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  • richardmitnick 12:22 pm on July 15, 2022 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "To search for alien life astronomers will look for clues in the atmospheres of distant planets – and the James Webb Space Telescope just proved it’s possible to do so", Astrobiologists will study starlight that has interacted with a planet’s surface or atmosphere., , , , Biosignatures, , Earth’s oxygen-filled atmosphere has left a strong and easily detectable biosignature on light that passes through it., , Many astronomers believe there’s a good chance that life exists on planets orbiting other stars and it’s possible that is where life will first be found., , , , Theoretical calculations suggest that there are around 300 million potentially habitable planets in the Milky Way galaxy alone., There might be several habitable Earth-sized planets within only 30 light-years of Earth – essentially humanity’s galactic neighbors.   

    From “The Conversation (AU)” : “To search for alien life astronomers will look for clues in the atmospheres of distant planets – and the James Webb Space Telescope just proved it’s possible to do so” 

    From “The Conversation (AU)”

    July 14, 2022

    Chris Impey
    University Distinguished Professor of Astronomy
    University of Arizona

    Daniel Apai
    Professor of Astronomy and Planetary Sciences
    University of Arizona

    The ingredients for life are spread throughout the universe [PNAS]. While Earth is the only known place in the universe with life, detecting life beyond Earth is a major goal of modern astronomy and planetary science.

    We are two scientists who study exoplanets and astrobiology. Thanks in large part to next-generation telescopes like James Webb, researchers like us will soon be able to measure the chemical makeup of atmospheres of planets around other stars. The hope is that one or more of these planets will have a chemical signature of life.

    There are many known exoplanets in habitable zones – orbits not too close to a star that the water boils off but not so far that the planet is frozen solid – as marked in green for both the solar system and Kepler-186 star system with its planets labeled b, c, d, e and f. NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech/Wikimedia Commons.

    Habitable exoplanets

    Life might exist in the solar system where there is liquid water – like the subsurface aquifers on Mars or in the oceans of Jupiter’s moon Europa. However, searching for life in these places is incredibly difficult, as they are hard to reach and detecting life would require sending a probe to return physical samples.

    Many astronomers believe there’s a good chance that life exists on planets orbiting other stars and it’s possible that is where life will first be found.

    Theoretical calculations suggest that there are around 300 million potentially habitable planets in the Milky Way galaxy alone and several habitable Earth-sized planets within only 30 light-years of Earth – essentially humanity’s galactic neighbors. So far, astronomers have discovered over 5,000 exoplanets, including hundreds of potentially habitable ones, using indirect methods that measure how a planet affects its nearby star. These measurements can give astronomers information on the mass and size of an exoplanet, but not much else.

    Every material absorbs certain wavelengths of light, as shown in this diagram depicting the wavelengths of light absorbed most easily by different types of chlorophyll. Daniele Pugliesi/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA.

    Looking for biosignatures

    To detect life on a distant planet, astrobiologists will study starlight that has interacted with a planet’s surface or atmosphere. If the atmosphere or surface was transformed by life, the light may carry a clue, called a “biosignature.”

    For the first half of its existence, Earth sported an atmosphere without oxygen, even though it hosted simple, single-celled life. Earth’s biosignature was very faint during this early era. That changed abruptly 2.4 billion years ago when a new family of algae evolved. The algae used a process of photosynthesis that produces free oxygen – oxygen that isn’t chemically bonded to any other element. From that time on, Earth’s oxygen-filled atmosphere has left a strong and easily detectable biosignature on light that passes through it.

    When light bounces off the surface of a material or passes through a gas, certain wavelengths of the light are more likely to remain trapped in the gas or material’s surface than others. This selective trapping of wavelengths of light is why objects are different colors. Leaves are green because chlorophyll is particularly good at absorbing light in the red and blue wavelengths. As light hits a leaf, the red and blue wavelengths are absorbed, leaving mostly green light to bounce back into your eyes.

    The pattern of missing light is determined by the specific composition of the material the light interacts with. Because of this, astronomers can learn something about the composition of an exoplanet’s atmosphere or surface by, in essence, measuring the specific color of light that comes from a planet.

    This method can be used to recognize the presence of certain atmospheric gases that are associated with life – such as oxygen or methane – because these gasses leave very specific signatures in light. It could also be used to detect peculiar colors on the surface of a planet. On Earth, for example, the chlorophyll and other pigments plants and algae use for photosynthesis capture specific wavelengths of light. These pigments produce characteristic colors that can be detected by using a sensitive infrared camera. If you were to see this color reflecting off the surface of a distant planet, it would potentially signify the presence of chlorophyll.

    Telescopes in space and on Earth

    It takes an incredibly powerful telescope to detect these subtle changes to the light coming from a potentially habitable exoplanet. For now, the only telescope capable of such a feat is the new James Webb Space Telescope.

    As it began science operations in July 2022, James Webb took a reading of the spectrum of the gas giant exoplanet WASP-96b. The spectrum showed the presence of water and clouds, but a planet as large and hot as WASP-96b is unlikely to host life.

    However, this early data shows that James Webb is capable of detecting faint chemical signatures in light coming from exoplanets. In the coming months, Webb is set to turn its mirrors toward TRAPPIST-1e, a potentially habitable Earth-sized planet a mere 39 light-years from Earth.

    The TRAPPIST-1 star and planet system; the ESO Belgian robotic Trappist National Telescope at Cerro La Silla, Chile.


    Webb can look for biosignatures by studying planets as they pass in front of their host stars and capturing starlight that filters through the planet’s atmosphere [Uppsala University Department of Physics]. But Webb was not designed to search for life, so the telescope is only able to scrutinize a few of the nearest potentially habitable worlds. It also can only detect changes to atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, methane and water vapor [The Astronomical Journal]. While certain combinations of these gasses may suggest life [Nature Astronomy], Webb is not able to detect the presence of unbonded oxygen, which is the strongest signal for life.

    Leading concepts for future, even more powerful, space telescopes include plans to block the bright light of a planet’s host star to reveal starlight reflected back from the planet. This idea is similar to using your hand to block sunlight to better see something in the distance. Future space telescopes could use small, internal masks or large, external, umbrella-like spacecraft to do this. Once the starlight is blocked, it becomes much easier to study light bouncing off a planet.

    There are also three enormous, ground-based telescopes currently under construction that will be able to search for biosignatures: the Giant Magellen Telescope, the Thirty Meter Telescope and the European Extremely Large Telescope.

    Each is far more powerful than existing telescopes on Earth, and despite the handicap of Earth’s atmosphere distorting starlight, these telescopes might be able to probe the atmospheres of the closest worlds for oxygen.

    Is it biology or geology?

    Even using the most powerful telescopes of the coming decades, astrobiologists will only be able to detect strong biosignatures produced by worlds that have been completely transformed by life.

    Unfortunately, most gases released by terrestrial life can also be produced by nonbiological processes – cows and volcanoes both release methane. Photosynthesis produces oxygen, but sunlight does, too, when it splits water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen. There is a good chance astronomers will detect some false positives when looking for distant life. To help rule out false positives, astronomers will need to understand a planet of interest well enough to understand whether its geologic or atmospheric processes could mimic a biosignature.

    The next generation of exoplanet studies has the potential to pass the bar of the extraordinary evidence needed to prove the existence of life. The first data release from the James Webb Space Telescope gives us a sense of the exciting progress that’s coming soon.

    See the full article here.


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    The Conversation (AU) launched as a pilot project in October 2014. It is an independent source of news and views from the academic and research community, delivered direct to the public.
    Our team of professional editors work with university and research institute experts to unlock their knowledge for use by the wider public.

    Access to independent, high quality, authenticated, explanatory journalism underpins a functioning democracy. Our aim is to promote better understanding of current affairs and complex issues. And hopefully allow for a better quality of public discourse and conversation.

  • richardmitnick 10:10 am on July 3, 2022 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "Webb Telescope Will Look for Signs of Life Way Out There", , , Biosignatures, , , ,   

    From “The New York Times” : “Webb Telescope Will Look for Signs of Life Way Out There” 

    From “The New York Times”

    July 2, 2022
    Carl Zimmer

    The folded-up James Webb Space Telescope as it was prepared for mounting on a rocket and launch last year at the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. Credit: Chris Gunn/NASA.

    The first question astronomers want to answer about exoplanets: Do they have atmospheres friendly to life?

    This month will mark a new chapter in the search for extraterrestrial life, when the most powerful space telescope yet built will start spying on planets that orbit other stars. Astronomers hope that the James Webb Space Telescope will reveal whether some of those planets harbor atmospheres that might support life.

    Identifying an atmosphere in another solar system would be remarkable enough. But there is even a chance — albeit tiny — that one of these atmospheres will offer what is known as a biosignature: a signal of life itself.

    “I think we will be able to find planets that we think are interesting — you know, good possibilities for life,” said Megan Mansfield, an astronomer at the University of Arizona. “But we won’t necessarily be able to just identify life immediately.”

    So far, Earth remains the only planet in the universe where life is known to exist. Scientists have been sending probes to Mars for almost 60 years and have not yet found Martians. But it is conceivable that life is hiding under the surface of the Red Planet or waiting to be discovered on a moon of Jupiter or Saturn. Some scientists have held out hope that even Venus, despite its scorching atmosphere of sulfur dioxide clouds, might be home to Venusians.

    Even if Earth turns out to be the only planet harboring life in our own solar system, many other solar systems in the universe hold so-called exoplanets.

    In 1995, French astronomers spotted the first exoplanet orbiting a sunlike star. Known as 51 Pegasi b, the exoplanet turned out to be an unpromising home for life — a puffy gas giant bigger than Jupiter, and a toasty 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit.

    In the years since, scientists have found more than 5,000 other exoplanets. Some of them are far more similar to Earth — roughly the same size, made of rock rather than gas and orbiting in a “Goldilocks zone” around their star, not so close as to get cooked but not so far as to be frozen.

    An artist’s rendering of the exoplanet 51 Pegasi b, the first exoplanet ever discovered. Credit: The European Southern Observatory [La Observatorio Europeo Austral][Observatoire européen austral][Europäische Südsternwarte](EU)(CL).

    Unfortunately, the relatively small size of these exoplanets has made them extremely difficult to study, until now. The James Webb Space Telescope, launched last Christmas, will change that, acting as a magnifying glass to let astronomers look more closely at these worlds.

    Since its launch from Kourou, French Guiana, the telescope has traveled a million miles from Earth, entering its own orbit around the sun at L2.

    There, a shield protects its 21-foot mirror from any heat or light from the sun or Earth. In this profound darkness, the telescope can detect faint, distant glimmers of light, including those that could reveal new details about faraway planets.

    The space telescope “is the first big space observatory to take the study of exoplanet atmospheres into account in its design,” Dr. Mansfield said.

    NASA engineers began taking pictures of an array of objects with the Webb telescope in mid-June and will release its first images to the public on July 12.

    Exoplanets will be in that first batch of pictures, said Eric Smith, the program’s lead scientist. Because the telescope will spend relatively little time observing the exoplanets, Dr. Smith considered those first images a “quick and dirty” look at the telescope’s power.

    Those quick looks will be followed by a series of much longer observations, starting in July, offering a much clearer picture of the exoplanets.

    A number of teams of astronomers are planning to look at the seven planets that orbit a star called Trappist-1.

    The TRAPPIST-1 star and planet system; the ESO Belgian robotic Trappist National Telescope at Cerro La Silla, Chile.


    Earlier observations have suggested that three of the planets occupy the habitable zone.

    “It’s an ideal place to look for traces of life outside of the solar system,” said Olivia Lim, a graduate student at the University of Montreal who will be observing the Trappist-1 planets starting around July 4.

    Because Trappist-1 is a small, cool star, its habitable zone is closer to it than in our own solar system. As a result, its potentially habitable planets orbit at close range, taking just a few days to circle the star. Every time the planets pass in front of Trappist-1, scientists will be able tackle a basic but crucial question: Do any of them have an atmosphere?

    “If it doesn’t have air, it’s not habitable, even if it’s in the habitable zone,” said Nikole Lewis, an astronomer at Cornell University.

    Dr. Lewis and other astronomers would not be surprised to find no atmospheres surrounding Trappist-1’s planets. Even if the planets had developed atmospheres when they formed, the star might have blasted them away long ago with ultraviolet and X-ray radiation.

    “It’s possible that they could just strip away all of the atmosphere on a planet before it even had a chance to like start forming life,” Dr. Mansfield said. “That’s the first-order question that we’re trying to answer here: whether these planets could have an atmosphere long enough that they’d be able to develop life.”

    A planet passing in front of Trappist-1 will create a tiny shadow, but the shadow will be too small for the space telescope to capture. Instead, the telescope will detect a slight dimming in the light traveling from the star.

    “It’s like looking at a solar eclipse with your eyes shut,” said Jacob Lustig-Yaeger, an astronomer doing a postdoctoral fellowship at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. “You might have some sense that the light has dimmed.”

    A planet with an atmosphere would dim the star behind it differently than a bare planet would. Some of the star’s light will pass straight through the atmosphere, but the gases will absorb light at certain wavelengths. If astronomers look only at starlight at those wavelengths, the planet will dim Trappist-1 even more.

    The telescope will send these observations of Trappist-1 back to Earth. “And then you get an email that’s like, ‘Hello, your data are available,’” Dr. Mansfield said.

    But the light coming from Trappist-1 will be so faint that it will take time to make sense of it. “Your eye is used to dealing with millions of photons per second,” Dr. Smith said. “But these telescopes, they’re just collecting a few photons a second.”

    Before Dr. Mansfield or her fellow astronomers will be able to analyze exoplanets passing in front of Trappist-1, they will have to first distinguish it from tiny fluctuations produced by the telescope’s own machinery.

    “A lot of the work that I actually do is making sure that we’re carefully correcting for anything weird that the telescope is doing, so that we can see those teeny-tiny signals,” Dr. Mansfield said.

    An artist’s concept of the view from one of the planets in the Trappist-1 system. Credit: M. Kornmesser/European Southern Observatory, via European Pressphoto Agency.

    It is possible that at the end of those efforts, Dr. Mansfield and her colleagues will discover an atmosphere around a Trappist-1 planet. But that result alone will not reveal the nature of the atmosphere. It might be rich in nitrogen and oxygen, like on Earth, or more akin to the toxic stew of carbon dioxide and sulfuric acid on Venus. Or it could be a mix that scientists have never seen before.

    “We have no idea what these atmospheres are made of,” said Alexander Rathcke, an astronomer at the Technical University of Denmark. “We have ideas, simulations, and all this stuff, but we really have no idea. We have to go and look.”

    The James Webb Space Telescope, sometimes called the J.W.S.T., may prove powerful enough to determine the specific ingredients of exoplanet atmospheres because each kind of molecule absorbs a different range of wavelengths of light.

    But those discoveries will depend on the weather on the exoplanets. A bright, reflective blanket of clouds could prevent any starlight from entering an exoplanet’s atmosphere, ruining any attempt to find alien air.

    “It is really hard to distinguish between an atmosphere with clouds or no atmosphere,” Dr. Rathcke said.

    If the weather cooperates, astronomers are especially eager to see if the exoplanets have water in their atmospheres. At least on Earth, water is an essential requirement for biology. “We think that would probably be a good starting point to look for life,” Dr. Mansfield said.

    But a watery atmosphere will not necessarily mean that an exoplanet harbors life. To be sure a planet is alive, scientists will have to detect a biosignature, a molecule or a combination of several molecules that is distinctively made by living things.

    Scientists are still debating what a reliable biosignature would be. Earth’s atmosphere is unique in our solar system in that it contains a lot of oxygen, largely the product of plants and algae. But oxygen can also be produced without life’s help, when water molecules in the air are split. Methane, likewise, can be released by living microbes but also by volcanoes.

    It is possible that there is a particular balance of gases that can provide a clear biosignature, one that cannot be maintained without the help of life.

    “We need extremely favorable scenarios to find these biosignatures,” said Dr. Rathcke. “I’m not saying that it’s not possible. I just think it’s far-fetched. We need to be extremely lucky.”

    Joshua Krissansen-Totton, a planetary scientist at the University of California-Santa Cruz, said that finding such a balance may require the Webb telescope to observe a planet repeatedly passing in front of Trappist-1.

    “If anyone comes forward in the next five years and says, ‘Yes, we’ve found life with J.W.S.T.,’ I’ll be very skeptical of that claim,” Dr. Krissansen-Totton said

    It is possible that the James Webb Space Telescope simply will not be capable of finding biosignatures. That task may have to wait for the next generation of space telescopes, more than a decade away. These will study exoplanets the same way that people look at Mars or Venus in the night sky: by observing starlight reflecting off them against the black background of space, rather than observing them as they pass in front of a star.

    “Mostly, we’ll be doing the very important groundwork for future telescopes,” Dr. Rathcke predicted. “I would be very surprised if J.W.S.T. delivers biosignature detections, but I hope to stand corrected. I mean, this is basically what I’m doing this work for.”

    See the full article here.


