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Scientists fail to find alien life by tracking energy sources

Debra Erdley
| Wednesday, April 15, 2015, 4:24 p.m.

A team of scientists that scoured 100,000 galaxies for signs of highly advanced extraterrestrial civilizations has come up empty.

Sorry, Star Trek fans. There is simply no evidence of energy-hungry Klingon empires spread across any of the galaxies cataloged by researchers tapping data from NASA's WISE orbiting observatory.

The research team that included astronomers and scientists from Penn State University, California State Polytechnical Institute and the Carnegie Science Center tapped the WISE data to search for signs of heat that they theorized would be emitted from a highly advanced civilization's energy use over an entire galaxy.

They published their findings from the Glimpsing Heat from Alien Technologies Survey on Wednesday in the Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series.

Brendan Mullan, the Carnegie Science Center's resident astrophysics expert and Buhl Planetarium director, was a member of the research team. It conducted most of the analysis in 2013-14.

“I've always been like, ‘Aliens: Why aren't they here?' So I thought, ‘Let's get involved in this project,' ” Mullan said.

The research team included Jason Wright, Steinn Sigurdsson and Roger Griffith at Penn State and Jessica Maldonado and Matthew Povich at Cal Poly in Pomona.

A New Frontiers in Astronomy and Cosmology grant from the John Templeton Foundation funded the project.

“The idea behind our research is that, if an entire galaxy had been colonized by an advanced space-faring civilization, the energy produced by that civilization's technologies tapping most of the available starlight would be detectable in mid-infrared wavelengths — exactly the radiation that the WISE satellite was designed to detect for other astronomical purposes,” said Wright, an assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds at Penn State.

Although the study came up empty, it broke new ground.

Mullan said the only previous study for civilizations over entire galaxies did not scour data for heat emissions and looked at about 100 galaxies.

“It's checking off a box and looking at a certain parameter space of what aliens could be like and saying there are no aliens that meet this specific parameter of tapping this energy and going across the stars,” Mullan said.

Seth Shostak, lead senior astronomer and director of the Center for SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Research in Mountain View, Calif., commended the researchers.

“I think it's a very ambitious thing to have done, and I think it was a very worthwhile project to have done,” Shostak said. “Looking for the big dogs by looking for the energy they'd produce makes sense.”

But it does little to deter those intent on searching for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.

“It's a little like looking at Loch Ness and not finding evidence of Nessie. But that doesn't mean there is not a heck of a lot of life in that lake,” Shostak said.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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