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  • richardmitnick 5:45 pm on May 26, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: AIR & Space, , , , , , SETI Institute, ,   

    From Air & Space: “SETI Gets an Upgrade” 


    Air & Space

    June 2016
    Damond Benningfield

    The Green Bank radio telescope in West Virginia may pull in an alien signal. (Jiuguang Wang)

    Dan Werthimer doesn’t mean to be rude, but he’s getting ready to eavesdrop on the neighbors.

    For decades, astronomers have been listening for messages sent to us—a “Hello, is anyone out there?” signal from intelligent aliens. But now Werthimer is about to get nosier; his team at the University of California at Berkeley is conducting the first search for communities on other worlds that are speaking to one another—between planets and even across star systems. And to do it, he has two of the world’s largest radio telescopes and support from a planet‑hunting optical telescope.

    Thanks to a new initiative announced last July, Werthimer’s team will begin searching for extraterrestrial civilizations, using instruments with greater sensitivity and scanning across a wider range of frequencies than any SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) project to date. Called Breakthrough Listen, it began earlier this year and will continue for a decade at a price tag of $100 million. “It’s a lot of money, a lot of telescope time,” says Werthimer. “We’ll be able to look at a hundred billion radio channels simultaneously. A big problem in SETI is we don’t know on what frequency ET might be transmitting, so the more channels you can listen to, the better chance you have of finding” a communication.

    It’s an incredibly exciting time scientifically,” adds Werthimer’s colleague Andrew Siemion, director of Berkeley’s SETI Research Center and another Breakthrough Listen leader. “Something like one in five stars has an Earth-like planet…. And our ability to look for different kinds of signals from intelligent civilizations on those planets is growing by leaps and bounds.”

    Andrew Siemion eyed the Green Bank Telescope, in the 13,000 square-mile National Radio Quiet Zone, as ideal for SETI research in 2010. (Dr. Andrew P.V. Siemion)

    Even with improvements in technology, though, SETI has remained a tiny area within the field of radio astronomy. “In the entire world, there are probably fewer than 12 people who do full-time SETI research,” according to Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer for the SETI Institute in nearby Mountain View.

    But that small cadre of researchers, with the help of a few dozen part-time SETI dabblers, has plowed through an impressive number of projects. They have scanned the skies at radio and optical wavelengths for intentional messages from other civilizations. Researchers have picked through data from NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler space telescope for evidence of vast architecture eclipsing part of a star’s light. (The public release of one star’s odd light curve last year generated a round of speculation about alien mega-structures. Sadly, followup observations have suggested that the more likely explanation is a swarm of comets.) And they’ve looked for super-civilizations producing copious amounts of waste heat in the form of infrared energy. And the ideas never stop coming: There is a proposal to search for alien probes and artifacts in the solar system (possible payoffs but expensive) and another to listen for signals in beams of neutrinos or the recently discovered gravitational waves (far beyond current technology).

    The bottleneck is never a lack of ideas,” says Shostak. “The problem has always been funding.”

    From the first search for extraterrestrial signals—Frank Drake’s Project Ozma in 1960—SETI has struggled to be taken seriously by traditional funding agencies. Modest NASA studies in the 1970s and 1980s were criticized by the U.S. Congress; in 1993, legislators axed what was meant to be NASA’s long-term sky survey after just a year. Since then the field has survived, barely, primarily on private funding sources.

    Then last summer, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner announced he would foot the bill for the biggest alien hunt in history. “In the 20th century, we stepped out from our planet—to space, to the moon, to the solar system,” Milner said at a press conference for Breakthrough Listen last summer. “In the 21st century, we will find out about life on a galactic scale…. It is time to open our eyes, our ears, and our minds to the cosmos.” Among the luminaries endorsing Milner’s project that day was astrophysicist Stephen Hawking.

    Milner, named after first-human-in-space Yuri Gagarin, was studying physics at Moscow University in the 1980s when the entrepreneurial spirit first hit him. He started buying American-made personal computers and reselling them in local shops, then ventured to the United States to get an MBA. After briefly working at the World Bank, he returned to Russia and began investing in businesses, parlaying the purchase of a small factory into the takeover of the country’s largest Internet company. With that move as an entry to the world of technology, Milner organized a venture capital fund, DST Global, which became an early investor in Facebook, then Twitter, Groupon, and Airbnb, along with major companies in India and China. According to Forbes, by the end of 2015 Milner amassed a net worth of $3.3 billion. In happy news for non-billionaire scientists, Milner started a foundation in 2012 that awards three $3 million prizes annually—the largest academic prize in the world—for achievements in fundamental physics, life sciences, and mathematics.

