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  • richardmitnick 7:05 pm on October 6, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Seth Shostak,   

    From Seth Shostak at SETI: “World’s Biggest Radio Ear” 

    SETI Logo new
    SETI Institute

    10.6.16

    SETI Seth Shostak
    Seth Shostak

    It’s now the biggest single-dish radio telescope on Earth. Settled down in the bumpy karst of China’s Guizhou province, about 1200 miles southwest of Beijing, this newest instrument for studying the heavens is very similar in design to the famed Arecibo dish, renown both for its science accomplishments and its performance in two popular films, “Contact” and “Goldeneye.”

    FAST radio telescope located in the Dawodang depression in Pingtang county Guizhou Province, South China
    FAST radio telescope located in the Dawodang depression in Pingtang county Guizhou Province, South China

    But FAST, the Five hundred meter Aperture Spherical Telescope, is Arecibo on steroids. The latter has a dish diameter of 300 meters, so FAST is, in principle, almost three times more sensitive. Put another way, it can reach 70 percent farther into space with the same sensitivity, which could increase the number of “targets” within its purview by roughly 4.6 times.

    These are merely brute-force consequences of FAST’s size, however. This new telescope, which is younger than its Puerto Rican cousin by more than a half-century, is also able to see more of the sky – up to 40 degrees from its “straight overhead”, or zenith, pointing. While Arecibo can track objects for as much as 40 minutes, FAST can do this for as long as 6 hours. That would gain it another factor of three advantage in sensitivity.

    In order to keep the telescope free of man-made interference, the government plans to relocate more than 9 thousand people living nearby.

    For the first several years, FAST will be in shakedown mode. After that, research on galaxies, pulsars, and other astronomical objects will begin, and foreign researchers will also have access. The Chinese have said that their new telescope will also be used for SETI, making it the most sensitive such device in the world in the frequency range of 70 MHz to 3 GHz. (Note that the Allen Telescope Array, used by the SETI Institute, has extended frequency coverage to 14 GHz.)

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 9:01 pm on August 29, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: A SETI Signal?, , , , Seth Shostak,   

    From SETI Institute: “A SETI Signal?” 

    SETI Logo new
    SETI Institute

    8.29.16
    Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer

    1
    The RATAN-600 radio telescope, credit: nat-geo.ru

    A star system 94 light-years away is in the spotlight as a possible candidate for intelligent inhabitants, thanks to the discovery of a radio signal by a group of Russian astronomers.

    HD 164595, a solar system a few billion years older than the Sun but centered on a star of comparable size and brightness, is the purported source of a signal found with the RATAN-600 radio telescope in Zelenchukskaya, at the northern foot of the Caucasus Mountains. This system is known to have one planet, a Neptune-sized world in such a very tight orbit, making it unattractive for life. However, there could be other planets in this system that are still undiscovered.

    The signal seems to have been discussed in a presentation given by several Russian astronomers as well as Italian researcher, Claudio Maccone, the chair of the International Academy of Astronautics Permanent SETI Committee. Maccone has recently sent an email to SETI scientists in which he describes this presentation, including the signal ascribed to star system HD 164595.

    Could it be a transmission from a technically proficient society? At this point, we can only consider what is known so far. This is a technical story, of course.

    First, is the detected signal really coming from the direction of HD 164595? The RATAN-600 is of an unusual design (a ring on the ground of diameter 577 meters), and has an unusual “beam shape” (the patch of sky to which it is sensitive). At the wavelength of the reported signal, 2.7 cm – which is equivalent to a frequency of 11 GHz – the beam is about 20 arcsec by 2 arcmin. In other words, it’s a patch that’s highly elongated in the north-south direction.

    The patch from which the signal seems to be coming agrees in the east-west direction (the narrow part of the beam) with HD 165695’s sky coordinates, so that’s the basis of the assumption by the discoverers that this is likely to be coming from that star system. But of course, that’s not necessarily the case.

    Second is the question of the characteristics of the signal itself. The observations were made with a receiver having a bandwidth of 1 GHz. That’s a billion times wider than the bandwidths traditionally used for SETI, and is 200 times wider than a television signal. The strength of the signal was 0.75 Janskys, or in common parlance, “weak.” But was it weak only because of the distance of HD 164595? Perhaps it was weak because of “dilution” of the signal by the very wide bandwidth of the Russian receiver? Just as a pot pie, incorporating lots of ingredients, can make guessing the individual foodstuffs more difficult, a wide-bandwidth receiver can dilute the strength of relatively strong narrow-band signals.

    Now note that we can work backwards from the strength of the received signal to calculate how powerful an alien transmitter anywhere near HD 164595 would have to be. There are two interesting cases:

    (1) They decide to broadcast in all directions. Then the required power is 1020 watts, or 100 billion billion watts. That’s hundreds of times more energy than all the sunlight falling on Earth, and would obviously require power sources far beyond any we have.

    (2) They aim their transmission at us. This will reduce the power requirement, but even if they are using an antenna the size of the 1000-foot Arecibo instrument, they would still need to wield more than a trillion watts, which is comparable to the total energy consumption of all humankind.

