The scientists aren’t saying they’ve proven anything, but they do think the idea’s plausible and worth looking into.
Professor Loeb’s work has to do with short bursts of radio waves (called fast radio bursts, or FRBs).
“FRBs are very brief flashes of radio waves that we see coming to us from all over the sky… they last about a millisecond. They originate from the edge of the universe (as far as we know), but at this point we are not sure what is causing them,” he says.
These bursts don’t look like anything we see in nature, so Loeb and his team have been forced to consider other possibilities.
Professor Loeb was part of a different project which had planned to send a tiny sail – about a gram in weight – to a star in our galaxy using a beam of light. This led him to wonder if a supersized version of that experiment might cause FRBs like the ones currently hitting earth. It sounds like something from sci-fi, but why not?
“Yes, it is possible that these FRBs are coming from an alien life form, otherwise I wouldn’t have written the paper. It is speculation, but I think we should not judge possibilities by prejudice, we should just get more evidence,” he says.
But alien life isn’t going to find itself. Since the end of the Second World War, governments around the world have put up billions of dollars to fund space exploration. The United States alone spends $19 billion a year on NASA – the country’s primary space and aeronautics program. It sounds like a lot of money (and it is!) but it’s actually a surprisingly small part of the federal budget – half-a-percent.
Spending public money on space has always been a tricky sell when there are so many pressing problems on earth. Many Americans now think of the moon landing as a major national achievement, but at the time it was surprisingly unpopular. Civil rights leader Reverend Ralph Abernathy even led a protest at the Apollo 11 launch site in 1969 against the “tragic and inexcusable gulf that exists between America’s technological abilities and our social injustices”.
There has been a shift in recent years towards interested rich individuals and businesses investing in space exploration, with companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX leading the way.
Professor Loeb seemed pretty optimistic: “The movement from public sector funding to private sector funding should accelerate the rate at which our technology is changing. The private sector seems to be very interested in space in general.
“Private investors all have their different interests, some want to go to Mars, some want to invest in space travel. But one thing is clear, these days there is a lot of wealth that is in the hands of people who are interested in science, and are technology-savvy, and that is a game changer.”
We asked Loeb why so many scientists are passionate about finding alien life – he said his “hope is that if we did find intelligent life, it would lead to a more peaceful collaboration between people on earth because we would realize that we are one species together, and that there are things outside of earth”.
Those fast radio bursts Professor Loeb was listening to came from more than 2.5 billion light years away. That also means the bursts are at least 2.5 billion years old. So, if it was all down to an alien species, and they were technologically advanced enough to send us FRBs 2.5 billion years ago, what do you think they’re up to these days?