Now Scientists Can Listen Instead of Look for Alien Life

October 16, 2015 | Sarah Tse

Dramatic plumes, both large and small, spray water ice out from many locations along the famed "tiger stripes" near the south pole of Saturn's moon Enceladus.
Photo credit: NASA

With new remote sensing microphones, astronomers can listen for signs of alien life on distant worlds, instead of looking for them.

A new microphone technology called remote acoustic sensor (RAS) can pick up the most minute scratchings of microbial life, even in extreme and inaccessible space environments. Researchers could eventually send the device to Mars, Europa, Enceladus, or any of the other potentially habitable worlds in the solar system.

Dan Slater, the lead RAS technologist, presented his work at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ Space 2015 meeting. RAS can pick up small audio-frequency variations in electromagnetic energy at great distances, and combine with time-synchronized imagery to fulfill a wide variety of applications.

SEE ALSO: The Hunt is On: How Scientists Look for Alien Life

Slater demonstrated his idea by capturing the variations in tones and acoustics emitted by rockets and plane landings. Such phenomena produce distinct RAS signals at each stage that give scientists a new perspective with which to study space activity. He was able to record the sound of a plane landing at Los Angeles International Airport from the summit of Mount Wilson over 45 km away. In addition to such loud, deep rumblings, Slater also used the device to record the acoustic activity of a 75-micron rotifer, a type of protozoan.

If RAS is paired with a flight camera, it can pick apart rocket-stage shutdowns and distinct separation and deployment events with spacecrafts. This will enable astronomers to keep track of spacecraft and even asteroids when they enter Earth’s atmosphere at high speeds. An RAS/camera system can also monitor urban activities at nighttime, lightning, and distant aircraft.

The ultimate goal is to hitch an RAS to a spacecraft traveling much greater distances, equipping the spacecraft with ears that can hear the natural sounds produced by asteroids, comets, planets, moons, and solar activity. Most intriguing, they may be able to detect the faint vibrations of extraterrestrial life on distant worlds, including Mars or one of the gas giants’ watery moons, like Europa and Enceladus. Even if the spacecraft remains orbiting around its target without ever landing, it can listen for sounds of life. “If there’s life, and if it moves, it may make RAS-detectable sounds,” said Slater.

RAS could also be implemented on “cubesats,” a type of modular spacecraft whose miniature size and low production cost gives it a much greater range and versatility. RAS devices mounted on cubesats will create a powerful technology for remotely listening to natural phenomena both near and far. David Klumpar, from Montana State University’s Space Science and Engineering Laboratory, told Space.com that a collaboration between RAS and cubesats is in the cards.
RAS has the potential to revolutionize the space age by giving scientists unprecedented access to the acoustics from far-flung worlds, and perhaps even the tiny organisms living there.

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