    Both scenarios require an effort far, far beyond what we ourselves could do, and it’s hard to understand why anyone would want to target our solar system with a strong signal. This star system is so far away they won’t have yet picked up any TV or radar that would tell them that we’re here.

    Enter the Allen Telescope Array

    The chance that this is truly a signal from extraterrestrials is not terribly promising, and the discoverers themselves apparently doubt that they’ve found ET. Nonetheless, one should check out all reasonable possibilities, given the importance of the subject.

    Consequently, the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) was swung in the direction of HD 164595 beginning on the evening of August 28. According to our scientists Jon Richards and Gerry Harp, it has so far not found any signal anywhere in the very large patch of sky covered by the ATA.

    However, we have not yet covered the full range of frequencies in which the signal could be located, if it’s of far narrower bandwidth than the Russian 1 GHz receiver. We intend to completely cover this big swath of the radio dial in the next day or two. A detection, of course, would immediately spur the SETI and radio astronomy communities to do more follow-up observations.

    We will continue to monitor this star system with the Array.

    One particularly noteworthy thing about this discovery is the fact that the signal was apparently observed in May, 2015 (it seems that this was the only time in 39 tries that they saw this signal). The discoverers didn’t alert the SETI community to this find until now, which is not as expected. According to both practice and protocol, if a signal seems to be of deliberate and extraterrestrial origin, one of the first things to do is to get others to attempt confirming observations. That was not done in this case.

    So what’s the bottom line? Could it be another society sending a signal our way? Of course, that’s possible. However, there are many other plausible explanations for this claimed transmission – including terrestrial interference. Without a confirmation of this signal, we can only say that it’s “interesting.”

    See the full article here .

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    • Matthew Wright 12:01 am on August 30, 2016 Permalink | Reply

      I’d be surprised if it was aliens. Cool if it was – but the natural universe is stranger than we imagine. Possibly stranger than we can imagine.

      Like

  • richardmitnick 3:24 pm on August 2, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Seth Shostak,   

    From Seth Shostak at SETI: “Danger, Will Robinson” 


    SETI Institute

    SETI Seth Shostak
    Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer

    8.2.16

    The night sky, at least when you can see it, appears placid, serene and as inviting as a cold brew on a muggy afternoon.

    Don’t be fooled. The real universe is a nasty mélange of stuff that’s mostly scorching hot or bitterly cold. The blackness of space is shot through with lethal particles and radiation. Without doubt, the “final frontier,” often depicted as a beguiling playground for our Spandex-attired descendants, is deceptively treacherous.

    1
    NASA

    Not only that, it’s out to get you.

    How’s that? Well, you can start with the usual litany of heavenly harm: Asteroids that can mindlessly cannon our world, revenging their own destruction with ours, or solar flares, which could fatally sicken any humans who dare to rocket themselves to Mars. Then there’s Mars itself, which even on a good day is less hospitable than the worst environment on Earth.

    This cast of cosmic unpleasantries is well known. But there are other baddies whose malevolence is on a grander scale.

    Consider gravitational waves. Their discovery is trumpeted as perhaps the most significant science result of the past thousand days. The waves themselves are feebler than the Lichtenstein Navy, as anyone who has read about the LIGO instrument knows. But that’s because these waves come from far away. The slight shaking of space-time that made the headlines in February resulted from the collision of two black holes having a combined mass of five dozen suns. Their mutually assured destruction quickly released as much energy as all the stars in our galaxy have belched into space since Aristotle wrote rhetoric.

    That prodigious, black hole crash twiddled the cosmos here at Earth, more than a billion light-years from the collision, and it may also have let loose a burst of radiation which, if you were near enough to the action, could ruin your whole planetary day.

    It was an explosion of incomparable vigor, and explosions can be dangerous. But you may figure this is someone else’s problem, and maybe not even that. After all, who’s going to be hanging out in the vicinity of a pair of suicidal black holes?

    But there’s another threat that’s more worrisome: Gamma Ray Bursts, the result of a slightly different variety of cosmic mishap. When large stars die, they don’t go gently into the night. Single stars can implode, or two small, dead stars can collide. Either way, the resulting black hole is celebrated with a brief flash of gamma rays a million trillion times brighter than the Sun.

    Because most of this energy is shot out in two, oppositely directed beams, it’s highly concentrated. It could damage the atmospheres of planets even light-years away, which would be bad news for any biology.

    GRBs are not rare. Astronomers find a new one just about every day. And this points out the fact that the universe is a war zone in which random and lethal explosions occur in the star clouds of every galaxy.

    This has led some scientists to speculate that the majority of cosmic real estate is essentially a no man’s land for life. A recent suggestion is that GRBs rule out 90 percent of all galaxies for life, and even the Milky Way is probably barren except for its outer realms (where we are).

    That may sound like really bad news for biology. But wolves in the forest are bad news too, although there are still plenty of creatures out there. Only 15 percent of Earth’s surface is arable, but nonetheless, there are billions of humans. So sure, most cosmic real estate may be worthless, but that may be OK.

