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  • richardmitnick 1:57 pm on September 29, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From Seth Shostak at SETI Institute: “NASA’s Big Mars Story” 

    SETI Institute

    September 28, 2015
    SETI Seth Shostak
    By Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer and Director of the Center for SETI Research


    Every time NASA ballyhoos a press conference to announce an exciting discovery about Mars, the public bets heavily that the news will either be about water (What, again?) or life (Finally!)

    This week’s communique is about both, and neither. But there’s no gainsaying the fact that it’s exciting.

    It concerns the seasonally changing features on crater walls and other vertical topography, known as recurrent slope lineae.

    An image combining orbital imagery with 3-D modeling shows flows that appear in spring and summer on a slope inside Mars’ Newton crater. Sequences of observations recording the seasonal changes at this site and a few others with similar flows might be evidence of salty liquid water active on Mars today. Evidence for that possible interpretation is presented in a report by McEwen et al. in the Aug. 5, 2011, edition of Science.

    This image has been reprojected to show a view of a slope as it would be seen from a helicopter inside the crater, with a synthetic Mars-like sky. The source observation was made May 30, 2011, by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

    NASA Mars Reconnaisance HiRise Camera

    NASA Mars Reconnaisence Orbiter
    Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

    Color has been enhanced. The season was summer at the location, 41.6 degrees south latitude, 202.3 degrees east longitude.

    The flow features are narrow (one-half to five yards or meters wide), relatively dark markings on steep (25 to 40 degree) slopes at several southern hemisphere locations. Repeat imaging by HiRISE shows the features appear and incrementally grow during warm seasons and fade in cold seasons.

    HiRISE is operated by the University of Arizona, Tucson, and the instrument was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, built the spacecraft.
    Other imagery related to these new findings from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is at http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/MRO/multimedia/gallery/gallery-index.html .

    These things look like long, dark fingers running downhill, and they become prominent when summertime Mars warms up to temperatures that, while cold for Earth, are considered balmy on the Red Planet.

    The lineae resemble seepage – melt water just below the dry, martian surface that’s oozing its way downhill. Now, researchers using spectral analysis from an orbiter have determined that it most likely is water – not any of the other possible phenomena. That’s a strong indicator that there are subsurface reservoirs at very shallow depth on Mars. In other words, Mars apparently has lakes today; they’re just covered by a rusty, dusty carapace of boring dirt.

    Now many astrobiologists think that the Red Planet was once a kinder, gentler world. Three or four billion years ago or thereabouts, Mars may have had occasional rivers, lakes and even oceans on its surface. The canyons and lakebeds are all dry as dandruff today, but given the ubiquity of the lineae, subsurface aquifers could still be present in abundance.

    And so the scenario is as obvious as it is compelling: In its youth, Mars may have actually spawned single-celled life. As conditions slowly deteriorated, this life adapted to whatever environments were still around – including within the pitch-dark, subsurface aquifers. It could still be enjoying a cryptic lifestyle today.

    Knowing this, how might we find these microscopic Martians? NASA tried looking for life on the Red Planet in the 1970s with its highly sophisticated Viking landers.

    NASA Viking 1 Lander
    Viking 1 Lander

    But the experiments had limited sensitivity, and the results – at least according to some – were ambiguous.

    The lesson learned? Hunting for extant life is difficult. After all, you have to look in the right place. And of course there’s also the sobering possibility that biology is entirely past tense on the Red Planet. It’s dead, Jim.

    Consequently, for years the space agency has adopted a more promising tactic. Better, it figures, to first learn more about the history of the Red Planet, and pinpoint places where life could have once existed. After all, in any reasonable scenario involving Martians, there’s got to be a lot more dead life than extant life. Living critters don’t pile up, but dead ones do.

    That’s why the Curiosity rover, now making its way up Mount Sharp at the center of Gale Crater, is hoping to unravel the geologic history of Mars – not to look for life itself.

    NASA Mars Curiosity Rover

    Its job is to see if there are places where biology may have once existed.

    But NASA’s announcement that the lineae are most likely wet streaks due to salty, subsurface water could change the game plan. They are like signs on Treasure Island, screaming “dig here!”

    And while future spacecraft will undoubtedly try to do that, there’s a chance for more immediate action. Jim Green, NASA’s Planetary Science Division Director, told me that there could be some of these lineae on Mount Sharp, and possibly accessible to Curiosity. That’s a seductive, and unexpected diversion for the plucky rover.

    Today’s news suggests that underwater aquifers – refuges where microscopic Martians might wiggle and float – may underlie much of the planet, like a layer of subcutaneous fat. This may greatly increase the incentive to switch our efforts on Mars from looking for habitats where life might have once thrived, to exploring habitats where it might be thriving today. Just drill down a very short distance into the wet and muddy basement of the dry martian landscape, and look for life.

