SETI Astronomer Seth Shostak: We'll Find Intelligent Alien Life Within 20 Years

What would happen if we did receive a signal from aliens? DALE O'DELL/ALAMY

A senior astronomer has said we will find intelligent alien life within the next 20 years.

Seth Shostak, from the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, was speaking to Futurism at the Worlds Fair Nano NY, a festival held in New York, when he "bet everybody a cup of coffee" that the existence of intelligent extraterrestrials will be confirmed within the next two decades.

The astronomer said that in the last 20 years, understanding of the cosmos has expanded significantly it is now known just how many planets there are that could host alien life.

In the Milky Way there are an estimated 100,000 million stars and 100 billion planets, of which many are considered "potentially habitable"—meaning that they could have the conditions right for life to emerge. Furthermore, NASA recently said there could be 10 times more galaxies in the observable universe than previously thought.

hubble universe
A Hubble Space Telescope image of the evolving universe. NASA/ESA

"It boggles the mind that over 90 percent of the galaxies in the universe have yet to be studied. Who knows what interesting properties we will find when we discover these galaxies with future generations of telescopes?" Christopher Conselice, from the University of Nottingham, U.K., said in a statement at the time.

Shostak said he had "very little" to say about our current understanding about the existence of alien life "because we haven't found any" yet. However, he added that simple extraterrestrial lifeforms may be found in the near future: "We may find microbial life—the kind you'd find in the corners of your bathtub. We may find that a lot sooner, but that remains to be seen. But it's gonna happen, I think, in your lifetime."

While he says the existence of intelligent alien life will be confirmed in 20 years, Shostak said the chance of making contact is far less likely: "I mean if they're 500 light years away ... you'll hear a signal that'll be 500 years old, and if you broadcast back 'Hi we're the Earthlings, how're you doing?'—it'll be 1,000 years before you hear back from them. If you ever hear back from them. So, it's not exactly contact, but at least you know they're there."

alien contact fermi paradox cornell
Scientists plan to start sending out messages to aliens in 2018. Dale O'Dell/ Alamy

Shostak is currently part of an ongoing debate about whether Earth should be actively sending messages into space in the hope of finding alien life. Stephen Hawking, for example, believes this is a very bad idea as we could be making any hostile extraterrestrials aware of our existence.

Despite these concerns, scientists at Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) are currently planning to reach out to any advanced civilizations next year.

METI president Douglas Vakoch told Motherboard in September: "One of the reasons people are so afraid of METI is that it seems riskier to do something than to do nothing. When we try to evaluate the risks and benefits of an unknown situation where we have little or no actual data, we fall back on the most vivid images that come to mind. But just because the first images of alien contact that come to mind are horrific, that doesn't mean they're realistic."