    However, the discovery of these mega-dangers does raise a maddening question: Why is the universe set up in such a way that GRBs don’t happen a hundred times more often, or aren’t a hundred times more energetic? After all, if that were the case, you wouldn’t be reading this.

    And there would be no one else able to read it either, in all the vast expanse of space.

    Are we that lucky? If you believe in multiple universes, then maybe the correct answer to that question is yes. Sure, most of these hypothesized, other universes would be sterile. But not ours: we’re just a winner in the most powerful of powerball lotteries, marveling at our fortune at being in a cosmos that is at least partially habitable.

    If this seems too contrived — if you’re not a fan of this idea — then science can’t help you. Yet.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 3:55 pm on June 24, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Searching for exterrestrial life, Seth Shostak, ,   

    From Seth Shostak at SETI: “ATA Checks Out Nearby Planetary System” 


    SETI Institute

    6.22.16

    SETI Seth Shostak
    Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer

    Could extraterrestrial intelligence be relatively nearby? With that possibility in mind, the Allen Telescope Array has been used to observe planets around the star Trappist 1 – a target that is a mere 40 light-years distant.

    3
    Trappist 1 system. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser.

    In general, SETI has preferentially swung its antennas in the directions of star systems with known planets, preferably of the potentially habitable variety. Many of these candidate systems were discovered using NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope. The detailed working of that instrument mandate that the discovered exoplanets are at quite large distances, typically between 500 and 1500 light-years.

    The consequences of this limitation can be demonstrated in the case of Kepler object KIC 8462852, also known as “Tabby’s Star”. This stellar system is in the news because of the provocative speculation that it might be the site of a megastructure constructed by advanced extraterrestrials, perhaps an ensemble of solar panels for collecting energy. This widespread interest prompted scientists at the SETI Institute to use the Allen Telescope Array to search for radio transmissions coming from its direction. None were found, but because of the considerable distance to this object (1470 light-years), it is impossible to rule out the existence of reasonably powerful transmissions that were – at this remove – simply too weak to be detected.

    2
    SETI/Allen Telescope Array situated at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory, 290 miles (470 km) northeast of San Francisco, California, USA

    By contrast, Trappist 1, which was discovered by a group of exoplanet researchers led from the University of Liege in Belgium, is in our cosmic backyard. It offers a more-than-thousand-fold improvement in sensitivity to any transmissions. The three detected planets around this dim, red dwarf are roughly the same size as the Earth, with orbital periods of a few days to possibly as much as 2-1/2 months. They are, quite obviously, in very tight orbits. But because their host star is so dim, all three could be “habitable” in the sense of (1) being rocky worlds like Earth or Mars, and (2) sporting temperatures that would permit liquid water oceans and an atmosphere. A further, more speculative consideration is that any stellar system with more than one habitable planet could host a civilization for which interplanetary communication links would be important – a possible source of detectable signals.

    The Allen Telescope Array is uniquely capable of observing targets of opportunity, so for two days in early May it searched for narrow-band radio signals (~1 Hz or less) coming from the direction of Trappist 1.

    This was not an entirely easy task. As Institute engineer Jon Richards notes, “Every day, Trappist 1 passes near the belt of geosynchronous satellites that orbit the Earth, and consequently there’s a lot of signal interference. Without the Array’s unique beamforming scheme and interference mitigation software we would have been stymied in our attempts to observe this system.”

    The radio spectrum between 1 and 10 GHz was examined, and no signals above 3 10-24 watts/m2-Hz were found. The import of that upper limit to signal strength can be demonstrated with an example. If Trappist 1 has inhabitants sending a signal in our direction with an antenna 300 m in size (the same as the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico), then our observations would be able to find it if the transmitter had a power of 300 kilowatts or more. That is hardly an implausible power level.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 12:14 pm on June 4, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Seth Shostak, , The Other Way to Find Life Out There   

    From Seth Shostak at SETI Institute: “The Other Way to Find Life Out There” 


    SETI Institute

    6.4.26

    SETI Seth Shostak
    Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer, SETI Institute

    In the three-way horse race to prove that biology is not just a terrestrial aberration, there’s one steed that many people ignore: sampling the air of distant planets to see if they contain the exhaust gases of life, or in the jargon of astrobiologists, biosignatures.

    1
    No image caption. No image credit

    Everyone knows the other horses: (1) Finding biology in the solar system by hurling rockets to Mars or some of the moons of Jupiter or Saturn, and (2) expanding our SETI experiments to eavesdrop on radio or laser signals from clever beings on distant worlds.

    The former has the advantage that, if microbes have sprung up elsewhere in the solar system, we might be able to bring them back, dead or alive. We’d have aliens on Earth, an idea that would electrify astrobiologists.

    The latter horse – SETI – endeavors to discover the most interesting variety of extraterrestrial, namely those that are technically advanced. But a difficulty with SETI is that we need to be aiming our telescopes in the direction of signals while they wash over our planet, neither before nor after. There’s a synchronicity problem.

