Signature Research

Searching for Life Beyond Earth: SETI Institute Signature Research

Search for Intelligent Life

The SETI Institute has been at the forefront of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) from the beginning. Renowned astronomer and SETI pioneer Dr. Frank Drake, conceived the Drake Equation for the first-ever meeting of scientists to contemplate the merits of a search for extraterrestrial intelligence, marking the beginning of the SETI era. SETI Institute co-founder and SETI pioneer, Dr. Jill Tarter, performed early SETI experiments at the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, and was a key participant in the Institute’s “Project Phoenix” from 1995 to 2004. She then led the effort to build the Allen Telescope Array (ATA), commissioned in 2007 and operated by the SETI Institute as the world’s only dedicated and purpose-built SETI radio telescope. Today, the Institute is adding optical technologies for the detection of laser pulses, with its Laser SETI project, aimed at deploying specialized cameras around the globe for an all-sky, all-the-time observatory to search for laser flashes from deep space.

Biosignature Detection

A SETI Institute astrobiology team is developing biosignature detection methods for the Mars 2020 mission. Research expeditions work in Earth’s extreme environments, providing analogs to early Mars. In the Arctic and the Antarctic, Dale Andersen dives below the surface of ice-covered lakes to study mounds formed by microbes. Nathalie Cabrol dives in lakes at more than 20,000 ft. elevation in the Andes to investigate microbial habitats. Both are furthering humanity’s knowledge of the limits at which life as we know it can exist. Virginia Gulick interprets Mars images to search for evidence of water on early Mars, and Janice Bishop characterizes mineral spectra relevant to Mars’ past habitability.

Exploring Planets and Exoplanets

The SETI Institute has been involved in every Mars mission since Viking. Nathalie Cabrol, Janice Bishop, and Ross Beyer have helped identify landing sites. Philippe Sarrazin and Pablo Sobron developed biosignature detection instruments such as the XRD/SRF CheMin spectrometer and Raman spectrometer for NASA’s Mars 2020 and ESA’s ExoMars. We’ve been involved in Voyager, Galileo, Cassini and New Horizons. The SETI Institute’s Kepler/TESS team is developing new algorithms to detect exoplanets. Mark Showalter is discovering new planets and moons around the gas giants and Pluto, and Franck Marchis is detecting them around asteroids.

Planetary Defense from the Inside Out

Peter Jenniskens and Michael Busch study the origin and nature of asteroids and comets. They also monitor the trajectories of these objects to understand the origin of the Solar System, and to monitor Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) that might be on future collision course with Earth and threaten our biosphere. Peter and Michael are both mentors for NASA Frontier Development Lab (FDL), which uses machine learning to address critical space questions in the areas of planetary defense, space resources and space weather. John Marshall will soon study the asteroid Bennu up-close as a member of the science team on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission. And Friedemann Freund is working towards a Global Earthquake Forecast System to issue alerts at least 24 hours before an earthquake strike.

Human Exploration

With the Haughton Mars Project in the Canadian High-Arctic, Pascal Lee has for the past 20 years, been supporting the development of rover technologies, instrument payloads, science exploration strategies, spacesuit testing, and habitat design. His work has also helped advance understanding of the psychological impact of long spaceflights, isolation, and planetary colonization.

Space Exploration Science & Technology

Applied to the Monitoring of Climate Change on Earth With the OMEGA project (Offshore Membrane Enclosures for Growing Algae), SETI Institute scientist Hiromi Kagawa investigates microalgae as one of the most promising current biofuel feedstocks. The Planetary Lake Lander (PLL) project, developed for the exploration of the lakes of Saturn’s moon Titan, has led to the development of detection algorithms that will improve climate change monitoring (e.g., environmental baseline, novelty detection, autonomous storm detection). The High Lakes Project (HLP) has allowed the discovery of the most extreme UV index recorded so far on Earth, and is exploring its origin, while also investigating the impact of environmental change on lake habitat and biodiversity. PLL and HLP are led by Nathalie Cabrol.

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