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

  • richardmitnick 7:46 am on April 29, 2022 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "How the James Webb Space Telescope will search for extraterrestrial life", , Biosignatures, If Earth-sized planets were found to have an atmosphere similar to our home planet (that is containing mainly oxygen; nitrogen and carbon dioxide) that planet could likely support life forms., If the JWST detected CFCs in exoplanet atmospheres then that would be a tell-tale indication that a civilization is there., , Technological life could perhaps be identified by looking for the presence of chemicals that don’t occur naturally., The NASA Galileo spacecraft detected the vegetation red edge (VRE) biosignature-a mixture of red and infrared light that is reflected by plants.   

    From Astronomy Magazine: “How the James Webb Space Telescope will search for extraterrestrial life” 

    From Astronomy Magazine

    April 22, 2022
    Chris Holt

    The world’s most powerful telescope, now in space, will offer new tools to address the timeless question about life in the universe: Are we alone on Earth?

    Jurik Peter/Shutterstock.

    To date the only life we know about is here on Earth. Since the beginning of civilization, people have wondered whether there is life elsewhere in the universe. In 1984 American astronomer Jill Tarter and Thomas Pierson launched a project called Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), dedicated to that interstellar hunt.

    The nonprofit institute was designed to pick up radio signals from space. Radio signals can travel long distances because they are less scattered or absorbed compared to other sorts of radiation, making them more likely to be detected by the 42 radio telescopes that make up the one-of-a-kind Allen Telescope Array in the Cascade Mountains of California. But for 30 years, no verified alien signal has been received.

    Probing exoplanets

    Now, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has been successfully deployed to aid the search. With its gigantic mirror and ultra-sensitive detectors, the world’s most powerful telescope (floating roughly 1 million miles away from Earth) will examine many distant unexplored planets orbiting distant stars. Twenty years ago, no other planets were known apart from those in our solar system. But since then, more than 4,000 other planets, called the exoplanets, have been discovered orbiting other stars. NASA estimates that the true number of exoplanets could be trillions.

    The first signs of life beyond our solar system might come from extraterrestrial plant life. The Galileo spacecraft, on its way to Jupiter, pointed its instruments back to Earth and picked up the distinct indication of the presence of plants.

    It detected the vegetation red edge (VRE) biosignature-a mixture of red and infrared light that is reflected by plants. The JWST will measure the VRE of distant Earth-like planets in the habitable zone around stars; and if there is a planet covered in jungle, for example, it should have a large VRE signal that should be easy to detect.

    There could be important signs of life in the composition of the atmospheres of the exoplanets. When an exoplanet passes across the face of its star, sunlight passes through its atmosphere and could be picked up by the JWST. Spectroscopy would then be used to discover which wavelengths are missing from the light. Atoms and molecules in the atmosphere absorb certain wavelengths and therefore leave a unique fingerprint for the JWST to detect. In that way, the composition of the atmosphere can be determined and the presence of life possibly inferred. If Earth-sized planets were found to have an atmosphere similar to our home planet (that is, containing mainly oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide), that planet could likely support life forms.

    Technological life could perhaps be identified by looking for the presence of chemicals that don’t occur naturally. If aliens looked at the atmosphere of Earth from a distance, they would probably see chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which were manufactured for use in refrigeration and cleaning materials. Jacob Haqq-Misra at the Blue Marble Space Institute in Seattle has suggested that if the JWST detected CFCs in exoplanet atmospheres then that would be a tell-tale indication that a civilization is there.

    Recognizing life

    Of course living things on exoplanets might resemble nothing like life on Earth. Sometimes even life on Earth can seem alien, such as “extremophile” organisms. This is a class of organism, mostly microbes, that live in extremely harsh environments where life is impossible for other living creatures. Some live at very high temperatures, up to 250 Fahrenheit. Others survive extreme cold, as low as -4 Fahrenheit. Some live in strong acids with pH below 3, and there are other places on Earth where we would not expect to find life at all.

    However, it might be sensible initially to start looking at Earth-like planets where life is more likely — rather than those planets that have a temperature of 250 Fahrenheit, for instance, or are bathed in acid. Prime candidates might have a temperature where liquid water could form on the surface, and they’re orbiting around a stable star.

    Our Sun is classified as a G-type yellow star. But these stars tend to be short-lived and less common in space as we know it. More likely subject of study could be planets in orbit around the more numerous red dwarf stars, which are slightly cooler and less luminous than our Sun. These stars have much longer lifetimes, so there is more time for life to start up and evolution has more time to develop complicated life forms.

    First target

    The first project for JWST is to look at an exoplanet system called TRAPPIST-1, which is 40 light years away from us.

    This consists of seven rocky Earth-sized planets in orbit around a cool red dwarf star. Three of the rocky planets are in the so-called habitable zone, which means they could have liquid water on their surfaces. The TRAPPIST-1 star is only 1/10 the mass of our Sun and is much cooler, but the planets orbit close to the star so they receive light levels similar to here on Earth.

    Whether there is life anywhere else in the universe is one of the most important questions in science. The universe might be teeming with life, or maybe we are totally alone, marooned on a lonely world in the vastness of space. The definitive answer, either way, will likely require a profound psychological and philosophical adjustments for humankind.

    See the full article here .


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    Astronomy is a magazine about the science and hobby of astronomy. Based near Milwaukee in Waukesha, Wisconsin, it is produced by Kalmbach Publishing. Astronomy’s readers include those interested in astronomy and those who want to know about sky events, observing techniques, astrophotography, and amateur astronomy in general.

    Astronomy was founded in 1973 by Stephen A. Walther, a graduate of The University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point and amateur astronomer. The first issue, August 1973, consisted of 48 pages with five feature articles and information about what to see in the sky that month. Issues contained astrophotos and illustrations created by astronomical artists. Walther had worked part time as a planetarium lecturer at The University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and developed an interest in photographing constellations at an early age. Although even in childhood he was interested to obsession in Astronomy, he did so poorly in mathematics that his mother despaired that he would ever be able to earn a living. However he graduated in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point, and as a senior class project he created a business plan for a magazine for amateur astronomers. With the help of his brother David, he was able to bring the magazine to fruition. He died in 1977.

  • richardmitnick 10:25 pm on March 30, 2022 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "Methane could be the first detectable indication of life beyond Earth", Biosignatures, , ,   

    From The University of California-Santa Cruz: “Methane could be the first detectable indication of life beyond Earth” 

    From The University of California-Santa Cruz

    March 28, 2022
    Tim Stephens

    A new study assesses the planetary context in which the detection of methane in an exoplanet’s atmosphere could be considered a compelling sign of life.

    Methane in a planet’s atmosphere may be a sign of life if nonbiological sources can be ruled out. This illustration summarizes the known abiotic sources of methane on Earth, including outgassing from volcanoes, reactions in settings such as mid-ocean ridges, hydrothermal vents, and subduction zones, and impacts from asteroids and comets. Image credit: © 2022 Elena Hartley.

    If life is abundant in the universe, atmospheric methane may be the first sign of life beyond Earth detectable by astronomers. Although nonbiological processes can generate methane, a new study by scientists at UC Santa Cruz establishes a set of circumstances in which a persuasive case could be made for biological activity as the source of methane in a rocky planet’s atmosphere.

    This is especially noteworthy because methane is one of the few potential signs of life, or “biosignatures,” that could be readily detectable with the James Webb Space Telescope, which will begin observations later this year.

    “Oxygen is often talked about as one of the best biosignatures, but it’s probably going to be hard to detect with JWST,” said Maggie Thompson, a graduate student in astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz and lead author of the new study.

    Despite some prior studies on methane biosignatures, there had not been an up-to-date, dedicated assessment of the planetary conditions needed for methane to be a good biosignature. “We wanted to provide a framework for interpreting observations, so if we see a rocky planet with methane, we know what other observations are needed for it to be a persuasive biosignature,” Thompson said.

    Published the week of March 28 in PNAS, the study examines a variety of non-biological sources of methane and assesses their potential to maintain a methane-rich atmosphere. These include volcanoes; reactions in settings such as mid-ocean ridges, hydrothermal vents, and tectonic subduction zones; and comet or asteroid impacts.

    The case for methane as a biosignature stems from its instability in the atmosphere. Because photochemical reactions destroy atmospheric methane, it must be steadily replenished to maintain high levels.

    “If you detect a lot of methane on a rocky planet, you typically need a massive source to explain that,” said coauthor Joshua Krissansen-Totton, a Sagan Fellow at UCSC. “We know biological activity creates large amounts of methane on Earth, and probably did on the early Earth as well because making methane is a fairly easy thing to do metabolically.

    Nonbiological sources, however, would not be able to produce that much methane without also generating observable clues to its origins. Outgassing from volcanoes, for example, would add both methane and carbon monoxide to the atmosphere, while biological activity tends to readily consume carbon monoxide. The researchers found that nonbiological processes cannot easily produce habitable planet atmospheres rich in both methane and carbon dioxide and with little to no carbon monoxide.

    The study emphasizes the need to consider the full planetary context in evaluating potential biosignatures. The researchers concluded that, for a rocky planet orbiting a sun-like star, atmospheric methane is more likely to be considered a strong indication of life if the atmosphere also has carbon dioxide, methane is more abundant than carbon monoxide, and extremely water-rich planetary compositions can be ruled out.

    “One molecule is not going to give you the answer—you have to take into account the planet’s full context,” Thompson said. “Methane is one piece of the puzzle, but to determine if there is life on a planet you have to consider its geochemistry, how it’s interacting with its star, and the many processes that can affect a planet’s atmosphere on geologic timescales.”

    The study considers a variety of possibilities for “false positives” and provides guidelines for assessing methane biosignatures.

    “There are two things that could go wrong—you could misinterpret something as a biosignature and get a false positive, or you could overlook something that’s a real biosignature,” Krissansen-Totton said. “With this paper, we wanted to develop a framework to help avoid both of those potential errors with methane.”

    He added that there is still a lot of work to be done to fully understand any future methane detections. “This study is focused on the most obvious false positives for methane as a biosignature,” he said. “The atmospheres of rocky exoplanets are probably going to surprise us, and we will need to be cautious in our interpretations. Future work should try to anticipate and quantify more unusual mechanisms for nonbiological methane production.”

    In addition to Thompson and Krissansen-Totton, the coauthors of the paper include Jonathan Fortney, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UCSC, Myriam Telus, assistant professor of Earth and planetary sciences at UCSC, and Nicholas Wogan at the University of Washington, Seattle. This work was supported by NASA.

    See the full article here .


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    UC Santa Cruz campus.

    The University of California-Santa Cruz, opened in 1965 and grew, one college at a time, to its current (2008-09) enrollment of more than 16,000 students. Undergraduates pursue more than 60 majors supervised by divisional deans of humanities, physical & biological sciences, social sciences, and arts. Graduate students work toward graduate certificates, master’s degrees, or doctoral degrees in more than 30 academic fields under the supervision of the divisional and graduate deans. The dean of the Jack Baskin School of Engineering oversees the campus’s undergraduate and graduate engineering programs.

    UCSC is the home base for the Lick Observatory.

    UCO Lick Observatory’s 36-inch Great Refractor telescope housed in the South (large) Dome of main building.

    UC Santa Cruz Lick Observatory Since 1888 Mt Hamilton, in San Jose, California, Altitude 1,283 m (4,209 ft)

    UC Observatories Lick Automated Planet Finder fully robotic 2.4-meter optical telescope at Lick Observatory, situated on the summit of Mount Hamilton, east of San Jose, California, USA.

    The UCO Lick C. Donald Shane telescope is a 120-inch (3.0-meter) reflecting telescope located at the Lick Observatory, Mt Hamilton, in San Jose, California, Altitude 1,283 m (4,209 ft).

    Search for extraterrestrial intelligence expands at Lick Observatory
    New instrument scans the sky for pulses of infrared light
    March 23, 2015
    By Hilary Lebow
    The NIROSETI instrument saw first light on the Nickel 1-meter Telescope at Lick Observatory on March 15, 2015. (Photo by Laurie Hatch.)
    Astronomers are expanding the search for extraterrestrial intelligence into a new realm with detectors tuned to infrared light at UC’s Lick Observatory. A new instrument, called NIROSETI, will soon scour the sky for messages from other worlds.

    Alumna Shelley Wright, now an assistant professor of physics at UC San Diego, discusses the dichroic filter of the NIROSETI instrument, developed at the U Toronto Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics (CA) and brought to The University of California-San Diego and installed at the UC Santa Cruz Lick Observatory Nickel Telescope (Photo by Laurie Hatch). “Infrared light would be an excellent means of interstellar communication,” said Shelley Wright, an assistant professor of physics at The University of California-San Diego who led the development of the new instrument while at the U Toronto Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics (CA).

    Shelley Wright of UC San Diego with NIROSETI, developed at U Toronto Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics (CA) at the 1-meter Nickel Telescope at Lick Observatory at UC Santa Cruz
    NIROSETI team from left to right Rem Stone UCO Lick Observatory Dan Werthimer, UC Berkeley; Jérôme Maire, U Toronto; Shelley Wright, The University of California-San Diego; Patrick Dorval, U Toronto; Richard Treffers, Starman Systems. (Image by Laurie Hatch).

    Wright worked on an earlier SETI project at Lick Observatory as a UC Santa Cruz undergraduate, when she built an optical instrument designed by University of California-Berkeley researchers. The infrared project takes advantage of new technology not available for that first optical search.

    Infrared light would be a good way for extraterrestrials to get our attention here on Earth, since pulses from a powerful infrared laser could outshine a star, if only for a billionth of a second. Interstellar gas and dust is almost transparent to near infrared, so these signals can be seen from great distances. It also takes less energy to send information using infrared signals than with visible light.

    Frank Drake, professor emeritus of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz and director emeritus of the SETI Institute, said there are several additional advantages to a search in the infrared realm.

    Frank Drake with his Drake Equation. Credit Frank Drake.

    Drake Equation, Frank Drake, Seti Institute.

    “The signals are so strong that we only need a small telescope to receive them. Smaller telescopes can offer more observational time, and that is good because we need to search many stars for a chance of success,” said Drake.

    The only downside is that extraterrestrials would need to be transmitting their signals in our direction, Drake said, though he sees this as a positive side to that limitation. “If we get a signal from someone who’s aiming for us, it could mean there’s altruism in the universe. I like that idea. If they want to be friendly, that’s who we will find.”

    Scientists have searched the skies for radio signals for more than 50 years and expanded their search into the optical realm more than a decade ago. The idea of searching in the infrared is not a new one, but instruments capable of capturing pulses of infrared light only recently became available.

    “We had to wait,” Wright said. “I spent eight years waiting and watching as new technology emerged.”

    Now that technology has caught up, the search will extend to stars thousands of light years away, rather than just hundreds. NIROSETI, or Near-Infrared Optical Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, could also uncover new information about the physical universe.

    “This is the first time Earthlings have looked at the universe at infrared wavelengths with nanosecond time scales,” said Dan Werthimer, UC Berkeley SETI Project Director. “The instrument could discover new astrophysical phenomena, or perhaps answer the question of whether we are alone.”

    NIROSETI will also gather more information than previous optical detectors by recording levels of light over time so that patterns can be analyzed for potential signs of other civilizations.

    “Searching for intelligent life in the universe is both thrilling and somewhat unorthodox,” said Claire Max, director of UC Observatories and professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz. “Lick Observatory has already been the site of several previous SETI searches, so this is a very exciting addition to the current research taking place.”

    NIROSETI will scan the skies several times a week on the Nickel 1-meter telescope at Lick Observatory, located on Mt. Hamilton east of San Jose.

    The University of California

    The University of California is a public land-grant research university system in the U.S. state of California. The system is composed of the campuses at Berkeley, Davis, Irvine, Los Angeles, Merced, Riverside, San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and Santa Cruz, along with numerous research centers and academic abroad centers. The system is the state’s land-grant university.

    The University of California was founded on March 23, 1868, and operated in Oakland before moving to Berkeley in 1873. Over time, several branch locations and satellite programs were established. In March 1951, the University of California began to reorganize itself into something distinct from its campus in Berkeley, with University of California President Robert Gordon Sproul staying in place as chief executive of the University of California system, while Clark Kerr became the first chancellor of The University of California-Berkeley and Raymond B. Allen became the first chancellor of The University of California-Los Angeles. However, the 1951 reorganization was stalled by resistance from Sproul and his allies, and it was not until Kerr succeeded Sproul as University of California President that University of California was able to evolve into a university system from 1957 to 1960. At that time, chancellors were appointed for additional campuses and each was granted some degree of greater autonomy.

    The University of California currently has 10 campuses, a combined student body of 285,862 students, 24,400 faculty members, 143,200 staff members and over 2.0 million living alumni. Its newest campus in Merced opened in fall 2005. Nine campuses enroll both undergraduate and graduate students; one campus, The University of California-San Francisco, enrolls only graduate and professional students in the medical and health sciences. In addition, the University of California Hastings College of the Law, located in San Francisco, is legally affiliated with University of California, but other than sharing its name is entirely autonomous from the rest of the system. Under the California Master Plan for Higher Education, the University of California is a part of the state’s three-system public higher education plan, which also includes the California State University system and the California Community Colleges system. University of California is governed by a Board of Regents whose autonomy from the rest of the state government is protected by the state constitution. The University of California also manages or co-manages three national laboratories for the U.S. Department of Energy: The DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory , The DOE’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory , and The Doe’s Los Alamos National Laboratory.

