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  • richardmitnick 2:42 pm on December 9, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From SETI: “Answers Blowing in the Titan Wind” 

    SETI Institute

    Monday, December 08 2014
    Devon Burr
    University of Tennessee, Knoxville
    E-mail: dburr1@utk.edu
    Tel: +1 865-974-6010

    John Marshall
    SETI Institute
    E-mail: jmarshall@seti.org
    Tel: +1 650-325-2239

    Seth Shostak, Media Contact
    SETI Institute
    E-mail: seth@seti.org,
    Tel: +1 650 960-4530

    Using a specially engineered wind tunnel, scientists have solved a puzzle about wind-blown dunes on a world that has some striking similarities to our own.

    Titan wind tunnel with important components labelled. The downwind observation side port through which the data of record are observed is the rightmost of the labelled observation ports.

    Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, has both a thick atmosphere and lakes filled with methane and ethane, making it the only solar system body other than our own with liquid on its surface. In its lower latitudes, the Cassini orbiter has found wind-driven dunes reminiscent of those seen in the deserts of Earth, but hundreds of feet high and hundreds of miles in length.

    This natural color composite was taken during the Cassini spacecraft’s April 16, 2005, flyby of Titan.
    NASA Cassini Spacecraft

    It is a combination of images taken through three filters that are sensitive to red, green and violet light. It shows approximately what Titan would look like to the human eye: a hazy orange globe surrounded by a tenuous, bluish haze. The orange color is due to the hydrocarbon particles which make up Titan’s atmospheric haze. This obscuring haze was particularly frustrating for planetary scientists following the NASA Voyager mission encounters in 1980-81. Fortunately, Cassini is able to pierce Titan’s veil at infrared wavelengths (see PIA06228). North on Titan is up and tilted 30 degrees to the right. The images to create this composite were taken with the Cassini spacecraft wide angle camera on April 16, 2005, at distances ranging from approximately 173,000 to 168,200 kilometers (107,500 to 104,500 miles) from Titan and from a Sun-Titan-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 56 degrees. Resolution in the images is approximately 10 kilometers per pixel. The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging team is based at the Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colo. For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission, visit http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov and the Cassini imaging team home page, http://ciclops.org.

    Dunes are also known to exist on Venus and Mars, but Titan is unlike those worlds. This raises two questions: (a) what are the dunes made of, and (b) why do they appear to be formed in a direction opposite to that of Titan’s prevailing east-to-west winds?

    “The dunes are not made of silicates – sand – as on Earth or Mars,” says Devon Burr, a planetary scientist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and formerly with the SETI Institute, and lead author of a paper in the journal Nature describing the new results. “They’re hydrocarbons, and may possibly include particles of water ice that are coated with these organic materials.”

    While the source of this otherworldly sand remains a mystery, more puzzling is the direction of the winds producing the dunes. This direction can be deduced from the streamline appearance of the dunes when they wrap around high points, such as craters or mountains. These streamlines indicate winds that are more west-to-east, contrary to the prevailing easterlies.

    This conflict of reasonable expectation and appearance was solved when the research team realized that the usual models for wind transport need to be adjusted for Titan’s thicker atmosphere and more viscous sand. The team found that the threshold – or minimum – wind speed needed to transport Titan’s hydrocarbon-rich sand was higher than typical for the prevailing winds on that moon.

    Burr and her coauthors made this discovery using a wind tunnel that had been constructed in the 1980s for modeling aeolian physics on Venus, notes co-author John Marshall of the SETI Institute. “It was a bear to operate, but Dr. Burr’s refurbishment of the facility as a Titan simulator has tamed the beast. It is now an important addition to NASA’s arsenal of planetary simulation facilities.”

    This greater threshold wind speed solved the mystery of the dunes’ alignment. The winds on Titan occasionally reverse direction and dramatically increase in intensity due to the changing position of the Sun in its sky. Because the threshold wind speed is so high, only these stronger winds blowing from the west can move the sand and streamline the dunes.

    “This work highlights the fact that the winds that blow 95 percent of the time might have no effect on what we see,” Burr says. Much like the damage produced by infrequent, but “perfect” storms at sea, it is the relatively rare events that have shaped the dunes of this intriguing moon.

    The new research provides important insights into wind-borne transport on other bodies, both those with very thin atmospheres (Mars, Pluto and comets) and thick, such as might be encountered in Earth-like exoplanets.

    Burr says that these results also have down-to-Earth applications.

    “We see today sediment being wafted over the Sahara desert, across the Atlantic to South America. This wind-blow material accounts for much of the fertility of the Amazon Basin. So understanding this process is essential.”

    Wind transport dynamics are also important to unraveling climate changes in the past, including the ice ages, and the so-called “snowball Earth” episode when the entire planet was encased in ice and snow.

    Marshall says that the research “has raised many questions about Titan. There we have low gravity, a dense atmosphere, and light-weight materials – a recipe for unusual aeolian activity. Our work has just begun.”

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 2:16 pm on December 9, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From SKA: “SKA talk – Jill Tarter – The SKA in the world of 2050″ 

    SKA Square Kilometer Array


    Live from Jodrell Bank Observatory, Dr. Jill Tarter from SETI is the final keynote speaker concluding a day-long workshop on the wider benefits of the SKA in society. Dr. Tarter will present her vision of the SKA’s impact and role in tomorrow’s society, in 2050.

