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Imagine a sci-fi scenario where there is, in effect, an arms race between countries in terms of investing in SETI-style efforts, each country wanting to make sure that if there is any intelligent life out there to find, they will be the first to find it. A country like the US invests a trillion dollars in the effort - what might this trillion buy them? Would there be economies of scale to be realized, or would there instead be huge diminishing returns?

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  • $\begingroup$ This is a very open ended question. For context the Federal budget is 6 Trillion, the entire DOD's budget is 700 Billion, and NASA's annual budget is only 22 Billion. While SETI's annual budget is a paltry 22 Million. You're asking us what an agency would do with a 5 order of magnitude increase in budget. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Jan 5 at 18:29
  • $\begingroup$ Well, perhaps not a trillion a year. Say a trillion over a few decades, a sort of SET Cold War... maybe just a 2 or 3 magnitude increase of its current budget then $\endgroup$ Jan 5 at 18:33
  • $\begingroup$ Even ignoring that asking "what would an organization do if X?" is more about events in your world than it is about building a fictional world. Can you edit to try to focus on what you really want to know which is what are ways we could search for extra terrestrial life with our current technology that we're currently not doing. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Jan 5 at 18:36
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    $\begingroup$ @Gillgamesh a 1km crater dug in the dark side of the moon - I like it! $\endgroup$ Jan 5 at 23:02
  • $\begingroup$ @JshupacFuture-Economics Add another paragraph with more detail relevant to your story and they may reopen it. $\endgroup$ Jan 7 at 22:08
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They could start imaging exoplanets. The FOCAL telescope is a proposed design where a telescope is sent to a distance of at least 550 AU (82 billion km) and uses the gravitational lens of the sun to image an exoplanet enough to get detailed images of the surface including continents, oceans, determine levels of atmospheric gases and even see if there are cities that light up at night like we have on earth.

enter image description here Source: https://www.hou.usra.edu/meetings/V2050/pdf/8203.pdf

The downside is that each telescope can only look in one direction, so NASA would have to send fleets of these telescopes. The furthest we've ever done so far is Voyager 1, which is only at 155 AU after 44 years of travel, so it will require new methods of spaceflight to get there. This video explains the idea of using solar sails, so a spacecraft could buzz close to the sun and then get blown out to 550 AU very quickly: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NQFqDKRAROI

Side Note: If they wanted to test this idea, they don't have to spend a trillion and wait a decades to get out to 550 AU. There's an idea for a Terrascope which uses the Earth's gravitational field and a much closer detector.

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  • $\begingroup$ Wow, fascinating, thanks for that answer. What's the cost of those, potentially? How many would we need to send before sharp diminishing returns? If we say, say, it's 10 billion dollars per telescope, we could send 100 for a trillion bucks $\endgroup$ Jan 5 at 19:26
  • $\begingroup$ @JshupacFuture-Economics Well, there are no diminishing returns in this case, since each one can only image one thing; I'm not sure about the price, but there are no diminishing returns here. As a matter of fact, making more would make each one more cost-efficient, since the R&D for the first one could be reused for the next ones. $\endgroup$
    – KEY_ABRADE
    Jan 6 at 4:34
  • $\begingroup$ So, even if you had thousands of them, there would be no overlap in where they're looking? $\endgroup$ Jan 6 at 14:42
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Considering that the Apollo program cost around $300bn adjusted for inflation, a trillion dollars being spent would be quite the sight to behold. It's also so much money, that even spread out over a long time-span, there will be difficulties spending it. Because of that, a multi-pronged approach would be likely, where any half-decent and remotely feasible idea gets basically infinite funding.

Here are some of those ideas:

  • Space is full of transmissions we just don't understand. Due to our limited understanding of encryption and radio technology, what we interpret as "white noise" using our radio telescopes is actually internet traffic that carries alien memes or whatever. To attempt decryption, we build a vast supercomputer and create an AI to analyze this noise and search for patterns.