    Collectively, the colleges, institutions, and alumni of the University of California make it the most comprehensive and advanced post-secondary educational system in the world, responsible for nearly $50 billion per year of economic impact. Major publications generally rank most University of California campuses as being among the best universities in the world. Eight of the campuses, Berkeley, Davis, Irvine, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Diego, Santa Cruz, and Riverside, are considered Public Ivies, making California the state with the most universities in the nation to hold the title. University of California campuses have large numbers of distinguished faculty in almost every academic discipline, with University of California faculty and researchers having won 71 Nobel Prizes as of 2021.

    In 1849, the state of California ratified its first constitution, which contained the express objective of creating a complete educational system including a state university. Taking advantage of the Morrill Land-Grant Acts, the California State Legislature established an Agricultural, Mining, and Mechanical Arts College in 1866. However, it existed only on paper, as a placeholder to secure federal land-grant funds.

    Meanwhile, Congregational minister Henry Durant, an alumnus of Yale University, had established the private Contra Costa Academy, on June 20, 1853, in Oakland, California. The initial site was bounded by Twelfth and Fourteenth Streets and Harrison and Franklin Streets in downtown Oakland (and is marked today by State Historical Plaque No. 45 at the northeast corner of Thirteenth and Franklin). In turn, the academy’s trustees were granted a charter in 1855 for a College of California, though the college continued to operate as a college preparatory school until it added college-level courses in 1860. The college’s trustees, educators, and supporters believed in the importance of a liberal arts education (especially the study of the Greek and Roman classics), but ran into a lack of interest in liberal arts colleges on the American frontier (as a true college, the college was graduating only three or four students per year).

    In November 1857, the college’s trustees began to acquire various parcels of land facing the Golden Gate in what is now Berkeley for a future planned campus outside of Oakland. But first, they needed to secure the college’s water rights by buying a large farm to the east. In 1864, they organized the College Homestead Association, which borrowed $35,000 to purchase the land, plus another $33,000 to purchase 160 acres (650,000 m^2) of land to the south of the future campus. The Association subdivided the latter parcel and started selling lots with the hope it could raise enough money to repay its lenders and also create a new college town. But sales of new homesteads fell short.

    Governor Frederick Low favored the establishment of a state university based upon The University of Michigan plan, and thus in one sense may be regarded as the founder of the University of California. At the College of California’s 1867 commencement exercises, where Low was present, Benjamin Silliman Jr. criticized Californians for creating a state polytechnic school instead of a real university. That same day, Low reportedly first suggested a merger of the already-functional College of California (which had land, buildings, faculty, and students, but not enough money) with the nonfunctional state college (which had money and nothing else), and went on to participate in the ensuing negotiations. On October 9, 1867, the college’s trustees reluctantly agreed to join forces with the state college to their mutual advantage, but under one condition—that there not be simply an “Agricultural, Mining, and Mechanical Arts College”, but a complete university, within which the assets of the College of California would be used to create a College of Letters (now known as the College of Letters and Science). Accordingly, the Organic Act, establishing the University of California, was introduced as a bill by Assemblyman John W. Dwinelle on March 5, 1868, and after it was duly passed by both houses of the state legislature, it was signed into state law by Governor Henry H. Haight (Low’s successor) on March 23, 1868. However, as legally constituted, the new university was not an actual merger of the two colleges, but was an entirely new institution which merely inherited certain objectives and assets from each of them. The University of California’s second president, Daniel Coit Gilman, opened its new campus in Berkeley in September 1873.

    Section 8 of the Organic Act authorized the Board of Regents to affiliate the University of California with independent self-sustaining professional colleges. “Affiliation” meant University of California and its affiliates would “share the risk in launching new endeavors in education.” The affiliates shared the prestige of the state university’s brand, and University of California agreed to award degrees in its own name to their graduates on the recommendation of their respective faculties, but the affiliates were otherwise managed independently by their own boards of trustees, charged their own tuition and fees, and maintained their own budgets separate from the University of California budget. It was through the process of affiliation that University of California was able to claim it had medical and law schools in San Francisco within a decade of its founding.

    In 1879, California adopted its second and current constitution, which included unusually strong language to ensure University of California’s independence from the rest of the state government. This had lasting consequences for the Hastings College of the Law, which had been separately chartered and affiliated in 1878 by an act of the state legislature at the behest of founder Serranus Clinton Hastings. After a falling out with his own handpicked board of directors, the founder persuaded the state legislature in 1883 and 1885 to pass new laws to place his law school under the direct control of the Board of Regents. In 1886, the Supreme Court of California declared those newer acts to be unconstitutional because the clause protecting University of California’s independence in the 1879 state constitution had stripped the state legislature of the ability to amend the 1878 act. To this day, the Hastings College of the Law remains an affiliate of University of California, maintains its own board of directors, and is not governed by the Regents.

    In contrast, Toland Medical College (founded in 1864 and affiliated in 1873) and later, the dental, pharmacy, and nursing schools in SF were affiliated with University of California through written agreements, and not statutes invested with constitutional importance by court decisions. In the early 20th century, the Affiliated Colleges (as they came to be called) began to agree to submit to the Regents’ governance during the term of President Benjamin Ide Wheeler, as the Board of Regents had come to recognize the problems inherent in the existence of independent entities that shared the University of California brand but over which University of California had no real control. While Hastings remained independent, the Affiliated Colleges were able to increasingly coordinate their operations with one another under the supervision of the University of California President and Regents, and evolved into the health sciences campus known today as the University of California-San Francisco.

    In August 1882, the California State Normal School (whose original normal school in San Jose is now San Jose State University) opened a second school in Los Angeles to train teachers for the growing population of Southern California. In 1887, the Los Angeles school was granted its own board of trustees independent of the San Jose school, and in 1919, the state legislature transferred it to University of California control and renamed it the Southern Branch of the University of California. In 1927, it became The University of California-Los Angeles; the “at” would be replaced with a comma in 1958.

    Los Angeles surpassed San Francisco in the 1920 census to become the most populous metropolis in California. Because Los Angeles had become the state government’s single largest source of both tax revenue and votes, its residents felt entitled to demand more prestige and autonomy for their campus. Their efforts bore fruit in March 1951, when UCLA became the first University of California site outside of Berkeley to achieve de jure coequal status with the Berkeley campus. That month, the Regents approved a reorganization plan under which both the Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses would be supervised by chancellors reporting to the University of California President. However, the 1951 plan was severely flawed; it was overly vague about how the chancellors were to become the “executive heads” of their campuses. Due to stubborn resistance from President Sproul and several vice presidents and deans—who simply carried on as before—the chancellors ended up as glorified provosts with limited control over academic affairs and long-range planning while the President and the Regents retained de facto control over everything else.

    Upon becoming president in October 1957, Clark Kerr supervised University of California’s rapid transformation into a true public university system through a series of proposals adopted unanimously by the Regents from 1957 to 1960. Kerr’s reforms included expressly granting all campus chancellors the full range of executive powers, privileges, and responsibilities which Sproul had denied to Kerr himself, as well as the radical decentralization of a tightly knit bureaucracy in which all lines of authority had always run directly to the President at Berkeley or to the Regents themselves. In 1965, UCLA Chancellor Franklin D. Murphy tried to push this to what he saw as its logical conclusion: he advocated for authorizing all chancellors to report directly to the Board of Regents, thereby rendering the University of California President redundant. Murphy wanted to transform University of California from one federated university into a confederation of independent universities, similar to the situation in Kansas (from where he was recruited). Murphy was unable to develop any support for his proposal, Kerr quickly put down what he thought of as “Murphy’s rebellion”, and therefore Kerr’s vision of University of California as a university system prevailed: “one university with pluralistic decision-making”.

    During the 20th century, University of California acquired additional satellite locations which, like Los Angeles, were all subordinate to administrators at the Berkeley campus. California farmers lobbied for University of California to perform applied research responsive to their immediate needs; in 1905, the Legislature established a “University Farm School” at Davis and in 1907 a “Citrus Experiment Station” at Riverside as adjuncts to the College of Agriculture at Berkeley. In 1912, University of California acquired a private oceanography laboratory in San Diego, which had been founded nine years earlier by local business promoters working with a Berkeley professor. In 1944, University of California acquired Santa Barbara State College from the California State Colleges, the descendants of the State Normal Schools. In 1958, the Regents began promoting these locations to general campuses, thereby creating The University of California-Santa Barbara (1958), The University of California-Davis (1959), The University of California-Riverside (1959), The University of California-San Diego (1960), and The University of California-San Francisco (1964). Each campus was also granted the right to have its own chancellor upon promotion. In response to California’s continued population growth, University of California opened two additional general campuses in 1965, with The University of California-Irvine opening in Irvine and The University of California-Santa Cruz opening in Santa Cruz. The youngest campus, The University of California-Merced opened in fall 2005 to serve the San Joaquin Valley.

    After losing campuses in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara to the University of California system, supporters of the California State College system arranged for the state constitution to be amended in 1946 to prevent similar losses from happening again in the future.

    The California Master Plan for Higher Education of 1960 established that University of California must admit undergraduates from the top 12.5% (one-eighth) of graduating high school seniors in California. Prior to the promulgation of the Master Plan, University of California was to admit undergraduates from the top 15%. University of California does not currently adhere to all tenets of the original Master Plan, such as the directives that no campus was to exceed total enrollment of 27,500 students (in order to ensure quality) and that public higher education should be tuition-free for California residents. Five campuses, Berkeley, Davis, Irvine, Los Angeles, and San Diego each have current total enrollment at over 30,000.

    After the state electorate severely limited long-term property tax revenue by enacting Proposition 13 in 1978, University of California was forced to make up for the resulting collapse in state financial support by imposing a variety of fees which were tuition in all but name. On November 18, 2010, the Regents finally gave up on the longstanding legal fiction that University of California does not charge tuition by renaming the Educational Fee to “Tuition.” As part of its search for funds during the 2000s and 2010s, University of California quietly began to admit higher percentages of highly accomplished (and more lucrative) students from other states and countries, but was forced to reverse course in 2015 in response to the inevitable public outcry and start admitting more California residents.

    As of 2019, University of California controls over 12,658 active patents. University of California researchers and faculty were responsible for 1,825 new inventions that same year. On average, University of California researchers create five new inventions per day.

    Seven of University of California’s ten campuses (UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Irvine, UCLA, UC San Diego, UC Santa Barbara, and UC Santa Cruz) are members of the Association of American Universities, an alliance of elite American research universities founded in 1900 at University of California’s suggestion. Collectively, the system counts among its faculty (as of 2002):

    389 members of the Academy of Arts and Sciences
    5 Fields Medal recipients
    19 Fulbright Scholars
    25 MacArthur Fellows
    254 members of the National Academy of Sciences
    91 members of the National Academy of Engineering
    13 National Medal of Science Laureates
    61 Nobel laureates.
    106 members of the Institute of Medicine

    Davis, Los Angeles, Riverside, and Santa Barbara all followed Berkeley’s example by aggregating the majority of arts, humanities, and science departments into a relatively large College of Letters and Science. Therefore, at Berkeley, Davis, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara, their respective College of Letters and Science is by far the single largest academic unit on each campus. The College of Letters and Science at Los Angeles is the largest academic unit in the entire University of California system.

    Finally, Irvine is organized into 13 schools and San Francisco is organized into four schools, all of which are relatively narrow in scope.

    In 2006 the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition awarded the University of California the SPARC Innovator Award for its “extraordinarily effective institution-wide vision and efforts to move scholarly communication forward”, including the 1997 founding (under then University of California President Richard C. Atkinson) of the California Digital Library (CDL) and its 2002 launching of CDL’s eScholarship, an institutional repository. The award also specifically cited the widely influential 2005 academic journal publishing reform efforts of University of California faculty and librarians in “altering the marketplace” by publicly negotiating contracts with publishers, as well as their 2006 proposal to amend University of California’s copyright policy to allow open access to University of California faculty research. On July 24, 2013, the University of California Academic Senate adopted an Open Access Policy, mandating that all University of California faculty produced research with a publication agreement signed after that date be first deposited in University of California’s eScholarship open access repository.

    University of California system-wide research on the SAT exam found that, after controlling for familial income and parental education, so-called achievement tests known as the SAT II had 10 times more predictive ability of college aptitude than the SAT I.

    All University of California campuses except Hastings College of the Law are governed by the Regents of the University of California as required by the Constitution of the State of California. Eighteen regents are appointed by the governor for 12-year terms. One member is a student appointed for a one-year term. There are also seven ex officio members—the governor, lieutenant governor, speaker of the State Assembly, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, president and vice president of the alumni associations of University of California, and the University of California president. The Academic Senate, made up of faculty members, is empowered by the regents to set academic policies. In addition, the system-wide faculty chair and vice-chair sit on the Board of Regents as non-voting members.

    Originally, the president was the chief executive of the first campus, Berkeley. In turn, other University of California locations (with the exception of Hastings College of the Law) were treated as off-site departments of the Berkeley campus, and were headed by provosts who were subordinate to the president. In March 1951, the regents reorganized the university’s governing structure. Starting with the 1952–53 academic year, day-to-day “chief executive officer” functions for the Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses were transferred to chancellors who were vested with a high degree of autonomy, and reported as equals to University of California’s president. As noted above, the regents promoted five additional University of California locations to campuses and allowed them to have chancellors of their own in a series of decisions from 1958 to 1964, and the three campuses added since then have also been run by chancellors. In turn, all chancellors (again, with the exception of Hastings) report as equals to the University of California President. Today, the University of California Office of the President (UCOP) and the Office of the Secretary and Chief of Staff to the Regents of the University of California share an office building in downtown Oakland that serves as the University of California system’s headquarters.

    Kerr’s vision for University of California governance was “one university with pluralistic decision-making.” In other words, the internal delegation of operational authority to chancellors at the campus level and allowing nine other campuses to become separate centers of academic life independent of Berkeley did not change the fact that all campuses remain part of one legal entity. As a 1968 University of California centennial coffee table book explained: “Yet for all its campuses, colleges, schools, institutes, and research stations, it remains one University, under one Board of Regents and one president—the University of California.” University of California continues to take a “united approach” as one university in matters in which it inures to University of California’s advantage to do so, such as when negotiating with the legislature and governor in Sacramento. University of California continues to manage certain matters at the system wide level in order to maintain common standards across all campuses, such as student admissions, appointment and promotion of faculty, and approval of academic programs.

    The State of California currently (2021–2022) spends $3.467 billion on the University of California system, out of total University of California operating revenues of $41.6 billion. The “University of California Budget for Current Operations” lists the medical centers as the largest revenue source, contributing 39% of the budget, the federal government 11%, Core Funds (State General Funds, University of California General Funds, student tuition) 21%, private support (gifts, grants, endowments) 7% ,and Sales and Services at 21%. In 1980, the state funded 86.8% of the University of California budget. While state funding has somewhat recovered, as of 2019 state support still lags behind even recent historic levels (e.g. 2001) when adjusted for inflation.

    According to the California Public Policy Institute, California spends 12% of its General Fund on higher education, but that percentage is divided between the University of California, California State University and California Community Colleges. Over the past forty years, state funding of higher education has dropped from 18% to 12%, resulting in a drop in University of California’s per student funding from $23,000 in 2016 to a current $8,000 per year per student.

    In May 2004, University of California President Robert C. Dynes and CSU Chancellor Charles B. Reed struck a private deal, called the “Higher Education Compact”, with Governor Schwarzenegger. They agreed to slash spending by about a billion dollars (about a third of the university’s core budget for academic operations) in exchange for a funding formula lasting until 2011. The agreement calls for modest annual increases in state funds (but not enough to replace the loss in state funds Dynes and Schwarzenegger agreed to), private fundraising to help pay for basic programs, and large student fee hikes, especially for graduate and professional students. A detailed analysis of the Compact by the Academic Senate “Futures Report” indicated, despite the large fee increases, the university core budget did not recover to 2000 levels. Undergraduate student fees have risen 90% from 2003 to 2007. In 2011, for the first time in Univerchity of California’s history, student fees exceeded contributions from the State of California.

    The First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco ruled in 2007 that the University of California owed nearly $40 million in refunds to about 40,000 students who were promised that their tuition fees would remain steady, but were hit with increases when the state ran short of money in 2003.

    In September 2019, the University of California announced it will divest its $83 billion in endowment and pension funds from the fossil fuel industry, citing ‘financial risk’.

    At present, the University of California system officially describes itself as a “ten campus” system consisting of the campuses listed below.

    Los Angeles
    San Diego
    San Francisco
    Santa Barbara
    Santa Cruz

    These campuses are under the direct control of the Regents and President. Only these ten campuses are listed on the official University of California letterhead.

    Although it shares the name and public status of the University of California system, the Hastings College of the Law is not controlled by the Regents or President; it has a separate board of directors and must seek funding directly from the Legislature. However, under the California Education Code, Hastings degrees are awarded in the name of the Regents and bear the signature of the University of California president. Furthermore, Education Code section 92201 states that Hastings “is affiliated with the University of California, and is the law department thereof”.

  • richardmitnick 7:48 pm on March 21, 2022 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "Machine learning will be one of the best ways to identify habitable exoplanets", , , Biosignatures, , , , Water is considered the divining rod for finding life.   