    Jill Tarter holds the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI Research at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California and serves as a member of the Board of Trustees for that institution. Tarter received her Bachelor of Engineering Physics Degree with Distinction from Cornell University and her Master’s Degree and a Ph.D. in Astronomy from the University of California, Berkeley.

    She has spent the majority of her professional career attempting to answer the old human question “Are we alone?” by searching for evidence of technological civilizations beyond Earth. She served as Project Scientist for NASA’s SETI program, the High Resolution Microwave Survey and has conducted numerous observational programs at radio observatories worldwide.

    She is a Fellow of the AAAS, the California Academy of Sciences, and the Explorers Club, she was named one of the Time 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2004, and one of the Time 25 in Space in 2012, received a TED prize in 2009, two public service awards from NASA, multiple awards for communicating science to the public, and has been honored as a woman in technology.

    She is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at USC, Asteroid 74824 Tarter (1999 TJ16) has been named in her honor. She is the Jansky Lecturer in 2014.
    Since the termination of funding for NASA’s SETI program in 1993, she has served in a leadership role to design and build the Allen Telescope Array and to secure private funding to continue the exploratory science of SETI. Many people are now familiar with her work as portrayed by Jodie Foster in the movie Contact.

    See the full article here.

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    About SKA

    The Square Kilometre Array will be the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope. The total collecting area will be approximately one square kilometre giving 50 times the sensitivity, and 10 000 times the survey speed, of the best current-day telescopes. The SKA will be built in Southern Africa and in Australia. Thousands of receptors will extend to distances of 3 000 km from the central regions. The SKA will address fundamental unanswered questions about our Universe including how the first stars and galaxies formed after the Big Bang, how dark energy is accelerating the expansion of the Universe, the role of magnetism in the cosmos, the nature of gravity, and the search for life beyond Earth. Construction of phase one of the SKA is scheduled to start in 2016. The SKA Organisation, with its headquarters at Jodrell Bank Observatory, near Manchester, UK, was established in December 2011 as a not-for-profit company in order to formalise relationships between the international partners and centralise the leadership of the project.

  • richardmitnick 3:21 pm on November 28, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , David Black, SETI Institute   

    From SETI: “New CEO Shares Vision for the Future” 

    SETI Institute

    Sarah Scoles

    SETI David Black
    David Black, the SETI Institute’s new President and CEO

    David Black, the SETI Institute’s new President and CEO, has been steeped in science since his adolescence. Thinking about the huge power locked within a single atom sent him to the library stacks and, eventually, to physics college classes. Since those teenage years, he’s blazed a unique trail for himself, mixing pure research with the strategic planning and leadership necessary to make science happen in the real world. He’s known for his work in star- and planet-formation, as well as the evolution and makeup of planets once they do form. He was the first Chief Scientist for the International Space Station, the Deputy Chief for Space Science Division at the NASA Ames Research Center, Director of the Lunar and Planetary Institute, and the President and CEO of the Universities Space Research Association.

    He retired from the latter position in 2006. But after he finished the long list of things his wife wanted him to fix around the house, he thought it was time to take on another title. In April, the SETI Institute chose Black to head up the organization.

    When he’s not riding his road bike around Mountain View or frequenting the farmer’s market, Black is crafting a vision for the SETI Institute and guiding it into the future. It’s an organization, he says, dedicated to investigating the origins, abundance, and variety of life on Earth and elsewhere: a place full of people asking big questions, getting big answers, and inspiring the question-askers of the future.

    How did you come to be the head of the SETI Institute?
    I got a call from Jill Tarter, who was coming to Houston last year for the 100-Year Starship Symposium.

    SETI Jill Tarter
    Jill Tarter

    She was leading a panel that was supposed to talk about SETI, the search for other planets, and other connected things. But the person who was scheduled to talk about extrasolar planets bailed at the last minute. I was sort of the father of planetary detection, having started it at NASA, and I happened to live in Houston. So Jill called me and asked if I could come down to the symposium and fill in—this is a day and a half before the event. So I said I would do it, provided we met for breakfast first. During the meal, Jill mentioned the SETI Institute was looking for a replacement for the head of the organization. And more or less jokingly, I said I should consider that. And she said, “I think that’s a great idea. Do you mind if I throw your name in the hat?” One thing led to another, and here I am.

    What drew you from primarily research to being in management?
    I’m not sure it was always a conscious decision. As you go through life, there are certain times in the path you’re walking when you find a fork in the road. Mine started early on, when I was asked if I would be the chief of the theoretical studies branch at NASA. It afforded me the opportunity to represent the interests of all the people in that branch, which seemed like a good idea at the time.

    For whatever reason, I seem to be one of the people who other people like to have lead them. I’ve been on two juries, and I’ve been elected as foreman for both. But once you go on the leadership path, you don’t stop doing research. You just put on more than one hat.

    In the course of that research, what’s the coolest or most surprising discovery you’ve made?
    Unquestionably, it would be the discovery of all these planets. I haven’t personally been involved with any of the teams that have done the detection, but I started the planetary detection program at NASA. That, to me, has been one of the most exciting things, and that story is still unfolding.

