back to article Boffins: 68 exoplanets in prime locations to SPY on humanity on Earth

Scientists on Earth have found thousands of exoplanets – but which of those potential alien civilizations are in the best position to discover us? It’s a question that a team of physicists from Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland, and the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Germany have been grappling with …

  1. Oh Homer
    Alien

    Fait accompli, mate

    My theory is that alien civilisations already discovered us a long time ago, took one look at us killing each other in endless wars, keeping most of the population living in abject poverty while a tiny minority live in obscene opulence, and strip-mining and poisoning the planet, then shuddered in horror, before quickly panning the telescope to the next system, marking the spot on their chart with a biohazard symbol.

    Incidentally, I really want that telescope.

    1. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Re: Fait accompli, mate

      Or maybe they're worse off than us and don't want the locals to know how good (for some value of "good") we have it? Of course, the Empire won't care. If there was something here they needed, we would already be under their control.

      1. JoshOvki

        Re: If there was something here they needed...

        We already could be!

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Fait accompli, mate

      Too complicated. I have a much more reasonable theory based around black monoliths interfering with primate evolution so as to ensure that we are too warlike to get our act together and go off and bother beings on other planets. Global warming isn't an accident; it's a design feature.

    3. Lee D

      Re: Fait accompli, mate

      Imagine if you found a planet full of neanderthals, that didn't know what a spaceship was, could barely communicate, had little idea of community, let alone the wider world they lived in, they'd barely understand anything you could show them, they'd probably revolt and try to attack you as an invader, and you'd spent your life explaining 2+2 for the next few generations before ANYONE got the concepts you were trying to teach.

      And for what? So you can make them slightly like you, so you can have people to talk to.

      Now think that Neanderthals are only 40,000 years old. The planets and systems you're looking at are billions of years old. The chances of them discovering us inside the sweet spot where we're discovering them and we're on the same level: almost zero. Even in these cases, communications is slow and pointless. If they can read our signal, chances are they know pretty much everything we do too.

      Most of the civilisations that would come to our neighbourhood won't see us, won't be looking for us, couldn't care if they did, and probably just wouldn't want to get involved. We'd be like the homeless people of the universe to anyone advanced enough to find us.

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: Fait accompli, mate

        "Imagine if you found a planet full of neanderthals, that didn't know what a spaceship was, could barely communicate, had little idea of community, let alone the wider world they lived in"

        I'll let you have the spaceship as an obvious anachronism but I'm pretty sure the rest are wrong.

      2. Martin Budden

        @Lee D Re: Fait accompli, mate

        "The planets and systems you're looking at are billions of years old."

        Many of the exoplanets we've found are less than 100 light years away, none are billions of light years away. We are looking at them as they were towards the end of the last century, i.e. within my lifetime. Some are only 4 or 5 light years away.

        1. Stoneshop Silver badge
          Facepalm

          Re: @Lee D Fait accompli, mate

          Many of the exoplanets we've found are less than 100 light years away, none are billions of light years away.

          But they can well be several billion years old, like our own solar system. Life, and from that communities and civilisation don't spring into being in a week.

          1. FozzyBear
            Angel

            Re: @Lee D Fait accompli, mate

            communities and civilisation don't spring into being in a week.

            Depends on who to talk to. Some do Believe that everything was accomplished in just 6 days.

            I contend then on the seventh he checked what he had done , then mumbled "fuck it, it's just a draft"

        2. Tom Samplonius

          Re: @Lee D Fait accompli, mate

          ""The planets and systems you're looking at are billions of years old."

          Many of the exoplanets we've found are less than 100 light years away, none are billions of light years away."

          Not all of the stars were formed at the same time. Stars are still forming now. The Sun is middle aged, by galactic standards. There are some stars that are much much older. That is the basis of the Great Filter theory, which is since there are so many stars and planets, and some of them are very old, why isn't the galaxy full of von neuman probes (self replicating sub-light automated ships)? Given the current pace of development, Earth can probably launch a von neuman probe in less than 200 years. But many planets in the galaxy should reached our level, millions of years ago.

