If only finding extraterrestrial life were as easy as just sending out an intergalactic census, or being able to see the metaphorical smokestacks signifying an industrious civilization. So far, radio waves and rover searches have provided little solid information that intelligent life is out there, though the ever-growing number of found exoplanets, along with other discoveries — such as water on Mercury — seem to make the possibility more likely. Another source of detection may soon enter the playing field.
For a recent article in Astrobiology Magazine, members of the non-profit organization Blue Marble Space Institute of Science suggest that evidence of CFCs in an exoplanet’s atmosphere will be proof of an industrialized civilization. Remember our own problems with CFCs, the chlorofluorocarbons that made old refrigerators, ACs, hair sprays, and spray paints Earth killers? While these man-made objects dispelled these gases many years after our atmosphere no longer needed them for its creation, other celestial bodies may not yet have that habitable atmosphere, and CFCs can actually speed that along.
The scientists, accepting money through a Petridish fund raiser, hope to present their research to SETI and add their own search parameters to the radio signals and light beams already used in the search for life on other planets. Their process involves using state-of-the-art computer models of atmospheric chemistry and climate to identify signs of CFCs and other artificial environmental byproducts of terraforming or industrialization.
Beyond the normal CFCs, they say other technosignatures that present the possibility of life include sulfur hexaflouride, and large mounts of ammonia and carbon dioxide observed with gases like oxygen and water vapor. This new approach allows for a widened scope of hunting, as planets outside a star’s presently accepted habitable zone may house these gases. Blue Moon astrobiologist Sanjoy Som hypothesizes, “For example, suppose that in a few thousand years, humans have terraformed Mars. Suppose that an alien species is observing our solar system and finds Earth. In addition, it measures the atmospheric composition of Mars, a planet essentially outside the habitable zone of our sun, and finds elevated greenhouses gasses in addition to water vapor and oxygen.”
This is just my own prediction, but should evidence of CFCs be discovered on another planet, I foresee it coinciding with SETI’s radio telescopes picking up prominent signals of mostly terrible pop metal. If there’s an extraterrestrial version of “Talk Dirty to Me” out there, we will find it.