November 28, 1964) we had no good pictures of the surface of Mars: people were still debating whether the canals of Mars were real or some kind of optical illusion. And we had no idea that the atmosphere of Mars is so thin. Hard sci-fi from that era could have Martian colonists walking around without spacesuits. :)

FWIW, here's the best image of Mars from Mariner 4, courtesy of Wikipedia:

Mars, from Mariner 4

As you can see, there's not a lot of detail there, but that image is vastly better than any prior images of the Martian surface (not counting artist's impressions, of course). Many planetary astronomers were quite surprised that Mars had such cratering.


I recall hearing Professor Lovelock about 10 years ago, describing a discussion with his students in the 1960s - what observation would indicate life on another planet? They concluded that spectroscopic analysis would show that the chemistry of the planet was inconsistent with the planet's age. A slower than expected rate of entropy would indicate the presence of life, because the chemistry of Earth life uses photosynthesis to build giant molecules which store energy by absorbing solar radiation

Spectroscopic analysis was used to examine of the atmosphere of Mars in the 19th century, many decades earlier than the context of your question. Before the space race began, scientists had already seen enough to rule out the possibility of life on other planets in the solar system

Lovelock's discussions about extra-terrestrial life led to his Gaia hypothesis, a set of models which demonstrate that Earth's current atmosphere and ocean chemistry emerged from billions of years of life on Earth


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