    Here at the SETI Institute, people study everything from terrestrial fossils to exoplanet atmospheres. How do you see all of those things as related to each other?
    There’s a simple construct formulated by Frank Drake many years ago called the Drake Equation. And it’s not an equation in the way that we theoretical physicists think of an equation. It’s a tool to help consider and understand the various pieces that go into the question “Is there intelligent life out there?” What are the factors that determine that?

    For life to exist in any way we know it, they have to be around a star. So we start with the rate of star formation. And then we go to planets. And then how many are good for life, how many evolve intelligent life, how many evolve technology. We have several intelligent species on this planet, for example, that don’t have technology at all. Looking for radio signals from whales is not going to happen. You can imagine another planet covered in water, having evolved very smart swimming animals, but we’re never going to find out they’re intelligent, because they aren’t technologically advanced.

    But at the SETI Institute, we have people who look into all aspects of that equation, not just the technology part. We have people who look into star formation, people who hunt for planets—probably half of the Kepler telescope team are Institute employees. Some of our scientists also look at planets’ atmospheres for reliable indicators of life. Is it oxygen? Methane? Here on Earth, cows and termites produce much of the methane in the atmosphere. So if you were to look back at the Earth’s atmosphere, you could deduce in a minute there was life on this planet. You wouldn’t know if it was intelligent, but you would know it was there.

    NASA Kepler Telescope

    And at the end of the Drake equation, there are also societal considerations. At the SETI Institute, we’re interested in looking at social interactions here and figure out what they might tell us about alien life. How long will we survive? How would we interpret a message? Should we send a message, or is that inviting danger? These discussions are informative not just for SETI, but for the whole human condition.

    Part of what we do here is study the past and the present to help inform us about what the future might be.

    If you had to sum the SETI Institute scientists up in one sentence, what would you say?
    They’re intellectually stimulating, and it’s my job to make it possible for them to succeed, and to put together creative opportunities to help them do what they do.

    So why should the public care about and support the research here?
    You could ask why the public should support basic research of any kind. But basic research is where you’re going to discover the early steps for how you cure cancer. Not here, of course; that’s is just an example. But sometimes you have an announcement like the one we had here recently: that we discovered an Earth-like planet. Somewhere out there, there’s a girl named Susie Smith who saw that and got really excited and decided she wants to become a scientist. She may be the one who figures out how to cure cancer, because she got excited about this planet and chose science as a career. You don’t get that kind of excitement with applied science. And that excitement is worth investing in.

    What first drew your interest in science?
    I was about 12 years old when I decided I wanted to go into nuclear physics. I used to dive under a desk at school for nuclear bomb drills. And the idea that you could get that much energy out of a small amount of material fascinated me. I started checking books out of the library about it. And when I got to college, my interests began to evolve more into astrophysics—how the Sun and solar system came to be, and then other stars … and by then I’d stepped on a slippery path.

    If you went back in time and told your 12-year-old self that you were the CEO of the SETI Institute, what would he say?
    I don’t think he’d be surprised about the SETI thing. I think he’d think that was pretty cool. But if he heard about some of the business stuff I was in, he’d say, “What are you doing? Boring.”

    If you were not an astronomer, what would you be?
    If I wasn’t going to be a scientist, I think I’d have something to do with athletics. I played football, basketball, baseball, ran track. I was never going to do it at a professional level. But I love sports. I almost got into race-car driving as a teen. I watch NASCAR. Shoot me; I love it! But I prefer the road course stuff. One time, my wife surprised me with one of those race-car-driving experiences in Dallas. And it was actually raining, so there were standing puddles, and driving through those in a Corvette was just a ball.

    What do you do in your free time?
    Road cycling. I don’t do wheelies down stairs, but I admire the skill of the people who do .. and wonder how stupid they are. But they probably say the same thing about race-car driving. I enjoy the peace you get riding a bike. I do a lot of thinking while riding, which may not be safe. But I also enjoy riding with people. There’s a camaraderie.

    What is your philosophy of life?
    Enjoy what you do. Be honest with yourself. Walk away at the end of the day knowing you did everything you could. If it’s not enough, it’s okay. It’s when you walk away and you know you didn’t do everything you could that you really fail.

    What’s the biggest adventure you’ve ever been on?
    I spent a year in London. It taught me a lot that even if we speak the same language, there can be huge differences between the two countries. It also gave me an appreciation of my own country. I think travel, in general, is great. Because of my profession, and the fact that scientists have a proclivity to have meetings in interesting places, I’ve had the opportunity to see places I wouldn’t have seen. It’s given me the chance to broaden my perspective, see the world from different points of view.

    What are five things you can’t live without?

    Definitely my wife.
    My bike. It’s the way I unwind.
    Being intellectually challenged. Not having that stimulation is a quick path to bailing out of life.
    My dogs. I have five, ranging from a three-legged pit bull to a lab retriever mix. They’re all rescues, and they’re part of the family. Dogs are very special animals. I have the ashes of my dogs who have passed, and my mother’s ashes are right next to them.
    A good microbrew.

    What is the SETI Institute’s version of Utopia?
    Our vision is to become the world’s leading research organization studying the origin and nature of life. In my view, whenever anybody anywhere in the world says, “I want to do work on X, Y, Z, and it’s related to some aspect of the Drake Equation,” someone else will tell them, “Go to the SETI Institute.” That’s Utopia.

    See the full article here.

