Detection of Extraterrestrial Civilizations via the Spectral Signature of Advanced Interstellar Spacecraft
This paper examines the possibility of detecting extraterrestrial civilizations by means of searching for the spectral signature of their interstellar transportation systems. The advantage of such an approach is that the characteristic power levels associated with interstellar transportation systems are many orders of magnitude greater than those required for communication, and so the signal strength may be much greater. Furthermore, unlike communication which is governed by a fairly arbitrary selection of technology and mutually agreed upon conventions, interstellar transportation systems are governed much more stringently by the laws of physics. For purposes of the present analysis we consider 4 methods of interstellar propulsion, the principles of which are fairly well understood. These are anti-matter rockets, fusion rockets, fission rockets, all of which can be used to either accelerate or decelerate a spacecraft, and magnetic sails, which can be used to decelerate a spacecraft by creating drag against the interstellar medium. The types of radiation emitted by each of these propulsion systems is described, and the signal strength for starships of a characteristic mass of 1 million tonnes traveling at speeds and acceleration levels characteristic of the various propulsion systems is estimated. It is shown that for the power level of ships considered, the high energy gamma radiation emitted by the anti-matter, fusion and fission propulsion systems would be undetectable at interstellar distances. Better opportunities for detection would be the bremsstrahlung radiation from the plasma confinement systems of fusion devices, which might be detectable at distances of about 1 light year, and visible light emitted from the radiators of anti-matter driven photon rocket, which might be detectable by the Hubble Space Telescope at a distance of several hundred light years provided the rocket nozzle is oriented towards the Earth. The most detectable form of starship radiation, however, was found to be the low frequency radio emissions of cyclotron radiation caused by interaction of the interstellar medium with a magnetic sail. The frequency of such radiation is given approximately by f=120(v/c)kHz, where v is the starship's velocity. Because the frequency of this radiation is lower than the Earth's ionospheric cut-off, an antenna for its reception would have to be space-based. However such a space-based antenna with a 6 km effective diameter could detect the magsail emission of a characteristic starship at distances of up to several thousand light years. Both photon rockets and magnetic sails would emit a signal that could easily be distinguished from natural sources. We conclude that the detection of extraterrestrial civilizations via the spectral signature of their spacecraft is possible in principle and recommend that the approach be studied further.