          1. <a|a>=1

            Re: @Lee D Fait accompli, mate

            Lets' hope the great filter is behind us, single to multi-cellular life ideally.

        3. jmch Silver badge

          Re: @Lee D Fait accompli, mate

          " "The planets and systems you're looking at are billions of years old."

          Many of the exoplanets we've found are less than 100 light years away..."

          I don't think the OP meant any of the exoplanets we see are billions of light years away, but literally, they are billions of years old. The point being that even if at any point during the billions-years lifespan of the exoplanets they had any life going on, or will have some in a few more billion years, the chance of both the exoplanet and earth being in the narrow time window (a few thousand in a few billion) of "intelligent life" at the same time is really infinitesimal.

          At least that what I understood.

          1. Lee D

            Re: @Lee D Fait accompli, mate

            This was precisely my intention - age of civilisation / life, not distance.

            Distance is only a factor on communications, but even 100 light years is a significant barrier to communication. Would you have much to talk about with a 1900's generation if their reply won't be received until 2100? Not really.

            But the tiny overlap - of the space age, compared to the entirety of life from amoeba to space age - is incredibly tiny and unlikely, especially so if you add constraints like the Drake equation (which is what people assumed I was talking about) and communication distances.

            For 99.999999999% (probably more, I can't be bothered to count the 9's) of life's existence on Earth, we have been unreceptive to space-based communications. Let's not even get into "how long would life actually take to form on those planets, and would it ever be obliterated by changes in circumstance, e.g. orbit, etc.?" Just an infinitesimal amount of time for which they would be communicating at our level - i.e. between being able to communicate, and us being of any interest whatsoever to them - means it is extraordinarily unlikely that even without all the physical barriers (which may dissipate under new technologies) that we'd be around simultaneously to communicate with each other at all.

      3. Stoneshop Silver badge
        Windows

        Re: Fait accompli, mate

        a planet full of neanderthals, [...] had little idea of community,

        Right. Try the next not-developed-to-current-standards species (and you'll probably be wrong again).

    4. macjules Silver badge

      Re: Fait accompli, mate

      Let's face it, if you were picking up stray transmission of The X Factor or Keeping up with the Kardashians wouldn't you stick a metaphorical "idiots live here" tag on your Guide to the Galaxy?

  2. Chris G Silver badge

    Here's looking at you (Maybe)

    "From this list, nine of them are temperate and have sizes similar to Earth, but none are considered to be habitable."

    How accurate are these assessments of exoplanets considered to be?

    I have read a lot of descriptions of gas giants and rocky planets and the scientists looking at them seem to be making more and more detailed descriptions. How good are they?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Here's looking at you (Maybe)

      AFAIK they estimate temperature based on how far it is from the star and what type of star it is, and estimate size based on how much the light from the parent star is dimmed by its passing.

      Obviously a planet with Venus' atmosphere would be temperate (perhaps even still too hot) in Mars' orbit, while Mars might be liveable (assuming SPF 150 and an oxygen mask) in Venus' orbit, so there are some assumptions being made.

      They are really trying to identify candidates for further study. It is the news that hypes them as being Earth-like. Some of them will probably be Venus like and Mars like, and perhaps further study and better telescopes will be able to determine which is which.

      1. Rich 11 Silver badge

        Re: Here's looking at you (Maybe)

        And periodicity gives orbital distance, once the mass of the star has been estimated. Planetary mass can also be estimated based upon spectral shift. Some techniques are more useful and reliable when the ecliptic is edge on, others when it is closer to face on.

  3. GreenThumbStick
    Alien

    Alien SETI project

    I'd be more concerned with an Alien's SETI project finding our radio signals as they would be much closer to us and we would be far more interesting than just another planet amongst many billions they would be aware of by spotting planetry transits of stars. Finding planets is a novelty for us, but an advanced civilisation would have a good list of habital planets near them, perhaps using technology we haven't even figured out yet, or at the very least sending out far more space probes than we have yet managed. Their space probes would make transits of the Earth across the Sun observable from howerver far the aliens space probes had time to travel, not just planets Aliens may be living on.