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

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    SETI Institute – 189 Bernardo Ave., Suite 100
    Mountain View, CA 94043
    Phone 650.961.6633 – Fax 650-961-7099
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  • richardmitnick 12:48 pm on November 16, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From Seth Shostak at SETI: “Talking to Aliens” 

    SETI Institute

    SETI Seth Shostak
    Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer and Director, Center for SETI Research

    What do you say to a space alien? This question might not be the foremost puzzle in your life, but it was the subject of a lively two-day conference at California’s SETI Institute this week.

    No image credit

    Here’s why: A decade of research by astronomers now suggests that a trillion planets dot the Milky Way. It takes a real Debbie Downer to believe that they’re all as dead as the Equal Rights Amendment. Unless Earth is special beyond reason, you can confidently assume there are plenty of societies out there.

    That doesn’t mean that they’ll come to Earth (or, as many believe, already have). Interstellar travel, despite what you’ve seen at the local multiplex, is hard. But we could easily get in touch via radio signals or flashing laser lights.

    SETI — the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence — is already scanning the skies, looking for such signals. So far, they haven’t found any. But some practitioners figure we should also transmit signals; that we should try speaking without first being spoken to.

    Doing so would raise a lot of questions. For example, in which directions should you beam your broadcast, and how do you encode the message? In addition, there’s the prickly argument over whether betraying our existence could lead to trouble.

    All worthy of consideration. But this week’s conference had a narrower focus: message content. If we decide to pick up the phone, what are we going to talk about?

    To get as wide a range of viewpoints as possible, the conference organizer, the Institute’s Director of Interstellar Message Composition Doug Vakoch, brought together an international crowd of anthropologists, philosophers, linguists, astronomers, archaeologists, social psychologists, journalists and designers. As you might imagine, this inhomogeneous group frequently arrived at opposite conclusions despite starting with similar premises.

    For example, what’s the best way to make a message understandable to minds that might be organized in ways far different than our own? Some argued that any society with the kit necessary for detecting broadcasts from Earth will have mastered mathematics and chemistry. We should use these as touchstones to encode our messages. But try writing an essay about love or local government using only mathematical symbols, and you’ll quickly discover that this isn’t easy (and seldom poetic).

    “Send the equivalent of a Rosetta Stone,” was the cry of other participants. And after all, that does sound like a great way to help the aliens quickly learn some earthly language. Of course, the “stone” needs to have parallel texts with another language or two, but maybe you could substitute pictures — a kind of picture dictionary. Easy squeezy.

    But a linguist precipitated on this parade by noting that — given the uncertainties about why Homo sapiens even has language (is it merely a talent conferred by a random genetic mutation that hit our species 150,000 years ago?), there’s no guarantee that the extraterrestrials will be blessed with the gift of gab. They might not have language any more than we have a great sense of smell.

    Which brings us back to pictures. Why not simply tell them about ourselves by sending images of artifacts? Time capsules are precedent, one participant noted. They’re small collections of contemporary culture that are sealed, buried and sent to the future, if not into space. Clever idea, but if we send the Klingons the radio equivalent of a time capsule, do we put in everything? Do we tell them about our cruelties, and about poverty and war? Or is it better to only display our better natures?

    A leitmotiv of the conference — one thing that just about everyone felt they could agree on — was to beware of anthropocentrism. Don’t assume that the way we think or describe things will be the same for the extraterrestrials. Context and local knowledge are the frameworks of our daily lives, and it’s easy to forget that these are peculiar to us, both in place and in time. The aliens will not get our jokes, our literature, or our reality TV. Their minds, presumably vast and deep, could be as different from ours as those of bats and beetles.

    It’s a tough problem, and my own contribution was to opine that — rather than wrestle endlessly with what we should say — we send it all. Or at least send a lot. I suggested that we transmit the contents of the Internet, or some large subset thereof, rather than offering up more “greeting cards” similar to those that have been bolted onto some of our spacecraft. Sure, there’s a lot of silly stuff on the web — it’s not curated, to use the language of museums. But it’s wide-ranging, covers a lot of human activity, and is highly redundant. For example, the concept of “automobile” is present in descriptions, photos, and videos. That redundancy will help them — assuming they have the processing power — to figure out a lot of what we’ve sent.

    In movies, the aliens are almost always fluent in colloquial, American English. That’s handy, and it eases the burden on both actors and audience. Communicating with these well-spoken beings from beyond Earth is a slam dunk.

    But if and when we decide to send a shout-out to other worlds, we should first abandon the idea that the inhabitants of those distant locales have our mind set — or even a similar mind.

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 3:38 pm on November 15, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From SLATE: “Messages to the Universe: A Short History of Interstellar Communication” 



    Nov. 14 2014
    Ella Morton

    Nov. 16, 2014, marks the 40th anniversary of the Arecibo message, an interstellar communiqué transmitted from the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico toward Messier 13, a globular cluster of stars located more than 22,000 light-years away.

    The Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico. Photo: H. Schweiker/WIYN and NOAO/AURA/NSF (Public Domain)

    The content of the message was determined by astrophysicist and Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) founder Frank Drake, with a little help from luminaries like Carl Sagan. It used a string of 1,679 binary digits—the idea was that the alien civilization who receives the message will recognize 1,679 as a semiprime number and multiple of 23 and 73.* “Ah,” they will think (in their native language, obviously), “this binary string of unknown origin is intriguing. Let’s lay out the info in a 23-by-73 grid and see what emerges.”