    Bugle call, and the third horse – a contender not hobbled by the inconvenience of synchronicity. Consider: the Earth’s atmosphere is roughly 21 percent oxygen, a consequence of billions of years of photosynthetic activity. Oxygen is an exhaust gas of greenery. You can blame the rusted out-body of that clunker in your driveway on plants.

    The neat thing about this is that the oxygen signature in Earth’s air has been present for roughly two billion years. For all that time, oxygen has been broadcasting its existence into space. It could be easily detected by any advanced extraterrestrials with enlightened astronomy budgets, even from vast distances. There’s no synchronicity problem, because this signal lasts for eons.

    That’s nag number three’s tempting appeal, and Daniel Angerhausen, a researcher at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center, is betting on it. He’s used telescopes on the ground, in the air, and in orbit to look for the spectral signatures of not just oxygen, but other biology “tells,” such as methane.

    The obvious way to do this would be to just train a telescope on an exoplanet – a planet around another star – and analyze the reflected light. That approach is dead obvious but extremely difficult, given that precious few such worlds can be directly imaged with today’s instruments.

    Angerhausen’s scheme is to observe exoplanets that regularly pass in front of their home suns. When they do, they cause a slight dimming of the starlight. This is, of course, the technique wielded by NASA’s Kepler telescope to uncover thousands of (still-invisible) worlds. Kepler senses mini-eclipses taking place many hundreds of light-years away.

    Angerhausen’s trick is to subtract the spectrum – the rainbow spread of light – from a star when a planet is not passing in front or behind it, from spectra taken when it is. Think about it: Most of the time what your telescope sees is a combination of both starshine and light reflected off the planet. But when the planet is silhouetted in front or hidden behind the star, you only see the starshine. Taking the difference removes the contribution of the star, and leaves you with the spectrum of the planet’s atmosphere.

    This is easier to describe than to do, and for all the usual reasons. Stars are bright and planets are dim, so the measurement is maddeningly difficult. Using a space-borne telescope avoids problems introduced by Earth’s churning atmosphere. But telescopes in orbit are generally small, and whatever instruments are on-board are the instruments you’re stuck with.

    So Angerhausen has tried another possibility – SOFIA, a cleverly acronymed telescope with a 2.7 meter mirror that rides around in a Boeing 747.

    NASA SOFIA
    NASA SOFIA Forcast
    NASA SOFIA GREAT
    NASA/DLR SOFIA, SOFIA/Forcast, SOFIA GREAT

    Cruising through the night at high altitude, this instrument is above 90 percent of Earth’s pesky atmosphere. And when it lands, there’s ample opportunity to change out the instrumentation or make other improvements.

    Still, no joy. No clues to alien biology.

    So let’s tell it like it is: The biggest telescopes are neither in space nor the stratosphere. They’re on mountain tops, and Angerhausen has tried them. He’s not yet found biology-produced gases in a distant planet’s air with these glassy behemoths, but he has reason to remain sanguine about the chances. He’s counting on the relentless improvement in telescope technology – a trend that can be safely assumed for decades into the future, unless you’re a fan of imminent Armageddon.

    So what would it mean if he found, say, oxygen and methane together in some other world’s atmosphere? Sure, you’d have to check carefully to make sure the gases were truly biogenic. And even then, they might only say that there’s chlorophyll or its alien opposite number on that planet: in other words, the extraterrestrials might be no more than salad ingredients.

    But if other worlds can spawn lettuce or maybe just algae, there’s at least some chance that they could also grow something a little more interesting. Horse number three may be the race card’s least-known contender, but it has a shot.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

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  • richardmitnick 11:21 am on May 9, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Seth Shostak,   

    From INVERSE: “The Search for Extraterrestrial Life Puts Astronomers at Odds, Not in Conflict” 

    INVERSE

    INVERSE

    May 3, 2016
    Neel V. Patel

    Researchers can’t agree on when we’ll find alien life or how we’ll find it. But they are talking it out.

    Seth Shostak, director for the Center of SETI Research at the SETI Institute, once told an audience he was speaking to that he bet humans would find signs of extraterrestrial life within two-dozen years. At a panel entitled “When Will We Find Life Beyond Earth? hosted by the SETI Institute today, he doubled-down on that bet. Based on what exoplanet researchers have been discovering these days, he explained, “current wisdom is that one in five stars may be a locale for life.” The reasonable conclusions based on reasonable extrapolation? We’re going to find life soon.

    But reason sometimes splinters. What was most remarkable out the panel — other than that it was attended by a murderer’s row of astronomical minds — was how much well reasoned disagreement there was. Even the éminence grises of the SETI community, people who have worked together and seem to respect each other, agree on shockingly little. . The event, however, underscored a truth about extraterrestrial, exoplanet, and astrobiology research that isn’t always expressed well to the public: Scientists in the field agree on fact, but not their significance.


    Access mp4 video here . 1 hour 13 minutes

    Shostak, in case you haven’t already discerned, is avowedly optimistic about the finding extraterrestrials — especially intelligent extraterrestrials. His life’s work is dedicated to listening in for radio signals originating from an intelligent source, and he’s very encouraged by the direction the research is going.