    He also refuses to give interviews about his latest investment, so we can get a sense of his intentions only from the people now running the Breakthrough Listen project. “He studied physics, he studied the same kind of books in school that I did, so he knows a lot about SETI,” says Werthimer. “He really appreciates all the subtle nuances, and he asks a lot of great questions. He knows the chances that we might find something are slim. But he speaks about this in the long term. He’s in it for the long haul.”

    The Nickel Telescope at California’s Lick Observatory (with SETI’s Dan Werthimer, second from left) will look for lasers. Being used in the Niroseti project (Laurie Hatch)

    Werthimer was already in it for the long haul—he’s been working on SETI for decades, although his original love was the hardware, rather than the research. He’s been a tech junkie since his school days, when he joined the Homebrew Computer Club in California, where his fellow members included Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. “We were kind of messing around in our basements, and we made the very first desktop,” Werthimer says. “Everybody in that club got filthy rich except for me, because I wanted to use the computers to do astronomy. But I got really good at computing. I built a lot of cool machines that were in some ways better than the Apple, but I never thought about selling them.”

    Werthimer began to build instruments that collect and analyze radio signals from space, and eventually started SETI@Home in 1999, a program that harnesses the background processing power of any computer it’s installed on to help sift through portions of the massive amounts of data from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

    SETI@home, BOINC project at UC Berkeley Space Science Lab
    SETI@home, BOINC project at UC Berkeley Space Science Lab

    NAIC/Arecibo Observatory, Puerto Rico, USA
    NAIC/Arecibo Observatory, Puerto Rico, USA

    And although his work hasn’t revealed any alien civilizations, Werthimer isn’t bothered by the silence. “I wouldn’t be in this field if I were not an optimist,” he says. “We’ve covered maybe a billionth of the parameter space. We can rule out super-civilizations that want to conquer the galaxy”—whew—“but we can’t rule out civilizations like ours.”

    Siemion too developed an early interest in science and technology. “I did a report when I was in third grade on a book by Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time,” he says. “When I got to Berkeley I was looking over possible research opportunities, and I discovered that there was a SETI group. I had an ‘aha’ moment—I knew immediately that that’s what I would do.”

    Siemion led his first SETI project while he was still a graduate student. He got the idea in 2010, while he was attending a meeting at the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Project Ozma. Attendees were re-creating Ozma, which originally used a small radio antenna at the Green Bank location, with the observatory’s new 300-foot-diameter Green Bank Telescope, the largest fully steerable radio telescope in the world. While Ozma took about 150 hours of telescope time, the re-creation required only a few seconds to scan the same amount of sky.

    “I started thinking: Why not do some real SETI with the telescope,” Siemion says. “On the plane back to San Francisco, I met in the aisle with a few other people, and we decided to write a proposal.” The idea was to look at star systems in which the Kepler space telescope had discovered planets. “We actually received not the best grade from the time allocation committee at Green Bank,” he says. “They gave us a C, because I think they were a little bit suspicious about whether we would actually be able to do it, but luckily, even though it wasn’t highly ranked, we still got the time.”

    Breakthrough Listen will take advantage of the data from Siemion’s work with Green Bank, but more importantly, it comes at a crucial time for the observatory. Constructed in a valley in the West Virginia mountains, the Green Bank Telescope opened in 2000 as part of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. NRAO is funded by the National Science Foundation and runs several facilities, including the Very Large Array in New Mexico and the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array, or ALMA, in Chile (“The Universe’s Baby Boom,” Aug. 2013).

    NRAO/VLA, on the Plains of San Agustin fifty miles west of Socorro, New Mexico.
    NRAO/VLA, on the Plains of San Agustin fifty miles west of Socorro, New Mexico


    But in 2012, NSF issued a report on the next 10 years of astronomy research that recommended pulling Green Bank’s funding by 2017, because some of its research abilities are duplicated at larger facilities like the VLA and Arecibo Observatory. Now SETI—usually the research area struggling for funding—has come along with Breakthrough Listen at just the right moment, providing a reason and the means to keep the telescope operating while its staff looks for additional funding.

    Russian billionaire Yuri Milner announces Breakthrough Listen last July alongside Stephen Hawking, Martin Rees, Frank Drake, and Ann Druyan. (Breakthrough Initiatives)

    One of Green Bank’s advantages is that it’s cocooned in the 13,000-square-mile National Radio Quiet Zone, where radio transmitters, cellphone towers, wifi networks, and other technology are limited by state and federal regulations. Scientists there would have an easier time determining if a signal in their observations is a message from another planet rather than a local teenager’s text. “One of the hardest things to do is tease out a signal from another civilization in the radio observations,” says Karen O’Neil, the Green Bank Observatory site director. “There are a lot of repeating patterns, but they’re all man-made.”