    From Cornell University and The Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics (CA) via phys.org: “Machine learning will be one of the best ways to identify habitable exoplanets” 

    From Cornell University


    The Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics (CA)


    University of Toronto (CA)



    Artist’s impression of a multi-planet system where three are making a transit. Credit: The National Aeronautics and Space Agency

    The field of extrasolar planet studies is undergoing a seismic shift. To date, 4,940 exoplanets have been confirmed in 3,711 planetary systems, with another 8,709 candidates awaiting confirmation. With so many planets available for study and improvements in telescope sensitivity and data analysis, the focus is transitioning from discovery to characterization. Instead of simply looking for more planets, astrobiologists will examine “potentially-habitable” worlds for potential “biosignatures.”

    This refers to the chemical signatures associated with life and biological processes, one of the most important of which is water. As the only known solvent that life (as we know it) cannot exist without, water is considered the divining rod for finding life. In a recent study, astrophysicists Dang Pham and Lisa Kaltenegger explain how future surveys (when combined with machine learning) could discern the presence of water, snow, and clouds on distant exoplanets.

    Dang Pham is a graduate student with the David A. Dunlap Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto, where he specializes in planetary dynamics research. Lisa Kaltenegger is an Associate Professor in Astronomy at Cornell University, the Director of the Carl Sagan Institute, and a world-leading expert in modeling potentially habitable worlds and characterizing their atmospheres.

    Water is something that all life on Earth depends on, hence its importance for exoplanet and astrobiological surveys. As Lisa Kaltenegger told Universe Today via email, this importance is reflected in NASA’s slogan—”just follow the water”—which also inspired the title of their paper.

    “Liquid water on a planet’s surface is one of the smoking guns for potential life—I say potential here because we don’t know what else we need to get life started. But liquid water is a great start. So we used NASA’s slogan of ‘just follow the water’ and asked, how can we find water on the surface of rocky exoplanets in the habitable zone? Doing spectroscopy is time intensive, thus we are searching for a faster way to initially identify promising planets—those with liquid water on them.”

    Currently, astronomers have been limited to looking for Lyman-alpha line absorption, which indicates the presence of hydrogen gas in an exoplanet’s atmosphere. This is a byproduct of atmospheric water vapor that’s been exposed to solar ultraviolet radiation, causing it to become chemically disassociated into hydrogen and molecular oxygen (O2)—the former of which is lost to space while the latter is retained.

    This is about to change, thanks to next-generation telescopes like the James Webb (JWST) and Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescopes (RST), as well as next-next-generation observatories like the Origins Space Telescope, the Habitable Exoplanet Observatory (HabEx), and the Large UV/Optical/IR Surveyor (LUVOIR). There are also ground-based telescopes like the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), and the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT).

    Thanks to their large primary mirrors and advanced suite of spectrographs, chronographs, adaptive optics, these instruments will be able to conduct direct imaging studies of exoplanets. This consists of studying light reflected directly from an exoplanet’s atmosphere or surface to obtain spectra, allowing astronomers to see what chemical elements are present. But as they indicate in their paper, this is a time-intensive process.

    Astronomers start by observing thousands of stars for periodic dips in brightness, then analyzing the light curves for signs of chemical signatures. Currently, exoplanet researchers and astrobiologists rely on amateur astronomers and machine algorithms to sort through the volumes of data their telescopes obtain. Looking ahead, Pham and Kaltenegger show how more advanced machine learning will be crucial.

    As they indicate, ML techniques will allow astronomers to conduct the initial characterizations of exoplanets more rapidly, allowing astronomers to prioritize targets for follow-up observations. By “following the water,” astronomers will be able to dedicate more of an observatory’s valuable survey time to exoplanets that are more likely to provide significant returns.

    “Next-generation telescopes will look for water vapor in the atmosphere of planets and water on the surface of planets,” said Kaltenegger. “Of course, to find water on the surface of planets, you should look [for water in its] liquid, solid, and gaseous forms, as we did in our paper.”

    “Machine learning allows us to quickly identify optimal filters, as well as the trade-off in accuracy at various signal-to-noise ratios,” added Pham. “In the first task, using [the open-source algorithm] XGBoost, we get a ranking of which filters are most helpful for the algorithm in its tasks of detecting water, snow, or cloud. In the second task, we can observe how much better the algorithm performs with less noise. With that, we can draw a line where getting more signal would not correspond to much better accuracy.”

    To make sure their algorithm was up to the task, Pham and Kaltenegger did some considerable calibrating. This consisted of creating 53,130 spectra profiles of a cold Earth with various surface components—including snow, water, and water clouds. They then simulated the spectra for this water in terms of atmosphere and surface reflectivity and assigned color profiles. As Pham explained:

    “The atmosphere was modeled using Exo-Prime2—Exo-Prime2 has been validated by comparison to Earth in various missions. The reflectivity of surfaces like snow and water are measured on Earth by USGS. We then create colors from these spectra. We train XGBoost on these colors to perform three separate goals: detecting the existence of water, the existence of clouds, and the existence of snow.”

    This trained XGBoost showed that clouds and snow are easier to identify than water, which is expected since clouds and snow have a much higher albedo (greater reflectivity of sunlight) than water. They further identified five optimal filters that worked extremely well for the algorithm, all of which were 0.2 micrometers broad and in the visible light range. The final step was to perform a mock probability assessment to evaluate their planet model regarding liquid water, snow, and clouds from the set of five optimal filters they identified.

    “Finally, we [performed] a brief Bayesian analysis using Markov-Chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) to do the same task on the five optimal filters, as a non-machine learning method to validate our finding,” said Pham. “Our findings there are similar: water is harder to detect, but identifying water, snow, and cloud through photometry is feasible.”

    Similarly, they were surprised to see how well the trained XGBoost could identify water on the surface of rocky planets based on color alone. According to Kaltenegger, this is what filters really are: a means for separating light into discreet “bins.” “Imagine a bin for all red light (the “red” filter), then a bin for all the green light, from light to dark green (the “green” filter),” she said.

    Their proposed method does not identify water in exoplanet atmospheres but on an exoplanet’s surface via photometry. In addition, it will not work with the Transit Method (aka. Transit Photometry), which is currently the most widely-used and effective means of exoplanet detection. This method consists of observing distant stars for periodic dips in luminosity attributed to exoplanets passing in front of the star (aka. transiting) relative to the observer.

    On occasion, astronomers can obtain spectra from an exoplanet’s atmosphere as it makes a transit—a process known as “transit spectroscopy.” As the sun’s light passes through the exoplanet’s atmosphere relative to the observer, astronomers will analyze it with spectrometers to determine what chemicals are there. Using its sensitive optics and suite of spectrometers, the JWST will rely on this method to characterize exoplanet atmospheres.

    Science paper submitted to MNRAS

    See the full article here .

    Dunlap Institute campus

    The Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics(CA) at University of Toronto(CA) is an endowed research institute with nearly 70 faculty, postdocs, students and staff, dedicated to innovative technology, ground-breaking research, world-class training, and public engagement. The research themes of its faculty and Dunlap Fellows span the Universe and include: optical, infrared and radio instrumentation; Dark Energy; large-scale structure; the Cosmic Microwave Background; the interstellar medium; galaxy evolution; cosmic magnetism; and time-domain science.

    The Dunlap Institute (CA), University of Toronto Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics (CA), Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics (CA), and Centre for Planetary Sciences (CA) comprise the leading centre for astronomical research in Canada, at the leading research university in the country, the University of Toronto (CA).

    The Dunlap Institute (CA) is committed to making its science, training and public outreach activities productive and enjoyable for everyone, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, nationality or religion.

    Our work is greatly enhanced through collaborations with the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics (CA), Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics (CA), David Dunlap Observatory (CA), Ontario Science Centre (CA), Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (CA), the Toronto Public Library (CA), and many other partners.

    NIROSETI team from left to right Rem Stone UCO Lick Observatory Dan Werthimer, UC Berkeley; Jérôme Maire, U Toronto; Shelley Wright, UCSD; Patrick Dorval, U Toronto; Richard Treffers, Starman Systems. (Image by Laurie Hatch).

    The University of Toronto (CA) is a public research university in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, located on the grounds that surround Queen’s Park. It was founded by royal charter in 1827 as King’s College, the oldest university in the province of Ontario.

    Originally controlled by the Church of England, the university assumed its present name in 1850 upon becoming a secular institution.

    As a collegiate university, it comprises eleven colleges each with substantial autonomy on financial and institutional affairs and significant differences in character and history. The university also operates two satellite campuses located in Scarborough and Mississauga.

    University of Toronto has evolved into Canada’s leading institution of learning, discovery and knowledge creation. We are proud to be one of the world’s top research-intensive universities, driven to invent and innovate.

    Our students have the opportunity to learn from and work with preeminent thought leaders through our multidisciplinary network of teaching and research faculty, alumni and partners.

    The ideas, innovations and actions of more than 560,000 graduates continue to have a positive impact on the world.

    Academically, the University of Toronto is noted for movements and curricula in literary criticism and communication theory, known collectively as the Toronto School.

    The university was the birthplace of insulin and stem cell research, and was the site of the first electron microscope in North America; the identification of the first black hole Cygnus X-1; multi-touch technology, and the development of the theory of NP-completeness.

    The university was one of several universities involved in early research of deep learning. It receives the most annual scientific research funding of any Canadian university and is one of two members of the Association of American Universities outside the United States, the other being McGill(CA).

    The Varsity Blues are the athletic teams that represent the university in intercollegiate league matches, with ties to gridiron football, rowing and ice hockey. The earliest recorded instance of gridiron football occurred at University of Toronto’s University College in November 1861.

    The university’s Hart House is an early example of the North American student centre, simultaneously serving cultural, intellectual, and recreational interests within its large Gothic-revival complex.

    The University of Toronto has educated three Governors General of Canada, four Prime Ministers of Canada, three foreign leaders, and fourteen Justices of the Supreme Court. As of March 2019, ten Nobel laureates, five Turing Award winners, 94 Rhodes Scholars, and one Fields Medalist have been affiliated with the university.

    Early history

    The founding of a colonial college had long been the desire of John Graves Simcoe, the first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada and founder of York, the colonial capital. As an University of Oxford (UK)-educated military commander who had fought in the American Revolutionary War, Simcoe believed a college was needed to counter the spread of republicanism from the United States. The Upper Canada Executive Committee recommended in 1798 that a college be established in York.

    On March 15, 1827, a royal charter was formally issued by King George IV, proclaiming “from this time one College, with the style and privileges of a University … for the education of youth in the principles of the Christian Religion, and for their instruction in the various branches of Science and Literature … to continue forever, to be called King’s College.” The granting of the charter was largely the result of intense lobbying by John Strachan, the influential Anglican Bishop of Toronto who took office as the college’s first president. The original three-story Greek Revival school building was built on the present site of Queen’s Park.

    Under Strachan’s stewardship, King’s College was a religious institution closely aligned with the Church of England and the British colonial elite, known as the Family Compact. Reformist politicians opposed the clergy’s control over colonial institutions and fought to have the college secularized. In 1849, after a lengthy and heated debate, the newly elected responsible government of the Province of Canada voted to rename King’s College as the University of Toronto and severed the school’s ties with the church. Having anticipated this decision, the enraged Strachan had resigned a year earlier to open Trinity College as a private Anglican seminary. University College was created as the nondenominational teaching branch of the University of Toronto. During the American Civil War, the threat of Union blockade on British North America prompted the creation of the University Rifle Corps which saw battle in resisting the Fenian raids on the Niagara border in 1866. The Corps was part of the Reserve Militia lead by Professor Henry Croft.

    Established in 1878, the School of Practical Science was the precursor to the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering which has been nicknamed Skule since its earliest days. While the Faculty of Medicine opened in 1843 medical teaching was conducted by proprietary schools from 1853 until 1887 when the faculty absorbed the Toronto School of Medicine. Meanwhile the university continued to set examinations and confer medical degrees. The university opened the Faculty of Law in 1887, followed by the Faculty of Dentistry in 1888 when the Royal College of Dental Surgeons became an affiliate. Women were first admitted to the university in 1884.

    A devastating fire in 1890 gutted the interior of University College and destroyed 33,000 volumes from the library but the university restored the building and replenished its library within two years. Over the next two decades a collegiate system took shape as the university arranged federation with several ecclesiastical colleges including Strachan’s Trinity College in 1904. The university operated the Royal Conservatory of Music from 1896 to 1991 and the Royal Ontario Museum from 1912 to 1968; both still retain close ties with the university as independent institutions. The University of Toronto Press was founded in 1901 as Canada’s first academic publishing house. The Faculty of Forestry founded in 1907 with Bernhard Fernow as dean was Canada’s first university faculty devoted to forest science. In 1910, the Faculty of Education opened its laboratory school, the University of Toronto Schools.

    World wars and post-war years

    The First and Second World Wars curtailed some university activities as undergraduate and graduate men eagerly enlisted. Intercollegiate athletic competitions and the Hart House Debates were suspended although exhibition and interfaculty games were still held. The David Dunlap Observatory in Richmond Hill opened in 1935 followed by the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies in 1949. The university opened satellite campuses in Scarborough in 1964 and in Mississauga in 1967. The university’s former affiliated schools at the Ontario Agricultural College and Glendon Hall became fully independent of the University of Toronto and became part of University of Guelph (CA) in 1964 and York University (CA) in 1965 respectively. Beginning in the 1980s reductions in government funding prompted more rigorous fundraising efforts.

    Since 2000

    In 2000 Kin-Yip Chun was reinstated as a professor of the university after he launched an unsuccessful lawsuit against the university alleging racial discrimination. In 2017 a human rights application was filed against the University by one of its students for allegedly delaying the investigation of sexual assault and being dismissive of their concerns. In 2018 the university cleared one of its professors of allegations of discrimination and antisemitism in an internal investigation after a complaint was filed by one of its students.

    The University of Toronto was the first Canadian university to amass a financial endowment greater than c. $1 billion in 2007. On September 24, 2020 the university announced a $250 million gift to the Faculty of Medicine from businessman and philanthropist James C. Temerty- the largest single philanthropic donation in Canadian history. This broke the previous record for the school set in 2019 when Gerry Schwartz and Heather Reisman jointly donated $100 million for the creation of a 750,000-square foot innovation and artificial intelligence centre.


    Since 1926 the University of Toronto has been a member of the Association of American Universities a consortium of the leading North American research universities. The university manages by far the largest annual research budget of any university in Canada with sponsored direct-cost expenditures of $878 million in 2010. In 2018 the University of Toronto was named the top research university in Canada by Research Infosource with a sponsored research income (external sources of funding) of $1,147.584 million in 2017. In the same year the university’s faculty averaged a sponsored research income of $428,200 while graduate students averaged a sponsored research income of $63,700. The federal government was the largest source of funding with grants from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research; the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council; and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council amounting to about one-third of the research budget. About eight percent of research funding came from corporations- mostly in the healthcare industry.

    The first practical electron microscope was built by the physics department in 1938. During World War II the university developed the G-suit- a life-saving garment worn by Allied fighter plane pilots later adopted for use by astronauts. Development of the infrared chemiluminescence technique improved analyses of energy behaviors in chemical reactions. In 1963 the asteroid 2104 Toronto was discovered in the David Dunlap Observatory (CA) in Richmond Hill and is named after the university. In 1972 studies on Cygnus X-1 led to the publication of the first observational evidence proving the existence of black holes. Toronto astronomers have also discovered the Uranian moons of Caliban and Sycorax; the dwarf galaxies of Andromeda I, II and III; and the supernova SN 1987A. A pioneer in computing technology the university designed and built UTEC- one of the world’s first operational computers- and later purchased Ferut- the second commercial computer after UNIVAC I. Multi-touch technology was developed at Toronto with applications ranging from handheld devices to collaboration walls. The AeroVelo Atlas which won the Igor I. Sikorsky Human Powered Helicopter Competition in 2013 was developed by the university’s team of students and graduates and was tested in Vaughan.

    The discovery of insulin at the University of Toronto in 1921 is considered among the most significant events in the history of medicine. The stem cell was discovered at the university in 1963 forming the basis for bone marrow transplantation and all subsequent research on adult and embryonic stem cells. This was the first of many findings at Toronto relating to stem cells including the identification of pancreatic and retinal stem cells. The cancer stem cell was first identified in 1997 by Toronto researchers who have since found stem cell associations in leukemia; brain tumors; and colorectal cancer. Medical inventions developed at Toronto include the glycaemic index; the infant cereal Pablum; the use of protective hypothermia in open heart surgery; and the first artificial cardiac pacemaker. The first successful single-lung transplant was performed at Toronto in 1981 followed by the first nerve transplant in 1988; and the first double-lung transplant in 1989. Researchers identified the maturation promoting factor that regulates cell division and discovered the T-cell receptor which triggers responses of the immune system. The university is credited with isolating the genes that cause Fanconi anemia; cystic fibrosis; and early-onset Alzheimer’s disease among numerous other diseases. Between 1914 and 1972 the university operated the Connaught Medical Research Laboratories- now part of the pharmaceutical corporation Sanofi-Aventis. Among the research conducted at the laboratory was the development of gel electrophoresis.

