A Jupiter-sized spacecraft? Scientists say existing instruments could detect alien technology

"I wouldn't want to be on the team figuring out how to build a Jupiter-sized spacecraft, but the odds aren't zero."
Chris Young
3d render of a spaceship
3d render of a spaceship

mik38/iStock 

A team of scientists believes we may be able to detect alien spacecraft flying through distant solar systems using the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in the US.

Though the scientists from Applied Physics, a research institute in New York, concede that gravitational wave (GW) detection is "in its infancy", they also say it is "a sophisticated science" that could be used to "detect extra-terrestrial mega-technology," in a paper available in pre-print server arXiv.

The catch, however, is that they would have to be massive enough to create ripples in space-time. Still, given the fact that there are trillions of stars and planets within their detectable range and the potential for countless alien civilizations, scientists believe they may be onto something.

Gravitational wave detectors could find extraterrestrial life

Gravitational waves are ripples in space-time that are formed when massive objects move around, meaning LIGO would be a perfect candidate to detect any massive extraterrestrial spacecraft. The gravitational wave detector has shed new light on massive objects such as neutron stars, black hole mergers, and other phenomena.

The team of scientists, led by Gianni Martire, calculated the size and speed a spacecraft would have to be and the distance it would have to be from Earth to create a gravitational wave large enough for LIGO to detect.

To be precise, it would have to have roughly the mass of Jupiter and travel around one-tenth the speed of light — almost 18,641 miles/sec (30,000 kilometers/sec). That spacecraft would also have to be within roughly 326,000 lightyears of Earth, though more sensitive in-development gravitational wave detectors could extend that distance.

That may seem like a far-fetched Star Wars technology, but the scientists seemingly take the Fermi Paradox as a reference point for their work. The Fermi Paradox posits that we should have detected alien species by now or must be close to detecting them, given the fact there are billions of planets in the habitable zone of their solar system in the Milky Way alone.

In an interview with NewScientist, Martire said, "with trillions of stars out there, you're telling me that one doesn't have aliens that haven’t done this? Just one? I think the odds are in our favor. I wouldn't want to be on the team figuring out how to build a Jupiter-sized spacecraft, but the odds aren't zero."

Warp drives and planet-sized spacecraft

Martire's team also suggested gravity wave detectors could detect warp drives, which are theoretical engines — popularized by the sci-fi series 'Star Trek' — that work by warping and deforming the fabric of space-time around a vessel.

Martire also suggested a collaboration between the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) organization and the operators of LIGO. Though not all of the scientific community will agree that searching for signs of a massive Jupiter-sized spacecraft is worthwhile, LIGO's data is freely available, meaning Martire's team can choose to do so regardless.

Even if they find an enormous, planet-sized object hurtling through space that isn't an alien spacecraft, it would still likely be an important and exciting scientific discovery of seismic proportions.

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