    Green Bank’s receivers are so sensitive they can detect the crackle of spark plugs in a gasoline-powered engine, so only diesel vehicles are allowed within a mile of the dish. The microwave oven in the observatory’s cafeteria sits inside a shielded box, and once the telescope even picked up interference from a small current generated by a wet dog lying down on an old heating pad. Staff members drive around in a pickup truck equipped with scanning equipment to track down stray electromagnetic signals, and sometimes lend a hand to help repair or replace offending devices in nearby businesses and homes.

    SETI is using some of the project funding to expand Green Bank’s computer capabilities far beyond those of any previous radio SETI project. The system will be able to process and store as much data in a single day as existing projects do in a year or more. Then it’s sent out to the SETI team at Berkeley and SETI@Home volunteers for analysis. The extra processing and storage capabilities are necessary because Breakthrough Listen will scan billions of radio channels between 1 and 10 gigahertz. Earlier surveys have been able to scan no more than a few hundred million channels at a time, with about half the spectral range. “We probably have a trillion times better capabilities today than when I started 40 years ago,” says Werthimer.

    That sensitivity should allow the telescopes to pick up intelligent signals not meant for us, something that couldn’t have been done before the Kepler mission provided astronomers with exoplanet locations. “There’s speculation that an advanced civilization might colonize another planet in its own solar system, like we might do with Mars,” says Werthimer. “They might send messages back and forth between planets, and we could pick up the signals when they line up with Earth.” In addition to the nearest million stars to Earth, the SETI group will monitor the densely packed center of the Milky Way galaxy, about 27,000 light-years away. “Our solar system is about five billion years old,” says Werthimer. “Some stars are 10 billion years old, so there could be some very advanced civilizations out there.” And finally, Breakthrough Listen will stretch its search out even farther, to 100 nearby galaxies where super-civilizations might be blasting messages between solar systems.

    SETI will tune into Planet -452b (concept opposite) and other exoplanets found by NASA’s Kepler. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle)

    While the Green Bank Telescope searches in the northern hemisphere, Breakthrough Listen will use the Parkes Telescope near Sydney, Australia, to search the southern sky. The 210-foot movable dish is best known for transmitting most of the Apollo 11 moon landing video for the worldwide television broadcast (the event was fictionalized in the 2000 movie The Dish). The project will use about 20 percent of the observing time on each telescope, a jump from the few dozen cumulative hours SETI usually gets annually to thousands of hours.

    The third facility SETI is using will look instead of listen. The Automated Planet Finder, a 96-inch optical telescope at Lick Observatory, outside San Jose, California, will devote 10 percent of its time to searching for interstellar lasers.

    Lick Automated Planet Finder telescope
    Lick Automated Planet Finder telescope

    “If we took our own highest-powered lasers and paired them with our largest telescopes, we could send a beam that would outshine the sun by a factor of 10 at a distance of 1,000 light-years,” says Siemion. “Perhaps other civilizations are doing that to contact other civilizations, or to transmit a large amount of information.” It would be the equivalent of a Galaxy Wide Web.

    The Parkes Observatory in Australia (opposite) is Breakthrough Listen’s outpost to eavesdrop on alien communication between star systems. (Daniel Sallai)

    Of course, not everyone is optimistic about the chances of Breakthrough Listen or any other SETI project finding evidence of neighboring civilizations, but not necessarily because they don’t believe in aliens. “Listening for intentional messages seems like a lost cause,” says Paul Davies, a researcher at Arizona State University and author of The Eerie Silence, a book that posits that current searches for intelligent life are flawed. “I’ve argued that we should be looking for other things: beacons, or probes, or alien artifacts in our own solar system. We have no idea how a super-civilization would manifest itself. It could be genetic—we could find signs in terrestrial biology…. There’s a good chance we might be alone in the universe. So we should search, but we shouldn’t spend a lot of money on it.”

    Even Werthimer doesn’t expect to hear from extraterrestrials anytime soon. “I’m optimistic in the long run,” he says. “We Earthlings are a young, emerging civilization. We’re just getting in the game, so a thorough search will take a while…. We probably won’t see anything in the next 10 years, so we’ll have to devise a new plan after that. Maybe, if the trend in computing power keeps going, we’ll find ET in 30 years.”

    In the meantime, let the eavesdropping begin.

    See the full article here.

    Prelude to the Breakthrough Project

    UC Santa Cruz
    From UCO Lick
    March 23, 2015

    Hilary Lebow

    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.

    The NIROSETI instrument saw first light on the Nickel 1-meter Telescope at Lick Observatory on March 15, 2015. (Photo by Laurie Hatch)

    “Infrared light would be an excellent means of interstellar communication,” said Shelley Wright, an assistant professor of physics at UC San Diego who led the development of the new instrument while at the University of Toronto’s Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics.