    Frank Drake

    Carl Sagan in 1980

    When the ones and zeroes are put into grid form, what results is a pixelated summary of humanity. It contains seven parts. The first part of the message shows the numbers one through 10. Next are the atomic numbers for carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and phosphorus. A very simple representation of the DNA double helix follows. Then there is a blocky image of a human, a depiction of Earth’s position in the solar system—with Pluto still shown as a planet, a matter that is still up for debate—and an image of the Arecibo telescope that, to a 2014 eye, resembles the Gmail logo.

    The Arecibo message. Image: Arne Nordmann/Creative Commons

    Even if the folks in Messier 13 were to respond promptly to this message, we’d still have to wait at least 43,960 years for their reply. But the Arecibo message was never really intended as genuine interstellar communication—it was chiefly a demonstration of the Arecibo telescope’s might. (The dish was upgraded in 1974, and the three-minute digital transmission, ostensibly sent to an alien civilization, was quite the celebratory attention-getter.)

    Messier 13’s assumed inhabitants may never become our pen pals, but the tantalizing prospect of interstellar communication continues to entice Earthlings. Since the Arecibo message was transmitted into the universe, at least eight other interstellar radio messages have been beamed into the sky—all within the last 15 years.

    In 2001, Russian astronomer Aleksandr Zaitsev and a group of Russian teenagers broadcast a series of transmissions collectively known as the “Teen Age Message.” Targeted at six stars located between 45.9 and 68.5 light-years away, the messages included Russian folk music and works by classical composers such as Beethoven and Vivaldi. All of this music was played on the theremin—Zaitsev referred to the message as the “First Theremin Concert For Extraterrestrials.” Sent from Yevpatoria Planetary Radar in Crimea, the transmission was the first interstellar musical radio message. There have been more: In 2008, NASA sent the Beatles song Across the Universe across the universe, targeting the Northern Star, Polaris.

    “Teen Age Message” being sent into the universe from Crimea in 2001. Photo: Rumlin/Creative Commons

    Yevpatoria 70m dish
    Yevpatoria Planetary Radar

    The question of how best to communicate with extraterrestrials is one of SETI’s ongoing concerns. Earlier this week, the organization held a workshop in California with the title Communicating Across the Cosmos. A common theme was humanity’s self-obsession. In composing interstellar messages, we tend to assume the intended recipients will get what we’re trying to say. But the scientific knowledge and physiology of nonhuman civilizations may be so different to our own that a Beethoven composition or a stick-figure human is totally indecipherable.

    Even the supposedly universal language of mathematics may not be the best lingua franca. During a talk at the SETI conference, Carl DeVito posed a mind-bending question: “Are the natural numbers, 1, 2, 3, 4, … merely creations of the human mind or do they exist independently of us?” You can watch his talk for more, but for the record, here is his own answer: “I think the natural numbers do exist independently of us. The rest of mathematics, however, might not exist anywhere but in our minds.”

    Of the eight interstellar messages sent since 1999, the first to reach its target will be A Message From Earth, which was sent to extrasolar planet Gliese 581 c in October 2008 and is scheduled to arrive in early 2029. The transmission, intended as a digital time capsule, was initiated by now-defunct RDF Digital—a subsidiary of the U.K. production company responsible for the TV show Wife Swap—and Bebo, a social networking website that declared bankruptcy in 2013. The 501 photos and text messages in the transmission were selected by Bebo users via web vote. In about 15 years, the residents of Gliese 581 c, assuming there are any, will receive a deluge of information about faded British pop stars.

    Though each interstellar transmission has varied wildly in tone and content, each reflects a common core message: “We are here. This is us.” Whether they reach other civilizations is almost irrelevant. The chance to sum up humanity to an extraterrestrial audience is an alluring task, and one that allows us to feel absurdly important while inhabiting, as Carl Sagan wrote in Pale Blue Dot, “a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.”

    The heart of Messier 13, target audience for the Arecibo message. Photo: ESA/Hubble and NASA/Public domain

    NASA Hubble Telescope
    NASA Hubble schematic
    NASA/ESA Hubble

    Visit Atlas Obscura for more on Arecibo Observatory.

    *Correction, Nov. 14, 2014: The post originally misstated that 1,679 was a prime number. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 8:50 pm on November 4, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From SETI: “Workshop Ponders Challenges of Communicating Across the Cosmos” 

    SETI Institute

    November 03 2014
    Science Contact:
    Douglas Vakoch, SETI Institute
    Chair, “Communicating Across the Cosmos” Workshop
    Skype: dougvakoch


    David Black, SETI Institute
    +1 650-960-4550

    Media Contact:
    Seth Shostak, SETI Institute
    Press Officer, and Senior Astronomer
    +1 650 960-4530

    When astronomers conducting the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) find other cultures in the universe, could we understand their messages? How can we craft a reply that intelligence on other planets would comprehend? To tackle these questions, the SETI Institute will convene the international workshop Communicating Across the Cosmos: How Can We Make Ourselves Understood by Other Civilizations in the Galaxy? on November 10-11, 2014, at its headquarters in Mountain View, California.

    “As we search for a universal language to communicate with civilizations beyond Earth, where should we start? Math? Pictures? Something else?” asked Douglas Vakoch, Director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI Institute and organizer of the workshop. “It may be much more difficult to create an understandable message than we’ve thought in the past, and our workshop faces those challenges head on. “Recommendations from the meeting will be incorporated into the final report of the International Academy of Astronautics’ Study Group on Interstellar Message Construction.


