Searching for extraterrestrial life — by keeping an eye on exploding stars

Mon, 07/31/2023

In a new study, Yale undergrad Andy Nilipour used supernovae to narrow the search for alien civilizations.

When you’re searching the skies for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence, it’s not a bad idea to be aware of cosmic flares.

In a sense, that is the approach Andy Nilipour, a Yale undergraduate who finished his junior year this spring, took in his first academic study — which was recently published in The Astronomical Journal.

Nilipour surmises that alien civilizations trying to make contact with Earth would understand how daunting — even impossible — it is to monitor all surrounding space in every possible mode of sensing technology. So, they might time their “hello” message to coincide with a conspicuous astrophysical event that might draw extra attention.

A supernova, for instance.

For the study, Nilipour chose four historical supernovae — exploding stars — from the past 1,000 years and compared how long it took their light to travel to Earth with light signals from more than 10 million stars recorded by the European Space Agency’s Gaia orbiting observatory. Nilipour found 465 stars whose light took the same amount of time to reach Earth as one of the four supernovae (about 6,300 years, 8,970 years, 16,600 years, and 168,000 years, respectively). He found another 403 stars whose light signals come from an advantageous angle in relation to one of the supernovae.

And although none of the 868 star systems yielded evidence of an alien “technosignature” — or signs of extraterrestrial technology, past or present — Nilipour and his co-authors said the effort provides a valuable blueprint for conducting additional searches.

Nilipour began the research a year ago as part of a summer program for undergraduates offered by the National Science Foundation and the Breakthrough Listen Initiative at the Berkeley SETI Research Center in California. Steve Croft, a University of California-Berkeley astronomer who directs the program, and James Davenport, an astronomer at the University of Washington, advised Nilipour on the project. Croft and Davenport, along with Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center, are co-authors of the new study.

In an interview with Yale News, Nilipour discussed his work on the study, what its findings portend, and the prospect for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.

Read the interview with Andy Nilipour by YaleNews’ Jim Shelton here:

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