The endeavor known as the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) has long relied on radio telescopes to listen for broadcasts from potential alien callers. Yet in an expansive galaxy such as ours, how can we ever be sure that we have tuned in to the right station?

A new model simulating contact across the Milky Way suggests—perhaps unsurprisingly—that unless our galaxy is dense with long-lived intelligent species, the odds of stumbling across a signal are low. Yet the findings, which were published in the International Journal of Astrobiology, also point out that the probability of interaction could be greatest at the moment when a novel communication technology first comes online.

Along with providing fodder for imaginative scenarios—we flip the switch on some new listening device and, voilà, receive a transmission from E.T.—the results might encourage would-be alien hunters to innovate. Research efforts dedicated to discovering and developing new methods to communicate across cosmic distances may ultimately offer greater chances of making contact than long programs using a single technology.

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