    He analogizes SETI research to looking for a needle in a haystack a daunting task, yes, but only if you dont know what you’re. In his mind, there are three major questions: how big is the haystack, how fast we’re able to look through the haystack, and how many needles there are in the damn thing. Shostak thinks we already have answers to the first two — we know relatively how big the universe is and how many stars there are, and we’re able to scan outer space like never before.

    Universe map Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) 2dF Galaxy Redshift Survey
    Universe map Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) 2dF Galaxy Redshift Survey

    Our speed at conducting SETI experiments doubles every five years — “and they keep getting faster. We will go through a mission star systems,” within the next two-dozen years, so hes holding tight to his bet.

    So the only question is, how many needles are there anyway — i.e. how many alien civilizations are out there?

    That’s a question better suited for the the other three panelists. Up next: Fergal Mullally, a scientist working with the Kepler Space Telescope at NASA’s Ames Research Center.

    NASA/Kepler Telescope
    NASA/Kepler Telescope

    Given his role, Mullally is primarily interested in exoplanets. He thinks the data from Kepler has created two major effects.

    The first: “In our galaxy, we now know there are more planets than stars out there,” he says.

    Milky Way NASA/JPL-Caltech /ESO R. Hurt
    Milky Way NASA/JPL-Caltech /ESO R. Hurt

    Whereas we previously thought of planets as a rare phenomenon, “we now know [planets] are very common.” And the data shows that an estimated two to 25 percent of those star systems are thought to have an Earth-like planet.

    That’s incredible, but lets remember that’s a huge range. Plus, the definition of “Earth-like” encompasses a lot. When scientists use that phrase, they aren’t talking about blue oceans, rolling green hills, and amber waves of grain. They might simply be talking about the bare-bone things that make Earth, well, Earth — liquid water, an atmosphere with some trace amounts of oxygen, a rocky surface, and temperatures that aren’t boiling or causing water to instantly freeze. It’s not a settled science, said Mullally.

    Meanwhile, you have Nathalie Cabrol, an astrobiologist and the director for the Carl Sagan Center at the SETI Institute, specializes in an understanding of what we might find in the solar system.

    Our Solar system, NASA/Chandra
    Our Solar system, NASA/Chandra

    And for her, the key potential demographic of alien life is microbes. “You do have to think of life as a continuum,” says Cabrol — and that means remembering that life starts out as primitive, single-celled organisms.

    Cabrol may be the most vocal enthusiast about astrobiological research on Mars than any other scientists. “This is the first place where we have started to look at habitability,” said Cabrol. “And were going to start to look for life [there] soon, actually.

    Last but not least, the panel feature Mark Showalter, the senior research scientists at the SETI Institute, in the role of skeptic. According to him, life on other planets might be extremely common, or extremely rare. “We don’t know” he said. He emphasizes that it took two billion years to go from single-celled bacterial to multi-cellular humans. And he questions the logic that intelligence is foreordained. When you take into account energy and metabolism, “big brains are not the natural end state of evolution, he said.

    Overall, Showalter thinks we need to take into account the mathematical biases that run contrary to the optimism espoused by the other three panelists. In a tongue-in-cheek compromise, he expressed his belief the odds of finding E.T. were 50-50.

    Nevertheless, the search for alien life will continue with unbridled excitement. And how could it not? We’re finding more and more exoplanets that look that might be habitable in some capacity.

    Habitable planets Current Potential Planetary Habitability Laboratory U Puerto Rico Arecibo
    Habitable planets Current Potential Planetary Habitability Laboratory U Puerto Rico Arecibo

    Even private citizens are gearing up to get in on the search, such as in the recent launch of the Breakthrough Starshot initiative.

    What’s perhaps most exciting, however, is that we don’t know what might stumble upon. The possibilities are nearly endless. “We are searching for something we don’t know,” Cabrol told the audience Tuesday. And, in a sense, that’s always been true.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 11:50 pm on January 22, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Planet Nine: Are We Not That Special?, Planet Nine: What Would It Mean?, Seth Shostak,   

    From SETI Institute: “Planet Nine: Are We Not That Special?” And “Planet Nine: What Would It Mean?” 


    SETI Institute

    1.22.16

    [This post interweaves two separate and distinct writings by Seth Shostak. Normal font is from the SETI web article, “Planet Nine: Are We Not That Special?” . The italic is from the SETI email,”Planet Nine: What Would It Mean?”. I have included all of the internet article and most of the email article. Links to both are below.]

    SETI Seth Shostak
    Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer

    Is there a planet ten times the mass of Earth hanging out in the dismal and distant fringes of our solar system?

    It could be the first new planet discovered in the last 170 years — or at least the last 85, if you’re one of those stubborn folk who still insist on calling Pluto a planet.

    Two researchers at Caltech, Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin, have reported phenomena that they interpret as smoking gun evidence for a world roughly 500 times farther from the Sun than our own.

    The evidence consists of a strange alignment of some so-called Kuiper Belt objects – ice-ball worlds similar to Pluto that populate the farthest realms of the solar system.

    Kuiper Belt
    Kuiper Belt

    About a dozen of these KBO’s seem to have orbits that are similarly aligned – an unlikely situation, akin to throwing a handful of pencils onto a table and finding that they pretty much all point in the same direction.