  • There is life on Mars/in our solar system. The current scientific consensus agrees that there was liquid water on Mars, and most think there still is to some degree (in slush or underground lakes). The idea that microbe-analogue life exists on Mars right now has a decent chance of being true. With this huge infusion of money, and the advanced technologies available to us today, unmanned missions to all solar bodies will become near routine, and manned missions will likely stretch past the asteroid belt to investigate Jovian moons for signs of life.

  • We just haven't looked close enough yet. When Hubble started sending back good science data, it revolutionized physics in many ways--all from only having a mirror less than three meters in size. JWST will doubtlessly do the same with its 6.5m mirror. With a functionally infinite budget, we can start considering truly ridiculously big telescope concepts, including gravitational ones that use the sun as a lens or converting a crater on the far side of the Moon into a massive radio telescope. Really, imagination is the limit here.

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  • $\begingroup$ Great, knowledgeable answer! Thanks for that. Regarding that giant telescope on the far side of the moon: how much does size matter to telescope resolution? Are there diminishing returns to size there? How much might it cost to build? (I'm seeing a 28 billion dollar estimate currently for NASA's 2024 hoped-for moon mission - I'm guessing that to build a huge telescope there would at least be 10x the cost of that? Maybe more? So the trillion dollars could be eaten up by that alone perhaps $\endgroup$ Jan 5 at 21:18
  • $\begingroup$ @JshupacFuture-Economics I'm talking specifically about the LCRT proposal (nasa.gov/directorates/spacetech/niac/2020_Phase_I_Phase_II/…). The people who propose the project suggest using a couple rovers to do so, which doesn't seem that expensive to me. This telescope potentially wouldn't need any humans (reducing cost immensely) and if I had to ballpark the price it would cost today, I'd say it could be done for a cool 15bn. $\endgroup$
    – Dragongeek
    Jan 6 at 15:35
  • $\begingroup$ @JshupacFuture-Economics Also, space launch is poised to orders of magnitude less expensive within the next 5 to 10 years. A mission that might cost 1bn today might only cost millions in 5 years Starship or New Glenn come online, so from a fiscal perspective, anyone who's allocating this trillion-dollar budget, would first spend it on launch vehicle development to make them cheaper and save costs. This like buying a boat for a fisher: yes, the boat doesn't directly catch fish, but the fisher will be able to catch many more fish for less money compared to standing on a pier somewhere. $\endgroup$
    – Dragongeek
    Jan 6 at 15:41
  • $\begingroup$ Good points. Btw, how many LCRTs might be useful? Am I right in thinking that a telescope in a crater on the far side of the moon would be limited in where it could be pointed at? So, it might be worth it to build many telescopes in many craters on the far side of the moon? Also, are we so sure space launch costs will decline by an order of magnitude so soon? What if, for e.g., big eco-taxes start to be levied on space launches..? $\endgroup$ Jan 6 at 16:33
  • $\begingroup$ @JshupacFuture-Economics Currently, the launch of a Falcon 9 rocket releases between 300 and 400 metric tons of CO2, which, even with high eco-taxes, would be a rounding error in the price of a rocket launch. For example, even with a carbon price of \$100 per ton, \$35,000 is still nothing compared to the \$60,000,000 that the rocket launch currently costs. Even with cheaper and more frequent launches, no reasonable carbon price would be high enough to discourage launches. $\endgroup$
    – Dragongeek
    Jan 6 at 17:45
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DNA cryptography.

Assuming life was planted in our solar system by external intelligences, these intelligences might have left messages for us. The rational place to leave such messages would be in the DNA as this would be replicated and so maintained, where as a note in a bottle will probably not persist 4 billion years. Cryptographic analyses of conserved DNA across a range of organisms with an eye towards reconstructing the basal state of life will look for a message beyond the function of that DNA.

But 4 billion years is a while. Maybe it would be good to look someplace that evolution and mutation had not been going on for so long. Mars was nice 4 billion years ago and would probably have been seeded with life too. Maybe Venus as well. Perhaps DNA in the life from those days might still be preserved there. Search for remains of that life will ensue, with the idea that the message as preserved in that DNA will be cleaner than what exists here.


I am trying to think of what sort of message I would send to my descendants 4 billion years in the future. I think it would be a joke.

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