An illustration of a massive alien spaceship moving planets. Depositphotos.

These Atmospheric Chemicals Could Signal Advanced Civilizations

The cosmic quest deepens as astronomers leverage technology to detect potential signs of advanced extraterrestrial societies.


In our quest to discover exoplanets orbiting distant stars, scientists are tuning into potential telltale signs of advanced civilizations. Instead of the age-old method of seeking radio waves, some suggest focusing on the possible pollution in a planet’s atmosphere.

With Earth as our guiding example, MIT’s Sara Seager and a global group of scientists discuss the prospect of identifying advanced societies based on unnatural atmospheric compositions. In a recent paper from Scientific Reports, the team pinpoints two specific gases, nitrogen trifluoride (NF3) and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), which are distinct indicators. These gases, absent from nature’s repertoire and predominantly product of industrial activities, could be a sign of technologically advanced life elsewhere.

On Earth, the introduction of such gases largely came with industrial advancements. When analyzing the atmosphere of an alien planet, spotting these gases’ spectral signatures would be like finding a needle in a haystack – a needle that signifies advanced industrial civilizations. Using the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) for spectroscopy offers scientists a groundbreaking instrument to detect both life-generated gases and those indicative of industry.


Tools to Track Technosignatures:
Sara Seager’s group didn’t just hypothesize; they equipped astronomers with a new tool called a “spectra phalanx plot.” This device enables a visual breakdown of spectral peaks in gas molecules, categorizing similar molecules for in-depth spectral scrutiny. Alongside this, the scientists modeled potential atmospheres and maintained a catalog of compounds resulting from natural processes. By understanding nature-produced compounds, researchers can better discern which gases are likely the outcome of nonbiological activities.

Beyond the Usual Suspects

While tracking gases is one approach, the universe might be teeming with other technosignatures. From artificial luminosities on a planet’s surface to the possibility of megastructures like Dyson spheres, there’s a plethora of potential evidence. Waste heat, unique emissions, and radio signals further expand the list of possible markers.

In 2019, a gathering orchestrated by George Djorgovski at the Keck Institute for Space Studies emphasized the potential of data-driven techniques in searching for alien technologies. Their focus? Utilizing vast astronomical datasets and machine-learning algorithms to spot anomalies that might indicate the existence of advanced civilizations.


The scientific journey isn’t without its challenges. Societal factors weigh in significantly. Notions of extraterrestrial life have often been misconstrued, necessitating a robust and accurate public education approach. As scientists underline, it’s paramount to convey the science in a relatable, transparent manner to garner public and peer support alike. The future holds promise as we delve deeper into the vastness of the cosmos, employing advanced tools and methodologies to perhaps, one day, confirm we aren’t alone.

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Written by Ivan Petricevic

I've been writing passionately about ancient civilizations, history, alien life, and various other subjects for more than eight years. You may have seen me appear on Discovery Channel's What On Earth series, History Channel's Ancient Aliens, and Gaia's Ancient Civilizations among others.

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