    Planet Nine orbit image
    A predicted consequence of Planet Nine is that a second set of confined objects should also exist. These objects are forced into positions at right angles to Planet Nine and into orbits that are perpendicular to the plane of the solar system. Five known objects (blue) fit this prediction precisely.Credit: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC) [Diagram was created using WorldWide Telescope.]

    What could account for this bizarre orientation? On the basis of computer simulations, the Caltech astronomers conclude that the most likely explanation is that the KBOs are being nudged into these orbits by the gravitational interactions with a planet roughly twice the diameter of Earth. This object would be located on the side of the solar system opposite to the lined-up Kuiper Belt objects.

    No one has actually seen this putative planet with a telescope, but you can bet that many are looking. It will take a large instrument to bring the object into view, as sunlight so far out in the solar system would be 300 thousand times weaker than on Earth. In addition, the exact position of this hefty planet is unknown – so the search has to cover a relatively large amount of sky. It’s a bit like finding a floating volleyball in the ocean from 40,000 feet, when you don’t have a good fix on the volleyball’s location. Still, Batygin estimates that the planet might be discovered within eight years or so.

    And what is the significance of “Planet 9,” as it’s being called? For those who look for biology beyond Earth, such a world would make our solar system more in keeping with those we find around other stars. Many of the so-called exoplanets discovered by the Kepler mission and other telescopes are what are called “Super Earths” – worlds that are up to ten times the mass of our home planet. Until now, we didn’t think that our solar system had a Super Earth.

    For those in the know about science history, this is all reminiscent of work done by two mathematically adept young astronomers in 1845 — one French and the other British. Each had independently reckoned that irregularities in the orbit of Uranus might be caused by a planet still farther from the Sun. It took almost a year before that planet was seen and recognized in a telescope. We call it Neptune. It’s fair to say that Neptune was discovered with pencil and paper, and it now seems that history might repeat itself with Planet 9.

    Some folks, seduced by apocalyptic visions, will say that this work supports claims that have been made for decades that a malevolent planet named Nibiru is prowling the solar system and will (soon) sail by Earth, causing tsunamis, earthquakes, and scenes of destruction hitherto envisioned only by Industrial Light and Magic.

    Well, forget that. Planet 9, if it’s really out there, will never come closer to Earth than about 20 billion miles, a distance 40 times farther than Jupiter. And, as you may readily note, Jupiter — although heavier and closer — is not messing with your gusto-grabbing lifestyle.

    Then there’s this: Planet 9 is far enough away that if you landed a telescope on it, you could use the Sun as a gravitational lens, producing the mother of all telescopes. It would be an instrument whose capabilities would dwarf anything on Earth or in orbit. Sure, no one’s about to rocket telescope hardware to Planet 9 anytime soon, but that’s not the same as never.

    And finally, for those who look for biology beyond Earth, Planet 9 would offer some encouraging news. In the past five years, we’ve found thousands of so-called exoplanets — worlds around other stars. Many of these are “Super Earths” — worlds larger than our own, and up to about ten times more massive. Until now, we didn’t think our solar system had a Super Earth. That made it seem special.

    But if the predictions are correct – if Planet 9 actually exists – then our solar system will better comport with many of those we find elsewhere. And if our solar system is not so special, then there’s added reason to suspect that the biology it has spawned may not be so unusual either.

    See the full internet article here . See the full email article here .

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  • richardmitnick 5:04 pm on January 15, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , Seth Shostak, We live in interesting times.   

    From Huff Post Seth Shostak: “Could This Be Humanity’s Last Century?” 

    Huffington Post
    The Huffington Post

    01/14/2016

    SETI Seth Shostak
    Dr Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer, SETI Institute

    SETI ATA
    SETI’s Allen Telescope Array

    Temp 1

    OK, quick: Name a few important things that happened in the 11th century.

    If you’re not tenured in medieval studies, that may be tough, although several modestly notable events took place in those hundred years — for example, the Battle of Hastings and the launch of the Crusades. When we look back a millennium, even the highest parapets of history become hard to discern. Nonetheless, those long-ago happenings dramatically altered the future.

    But what about the 21st century? What will your kids and grandkids do that will still be important a thousand years from now?

    Let me suggest that they may trump every previous generation. They may go beyond simply changing society, and possibly usher in the last act for Homo sapiens.

    That may strike you as a less-than-sunny prospect, but only because you’re missing the big picture. I’m not talking about the various self-destructive threats of the moment — the ones that fill the papers and spark pontification on the nightly news. Yes, both terrorism and climate change are serious matters, but the former is manageable and frankly, so is the latter. Alleviating environmental catastrophe requires modifications of behavior. Hard, sure, but we’re not talking about violating physics.

    No, the three big things that I believe will take place in the 21st century are more profound, and not necessarily bad.

    To begin with, we’re finally going to understand biology at a molecular level. DNA’s double helix was discovered a mere six decades ago, and now — for hardly more than a kilobuck — you can sequence the genome of your yorkie or yourself.

