We can find aliens by detecting polluted atmospheres. Or something along these lines is what a team of astrophysicists from Harvard-Smithsonian Center imply in a recently published report. They claim that with new instruments they can find traces of pollution in the atmosphere of other planets, and prove that we are not alone.
According to a study published in The Astrophysical Journal, within the next decade or so, technology will be so advanced that it would allow astronomers to study the atmospheres of other planets and detect various pollutants, including methane and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).
Clearly, it cannot be that our society is the only one ignorant enough to dump all sorts of chemicals in our planet’s atmosphere, although everyone knows that this act has devastating consequences. There has got to be at least one other form of life somewhere in our Universe that has done this too, surely.
This must have been the thought that made engineers from NASA develop the James Webb Space Telescope, an $8.7 billion project, which is expected to be launched in 2018. This powerful instrument is expected to allow rapid detection of various chemicals in the atmospheres of other planets.
It does have some limitations, the major one being that in order for it to be able to measure let’s say CFCs, the concentrations should be 10 times higher than what we currently have in our atmosphere. I cannot quote numbers, but I am pretty certain this quantities would have destroyed any ozone layer that might have been present at some point and killed whatever might have inhabited that planet.
In addition, considering the instrument capabilities, it can detect chemicals only in the atmospheres of Earth-like planets, which are essentially starts that have already died way before we study their atmospheres.
I guess, if the guys detect pollution on other planets, it means that the aliens made the same mistakes as we did, while if they do not detect it, it might well be that “the others” managed to find a way to clean up their mess in time. Of course it is also very convenient that some chemicals have a very modest lifespan of a few decades, and not detecting them, does not necessarily mean that they were not present there at some point.
I only wonder if anyone has considered the slightly less convenient interpretation of the scenario when pollution is detected but no life is found. It might actually mean that this is what have made them all go extinct, or is it climate change that made them disappear?
Image (c) JWST