    “In the past few years, astronomers have shown that most stars have planets, so there could be many worlds where life has arisen,” said David Black, President and CEO of the SETI Institute. “If we discover life beyond Earth, especially technological life, it would have a profound effect on humanity. We need to take concrete steps now to plan for first contact. The SETI Institute just held a workshop on Non-Human Communication that examined the complex languages used by other life forms on this planet. The insights that we gain into the fundamental aspects of communication from those types of studies inform us potentially about communication with non-terrestrial life forms.”

    At the workshop, speakers from six countries will draw on disciplines ranging from astronomy and mathematics, to anthropology and linguistics, as they debate the best ways to create meaningful messages. “As we explore ways to communicate with intelligence in the cosmos, we need to do so intelligently,” explained Pierre Schwob, Vice Chairman of the SETI Institute’s Board of Trustees.

    The SETI Institute searches for radio signals from other civilizations with the Allen Telescope Array in northern California, but does not transmit signals to other worlds. “We’re also seeing increased interest within the international SETI community in actively transmitting messages, trying to elicit a response from other intelligence that may be out there,” said Vakoch. “Before we can do that, we need to be clear about what we would say, and how we would say it—the same questions we’ll grapple with in this meeting.”

    Allen Telescope Array
    Allen Telescope Array

    This workshop is closed to the public, but videos of all talks will be posted on the SETI Institute’s Youtube channel after the workshop. Media representatives who would like to attend or interview speakers should contact Douglas Vakoch, dvakoch@seti.org, phone +1-650-960-4514, Skype dougvakoch. Only queries from media representatives will be answered.

    Visit the workshop website for more information at http://communicating.seti.org

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 8:01 am on October 24, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From SETI: “New Insights on the Origin of the triple asteroid system (87) Sylvia” 

    SETI Institute

    Oct 24, 2014
    Franck Marchis, Senior Research Scientist

    Combining observations from the world’s largest telescopes with those from smaller instruments used by amateur astronomers, a team of scientists has discovered that the large main-belt asteroid (87) Sylvia has a complex interior. This has been deduced by using the motions of the two moons orbiting the main asteroid as probes of the object’s density distribution. The complex structure is probably linked to the way the multiple system was formed.

    Description Discovery of the two moons Romulus and Remus of the asteroid (87) Sylvia
    Date 24 January 2007
    Adaptive Optics observations of (87) Sylvia, showing its two satellites, Remus and Romulus

    The findings were announced last year at the 45th annual Division of Planetary Sciences meeting in Denver, Colorado and were published last month in the journal Icarus.

    The asteroid (87) Sylvia is the first known to have two moons. One moon was discovered in 2001, and the second was found in 2005 by a team led by Franck Marchis, senior research scientist at the Carl Sagan Center of the SETI Institute. Since then, the team has continued to make new observations of the system using 8 to 10 m-class telescopes, including those at the Keck Observatory, the European Southern Observatory, and Gemini North.

    Keck Observatory
    Keck Observatory Interior

    ESO VLT Interferometer
    ESO VLT Interior

    Gemini North telescope
    Gemini North Interior
    Gemini North

    (credit: Danielle Futselaar/SETI Institute).
    An artist’s rendition of the triple system showing the large 270-km asteroid Sylvia surrounded by its two moons – Romulus and Remus – gives a pictorial representation of this intriguing triple system.

    The differentiated interior of the asteroid is shown in a cutaway diagram. The primary asteroid may have a dense, regularly-shaped core, surrounding by fluffy or fractured material. The outer moon, named Romulus, is known to be strongly elongated, possibly having two lobes, as suggested by a recently observed occultation recorded by amateur astronomers.

    “Combined observations from small and large telescopes provide a unique opportunity to understand the nature of this complex and enigmatic triple asteroid system,” Marchis said. “Thanks to the presence of these moons, we can constrain the density and interior structure of an asteroid, without the need for a spacecraft’s visit. Knowledge of the internal structure of asteroids is key to understanding how the planets of our solar system formed.”

    The article Physical and dynamical properties of the main belt triple Asteroid (87) Sylvia, published last month in Icarus, is co-authored by J. Berthier, F. Vachier, B. Carry from IMCCE-Obs de Paris, J. Durech from Charles University, Prague, and F. Marchis from the SETI Institute and Obs. de Paris.

    Berthier, J., F. Vachier, F. Marchis, J. Ďurech, and B. Carry. 2014. Physical and Dynamical Properties of the Main Belt Triple Asteroid (87) Sylvia. Icarus 239 (September): 118–30. doi:10.1016/j.icarus.2014.05.046.

    We present the analysis of high angular resolution observations of the triple Asteroid (87) Sylvia collected with three 8-10 m class telescopes (Keck, VLT, Gemini North) and the Hubble Space Telescope. The moons’ mutual orbits were derived individually using a purely Keplerian model. We computed the position of Romulus, the outer moon of the system, at the epoch of a recent stellar occultation which was successfully observed at less than 15 km from our predicted position, within the uncertainty of our model. The occultation data revealed that the Moon, with a surface-area equivalent diameter Ds=23.1±0.7km, is strongly elongated (axes ratio of 2.7±0.32.7±0.3), significantly more than single asteroids of similar size in the main-belt. We concluded that its shape is probably affected by the tides from the primary. A new shape model of the primary was calculated combining adaptive-optics observations with this occultation and 40 archived light-curves recorded since 1978. The difference between the J2=0.024-0.009+0.016 derived from the 3-D shape model assuming an homogeneous distribution of mass for the volume equivalent diameter Dv=273±10km primary and the null J2 implied by the Keplerian orbits suggests a non-homogeneous mass distribution in the asteroid’s interior.

