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Twenty years after the movie “Contact” brought the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, to the big screen, it’s dawning on astronomers that the real-world plotline might turn out to be totally different 20 years from now.

So far, SETI has been dominated by radio telescope surveys looking for anomalous patterns that may point to alien transmissions. But SETI’s practitioners are realizing that E.T. may make its presence known in other ways.

Over the next 20 years, or 200 years, SETI may come to stand for sensing extraterrestrial irregularities, ranging from unusual atmospheric chemistry to higher-than-expected thermal emissions. The telltale signs of life beyond our solar system may even be associated with phenomena we haven’t yet come across.

“Two hundred years from now, people are going to look at what we’re doing, and probably laugh and say, ‘Why weren’t they looking for tachyons, or subspace communications,’ or something like that,” Dan Wertheimer, chief scientist for SETI at the University of California at Berkeley, joked during a presentation held at the university in conjunction with the World Conference of Science Journalists in October.

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Category: Science