    The University of Toronto is the primary research presence that supports one of the world’s largest concentrations of biotechnology firms. More than 5,000 principal investigators reside within 2 kilometres (1.2 mi) from the university grounds in Toronto’s Discovery District conducting $1 billion of medical research annually. MaRS Discovery District is a research park that serves commercial enterprises and the university’s technology transfer ventures. In 2008, the university disclosed 159 inventions and had 114 active start-up companies. Its SciNet Consortium operates the most powerful supercomputer in Canada.

    Once called “the first American university” by educational historian Frederick Rudolph, Cornell University represents a distinctive mix of eminent scholarship and democratic ideals. Adding practical subjects to the classics and admitting qualified students regardless of nationality, race, social circumstance, gender, or religion was quite a departure when Cornell was founded in 1865.

    Today’s Cornell reflects this heritage of egalitarian excellence. It is home to the nation’s first colleges devoted to hotel administration, industrial and labor relations, and veterinary medicine. Both a private university and the land-grant institution of New York State, Cornell University is the most educationally diverse member of the Ivy League.

    On the Ithaca campus alone nearly 20,000 students representing every state and 120 countries choose from among 4,000 courses in 11 undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools. Many undergraduates participate in a wide range of interdisciplinary programs, play meaningful roles in original research, and study in Cornell programs in Washington, New York City, and the world over.

    Cornell University is a private, statutory, Ivy League and land-grant research university in Ithaca, New York. Founded in 1865 by Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White, the university was intended to teach and make contributions in all fields of knowledge—from the classics to the sciences, and from the theoretical to the applied. These ideals, unconventional for the time, are captured in Cornell’s founding principle, a popular 1868 quotation from founder Ezra Cornell: “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.”

    The university is broadly organized into seven undergraduate colleges and seven graduate divisions at its main Ithaca campus, with each college and division defining its specific admission standards and academic programs in near autonomy. The university also administers two satellite medical campuses, one in New York City and one in Education City, Qatar, and Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute in New York City, a graduate program that incorporates technology, business, and creative thinking. The program moved from Google’s Chelsea Building in New York City to its permanent campus on Roosevelt Island in September 2017.

    Cornell is one of the few private land grant universities in the United States. Of its seven undergraduate colleges, three are state-supported statutory or contract colleges through the SUNY – The State University of New York system, including its Agricultural and Human Ecology colleges as well as its Industrial Labor Relations school. Of Cornell’s graduate schools, only the veterinary college is state-supported. As a land grant college, Cornell operates a cooperative extension outreach program in every county of New York and receives annual funding from the State of New York for certain educational missions. The Cornell University Ithaca Campus comprises 745 acres, but is much larger when the Cornell Botanic Gardens (more than 4,300 acres) and the numerous university-owned lands in New York City are considered.

    Alumni and affiliates of Cornell have reached many notable and influential positions in politics, media, and science. As of January 2021, 61 Nobel laureates, four Turing Award winners and one Fields Medalist have been affiliated with Cornell. Cornell counts more than 250,000 living alumni, and its former and present faculty and alumni include 34 Marshall Scholars, 33 Rhodes Scholars, 29 Truman Scholars, 7 Gates Scholars, 55 Olympic Medalists, 10 current Fortune 500 CEOs, and 35 billionaire alumni. Since its founding, Cornell has been a co-educational, non-sectarian institution where admission has not been restricted by religion or race. The student body consists of more than 15,000 undergraduate and 9,000 graduate students from all 50 American states and 119 countries.


    Cornell University was founded on April 27, 1865; the New York State (NYS) Senate authorized the university as the state’s land grant institution. Senator Ezra Cornell offered his farm in Ithaca, New York, as a site and $500,000 of his personal fortune as an initial endowment. Fellow senator and educator Andrew Dickson White agreed to be the first president. During the next three years, White oversaw the construction of the first two buildings and traveled to attract students and faculty. The university was inaugurated on October 7, 1868, and 412 men were enrolled the next day.

    Cornell developed as a technologically innovative institution, applying its research to its own campus and to outreach efforts. For example, in 1883 it was one of the first university campuses to use electricity from a water-powered dynamo to light the grounds. Since 1894, Cornell has included colleges that are state funded and fulfill statutory requirements; it has also administered research and extension activities that have been jointly funded by state and federal matching programs.

    Cornell has had active alumni since its earliest classes. It was one of the first universities to include alumni-elected representatives on its Board of Trustees. Cornell was also among the Ivies that had heightened student activism during the 1960s related to cultural issues; civil rights; and opposition to the Vietnam War, with protests and occupations resulting in the resignation of Cornell’s president and the restructuring of university governance. Today the university has more than 4,000 courses. Cornell is also known for the Residential Club Fire of 1967, a fire in the Residential Club building that killed eight students and one professor.

    Since 2000, Cornell has been expanding its international programs. In 2004, the university opened the Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar. It has partnerships with institutions in India, Singapore, and the People’s Republic of China. Former president Jeffrey S. Lehman described the university, with its high international profile, a “transnational university”. On March 9, 2004, Cornell and Stanford University(US) laid the cornerstone for a new ‘Bridging the Rift Center’ to be built and jointly operated for education on the Israel–Jordan border.


    Cornell, a research university, is ranked fourth in the world in producing the largest number of graduates who go on to pursue PhDs in engineering or the natural sciences at American institutions, and fifth in the world in producing graduates who pursue PhDs at American institutions in any field. Research is a central element of the university’s mission; in 2009 Cornell spent $671 million on science and engineering research and development, the 16th highest in the United States. Cornell is classified among “R1: Doctoral Universities – Very high research activity”.

    For the 2016–17 fiscal year, the university spent $984.5 million on research. Federal sources constitute the largest source of research funding, with total federal investment of $438.2 million. The agencies contributing the largest share of that investment are the Department of Health and Human Services and the National Science Foundation, accounting for 49.6% and 24.4% of all federal investment, respectively. Cornell was on the top-ten list of U.S. universities receiving the most patents in 2003, and was one of the nation’s top five institutions in forming start-up companies. In 2004–05, Cornell received 200 invention disclosures; filed 203 U.S. patent applications; completed 77 commercial license agreements; and distributed royalties of more than $4.1 million to Cornell units and inventors.

    Since 1962, Cornell has been involved in unmanned missions to Mars. In the 21st century, Cornell had a hand in the Mars Exploration Rover Mission. Cornell’s Steve Squyres, Principal Investigator for the Athena Science Payload, led the selection of the landing zones and requested data collection features for the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. NASA-JPL/Caltech engineers took those requests and designed the rovers to meet them. The rovers, both of which have operated long past their original life expectancies, are responsible for the discoveries that were awarded 2004 Breakthrough of the Year honors by Science. Control of the Mars rovers has shifted between National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s JPL-Caltech and Cornell’s Space Sciences Building.

    Further, Cornell researchers discovered the rings around the planet Uranus, and Cornell built and operated the telescope at Arecibo Observatory located in Arecibo, Puerto Rico until 2011, when they transferred the operations to SRI International, the Universities Space Research Association and the Metropolitan University of Puerto Rico [Universidad Metropolitana de Puerto Rico].

    The Automotive Crash Injury Research Project was begun in 1952. It pioneered the use of crash testing, originally using corpses rather than dummies. The project discovered that improved door locks; energy-absorbing steering wheels; padded dashboards; and seat belts could prevent an extraordinary percentage of injuries.

    In the early 1980s, Cornell deployed the first IBM 3090-400VF and coupled two IBM 3090-600E systems to investigate coarse-grained parallel computing. In 1984, the National Science Foundation began work on establishing five new supercomputer centers, including the Cornell Center for Advanced Computing, to provide high-speed computing resources for research within the United States. As an National Science Foundation center, Cornell deployed the first IBM Scalable Parallel supercomputer.

    In the 1990s, Cornell developed scheduling software and deployed the first supercomputer built by Dell. Most recently, Cornell deployed Red Cloud, one of the first cloud computing services designed specifically for research. Today, the center is a partner on the National Science Foundation XSEDE-Extreme Science Engineering Discovery Environment supercomputing program, providing coordination for XSEDE architecture and design, systems reliability testing, and online training using the Cornell Virtual Workshop learning platform.

    Cornell scientists have researched the fundamental particles of nature for more than 70 years. Cornell physicists, such as Hans Bethe, contributed not only to the foundations of nuclear physics but also participated in the Manhattan Project. In the 1930s, Cornell built the second cyclotron in the United States. In the 1950s, Cornell physicists became the first to study synchrotron radiation.

    During the 1990s, the Cornell Electron Storage Ring, located beneath Alumni Field, was the world’s highest-luminosity electron-positron collider. After building the synchrotron at Cornell, Robert R. Wilson took a leave of absence to become the founding director of DOE’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, which involved designing and building the largest accelerator in the United States.

    Cornell’s accelerator and high-energy physics groups are involved in the design of the proposed ILC-International Linear Collider(JP) and plan to participate in its construction and operation. The International Linear Collider(JP), to be completed in the late 2010s, will complement the CERN Large Hadron Collider(CH) and shed light on questions such as the identity of dark matter and the existence of extra dimensions.

    As part of its research work, Cornell has established several research collaborations with universities around the globe. For example, a partnership with the University of Sussex(UK) (including the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex) allows research and teaching collaboration between the two institutions.

  • richardmitnick 4:43 pm on June 1, 2021 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "Scientists find molecular patterns that may help identify extraterrestrial life", Abiological signatures, Biosignatures, Fourier-Transform Ion Cyclotron Resonance Mass Spectrometry, Mass spectrometry (MS) is a principal technique that scientists will rely on in spacecraft-based searches for ET life., Recent mass spectroscopy data from NASA's Mars Curiosity rover suggest there are organic compounds on Mars but they still do not provide evidence for life., Scientists have begun the search for extraterrestrial life in the Solar System in earnest.,   

    From Tokyo Institute of Technology [東京工業大学](JP): “Scientists find molecular patterns that may help identify extraterrestrial life” 


    From Tokyo Institute of Technology [東京工業大学](JP)

    June 1, 2021

    Henderson James Cleaves
    Specially Appointed Professor
    Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI),
    Tokyo Institute of Technology
    Tel +1-85-83663049

    Thilina Heenatigala
    Director of Communications
    Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI),
    Tokyo Institute of Technology
    Tel +81-3-5734-3163
    Fax +81-3-5734-3416

    Scientists have begun the search for extraterrestrial life in the Solar System in earnest, but such life may be subtly or profoundly different from Earth-life, and methods based on detecting particular molecules as biosignatures may not apply to life with a different evolutionary history. A new study by a joint Japan/US-based team, led by researchers at the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, has developed a machine learning technique which assesses complex organic mixtures using mass spectrometry to reliably classify them as biological or abiological.

    Scientists are at the brink of being able to detect ET Life, which was predicted to be difficult decades ago. New techniques suggest there might be clever analytical tricks using machine learning for doing so. Credit: National Aeronautics Space Agency (US).

    In season 1, episode 29 (Operation: Annihilate!) of Star Trek, which aired in 1966, the human-Vulcan hybrid character Spock made the observation “It is not life as we know or understand it. Yet it is obviously alive; it exists.” This now 55-year old pop-culture meme still makes a point: how can we detect life if we fundamentally don’t know what life is, and if that life is really different from life as we know it?
    The question of “Are we alone?” as living beings in the Universe has fascinated humanity for centuries, and humankind has been looking for ET life in the Solar System since NASA’s Viking 2 mission to Mars in 1976.

    There are presently numerous ways scientists are searching for ET life. These include listening for radio signals from advanced civilisations in deep space, looking for subtle differences in the atmospheric composition of planets around other stars, and directly trying to measure it in soil and ice samples they can collect using spacecraft in our own Solar System. This last category allows them to bring their most advanced chemical analytical instrumentation directly to bear on ET samples, and perhaps even bring some of the samples back to Earth, where they can be carefully scrutinised.

    Exciting missions such as NASA’s Perseverance rover will look for life this year on Mars; NASA’s Europa Clipper, launching in 2024, will try to sample ice ejected from Jupiter’s moon Europa, and its Dragonfly mission will attempt to land an “octacopter” [no image available] on Saturn’s moon Titan starting in 2027.

    These missions will all attempt to answer the question of whether we are alone.

    Mass spectrometry (MS) is a principal technique that scientists will rely on in spacecraft-based searches for ET life. MS has the advantage that it can simultaneously measure multitudes of compounds present in samples, and thus provide a sort of “fingerprint” of the composition of the sample. Nevertheless, interpreting those fingerprints may be tricky.

    As best as scientists can tell, all life on Earth is based on the same highly coordinated molecular principles, which gives scientists confidence that all Earth-life is derived from a common ancient terrestrial ancestor. However, in simulations of the primitive processes that scientists believe may have contributed to life’s origins on Earth, many similar but slightly different versions of the particular molecules terrestrial life uses are often detected. Furthermore, naturally occurring chemical processes are also able to produce many of the building blocks of biological molecules. Since we still have no known sample of alien life, this leaves scientists with a conceptual paradox: did Earth-life make some arbitrary choices early in evolution which got locked in, and thus life could be constructed otherwise, or should we expect that all life everywhere is constrained to be exactly the same way it is on Earth? How can we know that the detection of a particular molecule type is indicative of whether it was or was not produced by ET life?

    It has long troubled scientists that biases in how we think life should be detectable, which are largely based on how Earth-life is presently, might cause our detection methods to fail. Viking 2 in fact returned odd results from Mars in 1976. Some of the tests it conducted gave signals considered positive for life, but the MS measurements provided no evidence for life as we know it. More recent MS data from NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover suggest there are organic compounds on Mars but they still do not provide evidence for life. A related problem has plagued scientists attempting to detect the earliest evidence for life on Earth: how can we tell if signals detected in ancient terrestrial samples are from the original living organisms preserved in those samples or derived from contamination from the organisms which presently pervade our planet?

    Scientists at the Earth-Life Science Institute at the Tokyo Institute of Technology in Japan and the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory at FSU (US) in the US decided to address this problem using a combined experimental and machine learning computational approach. The National MagLab is supported by the National Science Foundation (US) through NSF/ DMR-1644779 and the State of Florida to provide cutting-edge technologies for research. Using ultrahigh-resolution MS (a technique known as Fourier-Transform Ion Cyclotron Resonance Mass Spectrometry (or FT-ICR MS)) they measured the mass spectra of a wide variety of complex organic mixtures, including those derived from abiological samples made in the lab (which they are fairly certain are not living), organic mixtures found in meteorites (which are ~ 4.5 billion-year-old samples of abiologically produced organic compounds which appear to have never become living), laboratory-grown microorganisms (which fit all the modern criteria of being living, including novel microbial organisms isolated and cultured by ELSI co-author Tomohiro Mochizuki), and unprocessed petroleum (or raw natural crude oil, the kind we pump out of the ground and process into gasoline, which is derived from organisms which lived long ago on Earth, providing an example of how the “fingerprint” of known living organisms might change over geological time). These samples each contained tens of thousands of discrete molecular compounds, which provided a large set of MS spectra that could be compared and classified.

    In contrast to approaches that use the accuracy of MS measurements to uniquely identify each peak with a particular molecule in a complex organic mixture, the researchers instead aggregated their data and looked at the broad statistics and distribution of signals. Complex organic mixtures, such as those derived from living things, petroleum, and abiological samples present very different “fingerprints” when viewed in this way. Such patterns are much more difficult for a human to detect than the presence or absence of individual molecule types.

    The researchers fed their raw data into a computer machine learning algorithm and surprisingly found that the algorithms were able to accurately classify the samples as living or non-living with ~95% accuracy. Importantly, they did so after simplifying the raw data considerably, making it plausible that lower-precision instruments, spacecraft-based instruments are often low power, could obtain data of sufficient resolution to enable the biological classification accuracy the team obtained.

    The underlying reasons this classification accuracy is possible to remain to be explored, but the team suggests it is because of the ways biological processes, which modify organic compounds differently than abiological processes, relate to the processes which enable life to propagate itself. Living processes have to make copies of themselves, while abiological processes have no internal process controlling this.

    “This work opens many exciting avenues for using ultra-high resolution mass spectrometry for astrobiological applications,” says co-author Huan Chen of the US National MagLab.

    Lead author Nicholas Guttenberg adds, “While it is difficult if not impossible to characterise every peak in a complex chemical mixture, the broad distribution of components can contain patterns and relationships which are informative about the process by which that mixture came about or developed. If we’re going to understand complex prebiotic chemistry, we need ways of thinking in terms of these broad patterns – how they come about, what they imply, and how they change – rather than the presence or absence of individual molecules. This paper is an initial investigation into the feasibility and methods of characterisation at that level and shows that even discarding high-precision mass measurements, there is significant information in peak distribution that can be used to identify samples by the type of process that produced them.”

    Co-author Jim Cleaves of ELSI adds, “This sort of relational analysis may offer broad advantages for searching for life in the Solar System, and perhaps even in laboratory experiments designed to recreate the origins of life.” The team plans to follow up with further studies to understand exactly what aspects of this type of data analysis allows for such successful classification.

    Science paper:
    Classification of the Biogenicity of Complex Organic Mixtures for the Detection of Extraterrestrial Life

    See the full article here .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition


    Tokyo Institute of Technology [東京工業大学](JP) is the top national university for science and technology in Japan with a history spanning more than 130 years. Of the approximately 10,000 students at the Ookayama, Suzukakedai, and Tamachi Campuses, half are in their bachelor’s degree program while the other half are in master’s and doctoral degree programs. International students number 1,200. There are 1,200 faculty and 600 administrative and technical staff members.