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 4:59 pm on October 13, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From SETI Institute: “Fingerprints of Life on Mars” 

    SETI Institute

    October 07 2014

    Nathalie Cabrol
    SETI Institute
    Email: ncabrol@seti.org
    Email: Nathalie.A.Cabrol@nasa.gov
    Tel: +1 650-604-0312

    Edna DeVore, Media Contact
    SETI Institute
    E-mail: edevore@seti.org
    Tel: +1 650 960-4538

    NASA’s Astrobiology Institute (NAI) announced that the SETI Institute has been selected as a new member of the NAI for a 5-year research program, “Changing Planetary Environments and the Fingerprints of Life.” Led by planetary geologist and Senior Research Scientist, Nathalie Cabrol, the team’s work will address key questions. How can we identify the signature of life not just here on Earth, but on Mars as well? How does a planet’s changing environment impact the evidence for life?


    “I am absolutely thrilled that the SETI Institute is joining the NAI. In the next five years, along with our partner institutions, we will focus on decoding the fingerprints of life—the biosignatures—in extreme environments here on Earth to help us look for life on Mars. Our goal is to understand the survival of biosignatures from an early, wetter Mars to the harsh environment of the red planet today. Understanding the role that the changing Martian environment has had on biosignatures will inform us on how to recognize these signatures, and how to explore them. We bring to this ambitious quest new exploration tools and, with NASA’s Mars 2020 on the horizon, the timing could not be more perfect,” stated Cabrol. “Personally and professionally, this is a tremendously exciting project because we aim to develop a roadmap to biosignature exploration for Mars for future missions.”

    Principal Investigator, Nathalie Cabrol

    “I am delighted at the news that the SETI Institute led team has been chosen as one of the new members in the NASA Astrobiology Institute. The team worked hard at putting together an outstanding proposal and it is a positive reflection on the process that is in place to review the proposals that their effort is recognized and rewarded by their professional peers. We look forward to an exciting five years of outstanding research under the aegis of this award,” said David Black, President and CEO of the SETI Institute.

    To model and test strategies for biosignature detection, Cabrol’s team will conduct fieldwork in extreme environments on Earth that are analogous to sites on Mars where water once flowed. Fieldwork will be done at Yellowstone National Park, sites in California and Chile, Axel Heiberg Island in the high Arctic, and Western Australia. Each site is an analog to Mars: volcanic and hydrothermal terrain, lake sediments, evaporates, and perennial cold springs. Sites will be explored from satellites, air, ground, and at the microscopic level in the field and laboratory. Understanding how to integrate this multi-scale information will help scientists learn how to select the best sites for discovering biosignatures on Mars.

    Cabrol assembled a diverse team of experts in planetary science, robotics, laboratory experimentation, and exploration to conduct fieldwork, analyze samples, and develop a biosignature roadmap to guide the search for life on Mars. In addition to more than a dozen scientists at the SETI Institute, her team brings together scientists from universities, government agencies and industry partners in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia and South America. In the US, partners include Arizona State University, University of Montana, University of Tennessee, Carnegie Mellon, Georgia Institute of Technology, Honeybee Robotics, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and NASA Ames Research Center. Non-US partners include McGill University (Canada), Centro de Astrobiologia (CAB, Madrid, Spain), Deutscher Wetterdienst (Germany), Friedrich-Alexander University (Germany), and Campoalto for logistics in Chile. Over the next 5 years, more than twenty scientists will work together to help answer the question of where, what and how to search for the right rocks on Mars to discover the fingerprints of life on the red planet.

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 7:12 pm on October 6, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , SETI Institute,   

    From SPACE.com: “Aliens May Be Out There, But Too Distant for Contact” 

    space-dot-com logo


    October 06, 2014
    Irene Klotz

    The Milky Way may be home to some 3,000 extraterrestrial civilizations but the vast distances between our galactic cousins will make contact extremely rare, a new study concludes.

    Data collected by NASA’s Kepler space telescope and other observatories scouting for planets beyond the solar system indicate Earth is one of some 40 billion potentially habitable worlds in the galaxy, with about one new life-friendly planet forming every year, astronomer Michael Garrett, head of the Dutch astronomy research foundation ASTRON, said at the International Astronomical Congress in Toronto.

    NASA Kepler Telescope

    Sounds promising, until you consider the sheer size of the Milky Way, which spans more than 100,000 light-years in diameter. Light travels at about 186,000 miles per second, but a signal will still take more than 4 years to reach neighboring system Alpha Centauri and 100,000 years to travel from one end of the galaxy to the other.

    “On average, you’d expect the civilizations to be separated by at least 1,000 light-years in the Milky Way. That’s a large distance, and for communication purposes you need to allow for twice the travel distance, so you’re talking about civilizations that have to be around for at least a few thousand years in order to have the opportunity to talk to each other,” Garrett said.

