Data Analytics and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life

Data analytics is playing a major part in the search for extraterrestrial life.
Photo by John Loo

Of all the things that data analytics is proving useful for, figuring out where E.T. was phoning home to is probably not something you’d thought about using it for.

It sounds like science fiction, but data analytics is a big part of the global Search for Intelligent Life (SETI) effort. In fact, without the advances made in analyzing Big Data, the search would be far more difficult.

Data analytics have come so far that Kevin Ashton, the technology innovator and creator of the term “Internet of Things,” expects extraterrestrial life will be discovered in the universe within the next 100 years. And not just in one place, but many.

The discovery will “have a big impact on human society,” Ashton told He said that no longer will the Earth seem like the purpose of the universe, nor will human beings seem the pinnacle of evolution or our society seen as the “best” way to live.

He hopes the discovery will lead to more “equality and peace” on Earth as well as “respect to other species and to our place in the universe.”

Wishful Thinking?

The search for life beyond Earth, while an old topic when it comes to popular culture, has become an area of growing interest in the scientific community.

Big Data is a big part of that, although the enormity of the challenge is staggering.

Right now, data is passively being collected through telescopes at observatories around the world and stored in various locations. Scientists looking for extraterrestrial life are searching this data for spikes in electromagnetic energy that can’t be explained by natural causes.

The amount of information is massive, and it’s about to get bigger in 2023. The Square Kilometer Array, a high powered, multi radio telescope capable of surveying the sky faster than ever before, goes into operation in Australia and South Africa, and will likely yield an incredible amount of data about cosmic activity.

Big Data Challenges

There are trillions of data points collected from the universe. Already, data scientists have created digital signal processing that filters out the noise that can muddy signals, including “space junk” and any Earth-created signal, according to IBM.

Michael Garrett, who oversees the LOFAR telescope in the Netherlands, said cooperation between scientists around the world on data issues is crucial. Science must take the same approach to improving data collection, research and analysis as the private, tech companies such as Google and Netflix have, he told Newsweek.

New Direction For SETI

Leadership in the SETI movement comes in large part from the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, which includes the Carl Sagan Center.

In late 2016, the SETI Institute issued a statement that called on the international scientific community to develop workable ideas on determining the abundance of life in the universe and how extraterrestrial life might communicate, among other issues.

At the heart of the request is technology that has advanced data analytics. SETI wrote that “vast datasets and new analytical tools that did not exist even a decade ago” have opened the door to new ideas and possibilities across a host of scientific disciplines.

Those interested in data and the search for alien life can also go to the SETI@home page, started in 1999 by the University of California – Berkley. It offers volunteers a chance to download a program that analyzes radio telescope data.


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