    The relentless interplay of science and technology ensures that genomic knowledge will spawn a growing number of applications. Curing disease is one of these, and it’s obviously desirable. But our efforts won’t be limited to merely fixing ourselves; we’ll also opt for improvement. You may hesitate to endorse designer babies, but hot-rodding our children is as much on the horizon as the morning sun.

    Number two on my list of major 21st century developments is expanding into nearby space. We need more resources — both acreage and raw materials — unless we’re happy to condemn our descendants to a limited lifestyle and unlimited war. You may worry about running out of oil, but that’s not the resource that should really make you antsy. We’re going to eat through the easily recoverable reserves of stuff like copper, zinc, and the platinum group metals in a matter of decades.

    We can find more of these elements in asteroids, and already several companies are planning to do so. But nearby space could also provide unlimited real estate for siting the condos of the future. Everyone expects our progeny to establish colonies on the moon or Mars, but the better deal is to build huge, orbiting habitats in which you can live without a spacesuit. Think of scaling up the International Space Station a few thousand times. We can put unlimited numbers of people in such engineered environments, and sometime in this century we’ll start doing that. The days of being confined to the bassinette of our birth are coming to an end.

    The third thing you can expect before the year 2100 is the development of generalized artificial intelligence (GAI). In other words, machines that don’t just play games like chess or Jeopardy, but can do the thinking required for any white-collar job, including all the ones at the top. And such machines won’t necessarily be large. A synapse in your brain is a few thousand nanometers in size. A transistor on a chip is hundreds of times smaller. The hardware necessary for human-level smarts — even today — could fit in an iPad.

    These are developments that — over the long term — will dwarf such quotidian concerns as politics, war, or economics.

    But they will also change us.

    Putting large numbers of people in off-Earth colonies will inevitably lead to a kind of speciation. After all, their physical environment is somewhat different than Earth, and history suggests that their social environment will also be special. A thousand years from now, the inhabitants of a martian colony may not be so similar to those still living on Earth.

    Re-engineering our children will transform our species even faster. We can eventually produce offspring that are as different from us as dogs are from gray wolves. The haphazard, bottom-up alterations to our species occasioned by Darwinian evolution will yield to the directed improvements of future engineers.

    But the development of GAI will surely be the most dramatic driver of change, because it is less a matter of improving our descendants than replacing them with our engineered successors. Perhaps we can promulgate our culture and ourselves by putting chips in our brains or simply uploading our brains to the machines. But you can be sure that the result will not be Homo sapiens as we’ve known him for 50 thousand years.

    These are changes that don’t just shape our future. They knead it into something inconceivably different. And sure, you may quibble about whether everything I’ve described is going to take place this century, but do you really think it won’t happen in the coming thousand years?

    The people of the 11th century might be disconcerted by today’s technology, but they would have no trouble recognizing us. However, it’s unlikely we would recognize humans a millennium hence.

    We live in times that are more than merely interesting.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 12:45 am on January 10, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , Seth Shostak,   

    From INVERSE: Seth Shostak and Alien Life 

    INVERSE

    INVERSE

    Temp 1

    For over 15 years now, Seth Shostak has overseen the search for alien life from the SETI Institute’s Mountain View headquarters. Shostak, who was recently awarded the Carl Sagan Prize for Science Popularization, sees his work as scientifically critical and culturally paramount. The search for extraterrestrial intelligence has traditionally helped build and contextualize excitement for other space sciences. In a sense, Shostak’s job is to survey the stars. In another sense, his job is to help people understand the potential upside of that activity: the ultimate discovery.

    Inverse spoke with Shostak about the award, the evolution of SETI research, Carl Sagan’s legacy, and why the prospect of finding alien life is more exciting and realistic than ever before.

    What are some of the big challenges you run into when talking to the public about astronomy and SETI? Who do you find yourself talking to?

    Normally I give 50 to 60 talks a year, so that’s like once a week or something like that. I’m also a lecturer on things like tours and cruises, where you reach a lot of the general public. I normally talk about science, sometimes about history. More particularly, astronomy and SETI.

    Who shows up? It’s not the people who don’t find it interesting. It’s not the people who don’t believe it might be true. It’s the people who do find it interesting and do think it might be true. The only hurdle is to make sure you present it in a way that keeps your eyeballs open.

    Where you do hit a hurdle is when you do have to give a talk to a non-self selected audience because then they may or may not be interested but they’re forced to be there. The local rotary club, for example… That also applies to schools. I usually accept any of those invitations, as long as I don’t have to go very far, because I think talking to kids is a different business than talking to adults. You talk to an adult, they like it or not, but a couple hours later they’re back to where they were. But with kids that’s not true.

    Temp 2

    Describe the evolution in SETI research over the last few years. It seems your work is being taken much more seriously by the public, which might have been skeptical before. Why would you guess that is?

    I think that you’ve probably hit on it. The public interest is interested in aliens for the same reasons the public is interested in dinosaurs. You’re probably hardwired to be interested in both those things. If you don’t have interest in that, if you don’t care about the things with big teeth that live near your cave, you might not care to stay and live in the same gene pool. For aliens, it’s similar: If there’s another tribe on the other side of the hill, it pays to know about those guys because they might be competitors, they might be mates.

