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How scientists are expanding the SETI spectrum

Habitable planet map
This map from the University of Puerto Rico’s Planetary Habitability Laboratory shows the known planetary systems within about 100 light-years from Earth, plotted on a logarithmic scale. The systems with potentially habitable exoplanets are highlighted with red circles. (PHL @ UPR Arecibo)

BERKELEY, Calif. — Twenty years after the movie “Contact” brought the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, to the big screen, it’s dawning on astronomers that the real-world plotline might turn out to be totally different 20 years from now.

So far, SETI has been dominated by radio telescope surveys looking for anomalous patterns that may point to alien transmissions. But SETI’s practitioners are realizing that E.T. may make its presence known in other ways.

Over the next 20 years, or 200 years, SETI may come to stand for sensing extraterrestrial irregularities, ranging from unusual atmospheric chemistry to higher-than-expected thermal emissions. The telltale signs of life beyond our solar system may even be associated with phenomena we haven’t yet come across.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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