From Sky & Telescope: “NASA Renews Interest in SETI”

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From Sky & Telescope

January 4, 2019
David Grinspoon

After a long hiatus, the space agency gets back into the SETI game.

In July I wrote about innovative approaches for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). In that column I lamented the fact that NASA support for this field dried up in the 1990s and had not returned, even though astrobiology has since flourished. Many of us felt that the bureaucratically maintained distinction between astrobiology and SETI did not make intellectual sense, and we longed for SETI to be let in from the cold.

Sometimes wishes come true.

As that column went to press I received an email asking if I would help organize a workshop on “technosignatures.” The sponsor? NASA. That got my attention. The purpose was to explore how to best use NASA resources in a renewed search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Apparently, Congress’s new federal budget mandated that NASA spend $10 million “to search for technosignatures, such as radio transmissions, in order to meet the NASA objective to search for life’s origin, evolution, distribution, and future in the universe.” Wow!

The workshop, which took place in September, was highly stimulating, and given the renewed government interest in SETI, the mood was bright and optimistic. Along with evaluation of historical and current searches, there was an openness to new ideas born of a kind of humility. We can’t really second-guess the properties or motivations of technological aliens, so we have to cast a wide net. In addition to “traditional” SETI searches for radio signals or laser pulses, we must be alert to more passive signs of technological entities that might not be trying to get in touch with anyone. These include possible artifacts beyond or within our own solar system, or planetary atmospheres altered or engineered by industrial activities.

Attendees made an effort to stick to the prosaic questions: What observing programs can we ramp up in the next few years using NASA’s current or expected assets and instruments? How can NASA best collaborate with private partners such as the SETI Institute and Breakthrough Listen?

SETI/Allen Telescope Array situated at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory, 290 miles (470 km) northeast of San Francisco, California, USA, Altitude 986 m (3,235 ft)

Breakthrough Listen Project


Lick Automated Planet Finder telescope, Mount Hamilton, CA, USA

GBO radio telescope, Green Bank, West Virginia, USA

CSIRO/Parkes Observatory, located 20 kilometres north of the town of Parkes, New South Wales, Australia

SKA Meerkat telescope, 90 km outside the small Northern Cape town of Carnarvon, SA

But with SETI it’s hard to avoid deep philosophical musings. Some talks at the workshop delved into abstract but necessary puzzles about the properties and behavior of distant, advanced civilizations — even about what we mean by “advanced” and “civilization.” SETI has always combined solid engineering, daring speculation, and profound questioning.

Laser SETI, the future of SETI Institute research

This admixture didn’t always sit well with some. At the first international SETI conference in Byurakan, Soviet Armenia in 1971, organizers Carl Sagan and Iosif Shklovsky welcomed historians, philosophers, linguists, and social scientists along with the scientists. At the time, one young Soviet astrophysicist asked that the humanities be left out, stating he didn’t want to listen to “windbags.” A leading American physicist exclaimed, “To hell with philosophy! I came here to learn about observations and instruments . . .”

This historical tension seemed absent from September’s workshop. Although our prime directive was to guide NASA in the use of its assets to search for technosignatures, there was respectful discussion of the more esoteric and humanistic questions that are naturally evoked, and a recognition that a mature SETI program going forward will involve more than just telescopes and computer models. Out of this will come new calls for proposals to NASA, and then a new era of federally funded SETI research. May it be long and fruitful.

See the full article here .

NASA might also consider aiding SETI@home, a BOINC project from the Space Science Lab at UC Berkeley processing data from The Arecibo Observatory

SETI@home, a BOINC project originated in the Space Science Lab at UC Berkeley

NAIC Arecibo Observatory operated by University of Central Florida, Yang Enterprises and UMET, Altitude 497 m (1,631 ft).


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Sky & Telescope magazine, founded in 1941 by Charles A. Federer Jr. and Helen Spence Federer, has the largest, most experienced staff of any astronomy magazine in the world. Its editors are virtually all amateur or professional astronomers, and every one has built a telescope, written a book, done original research, developed a new product, or otherwise distinguished him or herself.

Sky & Telescope magazine, now in its eighth decade, came about because of some happy accidents. Its earliest known ancestor was a four-page bulletin called The Amateur Astronomer, which was begun in 1929 by the Amateur Astronomers Association in New York City. Then, in 1935, the American Museum of Natural History opened its Hayden Planetarium and began to issue a monthly bulletin that became a full-size magazine called The Sky within a year. Under the editorship of Hans Christian Adamson, The Sky featured large illustrations and articles from astronomers all over the globe. It immediately absorbed The Amateur Astronomer.

Despite initial success, by 1939 the planetarium found itself unable to continue financial support of The Sky. Charles A. Federer, who would become the dominant force behind Sky & Telescope, was then working as a lecturer at the planetarium. He was asked to take over publishing The Sky. Federer agreed and started an independent publishing corporation in New York.

“Our first issue came out in January 1940,” he noted. “We dropped from 32 to 24 pages, used cheaper quality paper…but editorially we further defined the departments and tried to squeeze as much information as possible between the covers.” Federer was The Sky’s editor, and his wife, Helen, served as managing editor. In that January 1940 issue, they stated their goal: “We shall try to make the magazine meet the needs of amateur astronomy, so that amateur astronomers will come to regard it as essential to their pursuit, and professionals to consider it a worthwhile medium in which to bring their work before the public.”