    1. DJO Silver badge

      Re: Alien SETI project

      Really wouldn't worry about radio signals. There are a number of reasons, firstly there are hundreds of transmitters around the world all using the same frequencies, not a problem here we just get the closest one but in space they are all pretty much at the same distance so it's a mush that's almost impossible to sort out, secondly radio propagation follows the inverse square law so after a few dozen light years the signal is almost non-existent, thirdly apart from satellite uplinks most radio bounces around the atmosphere with little leakage into space.

      We are on the cusp of being able to get the spectrograph of the atmospheres of exoplanets, if an alien got a spectrograph of our atmosphere the pollutants would be a dead giveaway.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Alien

        Re: Alien SETI project

        The aliens gave up on us when they parsed Galway Girl and anything from One Direction out of our muddled radio traffic.

      2. Evil Auditor

        Re: Alien SETI project

        Good that we don't need to worry about our radio signals. The flip side of the coin though is that neither aliens need to worry about our SETI. And all that we would pick up is probably a single distress (read: warning) signal from a crashed spacecraft on an otherwise deserted object.

        1. Pompous Git Silver badge
          Alien

          Re: Alien SETI project

          "Good that we don't need to worry about our radio signals."
          Can't say they ever worried me. I was rather delighted by the idea that the harbingers of humanity were the Cisco Kid, the Lone Ranger, Lucille Ball, Dr Who even. To discover that's not so is a bit disappointing... Poor aliens will never know what they've missed out on.

      3. annodomini2

        Re: Alien SETI project

        How would they know they are pollutants, unless they had been monitoring over centuries?

  4. Scott Broukell
    Coat

    In my neck of the woods the fuzz recently stopped a load of illegal aliens in a transit van, so I think they are already here, is that any help ?

  5. This post has been deleted by its author

    1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: tl;dr version

      "Why am I not surprised at this work originating from Queens, Belfast?"

      I don't know why you're not surprised. I'm not surprised because I know how good a university QUB is.

  6. Ken Hagan Gold badge

    Deep Time

    Life on Earth is umpteen squillion years old and has been observable via spectrographic evidence for at least a billion years. (Actually, atmospheric composition has changed dramatically over that period, but has probably been significantly-different-from-dead in various ways for all that time.)

    Intelligent life on Earth is only about 10000 years old and has only been remotely observable for a couple of decades, depending on where you live. That's assuming that you can detect the radio waves. (And yes, you won't be able to separate individual stations, but you probably can detect the bump in the overall power spectrum, and if you are an alien scientist you can probably recognise that those frequencies match the transmission windows for our atmosphere.)

    In another hundred (perhaps) or thousand years it is quite possible that we will be a dead planet in term of radio emissions detectable at long range. Technology changes and broadcasting at high power in all directions is a pretty dumb way to communicate so we are already using alternatives. Then there is the possibility of a completely new mechanism that we cannot guess yet. (I am reminded of the anecdote about the anthropologist asking a neolithic man about his ideal means of communication and being told "a really big drum" but all the while radio waves are passing through his head.)

    Life on other planets presumably follows a similar historic trajectory, but plus of minus a few hundred million years!

    In a few hundred million years time, we will either be extinct or able to visit planets and reside there without the inhabitants being aware of our presence.

    So the aliens are either already here, unnoticed and reading this comment with wry amusement, so they are so far behind that when we visit their planet in the relatively near future we will not be noticed by them. Either way, the technology of the visiting civilisation will be so far advanced of the hosts that there will be no question of "colonisation" or "invasion" because the host planet will have nothing to offer except scientific interest (best served by observing incognito).

    The geologists have a term for this; they call is Deep Time (capitalised) and it is the temporal version of the Douglas Adam's paragraph that begins "Space is big. ...".

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Deep Time

      "Intelligent life on Earth is only about 10000 years old"

      That, if I may say so, is a category error. There has been intelligent life on Earth for at least half a million years, based on stone tools, and with the discovery that the Neanderthals had learned to extract pitch from birch as an adhesive, 200 000 years is now the earliest date for going beyond simple stone tools.

      Civilisation and domestication of cattle, OK around 10000 years. But there's no reason to believe early town dwellers are in any way more intelligent than hunter gatherers.