    Wright worked on an earlier SETI project at Lick Observatory as a UC Santa Cruz undergraduate, when she built an optical instrument designed by UC 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.

    “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.

    UCSC alumna Shelley Wright, now an assistant professor of physics at UC San Diego, discusses the dichroic filter of the NIROSETI instrument. (Photo by Laurie Hatch)

    “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 be fully operational by early summer and 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 NIROSETI team also includes Geoffrey Marcy and Andrew Siemion from UC Berkeley; Patrick Dorval, a Dunlap undergraduate, and Elliot Meyer, a Dunlap graduate student; and Richard Treffers of Starman Systems. Funding for the project comes from the generous support of Bill and Susan Bloomfield.

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 12:57 pm on May 26, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Dr. Janice Bishop, SETI Institute,   

    From SETI: “SETI’s Dr. Janice Bishop Wins Award for Clay Science Research on Mars – Women in Science 

    SETI Institute



    Janice Bishop

    SETI Institute researcher Dr. Janice Bishop has been awarded the prestigious Jackson Mid-Career Clay Scientist Award for her work identifying clays on Mars. She will be giving an invited lecture at the 53rd Annual Clay Minerals Society meeting in Atlanta, GA, June 6th, 2016.

    “Clays are important minerals to identify on Mars because they tell us about the climate at the time of their formation,” says Janice. “The widespread detection of clays in ancient Martian outcrops indicates that liquid water was once present on Mars and that early conditions were much different than the cold and dry environment today.”

    Janice investigates clays on the Red Planet using the spectral fingerprints of these minerals collected by the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

    CRISM collects data in the visible and near-infrared wavelength region that includes spectral features due to vibrations of molecules in the mineral structure. Janice has been analyzing spectra of terrestrial clay minerals in the lab for nearly 30 years in order to document the properties of these indicator minerals by spacecraft sent to Mars and other planets.

    Over the past decade since CRISM has been in orbit at Mars, Janice has been identifying clays and associated aqueous minerals in ancient rock outcrops that provide us information on potentially habitable sites on our neighboring planet.

    The Marion L. and Chrystie M. Jackson Mid-Career Clay Scientist Award is presented annually to a member of The Clay Minerals Society for the contribution of new knowledge of clay minerals science as represented by publication of scholarly and original research.

    Janice Bishop
    Senior Research Scientist
    Discipline: Planetary Geology, Spectroscopy, Mineralogy
    Dr. Janice Bishop is a chemist and planetary scientist who explores the planet Mars using spectroscopy. Her investigations of CRISM data of Mars are revealing clays and sulfates in the ancient rocks that provide information about the geochemical environment at the time the minerals formed. Dr. Bishop studies the spectral fingerprints of minerals and rocks in the lab in order to generate a spectral library for identification of these in the Martian data. Her research also involves collecting and studying Mars analog rocks and soils at a variety of locations including volcanic islands, cold deserts, hydrothermal regions, acidic aqueous sites, and meteorites which are the only Martian samples available on Earth to date.

    Another component of Dr. Bishop’s research is collecting spectra under Mars-like conditions. Spectra of many hydrated minerals change depending on the moisture level in the air and the amount of water molecules adsorbed on the surface or bound in the mineral structure. Understanding the spectral properties of mineral mixtures in the lab is also important for identifying minerals on Mars and Dr. Bishop’s group is preparing and characterizing the spectral properties of several mixture suites.


    Major Awards:

    2016- Jackson Award in Clay Science
    2015- Humboldt Visiting Scientist Award
    2013- Helmholtz International Fellow Award.
    2011- Public Service Group Achievement Award to the MRO CRISM Instrument Team for developing the highly capable CRISM instrument, significantly advancing our understanding of the Martian surface, its composition and evolution.
    2010- Characterization of “Water on Mars” by the MRO Team selected as one of Science Magazine’s Top Ten Insights of the Decade.
    2010- Featured Scientist, “A Day in the Life of an Astronomer” Astronomy Magazine, March issue.
    2009- Best Paper Award, IEEE Whispers conference “Hyperspectral Image and Signal Processing: Evolution in Remote Sensing” (co-author), Grenoble, France.
    2008- Kavli Fellow; invited to 18th Kavli Frontiers of Science Symposium, Irvine, CA.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 11:21 am on May 9, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , SETI Institute   

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



    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 10:35 am on May 1, 2016 Permalink | Reply
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    From Science Alert: “Physicists have calculated that we’re *probably* not the only advanced civilisation ever in the Universe” 


    Science Alert

    29 APR 2016

    Trying to find an answer to the question of whether humanity is all alone in the cosmos is what the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) is all about, and a new equation ought to give hope to the sky-watching optimists among us.