    In the 21st century, the role of science and technology universities has become increasingly important. Tokyo Tech continues to develop global leaders in the fields of science and technology, and contributes to the betterment of society through its research, focusing on solutions to global issues. The Institute’s long-term goal is to become the world’s leading science and technology university.

  • richardmitnick 9:38 am on January 11, 2021 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "Astrochemist brings search for extraterrestrial life to Center for Astrophysics" Clara Sousa-Silva, A good biosignature has a final characteristic: It has limited or accountable false positives., , , , Biosignatures, , Phosphine has a unique spectral signature because the spectrum for phosphine is composed of the behavior of the bonds between hydrogen and phosphorus and that’s a very rare bond in gas molecules.,   

    From Harvard Gazette: “Astrochemist brings search for extraterrestrial life to Center for Astrophysics” Clara Sousa-Silva 

    Harvard University

    From Harvard Gazette

    January 4, 2021
    Alvin Powell

    Clara Sousa-Silva explores telltale biosignature gases on other planets.

    Although the size and mass of Venus are similar to the Earth, its thick carbon-dioxide atmosphere has trapped heat so efficiently that the surface temperature usually exceeds 700 kelvins, hot enough to melt lead. Credit: SSV, MIPL, Magellan Team, NASA.

    In September, a team of astronomers announced a breathtaking finding: They had detected a molecule called phosphine high in the clouds of Venus, possibly indicating evidence of life [Nature Astronomy].

    That discovery shook the scientific establishment. Once thought of as Earth’s twin, Venus — though nearby and rocky — is now known to have a hellish environment, with a thick atmosphere that traps solar radiation, cranking surface temperatures high enough to melt metal, and accompanied by surface pressure akin to that thousands of feet below Earth’s ocean surface.

    But the detection, led by researchers from Cardiff University in Wales, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Manchester in England, was high in the atmosphere, where conditions are far more hospitable and the idea of microbial life more plausible. It was accomplished using spectroscopy, a method of determining the presence of different molecules in a planet’s atmosphere by analyzing how those molecules alter the light reflected from the planet. A key member of the team was fellow Clara Sousa-Silva, who had spent years studying the molecule’s spectroscopic signature and who believes that phosphine is a promising way to track the presence of extraterrestrial life.

    Sousa-Silva shifted her fellowship from MIT to the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian and will spend the next two years advancing her work on biosignatures and life on other planets.

    She spoke with the Gazette about the recent discovery and what the future of the search for life may hold.

    Clara Sousa-Silva

    GAZETTE: You study biosignature gases, and your website says phosphine is your favorite. What is a biosignature gas and what’s so special about phosphine?

    SOUSA-SILVA: A biosignature gas is any gas in the planetary atmosphere that is produced by life. That by itself is not particularly interesting because molecules that can be produced by life can often be produced by many other things. So another question is: What is a good biosignature? And the answer to that also explains why phosphine is my favorite.

    A good biosignature isn’t just produced by life and released into an atmosphere. It is also able to survive in that atmosphere and be both detectable and distinguishable. So, if we’re looking at an atmosphere from far away, say from a different planet, and we detect an interesting molecule, that’s great. But maybe, because of low resolution in the instruments, lots of molecules look very similar to one another and the spectral signature also corresponds to a different molecule than one we thought we saw. So, you want a biosignature to be distinguishable.

    A good biosignature has a final characteristic: It has limited or accountable false positives. That means if it is produced by life, if it survives in the atmosphere, and you can detect it unambiguously, you still need to know if it was in fact produced by life or if it was accidentally produced by some other nonbiological process like photochemistry or volcanism. So, a good biosignature is all of these things: It is produced by life in large quantities and survives; it’s unambiguously detectable; and is unambiguously assigned to life.

    Famous biosignatures like oxygen and methane rank very well in the first few of these parameters. But methane, for example, looks an awful lot like every other hydrocarbon. And so knowing if you’re looking at methane versus a different molecule that also has carbons and hydrogens is quite hard. And even if you can unambiguously assign the thing you saw to methane, you don’t know if you can unambiguously assign it to life.

    Phosphine has a unique spectral signature, because the spectrum for phosphine is composed of the behavior of the bonds between hydrogen and phosphorus, and that’s a very rare bond in gas molecules. So phosphine is quite easy to distinguish, meaning it’s easy-ish to detect, and it is also produced by life. But it’s not produced by life in large quantities, so that’s a negative point for phosphine. But then, it’s so hard to produce without the intervention of life on rocky planets that it’s very low on false positives. I think phosphine is a well-balanced biosignature: produced in detectable quantities by life, being distinguishable, and having low false positives. That’s why it’s my favorite.

    Clara Sousa-Silva, a fellow who grabbed headlines in September because of new findings of a potential signature for life on Venus, discusses that research. Credit: Kris Snibbe/Harvard.

    GAZETTE: Your site also says that phosphine is toxic to life that uses oxygen metabolism. So why is it a likely sign of life on Venus?

    SOUSA-SILVA: I don’t know if it’s likely. I wouldn’t dare put a probability on that. It is toxic to life on Earth that uses oxygen. And that is, obviously, us and everything we love. But lots of life on Earth does not rely on oxygen, and for the majority of time that life existed on Earth it also didn’t rely on oxygen. Granted, it wasn’t the most thrilling life. It wasn’t writing great works of literature, but it was nevertheless popular on Earth and seemingly very happy, thriving in forms that had no need for oxygen.

    The reason why phosphine on Venus, if it’s there, may signify life is more that we cannot explain it in any other way. We have no good explanation for the presence of phosphine on Venus, and we do know it can be produced by life. That doesn’t mean that’s what’s happening on Venus. That’s just, as extraordinary as it might sound, the best guess we have at this point.

    GAZETTE: Let’s talk specifically about the findings from September. What did you and your colleagues find on Venus?

    SOUSA-SILVA: It was an analysis of two separate observations done about 18 months apart. One was done with the JCMT, the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, which is on Mauna Kea [in Hawaii].

    East Asia Observatory James Clerk Maxwell telescope, Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA,4,207 m (13,802 ft) above sea level.

    That observation has a tentative signal that could be assigned to phosphine. We then applied for time on ALMA [Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile], which is a much more powerful array of telescopes and which seemingly got a slightly stronger signal that also corresponded to phosphine.

    ESO/NRAO/NAOJ ALMA Array in Chile in the Atacama at Chajnantor plateau, at 5,000 metres.

    This is encouraging because the odds that a random signal will appear in the same place 18 months apart, using two different instruments, are very slim.

    The analysis was figuring out: One, is the signal real, because both of these instruments were collecting data very much at the limits of their capabilities. Two, if the signal is real, is the most plausible candidate phosphine rather than a different molecule? And three, if indeed the signal is real and it is phosphine, who or what is making it? Those are the three steps of the main article. This was about two years of work on top of my many years of work investigating phosphine as a biosignature.

    It took a long time and a large international team, including Anita [Richards, of the University of Manchester, U.K.] and Jane [Greaves, of Cardiff University (UK)]. Jane is the lead author of the paper that came out in September specifically extracting the signal from the data. Then lots of us were trying to figure out if the signal belongs to phosphine and if so, at what abundances. My contribution is that I know the pure spectroscopy of phosphine very well. My entire Ph.D. was dedicated to the spectroscopy of phosphine. So I was able to help figure out, if it was phosphine, what kind of abundances it was present in.

    I was also able to provide a list of other candidate molecules that could mimic the signal. The most promising one is phosphine, but the second-most-promising one is SO2 (sulphur dioxide), which would be a strange molecule to find in that location of Venus, but not anywhere near as strange as finding phosphine. So it was an important candidate to check. Then, if it is indeed phosphine and the signal is real, figuring out what is producing it was led by William Bains [at MIT]. It was also a large team, figuring out every process that might make phosphine and excluding a near-infinite list of negatives. It’s very, very hard to know if you’ve reached the end of that list.

    GAZETTE: So they’re working through the ways you might make phosphine that likely didn’t occur on Venus?

    SOUSA-SILVA: We’re trying to find an explanation, any explanation, and we did find a few methods that could produce small amounts of phosphine, but they were always quite trivial and always many orders of magnitude below what our estimates were for the signal detected in the clouds of Venus.

    GAZETTE: Is this discovery a warmup for finding phosphine and detecting biosignatures on planets around other stars?

    SOUSA-SILVA: I think it’s exactly a warmup for the search for life. It’s an excellent case study in the world of astrobiology.

    The odds that we find life beyond Earth from a booming, unambiguous, intelligent signal from the heavens is very slim. It’s likely, if we ever find life, that it is going to be something with quite a lot of uncertainty, and it will be really hard to even estimate that uncertainty. We won’t be able to say, “Oh, we found life with 80 percent certainty.” Those numbers are not ones we can do right now.

    What we can do is look at planets that have potentially habitable environments, look for molecules that can be associated with life, and then try to explain what’s going on there. We found a biomarker in a place that is potentially habitable. That’s a crucial first step, but it’s very far from the final step. We now need to figure out what other molecules would that biosphere produce? How will they interact with one another? How do we disentangle those behaviors from the spontaneous behaviors of a dead atmosphere?

    So, it’ll take a lot of work. We are very lucky to have Venus right next door so that we can use it as a lab. We can test all these theories in a way that we won’t be able to when we find a biomarker on an exoplanet, where there’s no hope of actually going in and probing the atmosphere to check. So this is a really important step.

    This has been reasonably controversial — and it should be — but we will have to do this many times. And every time we hope to be better prepared and have a better tool kit so that there’s less uncertainty. But it’ll take a long time before we can unambiguously confirm life elsewhere.

    GAZETTE: Before this discovery, Venus had been largely dismissed as a place for life because of its surface conditions. Your discovery has highlighted that a biosphere can be in places that may not immediately come to mind: high in the clouds where conditions are different. Is there a lesson here for thinking unconventionally when we evaluate places for life, especially since even here on Earth we’ve found life to be tough and enduring and in surprising places?

    SOUSA-SILVA: Life is very resilient and very resourceful on Earth and there’s no reason to think that’s some special characteristic of life on Earth rather than of life itself. We have ignored Venus because Venus is quite horrid to us. When we sent probes, they melted dramatically so we didn’t feel particularly welcome. It seems easier to imagine a place like Mars as habitable, even though actually there’s so little atmosphere and so little protection from the sun’s radiation that it’s really not an easily habitable surface.

    Mars is mostly uninhabitable, like Venus, just in a much quieter way. Mars will kill you, but it doesn’t melt you, so it feels more habitable, though I have no loyalty to either planet as a place to find life. This is hopefully going to help us think of habitability in a less anthropocentric way — or at least a less terra-centric way — and to think of habitability not just as a rocky planet with liquid water on the surface, but to think of subterranean habitats, moons of gas giants — something people already consider — and envelopes of an atmosphere as potentially habitable places in an otherwise uninhabitable planet.

    GAZETTE: What did you think when it became apparent that it might be life on Venus? Was that an exciting moment?

    SOUSA-SILVA: It was kind of a strange reversal. I had for years been working on this completely hypothetical investigation: If we found phosphine on a terrestrial planet what would it mean? I had concluded that because it has so few false positives on terrestrial planets that it could only mean life. I submitted the paper with this conclusion, and it was not controversial. The reviewers were fine with the idea — they had issues with other parts of the paper, but this didn’t bother them at all. No one cared because it was hypothetical: I was imagining this exotic, distant planet.

    When I was contacted by Jane, who had this tentative detection of phosphine on Venus, my not-so-controversial statement was now really extraordinary. And Venus is next door, so my hypothetical scenario became very concrete, very quickly. That was two years ago. We spent about a year and a half basically redoing and refining the analysis that we had done for my paper. This was, again, led by William Bains to try to figure out whether this is what happened on Venus. Venus is not your classic, potentially habitable exoplanet. It’s a pretty infernal place and maybe there phosphine could be made abiotically. So I never got to be as excited as I might at the first mention that phosphine had been found on a terrestrial planet. I expected this to happen hopefully before I die, but probably after I retire, not within months of submitting my hypothesis.

    I also immediately felt like I could not be trusted because I’m so biased. I’ve been working on phosphine for so long. I am a junior scientist without a permanent job. It would be so valuable to me for it to be life that I can’t be trusted to assess this accurately. So I was very careful to not get too excited. I had a strong glass of whiskey that evening, but that was it. Then I went and did the same work that we always do, which was to check every possible mechanism that can make phosphine, every possible molecule that can mimic the signal, and look again at everything I’ve done before and check for mistakes. It was nerve-racking to explore this expression of my prediction so nearby, so quickly.

    GAZETTE: Have you had a chance since the original paper was published?

    SOUSA-SILVA: Well, we did a good thing and paid a cost. Unlike a lot of observations of this kind, we published all our data and all our code. Everything was ready for people to come and tear it apart. So people did, which meant I never did get a little time off to enjoy it. It was great because they found a calibration mistake, and ALMA was able to rectify that, which allowed our team to reanalyze the data — they’re still doing it now. There was just way too much press and then way too much criticism, and I still haven’t taken time off.

    GAZETTE: About the scientific debate, how to you respond to the failure of other research groups to replicate the results?

    SOUSA-SILVA: This is the part of the work where I’m only tangentially involved, since I’m not doing any data reduction [of readings from Venus’ atmosphere]. This debate is a consequence of working at the edge of instrument capabilities, and the data are always going to be very noisy and delicate until we have better telescopes. Any discoveries made from these data, from the edges of our ability, are always going to be up for discussion. It’ll be nice when there’s a gold standard method for reducing these data, but there isn’t, so people disagree on the best way of extracting a signal without introducing spurious signals.

    The disagreement comes in a variety of forms, but the teams that didn’t replicate the results, don’t replicate the results in different ways. For example, the [Ignas] Snellen team [from Leiden University in the Netherlands] looked at the ALMA data before the calibration error had been corrected. I’m looking forward to seeing their revised analysis of the better data. The Villanueva team [led by Geronimo Villanueva at the NASA-Goddard Space Flight Center] that looked at both the ALMA data and the JCMT data, did find signals in the JCMT data, which, of course, begs the question of “Where does the signal go in the ALMA data?”

    They do disagree on the source of the JCMT signal, though. SO2 [sulfur dioxide], our second-most-plausible candidate, is their first-most-plausible candidate. And that is an even more complicated question of how you choose between two molecules that can simulate the same signal at these resolutions. Our team’s argument is that the SO2 [spectra] is a little off — you would expect SO2 to show up in different areas of the white bandpass. There also isn’t enough SO2 to justify the signal, so phosphine would need to complement the size of the signal. It’s a difficult argument to make — and we’re at the edge of the statistical significance of the signal — but it’s a totally valid argument.

    Then there’s the archival Pioneer data that was revisited and that they think could correspond to phosphine. It’s hard to bring all of this data to a place where they agree with one another, sadly, because people want to know the truth — I do, too. But the only real conclusion we have is that we don’t know Venus well enough, and we need more data. We need more observations that are not at the edge of instrument capabilities so that there’s no ambiguity in what we’re looking at.

    GAZETTE: Let’s talk a little bit about what you’ll be doing here at Harvard. You’ve been a fellow at MIT. Is the fellowship split between there and here?

    SOUSA-SILVA: No, I moved it. I am 100 percent Harvard — for the last two months, I think. It’s very new.

    GAZETTE: Who will you be working with and what will you be doing?

    SOUSA-SILVA: The 51 Pegasi b Fellowship is a wonderful three-year prize fellowship that is provided by the Heising-Simons Foundation. I did one year at MIT, and I’ve moved to Harvard for the last two years of the fellowship. My host is Dave Charbonneau — part of the reason I moved to Harvard is because of the expertise he has — and the team that surrounds him — on exoplanet atmospheres. There’s also the HITRAN [High resolution Transmission molecular absorption database] group, led by Iouli Gordon — and previously, Larry Rothman — who are world leaders in spectroscopic databases, which is the bread and butter of my work. So that combination of expertise made Harvard perfect.

    GAZETTE: Are you doing most of your work out of your home now or are you able to commute to the CfA physically?

    SOUSA-SILVA: No, I don’t even know where my office is yet. I would love to be commuting to the CfA, but because my work can be done remotely, it shall be done remotely.

    GAZETTE: Are you continuing to work on phosphine and Venus or are you moving on to other topics?

    SOUSA-SILVA: I’ll give it the same percentage of my time as I have in the past. Phosphine is very much my expert molecule, but 50 percent of my work is pushing against the notion of looking for single indicators of life. Because unless we get a radio signal in prime numbers or an unambiguous sign of CFCs [chlorofluorocarbons] or other really complex pollutants, we are going to need more than one molecule; we’re going to need a whole array of molecules that together paint the picture of a biosphere with all its complexity and interactions.

    So most of my work is trying to provide a tool kit that can detect every molecule that could potentially be in a habitable atmosphere. I started the work at MIT. They had come up with a list of all the possible molecules that could form in the context of a biosphere: 16,367. I know that number because I’ve been working on it for so long.

