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Digital Subscriptions > Newsweek International > 9th March 2018 > THE ALIEN HUNTER’S GUIDE TO THE FUTURE

THE ALIEN HUNTER’S GUIDE TO THE FUTURE

WE MAY FINALLY HAVE THE TOOLS WE NEED TO DISCOVER INTELLIGENT LIFE ON OTHER PLANETS—IF ONLY WE’D STOP MAKING SO MUCH NOISE
IMAGE BY The Voorhes

EVERY EVENING IN MAUI, A TELESCOPE perched atop a volcano captures particles of light in the universe with the world’s largest digital camera. Normally it searches for asteroids dancing across the cosmos. But one night last October, it locked its gaze onto something remarkable, an unidentified flying object moving quickly through space, seemingly from another solar system.

Or at least that’s what astronomers at the University of Hawaii concluded when they discovered it. At first, they thought it was a comet, then an asteroid. But within a month, they realized the object was long and thin and unlike any asteroid known to science. They named it ‘Oumuamua—a Hawaiian word that means “messenger from the distant past.”

Thousands of miles away, a Harvard astronomer named Avi Loeb learned of the mysterious object as well. Soon, he began pondering an enticing possibility: that ‘Oumuamua was actually an alien spacecraft sending signals back to its creators. This theory may sound a bit out there, but Loeb isn’t some crackpot looking for little green men in a spaceship. He and his colleagues are part of a growing number of top-tier scientists who are applying the same rigorous standards they use on other scientific issues to tackle one of the biggest questions facing humanity: Are we alone in the universe?

Americans have long been fascinated by the possibility of alien visitors. A 2001 Gallup Poll (the most recent one available) found that 33 percent of Americans believed aliens have visited the Earth. But scientists—both inside and outside the U.S. government— have been reluctant to take such claims seriously. From the 1947 weather balloon crash in Roswell, New Mexico, to crop circles in England, they’ve largely joined the debate only to debunk some very dubious claims. They’ve also lamented the lack of distinction most people make between alien landings—which haven’t occurred—and the possibility of future alien contacts (which could indeed happen). “We always get the UFO question,” says Dan Werthimer, astronomer at University of California, Berkeley. During public appearances about the search for alien life, Werthimer says, people often say, “why bother, because E.T.’s already landed here and kept secret in some military installation.”

But while UFO claims are often hoaxes or the work of conspiracy theorists, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence—alien life just as smart and technologically advanced as humans—is a legitimate scientific field. Driving this quest to find life on other planets: hundreds of millions of dollars and super-powerful new telescopes that look ever deeper into the universe.

Experts disagree on how intelligent life might try to contact humans. But the resurrected field, known as SETI, is largely based on the assumption that extraterrestrials— if they are out there and actually trying to chat—might use the same type of tech that we use to communicate with one another, from radio signals to flashes of light.

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THE ALIEN HUNTER'S GUIDE: TO THE FUTURE We may finally have the tools we need to discover intelligent life on other planets. If only we'd stop making so much noise.