Should We Search the Moon for Alien Artifacts? The Drake Equation Reimagined | Unveiled

VOICE OVER: Callum Janes WRITTEN BY: Dylan Musselman
New evidence for alien artifacts on the moon! Join us... and find out more!

In this video, Unveiled takes a closer look at the search for extraterrestrial artifacts! We have tried various strategies in our quest to find alien life, but scientists now think that this could be our best chance! And, incredibly, the best place to start might also be the closest to us - on the surface of our very own moon!

Should We Search the Moon for Alien Artifacts? The Drake Equation Reimagined

Uncovering evidence of alien life would surely be one of the most significant and exciting discoveries in the history of science. But really, what are the chances of finding life alive at the same time as us? The universe is 13.8 billion years old and modern humans have only been around for the last 2 to 300,000 years of that time. The numbers are certainly against us, so might we better off searching for things that an alien force could’ve left behind, instead?

This is Unveiled, and today we’re exploring a new application of the Drake Equation to ask; should we search the moon for alien artifacts?

Even just on Earth studying ancient cultures is difficult. Arguably the best way to peer into the past, though, is to find physical remains of older civilizations that have somehow been preserved through time. Discovering written documents is also a great way to learn about those of the past, but we know that not every culture developed a language or system of writing – so it doesn’t always come good. Plain artifacts, on the other hand, allow us to glimpse how lost cultures and civilizations lived and worked.

Artifacts can really be anything that a civilization leaves behind. Clothes, tools, pieces of art… anything made during the time they were alive. Of course, a civilization likely makes thousands of items during its reign, but much of those are ultimately lost, as well. Scavengers can find and destroy them, but there are also Earth’s natural forces to contend with. Water can consume and submerge artifacts; rain and wind can erode away their material; and natural events like earthquakes and landslides can completely bury them. As it’s constantly recycling itself, Earth isn’t especially built for preservation. Given enough time, things decay and disintegrate in this world… so it takes a lot of luck to find well-preserved artifacts here.

Other places in the solar system are much more suited to preservation, however. Today’s target, the moon, doesn’t have many of the natural processes that would decay or break any objects on its surface, for example. It has very little atmosphere which means no weather or rain to cause erosion, and there’s no oxygen gas to bring about decay. And although the moon does sometimes suffer from moonquakes, tectonic processes are minimal… so potential artifacts are less likely to be recycled that way, too. In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that objects on the lunar surface could go unbothered for thousands, nay millions of years… with the only real danger to them being a perpetually possible (but also unlikely) massive asteroid impact. That, or they might soon be looted by the first waves of space tourists… which is actually a very real concern for some scientists and campaigners, with calls for laws to be created to protect human lunar artifacts that are already there - such as rovers, flags, and footprints. But, still, unless they are removed, then it figures that whatever’s on the moon right now could very well outlast our entire species. If something catastrophic were to happen to humanity tomorrow, then everything on Earth would eventually disappear… but anything on the moon could find itself retained deep into the future.

And these preservative qualities have continually interested another band of researchers, too; those looking for signs of alien life. SETI, or the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, primarily focuses at present on listening to radio signals in the hope of hearing something alien… but that might not be the best way to go about it. Radio signals fade with time and distance, and they pass by any one place only once… meaning they’re easy to miss. Artifacts, on the other hand, are potentially there forever, as good as new from day one to day one billion. Back in 2004, a Professor Christopher Rose, of Rutgers University, also highlighted how it takes significantly more energy to send even mid-reaching radio waves than it does to create a “thing” to leave in the hope that it’s one day found. Another SETI scientist, Seth Shostak, has since backed up that suggestion, showing that (under various conditions) an effective radio message would take billions (perhaps trillions) of watts of power, and more than the entire energy intake of humankind. And, ultimately, that’s for just a simple, one-note greeting. In short, then, the argument goes that, if it wanted to be found, an alien force might be better to mail us packages rather than to call us up.

Of course, we humans have left a so-called “message in a bottle” ourselves before, with the golden records on the Voyager probes, which could theoretically travel (without fading) for millions of years before they’re found. They’re arguably still our greatest hope of reaching out to an extraterrestrial species… so the question is why don’t we more vigorously look for alien equivalents of those records, readymade for us?

It seemingly forms at least part of the thinking behind physicist James Benford’s recent suggestion that we should shift away from traditional SETI toward a SETA approach instead - a Search for Extraterrestrial Artifacts. Benford, who had his study published in summer 2021, has modified the Drake Equation – a famous formula used to predict the possibility of other life in the universe. He applied it instead, however, to calculate the odds of finding alien artifacts in space… and, ultimately, he showed that humans are about as likely to find evidence of intelligent life by looking for artifacts as they are by searching space in the usual way, for radio waves. Although this had been suggested before, Benford puts forward a model to show mathematically the potential for first contact that it offers.

So, with this in mind, where should be the first place that we look? And really look, in depth, for artifacts? Given all that we know about how well things preserve there, and given that it’s the closest thing to us, it’s little wonder that some (including Benford) argue in favor of us scouring the moon. The chances of life having passed by there are in many (even most) ways quite slim. Yes, the moon has been around for roughly 4.5 billion years, stoically paired with the Earth, but it’s still but one object in an endless universe full of objects. On the other hand, if anything alien has ever stopped by, then the chances of artifacts being preserved there are very high. We know that for ourselves, again thanks to the human artifacts that remain in place up there.

If we were to more actively pursue any SETA initiatives, then Benford and other researchers point to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (or LRO) as being the most important tool we have. The LRO is a spacecraft that’s been taking pictures of the moon ever since it was launched in 2009. So far, it’s snapped more than ninety-percent of the lunar surface, with the only regions still lacking being the polar regions. And these images aren’t your classic, super-grainy, barely legible space photos, either; they’re high resolution shots clear enough that some artifacts have already been spotted among them - although all to date have been those human artifacts from previous human missions. For those, then, like Benford, who want more done in the search for artifacts, we should be setting up larger, dedicated teams to analyze the LRO data, and we should be combing through it specifically looking for alien objects.

But what’s your verdict? Is it worth upping the search for artifacts at all, or should we just stick with what we’ve been doing for years by putting more of our resources toward traditional radio messaging? And also, if artifacts are the way to go, then is looking for them on the moon the best course of action?

In regard to his proposal that we would be best searching for objects, James Benford has also before spoken of what he calls “lurkers”… which are, broadly speaking, advanced probes (similar to Bracewell probes) that might theoretically hide themselves away from us, but watch and relay information all the same. There’s no current evidence that there is a lurker on the moon, but could our lunar satellite actually be the best place for one? If you were piloting a lurker from faraway and you wanted to look into what was happening on Earth, where would you set up base?

For now, we still have our own limitations to work within. The moon is closest to us, we’ve been there before, and we should be going back again soon. Perhaps that’s enough in itself to warrant a full lunar hunt for long lost alien relics. It’s by no means the only place in even the solar system where objects of interest might be hiding… but you gotta start somewhere, right? And that’s why perhaps we should try searching the moon for alien artifacts.