    Out of those thousands, we have spectra of some quality — and some of them are rough — for less than 4 percent of them. For the majority of molecules, we don’t even have even a crude ability to detect them. So most of my work is trying to simulate that spectra so we have at least some idea of what these molecules look like. That’s the connection to HITRAN. They have extremely high accuracy and extremely careful data on a handful of molecules, a little over 50. That is wonderful, but only a small dent in the list of 16,000-plus.

    I created a small program called RASCALL, for Rapid Approximate Spectral Calculations for All. The idea is to make really rough, very quick spectra for all of these molecules, and then build on it. Without RASCALL, the way I did my phosphine spectra took me a bit over four years and many extremely expensive supercomputers. I can’t repeat that for the 16,000 molecules. I calculated that it would take me over 62,000 years. I’m trying to shorten that timescale into something that resembles my lifetime, and that’s where RASCALL comes in.

    GAZETTE: Folks like you will be helping answer an interesting question in the decades to come: whether life is something rare or whether it’s not really that rare after all. It seems the thinking on that has been shifting in recent decades.

    SOUSA-SILVA: I do like that the shift is happening and that people are thinking that life is more common. I’m hoping that shift will go so far as thinking that life is not that special. It’s just an inevitable occurrence in a variety of contexts. If it can appear in places as different as Earth and Venus, which are at first glance similar because of their size and location but otherwise very different, then it must be extremely common because it would be the height of hubris to think that only the solar system can have life, but it has arisen twice in totally different environments.

    That seems really implausible. The sun is average, rocky planets are extremely common, the molecular cloud that formed the solar system was not special. Life on Earth came to be in a huge diversity of forms, and life changed Earth’s atmosphere many times. We only have one planet where we know life existed, but Earth has been many planets, which is something an astronomer colleague of mine, Sarah Rugheimer, likes to say. We have quite a lot of data points that basically show that life is pretty good at making itself happen in many ways throughout history.

    See the full article here .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

    Harvard University campus
    Harvard University is the oldest institution of higher education in the United States, established in 1636 by vote of the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It was named after the College’s first benefactor, the young minister John Harvard of Charlestown, who upon his death in 1638 left his library and half his estate to the institution. A statue of John Harvard stands today in front of University Hall in Harvard Yard, and is perhaps the University’s best known landmark.

    Harvard University has 12 degree-granting Schools in addition to the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. The University has grown from nine students with a single master to an enrollment of more than 20,000 degree candidates including undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. There are more than 360,000 living alumni in the U.S. and over 190 other countries.

  • richardmitnick 1:10 pm on August 18, 2020 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "New tool helps interpret future searches for life on exoplanets", , Biosignatures, , The use of gas spectroscopy to detect biosignatures in planets’ atmospheres will become an increasingly important element of astronomy.   

    From École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne: “New tool helps interpret future searches for life on exoplanets” 

    From École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne

    Sarah Perrin

    One way to determine whether there is life on another planet is to look for biosignatures in the light that is scattered off its atmosphere. Scientists at EPFL and University of Rome Tor Vergata have developed an original model that interprets the results of that analysis.

    Is there life on a distant planet? One way astronomers are trying to find out is by analyzing the light that is scattered off a planet’s atmosphere. Some of that light, which originates from the stars it orbits, has interacted with its atmosphere, and provides important clues to the gases it contains. If gases like oxygen, methane or ozone are detected, that could indicate the presence of living organisms. Such gases are known as biosignatures. A team of scientists from EPFL and Tor Vergata University of Rome has developed a statistical model that can help astronomers interpret the results of the search for these “signs of life”. Their research has just been published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

    Since the first exoplanet – a planet that orbits a star other than the Sun – was discovered 25 years ago, over 4,300 more have been identified. And the list is still growing: a new one is discovered every two or three days. Around 200 of the exoplanets found so far are telluric, meaning they consist mainly of rocks, like the Earth. While that’s not the only requirement for a planet to be able to host life – it also needs to have water and be a certain distance from its sun – it is one criterion that astronomers are using to focus their search.

    In the coming years, the use of gas spectroscopy to detect biosignatures in planets’ atmospheres will become an increasingly important element of astronomy. Many research programs are already under way in this area, such as for the CHEOPS exoplanet-hunting satellite, which went into orbit in December 2019, and the James-Webb optical telescope, scheduled to be launched in October 2021.


    Starting with an unknown

    While much progress has been made on detecting exoplanetary biosignatures, several question marks remain. What are the implications of this kind of research? And how should we interpret the results? What if just one biosignature is detected on a planet? Or what if no biosignatures are detected – what should we conclude? Those kinds of questions are what the EPFL-Tor Vergata scientists set out to answer with their new model.

    Their work tackles the problem from a new angle. Traditionally, astronomers have looked for life on another planet based on what we know about life and biological evolution on Earth. But with their new method, the scientists started with an unknown: how many other planets in our galaxy have some form of life. Their model incorporates factors like the estimated number of other stars in the galaxy similar to the Sun and how many telluric planets might be orbiting within a habitable distance from those stars. It uses Bayesian statistics – particularly well suited to small sample sizes – to calculate the probability of life in our galaxy based on how many biosignatures are detected: one, several or none at all.

    “Intuitively it makes sense that if we find life on one other planet, there are probably many others in the galaxy with some type of living organism. But how many?” says Amedeo Balbi, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics in Tor Vergata’s Physics Department. “Our model turns that intuitive assumption into a statistical calculation, and lets us determine exactly what the numbers mean in terms of quantity and frequency.”

    “Astronomers already use various assumptions to evaluate how credible life is on a given planet,” says Claudio Grimaldi, a scientist at EPFL’s Laboratory of Physics of Complex Matter (LPMC) who is also affiliated with the Enrico Fermi Research Center in Rome. “One of our research goals was thus to develop a method for weighing and comparing those assumptions in light of the new data that will be collected over the coming years.”

    Spreading from one planet to another

    Given the small number of planets that will likely be examined in the near future, and assuming that life will emerge independently on any one planet, the EPFL-Tor Vergata study found that if even just one biosignature is detected, we can conclude with a greater than 95% probability that there are over 100,000 inhabited planets in the galaxy – more than the number of pulsars, which are objects created when a massive star explodes at the end of its life. On the other hand, if no biosignatures are detected, we cannot necessarily conclude that other forms of life do not exist elsewhere in the Milky Way.

    The scientists also looked at the theory of panspermia, which states that instead of emerging independently on a given planet, life forms could be carried over from another planet – such as through organic matter or microscopic organisms being carried on comets or spreading between neighboring planets. This implies that the probability of life on a planet also depends on how far it is from other planets and how easily various life forms – whose physical characteristics could be extremely different from those we are familiar with – are able to resist the extreme conditions of space travel and adapt to the new planet. Factoring in panspermia alters the inferred number of inhabited planets elsewhere in the galaxy.

    See the full article here .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

    EPFL bloc

    EPFL campus

    EPFL is Europe’s most cosmopolitan technical university. It receives students, professors and staff from over 120 nationalities. With both a Swiss and international calling, it is therefore guided by a constant wish to open up; its missions of teaching, research and partnership impact various circles: universities and engineering schools, developing and emerging countries, secondary schools and gymnasiums, industry and economy, political circles and the general public.

  • richardmitnick 10:22 am on July 26, 2020 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "The real science behind SETI’s hunt for intelligent aliens", , , , , Biosignatures, , ,   

    From ars technica: “The real science behind SETI’s hunt for intelligent aliens” 

    From ars technica

    Madeleine O’Keefe

    Aurich Lawson / Getty

    In 1993, a team of scientists published a paper in the scientific journal Nature that announced the detection of a planet harboring life. Using instruments on the spacecraft Galileo, they imaged the planet’s surface and saw continents with colors “compatible with mineral soils” and agriculture, large expanses of ocean with “spectacular reflection,” and frozen water at the poles.

    NASA/Galileo 1989-2003

    An analysis of the planet’s chemistry revealed an atmosphere with oxygen and methane so abundant that they must come from biological sources. “Galileo found such profound departures from equilibrium that the presence of life seems the most probable cause,” the authors wrote.

    But the most telltale sign of life was measured by Galileo’s spectrogram: radio transmissions from the planet’s surface. “Of all Galileo science measurements, these signals provide the only indication of intelligent, technological life,” wrote the authors.

    The paper’s first author was Carl Sagan, the astronomer, author, and science communicator. The planet that he and his co-authors described was Earth.

    Twenty years later, as far as we can tell, Earth remains the only planet in the Universe with any life, intelligent or otherwise. But that Galileo fly-by of Earth was a case study for future work. It confirmed that modern instruments can give us hints about the presence of life on other planets—including intelligent life. And since then, we’ve dedicated decades of funding and enthusiasm to look for life elsewhere in the Universe.

    But one component of this quest has, for the most part, been overlooked: the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). This is the field of astronomical research that looks for alien civilizations by searching for indicators of technology called “technosignatures.” Despite strong support from Sagan himself (he even made SETI the focus of his 1985 science-fiction novel Contact, which was turned into a hit movie in 1997 starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey), funding and support for SETI have been paltry compared to the search for extraterrestrial life in general.

    Throughout SETI’s 60-year history, a stalwart group of astronomers has managed to keep the search alive. Today, this cohort is stronger than ever, though they are mostly ignored by the research community, largely unfunded by NASA, and dismissed by some astronomers as a campy fringe pursuit. After decades of interest and funding dedicated toward the search for biological life, there are tentative signs that SETI is making a resurgence.

    At a time when we’re in the process of building hardware that should be capable of finding signatures of life (intelligent or otherwise) in the atmospheres of other planets, SETI astronomers simply want a seat at the table. The stakes are nothing less than the question of our place in the Universe.

    The Arecibo Radio Telescope on Puerto Rico [recently unfunded by NSF and now picked up by UCF and a group of funders] receives interplanetary signals and transmissions. And it was in the movie Contact!

    How to search for life on other worlds

    You may have heard of searching for life on other planets by looking for “biosignatures”—molecules or phenomena that would only occur or persist if life were present. These could be microbes discovered by directly sampling material from the planet (known as “in-situ sampling”) or using spectroscopic biosignatures, like chemical disequilibria in the atmosphere and images of water and agriculture, like those detected by the Galileo probe in 1990.

    The biosignature search is happening now, but it comes with limitations. In-situ sampling requires sending a spacecraft to another planet; we’ve done this, for example, with rovers sent to Mars and the Cassini spacecraft that sampled plumes of water erupting from Saturn’s moon Enceladus. And while in-situ sampling is the ideal option for planets in the Solar System, with our current technology, it will take millennia to get a vehicle to a planet orbiting a different star—and these exoplanets are far, far more numerous.

    To detect spectroscopic biosignatures we will need telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) or the ground-based Extremely Large Telescope, both currently under construction.

    NASA/ESA/CSA Webb Telescope annotated

    ESO/E-ELT, 39 meter telescope to be on top of Cerro Armazones in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile. located at the summit of the mountain at an altitude of 3,060 metres (10,040 ft).

    To directly image an exoplanet and obtain more definitive spectra will require future missions like LUVOIR (Large Ultraviolet Optical Infrared Surveyor) or the Habitable Exoplanet Imaging Mission. But all of these lie a number of years in the future.

    NASA Large UV Optical Infrared Surveyor (LUVOIR)

    NASA Habitable Exoplanet Imaging Mission (HabEx) The Planet Hunter depiction

    SETI researchers, however, are interested in “technosignatures”—biosignatures that indicate intelligent life. They are signals that could only come from technology, including TV and radio transmitters—like the radio transmission detected by the Galileo spacecraft—planetary radar systems, or high-power lasers.

    The first earnest call to search for technosignatures—and SETI’s formal beginning—came in 1959. That was the year that Cornell University physicists Giuseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison published a landmark paper in Nature outlining the most likely characteristics of alien communication. It would make the most sense, they postulated, for aliens to communicate across interstellar distances using electromagnetic waves since they are the only media known to travel fast enough to conceivably reach us across vast distances of space. Within the electromagnetic spectrum, Cocconi and Morrison determined that it would be most promising to look for radio waves because they are less likely to be absorbed by planetary atmospheres and require less energy to transmit. Specifically, they proposed a narrowband signal around the frequency at which hydrogen atoms emit radiation—a frequency that should be familiar to any civilization with advanced radio technology.

    What’s special about these signals is that they exhibit high degrees of coherence, meaning there is a large amount of electromagnetic energy in just one frequency or a very small instance of time—not something nature typically does.

    “As far as we know, these kinds of [radio] signals would be unmistakable indicators of technology,” says Andrew Siemion, professor of astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley. “We don’t know of any natural source that produces them.”

    Such a signal was detected on August 18, 1977 by the Ohio State University Radio Observatory, known as “Big Ear.”

    Ohio State Big Ear Radio Telescope, Construction of the Big Ear began in 1956 and was completed in 1961, and it was finally turned on for the first time in 1963

    Astronomy professor Jerry Ehman was analyzing Big Ear data in the form of printouts that, to the untrained eye, looked like someone had simply smashed the number row of a typewriter with a preference for lower digits. Numbers and letters in the Big Ear data indicated, essentially, the intensity of the electromagnetic signal picked up by the telescope, starting at 1 and moving up to letters in the double-digits (A was 10, B was 11, and so on). Most of the page was covered in 1s and 2s, with a stray 6 or 7 sprinkled in.

    But that day, Ehman found an anomaly: 6EQUJ5. This signal had started out at an intensity of 6—already an outlier on the page—climbed to E, then Q, peaked at U—the highest power signal Big Ear had ever seen—then decreased again. Ehman circled the sequence in red pen and wrote “Wow!” next to it.

    Alas, SETI researchers have never been able to detect the so-called “Wow! Signal” again, despite many tries with radio telescopes around the world. To this day, no one knows the source of the Wow! Signal, and it remains one of the strongest candidates for alien transmission ever detected.

    NASA began funding SETI studies in 1975, a time when the idea of extraterrestrial life was still unthinkable, according to former NASA Chief Historian Steven J. Dick. After all, no one then knew if there were even other planets outside our Solar System, much less life.

    In 1992, NASA made its strongest-ever commitment to SETI, pledging $100 million over ten years to fund the High Resolution Microwave Survey (HRMS), an expansive SETI project led by astrophysicist Jill Tarter.

    Jill Tarter

    One of today’s most prominent SETI researchers, Tarter was the inspiration for the protagonist of Sagan’s Contact, Eleanor Arroway.

    But less than a year after HRMS got underway, Congress abruptly canceled the project. “The Great Martian Chase may finally come to an end,” said Senator Richard Bryan of Nevada, one of its most vocal detractors. “As of today, millions have been spent and we have yet to bag a single little green fellow. Not a single Martian has said take me to your leader, and not a single flying saucer has applied for FAA approval.”

    The whole ordeal was “incredibly traumatic,” says Tarter. “It [the removal of funding] was so vindictive that, in fact, we became the four-letter S-word that you couldn’t say at NASA headquarters for decades.”

    Since that humiliating public reprimand by Congress, NASA’s astrobiology division has been largely focused on searching for biosignatures. And it has made sure to distinguish its current work from SETI, going so far as to say in a 2015 report that “the traditional Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence… is not a part of astrobiology.”

    Despite or because of this, the SETI community quickly regrouped and headed to the private sector for funding. Out of those efforts came Project Phoenix, rising from the ashes of the HRMS. From February 1995 to March 2004, Phoenix scanned about 800 nearby candidate stars for microwave transmission in three separate campaigns with the Parkes Observatory in New South Wales, Australia; the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia; and Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico [above].

    CSIRO/Parkes Observatory, located 20 kilometres north of the town of Parkes, New South Wales, Australia, 414.80m above sea level

    Green Bank Radio Telescope, West Virginia, USA, now the center piece of the GBO, Green Bank Observatory, being cut loose by the NSF

    The project did not find any signs of E.T., but it was considered the most comprehensive and sensitive SETI program ever conducted.

    At the same time, other projects run by the Planetary Society and UC Berkeley (including a project called SERENDIP, which is still active) carried out SETI experiments and found a handful of anomalous radio signals, but none showed up a second time.

    To search or not to search

    There is plenty of understandable skepticism surrounding the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. At first glance, one might reason that biosignatures are more common than technosignatures and therefore easier to detect. After all, complex life takes a long time to develop and so is probably rarer. But as astronomer and SETI researcher Jason Wright points out, “Slimes and fungus and molds and things are extremely hard to detect [on an exoplanet]. They’re not doing anything to get your attention. They’re not commanding energy resources that might be obvious at interstellar distances.”

    Linda Billings, a communications consultant for NASA’s Astrobiology Division, is not so convinced that SETI is worth it. She worked with SETI in the early 1990s when it was still being funded by the space agency.

    “I felt like there was a resistance to providing a realistic depiction of the SETI search, of how limited it is, how little of our own galaxy that we are capable of detecting in radio signals,” Billings says.

    While she supports NASA’s biosignature searches, she feels that there are too many assumptions embedded into the idea that intelligent aliens would emit signals that we can intercept and understand, so the likelihood of successfully detecting technosignatures is too low.

    What is the likelihood of encountering extraterrestrial intelligence? Astronomers have thought about this question and have even tried to quantify it, most famously in the Drake equation, introduced by radio astronomer Frank Drake in 1961. The equation estimates the number of active and communicative alien civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy by considering seven factors:

    Frank Drake with his Drake Equation. Credit Frank Drake

    Drake Equation, Frank Drake, Seti Institute

    Since these values have been largely conjectural, the Drake equation has served as more of a thought exercise than a precise calculation of probability. But SETI skeptics reason that the equation’s huge uncertainties render the search futile until we know more.

