Artist impression of water vapour erupting from EuropaNasa ESA, and M. Kornmesser

A leading astronomer at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence institute has said we will make contact with alien life within the next 20 years thanks to advances in technology.

Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer with Seti, said he believes mankind will soon create computers that can receive a radio transmission from aliens – however, whether or not we understand the message will be another question, he said.

In an interview with Popular Mechanics, Shostak said the search for extraterrestrial life is still in its infancy, and that "limitations in equipment and money" are the biggest challenges facing astronomers.

"The thing to keep in mind is that we're still in the very early days when it comes to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Saying there's a silence is a bit like if Columbus, looking to discover a new continent, only sailed 10 miles off the coast of Spain before turning back to say, 'Nothing out there! I guess that whole exploration gig isn't going to work out'."

Explaining why he is so confident of finding alien life, Shostak said there are two important questions – how many signals are being sent out and how fast we are examining space to find them.

"My guess that we'll succeed in the next two decades is based on the fact that with improvements in digital electronics and computers – which are getting better and cheaper, following Moore's law – we will be continually sifting through the sky faster. And you can extrapolate how fast we'll be able to search, assuming we have the money, in the next decade or two."

Area 51: CIA Only Admits Existence.
CIA Only Admits Area 51 Existence, Not UFOs or Aliens.Tumblr/minus229k1

He said that most people think Seti is looking for complex radio signals but in reality they are looking for any type of signal that a transmitter could make.

Addressing the issue of whether looking into space effectively means looking back in time, Shostak said it does not really matter if we receive a radio signal from a long-extinct civilisation.

"I studied Latin in high school, and I was reading stuff from Cicero. And that signal took a few thousand years to get to me. But I was still interested in what he had to say. Also, keep in mind that if there are a lot of intelligent societies out there right now, tens or hundreds of thousands, then the nearest ones could be just a couple hundred light-years away. Of course, even that distance means you're not going to get into conversation."

In the event that a signal is found, Shostak said the news would not be kept secret from society.

On being asked what would we learn, he concluded: "Well, in the beginning, maybe not much. If you're getting information from a society that's more advanced than ours—and they might be much more advanced than ours—it strikes me as uncertain that we might ever really understand anything. Actually comprehending the message could be hard, and we might never figure it out.

"But forget the message. Just knowing that there's somebody else out there—that what's happened on this planet has also happened in many other places—that might change our lives in a very subtle way, but it's interesting to know and worth looking for."