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

    SETI@home, BOINC project at UC Berkeley Space Science Lab
    SETI@home, BOINC project at UC Berkeley Space Science Lab

    At least, kind of. Instead of seeking to estimate whether technologically advanced species currently exist elsewhere in the Universe – the focus of the famous but arguably flawed Drake equation – the researchers are interested in a broader question: are we the only advanced civilisation ever? And by their calculations, the odds are against us being unique.

    Drake Equation, Frank Drake, Seti Institute
    Drake Equation, Frank Drake, SETI Institute

    According to astronomer Adam Frank from the University of Rochester, one of the problems with the Drake equation is that it incorporates the hypothetical length of time advanced civilisations exist for – something we’re perhaps not well equipped to be speculating about.

    “The fact that humans have had rudimentary technology for roughly 10,000 years doesn’t really tell us if other societies would last that long or perhaps much longer,” says Frank.

    But by reformulating the equation to look at the history of the whole Universe instead, the team argues that they can avoid the ambiguity of longevity estimates.

    “Rather than asking how many civilisations may exist now, we ask ‘Are we the only technological species that has ever arisen?'” said fellow researcher Woodruff Sullivan from the University of Washington. “This shifted focus eliminates the uncertainty of the civilisation lifetime question and allows us to address what we call the ‘cosmic archaeological question’ – how often in the history of the universe has life evolved to an advanced state?”

    Given that this calculation would still involve a lot of unknowns, the team frames the question by calculating the odds against intelligent life occurring elsewhere in the Universe.

    Armed with new knowledge about exoplanet occurrence and habitability zones since the Drake equation was formulated back in 1961, the researchers calculate that human civilisation is likely to be unique in history only if the odds of a civilisation developing on a habitable planet are less than about 1 in 10 billion trillion.

    In other words, while the chances of technologically advanced species developing on alien worlds might be slim per Drake’s equation, they’d have to be really, really, really slim for there to have never been any other advanced civilisations existing ever in the Universe.

    “One in 10 billion trillion is incredibly small,” said Frank. “To me, this implies that other intelligent, technology producing species very likely have evolved before us.”

    But while the hypothesis might give hope to those who’d like to think we’re not totally alone on our little rock in space, the extreme breadth of the team’s temporal analysis comes with some harsh reality. Over such a long time frame, impermanent civilisations would be extremely unlikely to exist alongside one another at any moment in time.

    “The Universe is more than 13 billion years old,” said Sullivan. “That means that even if there have been a thousand civilisations in our own galaxy, if they live only as long as we have been around – roughly 10,000 years – then all of them are likely already extinct. And others won’t evolve until we are long gone.”

    But on the bright side, perhaps the importance of the research isn’t in pointing out the unlikeliness of bumping into our cosmic neighbours, so much as saying that: yes, once upon a time, somebody else was probably out there – and they likely looked up at the sky wondering about us too.

    “From a fundamental perspective the question is ‘has it ever happened anywhere before?'” says Frank. “And it is astonishingly likely that we are not the only time and place that an advanced civilisation has evolved.”

    The findings are reported in Astrobiology*.

    *Science paper:
    A New Empirical Constraint on the Prevalence of Technological Species in the Universe

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 5:36 pm on March 31, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , SETI Institute   

    From SETI: “New Search for Signals from 20,000 Star Systems Begins” 

    SETI Institute

    March 30 2016
    No writer credit found

    The SETI Institute has inaugurated a greatly expanded hunt for deliberately produced radio signals that would indicate the presence of extraterrestrial intelligence. Over the course of the next two years, it will scrutinize the vicinities of 20,000 so-called red dwarf stars.

    SETI/Allen Telescope Array
    SETI/Allen Telescope Array

    “Red dwarfs – the dim bulbs of the cosmos – have received scant attention by SETI scientists in the past,” notes Institute engineer Jon Richards. “That’s because researchers made the seemingly reasonable assumption that other intelligent species would be on planets orbiting stars similar to the Sun.”

    This conservative assessment was bolstered by the argument that few planets were likely to be found in the habitable zone of a red dwarf star, simply because that zone is far narrower than for brighter stars like the Sun. Additionally, any worlds that were in this zone would be orbiting so close to their suns that they would quickly become tidally locked – with one hemisphere perpetually facing the star. It was assumed that this would produce a planet that was intolerably hot on one side, and brutally cold on the other, ruling it out as an abode for life.

    However, more recent research has indicated that, if these worlds have oceans and atmospheres, heat would be transported from the lit side to the dark, and a significant fraction of the planet would be habitable. In addition, exoplanet data have suggested that somewhere between one sixth and one half of red dwarf stars have planets in their habitable zones, a percentage comparable to, and possibly greater, than for Sun-like stars.