      The reason I make this point is that human tool making evolved very slowly for a very long time (in our terms) and then some event accelerated it, which may have been the drying out of the Middle East and population pressure. It's possible to imagine that on another planet that never happened, just as it didn't in Australia. There may well be worlds out there with beings just as intelligent as we are in terms of reasoning power and understanding their environment, but they've never bothered to develop a technological society because there has been no need.

      1. The Nazz

        Longer than that

        Case in point :

        If crocodiles have been around for 300m years, then i assume they have had sufficient intelligence to do so. Granted they may not pass any Baccalaureate, but then who'd argue with one?

        I recall one time when one of 'em look took one look at the Mrs, now ex, and thought "hmmmm, lunch AND dinner in one package".

        1. Teiwaz

          Re: Longer than that

          Granted they may not pass any Baccalaureate, but then who'd argue with one?

          Argue, with a croc?

          "Is this the right room for an argument?"

          Agumpph!

          unrestricted garnishing versus a single, olympic standard mayonnaise.

        2. Pompous Git Silver badge

          Re: Longer than that

          "Granted they may not pass any Baccalaureate, but then who'd argue with one?"
          Steve Irwin, but it was a stingray that got him. I don't think reptilian, or piscine, intelligence had anything to do with his demise.

          1. Fink-Nottle

            Re: Longer than that

            > Steve Irwin, but it was a stingray that got him. I don't think reptilian, or piscine, intelligence had anything to do with his demise.

            Even Steve avoided the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees.

        3. steamrunner

          Re: Longer than that

          "Case in point: ... Crocodiles".

          I can't be the only one now here thinking "slicey slicey, oncey twicey"... ??

      2. Pompous Git Silver badge

        Re: Deep Time

        "The reason I make this point is that human tool making evolved very slowly for a very long time (in our terms) and then some event accelerated it, which may have been the drying out of the Middle East and population pressure."
        Not really. Human toolmaking remained static for long periods of time before step changes.

        From 2.6 Mya to 1.76 Mya those tools were very primitive. Tools from the early part of this period are no different to those found at the end. Then a new tech developed and persisted until 400 Kya. From this point (Middle Stone Age) onward there was some gradual progress though there's also a step change from the Lower to the Upper Paeleolithic.

        As to intelligence in stone age humans, Steven Mithen has written some fascinating books. He makes a case that our ancestors perceived the world in a way very different to ours.

        1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

          Re: Deep Time

          "He makes a case that our ancestors perceived the world in a way very different to ours."

          It's quite clear that not even all the elReg commentariat perceive the world in the same way.

          1. Pompous Git Silver badge

            Re: Deep Time

            "It's quite clear that not even all the elReg commentariat perceive the world in the same way."
            Mithen's thesis is that much of what is accessible to the conscious mind in modern man was unavailable to the conscious mind of our early ancestors... The available evidence would appear to suggest that not all of us are equally blessed in this respect.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Deep Time

          "Not really...From 2.6 Mya to 1.76 Mya those tools were very primitive. Tools from the early part of this period are no different to those found at the end. Then a new tech developed and persisted until 400 Kya. From this point (Middle Stone Age) onward there was some gradual progress though there's also a step change from the Lower to the Upper Paeleolithic."

          And how does that differ from the summary in my post? Nobody who knows anything about the subject would expect evolution to be invariably gradual.

          1. Pompous Git Silver badge

            Re: Deep Time

            "And how does that differ from the summary in my post? Nobody who knows anything about the subject would expect evolution to be invariably gradual."

            I pointed out that there was no change for 800,000 years in response to your post where you claimed: "human tool making evolved very slowly for a very long time (in our terms)". No change =! gradual change.

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        @Voyna

        "The reason I make this point is that human tool making evolved very slowly for a very long time (in our terms) and then some event accelerated it, which may have been the drying out of the Middle East and population pressure."

