The question may no longer be “Is there other intelligent life in the universe?” — but rather, how much?
According to research published in the The Astrophysical Journal on June 15, there are at least 36 “Communicating Extra-Terrestrial Intelligent (CETI)” civilizations in our galaxy.
Authors Tom Westby and Christopher J. Conselice came to that estimate through a calculation that included “galactic star formation histories, metallicity distributions, and the likelihood of stars hosting Earth-like planets in their habitable zones” and under specific assumptions.
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According to the abstract for the June 15 article, the scientists estimated that the nearest described alien civilization is, at most, 17,000 light years away. For reference, one light year is close to 6,000,000,000,000 miles.
Based on that implication, that nearest alien civilization would be “most likely hosted by a low-mass M-dwarf star, likely far surpassing our ability to detect it for the foreseeable future, and making interstellar communication impossible,” the abstract states.
While the idea of 36 distinct intelligent alien civilizations in our own galaxy may sound exciting (or terrifying), the findings are just estimates and projections for now.
Still, scientists on Earth have been hard at work exploring the possibility of extraterrestrial life in the solar system. NASA’s exoplanet program, for example, is aimed at finding “unmistakable signs of current life. How soon that can happen depends on two unknowns: the prevalence of life in the galaxy and how lucky we get as we take those first, tentative, exploratory steps," according to their website.
The space agency cautions, though, that the search for life could last many years.
“Discovering another blue-white marble hidden in the star field, like a sand grain on the beach, will probably require an even larger imaging telescope,” NASA said. “Designs are already underway for that next-generation planet finder, to be sent aloft in the 2030s or 2040s.”