    “Significantly, three-fourths of all stars are red dwarfs,” notes SETI Institute astronomer Seth Shostak. “That means that if you observe a finite set of them – say the nearest twenty thousand – then on average they will be at only half the distance of the nearest twenty thousand Sun-like stars.”

    Closer stars mean that any signals would be stronger.

    Also, red dwarfs burn for a period of time that’s greater than the current age of the universe: every red dwarf ever born is still shining today. They are, on average, billions of years older than stars than Sun-like stars.

    “This may be one instance in which older is better,” Shostak says. “Older solar systems have had more time to produce intelligent species.”

    The search is being conducted on the SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array, located in the Cascade Mountains of northern California. This grouping of 42 antennas can currently observe three stars simultaneously.

    “We’ll scrutinize targeted systems over several frequency bands between 1 and 10 GHz,” says Institute scientist Gerry Harp. “Roughly half of those bands will be at so-called ‘magic frequencies’ – places on the radio dial that are directly related to basic mathematical constants. It’s reasonable to speculate that extraterrestrials trying to attract attention might generate signals at such special frequencies.”

    The new red dwarf survey is planned to take two years. Targets are being chosen from a list of approximately 70,000 red dwarfs compiled by Boston University astronomer Andrew West. The search will also incorporate relevant new data as generated by NASA’s TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) project, which will examine nearby stars, including red dwarfs, for planets.

    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?, , SETI Institute   

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

    SETI Institute


    [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 5:35 pm on January 21, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , SETI Institute   

    From GIZMODO: “How Should We Look For Aliens?” 

    GIZMODO bloc


    Mika McKinnon

    The search for extraterrestrial life is the ultimate hybrid of creativity and science, the quest to discover something we can’t even describe yet. Jill Tarter embodies that creativity in her work with the SETI Institute, and is the subject of a special video released today.

    WeTransfer’s Creative Class is an online series highlighting creative people doing cool things in the world. This season, the series features SETI Institute astronomer Jill Tarter, the real-life inspiration for Carl Sagan’s Dr. Ellie Arroway in Contact.

    Tarter chatted with Gizmodo about the role of creativity in the search for intelligent aliens, exclaiming, “You have to try to think creative[ly]about how do you discover what you really can’t imagine!”

    SETI Jill Tarter
    Jill Tarter, real-life alien-hunting astronomer

    “I like to say we’re looking for photons, but maybe it’s zeta rays that the advanced technologies of the universe are using to communicate,” Tarter offered as an analogy. “I don’t know what a zeta ray is because we haven’t invented it yet. We don’t understand that physics yet. Maybe that’s in our future.”

    We haven’t found aliens yet, so we need to keep expanding the very way that we search. “How do you look at the universe in new ways that will allow you to find things you that you didn’t imagine?” Tarter said. “[Astronomer Martin Harwit] made this case for essentially venture investing in the astronomical sciences because every time you open up a new observation space, we found something we didn’t expect!”

    Astronomy is full of such examples. Tarter recounts the iconic discovery of pulsars that started in 1965-66, when a team of graduate students built a new type of radio telescope:

    Jocelyn Bell and her colleagues spent the summer nailing up kilometers of wire and fence posts to make a low-frequency detector. They made it for a very scientific goal, but yet when Jocelyn was looking at the data, she found these little bits scruff. She was curious enough and systematic enough to follow up on them.

    Suddenly, wow! There are radio beacons out there more precise than any clock we’ve built. There are entire stars, neutron stars, that are spinning around several times a second. Unbelievable! They found it because they had a new tool. They had a different way of looking at the universe.

    This happens again and again and again. Every time we invent a new tool, discoveries follow. “I think being creative, building new ways to look at the universe, can lead to amazing results.” Tarter said. “You don’t do that if you think, ‘Well, I’m going to do today what I did yesterday.’”

    Our conversation with Tarter was so interesting and so long that we couldn’t transcribe it all in just one night. Instead, check out her Creative Class special here.

    See the full article here .

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    “We come from the future.”

    GIZMOGO pictorial

  • richardmitnick 12:45 am on January 10, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , SETI Institute   

    From INVERSE: Seth Shostak and Alien Life 



    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.

    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 6:22 pm on December 9, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , SETI Institute   

    From SETI Institute: “Looking For Deliberate Radio Signals From KIC 8462852” 

    SETI Institute

    November 05 2015
    Gerry Harp
    SETI Institute
    Email: gharp@seti.org
    Tel: +1 650 960 4576

    Doug Vakoch
    SETI Institute
    Email: dvakoch@seti.org
    Tel: +1 650 960 4514

    Seth Shostak
    SETI Institute
    Email: seth@seti.org
    Tel: +1 650 960-4530

    Could there be intelligent life in the star system KIC 8462852?