        I think that acceleration has more to do with the evolution of the whole religious angle. Most people prefer to ignore all this but only a few hundreds of years ago the most brilliant scientists at that time were also considered to be heretics by rulers at that time. Because the (Christian) church was basically pretty much in charge and had massive influence in most governments. Unless you were rich or had some way of influence you'd better keep your mouth shut and accept the "facts" that the earth was flat and that everything in the universe turned around the earth, or else... Spanish inquisition anyone?

        That whole period delayed and / or stopped a lot of scientific (and industrial) progress.

        1. Pompous Git Silver badge

          Re: @Voyna

          "Most people prefer to ignore all this but only a few hundreds of years ago the most brilliant scientists at that time were also considered to be heretics by rulers at that time."
          Instead of parroting 19th Century fiction, why don't you read some actual history? It's not only more accurate, it's also a lot more interesting.

          James Hannam: God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science

          Phil Dowe: Galileo, Darwin, and Hawking: The Interplay of Science, Reason, and Religion

          Edward Grant: The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, Institutional and Intellectual Contexts

  7. Zog_but_not_the_first
    Big Brother

    Spying on us?

    TLAs in spaaace?

    1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Spying on us?

      Why aren't our TLAs spying back?

      1. Pompous Git Silver badge

        Re: Spying on us?

        "Why aren't our TLAs spying back?"
        They probably are. How would we know absent another Snowden?

  8. Not also known as SC
    Coat

    "That doesn’t mean the chances of aliens potentially spying on Earth are completely zero."

    How close does something have to be near to zero to be considered zero? Is this a potential new Reg measurement or is that even less likely?

    1. Mystic Megabyte
      Pint

      New unit? nøp

      "How close does something have to be near to zero to be considered zero? Is this a potential new Reg measurement or is that even less likely?"

      That's like when you are savouring the last little drop of whisky in your glass when the over enthusiastic bar staff whisk it away. Sometimes after sticking their thumb in it, thus deterring your desire to have it returned.

      As the original measure was a nip and it now approaches zero I propose the nøp. Any takers?

  9. AndrueC Silver badge
    Joke

    Closer planets are more likely to be seen? Well those scientists don't need to be told then.

  10. VinceH
    Alien

    "The picture shows where transits of planets in the Solar System can be observed. "

    It would also make a very good logo/uniform badge for some space-based organisation in a science fiction series.

  11. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge
    Mushroom

    Given our

    history of war/genocide/setting people on fire for not believing in the right sky fairies

    I'd suspect theres no way aliens would even want to contact us and would setup an exclusion zone around the solar system to stop any casual vistor from arriving.

    Imagine the damage humanity could do with the tech that could enable us to travel to the stars... e.g. taking a 100mm asteroid, accelerating it to 99.% of C and aiming at our earthside enemies.....

    1. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken

      Re: Given our

      That assumes that the aliens are rational beings. Which they may or may not be. There are a lot of SF stories that explore the possibility of spacefaring civilisations based on some sort of (crazy) religion. Maybe one that compells the aliens to spread it all over the universe.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Aliens...

    I dont think they've been here and swerved us...I think we are the result of a galactic ragequit.

    Alien 1: If you don't like it, geddaddahere...

    Alien 2: Fine. Im going to start my own planet. With blackjack. And hookers.

    Its hard to refute since we have blackjack and hookers.

  13. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Joke

    tl;dr version

    "We have now established that 68 solar systems know where we live."

    Why am I not surprised at this work originating from Queens, Belfast?

    Joking aside it's a question anyone who recalls the "Ravenous Bugblatter beast of Trall" and SETI would ponder it. If we can see them, who can see us?

    Keep in mind that transit methods are the simplest detection approach. Others track spectral shifts in solar output caused by the gravitation from the planets pulling on the sun. Obviously this would be most acute when the planets line up in certain ways, which are probably quite rare and infrequent.

    So, quite useful to know if you wanted to decided which directions to scan in for say an invasion fleet.

  14. mr_souter_Working

    so - we can only see a small proportion of possible planets then?

    if there are limited numbers of possible planets that can potentially see us, then surely that means that we can only see a limited number of possible planets (due to their orbital axis around their sun)

    this would then require that there are presumably vastly more potentially inhabitable planets around than our orbital position will allow us to detect

    or am I missing something fundamental?

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