Astronomers are captivated by a recent cosmic event—an ultrabright explosion known as a Type II supernova—in the Pinwheel Galaxy, also called M101. Referred to as SN 2023ixf, this supernova is of particular interest as it is the closest such occurrence to Earth in over ten years.
While the majority of astronomers are focused on witnessing the dramatic demise of a massive star, a select group is pondering a different possibility: Could this luminous spectacle potentially lead us to messages from extraterrestrial beings? A team of researchers from the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute and the University of Washington is exploring this intriguing notion.
In a paper shared on the preprint database arXiv and submitted to the journal Research Notes of the American Astronomical Society, these astronomers propose that intelligent extraterrestrial civilizations might take advantage of the supernova to communicate with other civilizations captivated by the splendor of the dying star. Currently, the team is employing radio telescopes to survey an area near the supernova, targeting star systems that could potentially host habitable planets. They are exploring the possibility that advanced alien civilizations may be attempting to establish contact while Earth’s attention is fixed on the celestial event. It’s akin to catching the eye of a server at a restaurant, signaling them for the bill. As Earth gazes at the supernova, the researchers wonder if someone is trying to grab our attention. To address this question, they have designated a region around the supernova called a “SETI ellipsoid,” an elliptical space encompassing stars visible from Earth that could potentially transmit messages while we observe the fading supernova.
In this pursuit, the team has identified 100 stars within the SETI ellipsoid that are prime candidates for communicating with us while we witness the supernova’s lingering glow. Over the next few months, they plan to listen for any alien technosignatures using two prominent radio telescopes—the Allen Telescope Array in California and the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia.
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SN 2023ixf was initially discovered by Japanese astronomers on May 19, captivating the attention of everyone from amateur stargazers to astrophysicists. This particular type of supernova occurs only in stars more massive than eight times our sun and can emit light for months or even years, providing ample opportunity for any intelligent extraterrestrial life to send a message our way. However, the researchers concede in their paper that it is unlikely this search will yield the first communication from intelligent beings beyond Earth. Nonetheless, they view it as valuable practice for future events of this nature, recognizing that we will never know unless we make the effort to try.