    Star KIC 8462852 in infrared (2MASS survey) and ultraviolet (GALEX).

    2MASS Telescope
    2MASS telescope interior

    NASA Galex telescope

    A recent analysis of data collected by the Kepler space telescope has shown that this star, informally known as Tabby’s Star, evidences aperiodic dimming of 20 percent and more.

    NASA Kepler Telescope

    While several natural explanations for this strong change in luminosity have been proposed, one possibility is that a technologically adept civilization has built megastructures in orbit around star, causing the dimming.

    One example of a large-scale astroengineering project would be the construction of a so-called Dyson swarm of solar panels for large-scale energy collection. Other possible structures include artificial space habitats, or a planet-size or larger occulting object intended to provide a long-lasting signal to other galactic inhabitants.

    In order to investigate the possibility of a deliberate cause of KIC 8462852’s unusual behavior, the SETI Institute has trained its Allen Telescope Array [ATA] on this star for more than two weeks.

    Allen Telescope Array

    The Array consists of 42 antennas, each 6 meters in size, and is located approximately 500 km north of San Francisco in the Cascade Mountains.

    Two different types of radio signals were sought: (1) Narrow-band signals, of order 1 Hz in width, such as would be generated as a “hailing signal” for societies wishing to announce their presence. This is the type of signal most frequently looked for by radio SETI experiments. (2) Broad-band signals that might be due to beamed propulsion within this star system. If astroengineering projects are really underway in the vicinity of KIC 8462852, one might reasonably expect the presence of spacecraft to service this activity. If these craft are propelled by intense microwave beams, some of that energy might manifest itself as broad-band radio leakage.

    “This is the first time we’ve used the Allen Telescope Array to look for relatively wide-band signals, a type of emission that is generally not considered in SETI searches,” said SETI Institute scientist Gerry Harp.

    Analysis of the Array data show no clear evidence for either type of signal between the frequencies of 1 and 10 GHz. This rules out omnidirectional transmitters of approximately 100 times today’s total terrestrial energy usage in the case of the narrow-band signals, and ten million times that usage for broad band emissions.

    While these limits are relatively high – a fact due primarily to the large distance (>1400 light-years) of KIC 8462852 – one should note the following: (1) The required transmitter power for the narrow-band signals could be reduced enormously if the signal is being deliberately beamed in our direction. (2) Microwave propulsion schemes would undoubtedly be beamed as well, and that would also reduce the minimum transmitter power necessary for detection by the Array.

    Finally, note that any society able to build a Dyson swarm would have access to energy at a level approaching 1027 watts. Even omnidirectional transmitters would be detectable if only a tiny percentage of this energy were used for signaling.

    “The history of astronomy tells us that every time we thought we had found a phenomenon due to the activities of extraterrestrials, we were wrong,” notes Institute astronomer Seth Shostak. “But although it’s quite likely that this star’s strange behavior is due to nature, not aliens, it’s only prudent to check such things out.”

    Observations will continue, but so far no evidence of deliberately produced radio signals has been found in the direction of KIC 8462852.

    This work can be found at http://arxiv.org/abs/1511.01606

    See the full article here .

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    • Matthew Wright 10:29 pm on December 9, 2015 Permalink | Reply

      It seems to me that a lot of the logic behind SETI assumed that the putative aliens would be like us, in the sense of building an expanding civilisation employing radio transmission. Really? A sample size of one is, I think, insufficient to generalise.


  • richardmitnick 6:34 pm on November 12, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , SETI Institute   

    From SETI Institute: “Gemini Planet Imager Exoplanet Survey — One Year Into The Survey” 

    SETI Institute

    November 12 2015
    Media Contacts:

    Peter Michaud
    Public Information and Outreach
    Gemini Observatory, Hilo, HI
    Email: pmichaud”at”gemini.edu
    Cell: (808) 936-6643

    Seth Shostak
    SETI Institute
    Email: sshostak”at”seti.org
    Phone: +1-650-960-4530

    Science Contacts:

    Franck Marchis
    SETI Institute
    Email: fmarchis”at”seti.org
    Phone: +1-510-599-0604

    Eric Nielsen
    SETI Institute
    Email: enielsen”at”seti.org
    Phone: +1-408-394-4582

    Li-Wei Hung
    University of California, Los Angeles
    Email: liweih”at”astro.ucla.edu
    Phone: +1 310-794-5582

    The SETI Institute press release.