    Plus, the question remains as to whether we are looking the “right” way. By assuming aliens will transmit radio waves, SETI researchers also assume that alien civilizations must have intelligence similar to humans’. But intelligence—like life—could develop elsewhere in ways we can’t possibly imagine. So for some, the small chance that aliens are sending out radio transmissions isn’t enough to justify the search.

    Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, defended the radio approach in a blog post honoring Frank Drake’s 90th birthday earlier this year. “…[A] search for radio transmissions is not a parochial enterprise,” he wrote. “It doesn’t assume that the aliens are like us in any particular, only that they live in the same Universe, with the same physics.”

    SETI researchers can also cast a much wider net with their radio searches: Optical telescopes looking for biosignatures can only resolve data from exoplanets within a few tens of light-years, totaling to no more than 100 tractable targets. But existing radio observatories, like those at Green Bank and in Arecibo, can detect signals as far as 10,000 light-years away, producing 10-million more targets than biosignature search methods.

    The SETI community has no desire to stop the search for biosignatures. “Technosignatures and biosignatures both lie under the same umbrella that we call ‘astrobiology,’ so we are trying to learn from each other,” says Tarter.

    The current state of SETI

    Since the 1990s, new discoveries have strengthened the case to search for technosignatures. For example, NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope has identified over 4,000 exoplanets, and Kepler data suggest that half of all stars may harbor Earth-sized exoplanets, many of which may be the right distance from their stars to be conducive to life.

    NASA/Kepler Telescope, and K2 March 7, 2009 until November 15, 2018

    NASA/MIT TESS replaced Kepler in search for exoplanets

    Plus, the discovery of extremophiles—organisms that can grow and thrive in extreme temperature, acidity, or pressure—has shown astrobiologists that life exists in environments previously assumed to be inhospitable.

    But of the two arms of the search for life, SETI is still up against a perception problem—what some call a “giggle factor.” What does it take for SETI to be taken seriously? There are some indications that the perception problem is solving itself, albeit slowly.

    In 2015, SETI got a much-needed injection of cash—and faith—when Russian-born billionaire Yuri Milner pledged $100 million over 10 years to form the Breakthrough Initiatives, including Breakthrough Listen, a SETI project based at UC Berkeley and directed by Andrew Siemion.

    Breakthrough Listen Project


    UC Observatories Lick Autmated Planet Finder, fully robotic 2.4-meter optical telescope at Lick Observatory, situated on the summit of Mount Hamilton, east of San Jose, California, 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

    Newly added

    CfA/VERITAS, a major ground-based gamma-ray observatory with an array of four Čerenkov Telescopes for gamma-ray astronomy in the GeV – TeV energy range. Located at Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory,Mount Hopkins, Arizona, US in AZ, USA, Altitude 2,606 m (8,550 ft)

    As the name suggests, Breakthrough Listen’s goal is to listen for signs of intelligent life. Breakthrough Listen has access to more than a dozen facilities around the world, including the NRAO in Green Bank, the Arecibo Observatory, and the MeerKAT radio telescope in South Africa.

    A few years later in 2018, NASA—prodded by SETI fan and Texas Congressman Lamar Smith—hosted a technosignatures workshop at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas. Over the course of three days, SETI scientists including Wright and Siemion met and discussed the current state of technosignature searches and how NASA could contribute to the field’s future. But Smith retired from Congress that same year, which put SETI’s future with federal funding back into question.

    In March 2019, Pennsylvania State University announced the new Penn State Extraterrestrial Intelligence Center (PSETI)—to be led by Wright, who is an associate professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the school. One of just two astrobiology PhD programs in the world (the other is at UCLA), PSETI plans on hosting the first Penn State SETI Symposium in June 2021.

    Some of PSETI’s main goals are to permanently fund SETI research worldwide, train the next generation of SETI practitioners, and support and foster a worldwide SETI community. These elements are important to any scientific endeavor but are currently lacking in the small field, even with initiatives like Breakthrough Listen. According to a recent white paper, only five people in the US have ever earned a PhD with SETI as the focus of their dissertations, and that number won’t be growing rapidly any time soon.

    “If you can’t propose for grants to work on a topic, it’s really difficult to convince young graduate students and postdocs to work in the field, because they don’t really see a future in it,” says Siemion.

    Tarter agrees that community and funding are the essential ingredients to SETI’s future. “We sort of lost a generation of scientists and engineers in this fallow period where a few of us could manage to keep this going,” she says. “A really well-educated, larger population of young exploratory scientists—and a stable path to allow them to pursue this large question into the future—is what we need.”

    Wright often calls SETI low-hanging fruit. “This field has been starved of resources for so long that there is still a ton of work to do that could have been done decades ago,” says Wright. “We can very quickly make a lot of progress in this field without a lot of effort.” This is made clear in Wright’s SETI graduate course at Penn State, in which his students’ final projects have sometimes become papers that get published in peer-reviewed journals—something that rarely happens in any other field of astronomy.

    In February 2020, Penn State graduate student Sofia Sheikh submitted a paper to The Astrophysical Journal outlining a survey of 20 stars in the “restricted Earth Transit Zone,” the area of the sky in which an observer on another planet could see Earth pass in front of the sun. Sheikh didn’t find any technosignatures in the direction of those 20 stars, but her paper is one of a number of events in the past year that seem to signal the resurgence of SETI.

    In July 2019, Breakthrough Listen announced a collaboration with VERITAS, an array of gamma-ray telescopes in Arizona [above]. VERITAS agreed to spend 30 hours per year looking at Breakthrough Listen’s targets for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence starting in 2021. Breakthrough Listen also announced, in March 2020, that it will soon partner with the NRAO to use the Very Large Array (VLA), an array of radio telescopes in Socorro, New Mexico.

    NRAO/Karl V Jansky Expanded Very Large Array, on the Plains of San Agustin fifty miles west of Socorro, NM, USA, at an elevation of 6970 ft (2124 m)

    (Coincidentally, the VLA was featured in the film Contact but was never actually used in SETI research.)

    And there are other forthcoming projects that take advantage of alternate avenues to search. Optical SETI instruments, like PANOSETI, will look for bright pulses in optical or near-infrared light that could be artificial in origin. Similarly, LaserSETI will use inexpensive, wide-field, astronomical grade cameras to probe the whole sky, all the time, for brief flickers of laser light coming from deep space. However, neither PANOSETI nor LaserSETI are fully funded.



    Just last month, though, NASA did award a grant to a group of scientists to search for technosignatures. It is the first time NASA has given funding to a non-radio technosignature search, and it’s also the first grant to support work at PSETI. The project team, led by Adam Frank from the University of Rochester, includes Jason Wright.

    “It’s a great sign that the winds are changing at NASA,” Wright said in an email. He credits NASA’s 2018 technosignatures workshop as a catalyst that led NASA to relax its stance against SETI research. “We have multiple proposals in to NASA right now to do more SETI work across its science portfolio and I’m more optimistic now that it will be fairly judged against the rest of the proposals.”

    Despite all the obstacles in their path, today’s SETI researchers have no plans to stop searching. After all, they are trying to answer one of the most profound and captivating questions in the entire Universe: are we alone?

    “You can certainly get a little tired and a little beat down by the challenges associated with any kind of job. We’re certainly not immune from that in SETI or in astronomy,” admits Siemion. “But you need only take 30 seconds to just contemplate the fact that you’re potentially on the cusp of making really an incredibly profound discovery—a discovery that would forever change the human view of our place in the universe. And, you know, it gets you out of bed.”

    SETI Institute

    Laser SETI, the future of SETI Institute research

    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), the origins of the Institute’s search.


    Further to the story

    UCSC alumna Shelley Wright, now an assistant professor of physics at UC San Diego, discusses the dichroic filter of the NIROSETI instrument, developed at the Dunlap Institute, U Toronto and brought to UCSD and installed at the Nickel telescope at UCSC (Photo by Laurie Hatch)

    Shelley Wright of UC San Diego, with NIROSETI, developed at Dunlap Institute U Toronto, at the 1-meter Nickel Telescope at Lick Observatory at UC Santa Cruz

    NIROSETI team from left to right Rem Stone UCO Lick Observatory Dan Werthimer UC Berkeley Jérôme Maire U Toronto, Shelley Wright UCSD Patrick Dorval, U Toronto Richard Treffers Starman Systems. (Image by Laurie Hatch)


    And separately and not connected to the SETI Institute

    SETI@home a BOINC project based at UC Berkeley

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

    For transparency, I am a financial supporter of the SETI Institute. I was a BOINC cruncher for many years.

    My BOINC

    I am also a financial supporter of UC Santa Cruz and Dunlap Institute at U Toronto.

    See the full article here .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

    Ars Technica was founded in 1998 when Founder & Editor-in-Chief Ken Fisher announced his plans for starting a publication devoted to technology that would cater to what he called “alpha geeks”: technologists and IT professionals. Ken’s vision was to build a publication with a simple editorial mission: be “technically savvy, up-to-date, and more fun” than what was currently popular in the space. In the ensuing years, with formidable contributions by a unique editorial staff, Ars Technica became a trusted source for technology news, tech policy analysis, breakdowns of the latest scientific advancements, gadget reviews, software, hardware, and nearly everything else found in between layers of silicon.

    Ars Technica innovates by listening to its core readership. Readers have come to demand devotedness to accuracy and integrity, flanked by a willingness to leave each day’s meaningless, click-bait fodder by the wayside. The result is something unique: the unparalleled marriage of breadth and depth in technology journalism. By 2001, Ars Technica was regularly producing news reports, op-eds, and the like, but the company stood out from the competition by regularly providing long thought-pieces and in-depth explainers.

    And thanks to its readership, Ars Technica also accomplished a number of industry leading moves. In 2001, Ars launched a digital subscription service when such things were non-existent for digital media. Ars was also the first IT publication to begin covering the resurgence of Apple, and the first to draw analytical and cultural ties between the world of high technology and gaming. Ars was also first to begin selling its long form content in digitally distributable forms, such as PDFs and eventually eBooks (again, starting in 2001).

  • richardmitnick 3:49 pm on February 15, 2020 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "New Technologies Strategies Expanding Search for Extraterrestrial Life", Biosignatures, , , ,   

    From National Radio Astronomy Observatory: “New Technologies, Strategies Expanding Search for Extraterrestrial Life” 

    From National Radio Astronomy Observatory

    NRAO Banner

    February 15, 2020
    Dave Finley, Public Information Officer
    (575) 835-7302

    Credit: Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF

    Emerging technologies and new strategies are opening a revitalized era in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).

    New discovery capabilities, along with the rapidly-expanding number of known planets orbiting stars other than the Sun, are spurring innovative approaches by both government and private organizations, according to a panel of experts speaking at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Seattle, Washington.

    New approaches will not only expand upon but also go beyond the traditional SETI technique of searching for intelligently-generated radio signals, first pioneered by Frank Drake’s Project Ozma in 1960.

    Frank Drake with his Drake Equation. Credit Frank Drake

    Scientists now are designing state-of-the-art techniques to detect a variety of signatures that can indicate the possibility of extraterrestrial technologies. Such “technosignatures” can range from the chemical composition of a planet’s atmosphere, to laser emissions, to structures orbiting other stars, among others.

    The National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) and the privately-funded SETI Institute announced an agreement to collaborate on new systems to add SETI capabilities to radio telescopes operated by NRAO. The first project will develop a system to piggyback on the National Science Foundation’s Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) that will provide data to a state-of-the-art technosignature search system.

    “As the VLA conducts its usual scientific observations, this new system will allow for an additional and important use for the data we’re already collecting,” said NRAO Director Tony Beasley. “Determining whether we are alone in the Universe as technologically capable life is among the most compelling questions in science, and NRAO telescopes can play a major role in answering it,” Beasley continued.

    “The SETI Institute will develop and install an interface on the VLA permitting unprecedented access to the rich data stream continuously produced by the telescope as it scans the sky,” said Andrew Siemion, Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI at the SETI Institute and Principal Investigator for the Breakthrough Listen Initiative at the University of California, Berkeley. “This interface will allow us to conduct a powerful, wide-area SETI survey that will be vastly more complete than any previous such search,” he added.

    Siemion highlighted the singular role the $100-million Breakthrough Listen Initiative has played in reinvigorating the field of SETI in recent years. Siemion also announced the latest scientific results from Listen, a SETI survey in the direction of stars where a distant civilization could observe the Earth’s passage across the sun, and the availability of nearly 2 PetaBytes of data from the Listen Initiative’s international network of observatories.

    Other indicators of possible technologies include laser beams, structures built around stars to capture the star’s power output, atmospheric chemicals produced by industries, and rings of satellites similar to the ring of geosynchronous communication satellites orbiting above Earth’s equator.

    “Such indicators are becoming detectable as our technology advances, and this has renewed interest in SETI searches at both government agencies and private foundations,” Siemion said.

    Life forms, whether intelligent or not, also can produce detectable indicators. These include the presence of large amounts of oxygen, smaller amounts of methane, and a variety of other chemicals. Victoria Meadows, Principal Investigator for NASA’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory at the University of Washington, described how scientists are developing computer models to simulate extraterrestrial environments and to help support future searches for habitable planets and life beyond the Solar System.

    “Upcoming telescopes in space and on the ground will have the capability to observe the atmospheres of Earth-sized planets orbiting nearby cool stars, so it’s important to understand how best to recognize signs of habitability and life on these planets,” Meadows said, “These computer models will help us determine whether an observed planet is more or less likely to support life.”

    NASA/ESA/CSA Webb Telescope annotated

    ESO/E-ELT, 39 meter telescope to be on top of Cerro Armazones in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile. located at the summit of the mountain at an altitude of 3,060 metres (10,040 ft).

    TMT-Thirty Meter Telescope, proposed and now approved for Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA4,207 m (13,802 ft) above sea level, the only giant 30 meter class telescope for the Northern hemisphere


    Giant Magellan Telescope, 21 meters, to be at the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Las Campanas Observatory, to be built some 115 km (71 mi) north-northeast of La Serena, Chile, over 2,500 m (8,200 ft) high

    As new programs implement the expanding technical capabilities for detecting extraterrestrial life and intelligence, it’s important to define what constitutes compelling, credible evidence, according to Jill Tarter, of the SETI Institute.

    Jill Tarter Image courtesy of Jill Tarter

    “How strong does the evidence need to be to justify claiming a discovery? Can we expect to find smoking guns? If the evidence requires many caveats, how do we responsibly inform the public,” Tarter asked.

    Tarter pointed out that projects such as the University of California at San Diego’s PANOSETI visible-light and infrared search, and the SETI Institute’s Laser SETI search are being built with co-observing sites to reduce false positives. Such measures, she said, will boost confidence in reported detections, but also add to the expense of the project.

    The news media also share responsibility for communicating accurately with the public, Tarter emphasized. She cited cases in recent years of “exuberant reporting” of bogus claims of SETI detections. “A real detection of extraterrestrial intelligence would be such an important milestone in our understanding of the Universe that journalists need to avoid uncritical reporting of obviously fake claims,” she said.

    “As continuing discoveries show us that planets are very common components of the Universe, and we are able to study the characteristics of those planets, it’s exciting that at the same time, technological advances are giving us the tools to greatly expand our search for signs of life. We look forward to this new realm of discovery,” said Beasley, who organized the AAAS panel.

    “We also look forward to the coming decade, when we hope to build a next-generation Very Large Array, which will be able to search a volume of the Universe a thousand times larger than that accessible to current telescopes — making it the most powerful radio technosignature search machine humanity has ever constructed,” Beasley added.

    The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.

    See the full article here .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

    NRAO/Karl V Jansky VLA, on the Plains of San Agustin fifty miles west of Socorro, NM, USA

    The NRAO operates a complementary, state-of-the-art suite of radio telescope facilities for use by the scientific community, regardless of institutional or national affiliation: the Very Large Array (VLA)



    ESO/NRAO/NAOJ ALMA Array in Chile in the Atacama at Chajnantor plateau, at 5,000 metres

    Access to ALMA observing time by the North American astronomical community will be through the North American ALMA Science Center (NAASC).

    *The Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) comprises ten radio telescopes spanning 5,351 miles. It’s the world’s largest, sharpest, dedicated telescope array. With an eye this sharp, you could be in Los Angeles and clearly read a street sign in New York City!

    Astronomers use the continent-sized VLBA to zoom in on objects that shine brightly in radio waves, long-wavelength light that’s well below infrared on the spectrum. They observe blazars, quasars, black holes, and stars in every stage of the stellar life cycle. They plot pulsars, exoplanets, and masers, and track asteroids and planets.

    largest, sharpest, dedicated telescope array. With an eye this sharp, you could be in Los Angeles and clearly read a street sign in New York City!

    Astronomers use the continent-sized VLBA to zoom in on objects that shine brightly in radio waves, long-wavelength light that’s well below infrared on the spectrum. They observe blazars, quasars, black holes, and stars in every stage of the stellar life cycle. They plot pulsars, exoplanets, and masers, and track asteroids and planets.

    The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.

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