    “We don’t really know the time scales in which civilizations persist,” he added.

    The one example available — Earth — indicates that life essentially developed as soon as the conditions were right, but intelligent life arose comparatively late.

    “It’s really just essentially in the last few minutes of the overall evolution of life on the planet,” Garrett said. “I don’t want to be too negative about this, but … my basic conclusion is that SETI signals will be rare in the Milky Way.”

    That doesn’t mean astronomers shouldn’t look, he added. Quite the contrary, given the huge technological leaps in radio astronomy and in data processing techniques compared to what was available for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, programs 60 years ago.

    SETI also is benefitting from sister radio astronomy projects, such as the ongoing quest to find the source of mysterious transient radio bursts.

    SETI@home screensaver
    SETI@home from Space Science LabSpaceScienceLabs at UC Berkeley

    “SETI is not easy, but it’s a pursuit that is well worth doing. The question is so important,” Garrett said. “Everyone is interested, not just scientists and space enthusiasts. People in the street are interested to know what else is out there.”

    See the full article, with added material, here.

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  • richardmitnick 2:40 pm on September 26, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From Seth Shostak at SETI Institute: “So What Really Goes Down if We Find the Aliens?” 

    SETI Institute

    September 26, 2014
    By Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer and Director of the Center for SETI Research

    SETI Seth Shostak
    Seth Shostak

    If we trip across life that’s not of this world, do we blast it or befriend it? What impact would it have on our society?

    This was the topic of a two-day symposium held at the John W. Kluge Center of the Library of Congress last week. Several dozen researchers — astronomers, philosophers, theologians, biologists, historians, and other tweed-jacketed specialists — opined on what might happen should we find we’re not alone.

    A lot of the discussion, unsurprisingly, was about discovering life that’s intelligent. This prompted a symposium leitmotiv that was dished out repeatedly: when thinking about aliens, beware of anthropocentrism. In other words, don’t assume that they will be similar to us ethically, culturally, or cognitively.

    Well sure, I can get down with that. I agree that we tend to view everything in the universe through the prism of our own natures. Mind you, I note that the squirrels in my front yard seem to do the same. They’re awfully squirrel-centric. That ensures that they attend to activities that are truly important (mostly acorn management). I don’t think less of them for that.

    Where this leitmotiv became more than a neo-Greek caution against hubris was when it was used to argue that SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is fatally flawed. We were told that our hunt for aliens assumes that they are like us. That kind of provincial attitude, it was said, will doom SETI to endless frustration. If we don’t think outside our own biological box, we’ll fail to find any company in the cosmos.

    But wait a minute: That’s akin to arguing that the 1976 Viking landers — with their complex instrumentation for sensing microbial Martians — were a clear non-starter because they were sensitive to carbon-based metabolism; in other words, life as we know it. Well, that’s true, but it was really hard to design experiments that were good at finding life as no-one-knows-it.

    Actually, when it comes to SETI experiments, we try not to make assumptions about the aliens’ cultural, ethical, or even biological makeup. We don’t assume they are similar to us. Rather, we assume that their physics is similar to ours — that they use radio transmitters or lasers to send information from wherever they are to wherever they need it. That’s no more anthropocentric than assuming that — if aliens use ground transportation — at least some of it is on wheels.

    Anthropocentrism is always a bugaboo, but to say that it might irretrievably cripple our efforts to find evidence for intelligence elsewhere is certainly arguable. So let’s consider that SETI experiments are not as myopic as some would aver. The big question then becomes, what happens if we pick up a ping?

    First, allow me to dispense with the false, but nonetheless ever-popular idea that the public wouldn’t be told. That’s goofier than Big Bird, and easily disproved by a cursory reference to SETI’s occasional false alarms. This paranoid idea probably derives from the widespread claim that 67 years ago some wayward aliens made a dismaying navigational error, and piloted their craft into the dirt near Roswell, New Mexico. The fact that this event is not the subject of much investigation by research scientists is often explained as the consequence of a government cover-up. The feds don’t want you to know about extraterrestrials.

    One could make the same argument about the lack of academic interest in leprechauns. Maybe the Irish government is hiding the bodies. I don’t find that a compelling argument. But I think the popular notion of secret evidence sparks the mistaken belief that a SETI detection would be hushed up. It won’t be.

    Of greater relevance to the subject of this symposium — preparing for discovery — was what would the signal reveal? What could we learn about the senders’ construction or culture?

    The most plausible answer is “not much.” Just as hearing a rustle in the forest provides precious little information on the flora or fauna that caused it, so too would an alien ping be largely uninformative, at least at first. There might be an accompanying message, but new and different instruments would be required to find it.

    What we could learn quickly are a few, mostly astronomical facts, to wit: (1) How far away is their solar system; (2) What type of star do they orbit? (3) The length of their day and their year.

    That might be it for a while. And “a while” would be years, at minimum.

    If we find intelligent beings elsewhere in our galaxy, you’ll not be quickly confronted with complex philosophical problems of understanding their mode of thinking or their biological blueprint — or even knowing whether they are biological. You won’t be misled by anthropocentric thinking, because there will be precious little information about whether they’re like us or not. For years, all we’ll be able to say is that there’s something out there that’s at least as technologically competent as we are.

    But of course, that’s still saying a lot.

    See the full article here.

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