    Orbital motion of 51 Eri b detected between two H-band observations taken with the Gemini Planet Imager in December 2014 and September 2015. From this motion, and additional observations of the system, the team of astronomers confirmed that this point of light below the star is indeed a planet orbiting 51 Eri and not a brown dwarf passing along our line of sight. (credit: Christian Marois & the GPIES team)

    The Gemini Planet Imager Exoplanet Survey (GPIES) is an ambitious three-year study dedicated to imaging young Jupiters and debris disks around nearby stars using the GPI instrument installed on the Gemini South telescope in Chile.

    Gemini Planet Imager

    Gemini South telescope
    Gemini South

    On November 12, at the 47th annual meeting of the AAS’s Division for Planetary Sciences in Washington DC, Franck Marchis, Chair of the Exoplanet Research Thrust of the SETI Institute and a scientist involved in the project since 2004, will report on the status of the survey, emphasizing some discoveries made in its first year.

    Led by Bruce Macintosh from Stanford University, the survey began a year ago and has already been highly successful, with several findings already published in peer-reviewed journals.

    “This very large survey is observing 600 young stars to look for two things: giant planets orbiting them and debris disks. In our first year, we have already found what GPI was designed to discover — a young Jupiter in orbit around a nearby star,” said Marchis. This discovery was announced in an article published in Science on Oct. 2, 2015 [http://www.sciencemag.org/content/350/6256/64], with an impressive list of 88 co-authors from 39 institutions located in North and South America. “This is modern astronomy at its best,” said Marchis. “These large projects gather energy and creativity from many groups of researchers at various institutions, enabling them to consider different strategies to improve the on-sky efficiency of the instrument and its scientific output.”

    The survey was officially launched in November 2014. Eight observing runs allowed the study of approximately 160 targets, or a quarter of the sample. Other parts of the survey are more frustrating, though. Due to the incipient El Nino, weather in Chile is worse than expected, with clouds, rain, snow, and atmospheric turbulence too severe even for GPI to fix. Since late June, out of the last 20 nights that team members have spent at the telescope, they’ve only gotten a few hours of good quality data Despite this loss, over which the team of course had no control, they have already published ten peer-reviewed papers in the last year. Two of the findings are described below.

    GPI data has revealed that 51 Eri b, the recently discovered Jupiter-like exoplanet around the nearby star 51 Eridani [http://www.gemini.edu/node/12403], indeed has an atmosphere of methane and water, and likely has a mass twice that of Jupiter. The team has continued to observe this planetary system, and observations recorded on Sept. 1, 2015, are most consistent with a planet orbiting 51 Eri and not a brown dwarf passing along our line of sight.

    “Thanks to GPI’s incredible precision, we can demonstrate that the odds are vanishingly small that 51 Eri b is actually a brown dwarf that has a chance alignment with this star. In fact it’s five times more likely that I’ll be struck by lightning this year than future data will show this is not a planet orbiting 51 Eri” said Eric Nielsen, a postdoctoral scholar at the SETI Institute and one of the authors of the paper recently accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal Letters [http://arxiv.org/abs/1509.07514]. Another author of this study, SETI Research Experience for Undergraduates student Sarah Blunt, analyzed the motion of 51 Eri b and found it to be completely consistent with a planet on an approximately 40-year orbit around its host star.

    The team has also discovered and imaged disks of dusty debris around several stars. Astronomers believe that these are planetary systems that are still forming their planets. Some have complex structures because they host planets and fragments of the asteroidal and cometary materials that formed those planets. One such system is HD 131835: a massive 15 Myr-old star located 400 light-years from Earth. Using GPI’s high-contrast capability, the team imaged this disk for the first time in near-infrared light in May 2015.

    “The disk shows different morphology when observed in different wavelengths. Unlike the extended disk previously imaged in thermal emission, our GPI observations show a disk that has a ring-like structure, indicating that the large grains are distributed differently from the small ones. In addition, we discovered an asymmetry in the disk along its major axis. What causes this disk to be asymmetric is the subject of ongoing investigation, “ said Li-Wei Hung, a graduate student in the UCLA Department of Physics and Astronomy and lead author of the article submitted to the Astrophysical Journal Astrophysical Journal Letters [http://arxiv.org/abs/1502.02035]. As asymmetries like the one seen in the system may be due to the gravitational influence of an unseen planet, more detailed observational study could one day confirm its existence.

    As the GPIES survey enters in its second year, we are collaborating with the Gemini Observatory to continue to improve the instrument. The Gemini South telescope primary mirror was recently re-coated with silver to improve reflectivity, and the GPI instrument was equipped with a new cooling system to optimize performance.

    “Continued collaboration between the Gemini Observatory and the GPIES collaboration has worked really well — we’re learning a lot about how it performs in the field and interacts with the atmosphere, and are working to make GPI an even a better instrument to see even fainter and closer planets,” said Bruce Macintosh, principal investigator of the project and professor at Stanford University.

    See the full article here .

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