    I think the intrinsic interest is there. I think there may be truth to SETI being taken more seriously by the public and it may be a consequence of the discovery of exoplanets filtering down to the public.

    When it comes to 2015, what were the biggest accomplishments made in SETI research?

    Well in the past year obviously there was a breakthrough initiative from the Listen initiative. That’s not going to affect us at the SETI Institute unfortunately, because that $100 million all goes to the Berkeley SETI Research Center. So the big discussion around here is about where are we going to get our funding? That’s a perpetual problem ever since federal funding was cancelled in 1993. Ever since then it’s been running on donations. It’s not a very expensive thing, but on the other hand it’s hard to raise so many donations. So that’s a perennial problem.

    In terms of the science, we now know three or four other planets that might be potentially habitable. They look like they might have the conditions necessary for life. You could say that’s a big step forward. It is, but not because you can aim your antennae at these planets, which we could always do.

    SETI ATA
    Allen Telescope Array

    With increased potential for habitability, there’s a bigger chance something alive exists there. You could have aimed your telescope to Europa for most of its four and a half billion years of existence and not picked up a thing.

    It turns out the percentage of worlds that could sustain biology is reasonably high. In fact that’s the picture that has come into focus in the last year. There’s some papers that estimate the frequency of habitable planets, planets that could be somewhat similar to Earth. If you look at 10 stars on average, maybe one of them has a planet sort of like Earth. That planet number is definitely uncertain, but it’s a substantial fraction. One, five, 10, 20 percent of all stars are likely to have a planet that you can build condos on and I think that’s an encouraging thing for studying. When I started we didn’t know if there were any planets out there, let alone any that were good.

    What do you think the future holds for SETI? What are you hoping to see in the next year?

    Well, obviously, the first thing I’m going to say is I’m hoping we get some money here so that we can continue. SETI’s always on the edge of coming apart for a lack of money. It’s a very iffy thing because you can’t guarantee success, but what you can guarantee is that if you do have success it’ll be one of the biggest stories ever. It’s one of those dark horses in the science race — you just need people to bet on it. So monetary priority is number 1.

    We also built new receivers for the Allen Telescope, which is what we use in our experiments and we can use that everyday. That gives us the opportunity to do experiments where we take a certain class of stars which we think might be better for having habitable worlds and look at tens of thousands of them. Nobody’s been able to do that in the past! No one’s been able to look at tens of thousands of targets in a reasonable amount of time. How many of them have technological biology? That’s going to be a considerably lower fraction.

    There are a trillion planets in the Milky Way and it strains my credulity to think they’re all sterile. I don’t buy into that. We really won the lottery and I never win the lottery! I think the big thing is to be pertinent in not only receivers but also the number of channels a receiver can monitor. It’s thousands now, but then it’ll be tens of millions and then hundreds of millions. That means that the experiment keeps speeding up. That’s just technology and that’s what gives me hope that in the near future we’ll be able to look at near star systems and pick up a signal.

    Photos via Allen Telescope Array and Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 9:32 am on October 27, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Seth Shostak,   

    From Seth Shostak at SETI Institute: “The Mysterious Star KIC 8462852” 


    SETI Institute

    10.27.15

    SETI Seth Shostak
    Dr. Seth Shostak wrote this article

    The SETI Institute is following up on the possibility that the stellar system KIC 8462852 might be home to an advanced civilization.

    This star, slightly brighter than the Sun and more than 1400 light-years away, has been the subject of scrutiny by NASA’s Kepler space telescope.

    NASA Kepler Telescope
    Kepler

    It has shown some surprising behavior that’s odd even by the generous standards of cosmic phenomena. KIC 8462852 occasionally dims by as much as 20 percent, suggesting that there is some material in orbit around this star that blocks its light.

    For various reasons, it’s obvious that this material is not simply a planet. A favored suggestion is that it is debris from comets that have been drawn into relatively close orbit to the star.

    But another, and obviously intriguing, possibility is that this star is home to a technologically sophisticated society that has constructed a phalanx of orbiting solar panels (a so-called Dyson swarm) that block light from the star.

    To investigate this idea, we have been using the Allen Telescope Array [ATA] to search for non-natural radio signals from the direction of KIC 8462852. This effort is looking for both narrow-band signals (similar to traditional SETI experiments) as well as somewhat broader transmissions that might be produced, for example, by powerful spacecraft.

    1
    ATA

    But what if ET isn’t signaling at radio frequencies? Our ATA observations are being augmented by a search for brief but powerful laser pulses. These observations are being conducted by the Boquete Optical SETI Observatory in Panama, part of a nascent global network of optical SETI observatories.

    Both the observations and the data analysis are now underway. Once the latter is concluded, we will, of course, make them known here and in the professional journals.

    On the basis of historical precedent, it’s most likely that the the dimming of KIC 8462852 is due to natural causes. But in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, any suggestive clues should, of course, be further investigated – and that is what the SETI Institute is now doing.

    See the full article here .

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