    Instead of counting on biology from 3 billion years ago that’s well-and-truly dead, this news about the true nature of the perplexing martian lineae urges us to discover what centuries of peering at the Red Planet with telescopes and orbiters was never able to do: Find the Martians.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 7:39 pm on September 28, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From SETI Institute: “The Meaning of NASA’s Announcement: More Profound Than You Think” 

    SETI Institute

    Nathalie A. Cabrol

    NASA just announced that the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter data show that recurring slope lineae (RSL) are formed by water flowing at the surface of Mars today. This is big news. No, let me rephrase that: This is huge news … but not necessarily for the reasons emphasized by most headlines.

    Orbital image showing Martian slopes potentially created by water.

    Here’s why:

    We have known for years that brines are flowing in gullies every spring and summer. The big news is not really that.

    The big news is first about the fact that the RSLs are a scientific mystery that has vexed scientists for years. We can now say, “mystery solved”! And solving that mystery has taken years of not only collecting images and looking for changes. On their own, these would not be enough to close that case. It was also about collecting spectra and mineralogical data, and thinking about converging evidence. It is about the resilience of a team that has used to its best science by testing hypotheses over thousands of observations. Reward after frustration.

    But where the news becomes really huge is when we realize what it really means that, indeed, water also forms the RSLs, and this is the real import of this discovery. It means that water is more abundant, and flowing more freely in more places on Mars than we had ever anticipated!

    For all of us passionate about the search for life on Mars, this news is beyond exciting. Water is one of the key ingredients for life – not the only one, but one that is essential for life’s chemistry and metabolic activity. That gives one more chance for life to still be on Mars, if it had ever appeared early on.

    Once again, water alone could not do it but we also know that there was volcanic activity recently on Mars (in geologic terms ~ 500,000 years to a few million years ago.) This means that energy was there not long ago and, sheltered from cosmic rays and ultraviolet under the surface, life might just have found a way to survive. This makes the upcoming Mars 2020 and ExoMars missions all the more exciting. It also makes it a bit of more complicated to select landing sites for our landers.

    NASA Mars 2020 orbiter
    NASA Mars 2020

    ESA ExoMars

    As I mentioned, the presence of water increases the chances that life might have survived, and those regions where water is flowing today have become special regions overnight. It is now in the hands of the planetary protection folks to think about how to explore them.

    Looking a bit farther into the future, more water on Mars is also very positive news for human exploration as it promises more resources for humans to produce their own fuel and other needs on Mars.

    Yes, today’s announcement was huge.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 2:28 pm on September 22, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , International Innovation, , SETI Institute   

    From International Innovation- ” Life in the cosmos: Seth Shostak” 

    International Innovation


    SETI Seth Shostak
    Seth Shostak

    What is it about astronomy that captivates you?

    I find astronomy captivating, not only because it deals with huge and imposing celestial objects that have existed for billions of years, but it also answers big questions, questions that everybody, no matter where they live, might ask. Where did the Universe come from? Where is it going? What’s out there? For this reason, it’s a privilege to work in this field.

    As the only organisation addressing the full range of disciplines investigating life in the Universe, what is the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute’s mission?

    The Institute’s mission is to research life in the cosmos; it’s that simple. We’re not only looking for intelligent life forms – which is the purpose of the SETI experiments – we’re also looking for the existence of microbes closer to Earth, for example, on Mars or on some of the moons surrounding Saturn or Jupiter. There are more than half a dozen locations in our own solar system where life could exist, or where it could have once existed, with Mars being one of the favourites.

    Our work also involves investigating how life started on Earth, because this could give us some indication of how it might have started elsewhere, as well as finding exoplanets – planets orbiting other stars – that are possible habitats for life.

    When I joined the SETI Institute in 1991, the majority of its efforts were focused on radio SETI, which was by far its biggest project. However, today, 95 per cent of our scientists are working on what’s called astrobiology, looking for evidence of life on Mars, Jupiter, Saturn’s moons, etc. The Institute’s emphasis has greatly shifted.

    Could you share examples of R&D projects that are currently underway at the SETI Institute?

    In the astrobiology realm, there are around a dozen researchers studying the history of Mars. They are seeking to answer questions such as whatthe planet may have looked like 4 billion years ago and whether there was water on it. Today, Mars is cold and extremely dry – a terrible place for supporting life – but it wasn’t always so. The question is whether it could have supported life at one point. It’s certainly possible that we’ll find microbes there, so there is a lot of hardware roaming around the surface of Mars and orbiting the planet in an attempt to find out more about its history.

    Other researchers here are studying asteroids and meteors to find out whether they brought ingredients for life to Earth. If this is the case, it’s possible the same has happened to other planets. Similarly, a group is researching Jupiter and Saturn’s moons for water, and consequently life. We also have a team working on the New Horizons mission, which has just flown by Pluto. In fact, one of our senior research scientists, Dr Mark Showalter, found two of Pluto’s moons.

    Another important project for our astrobiologists is the search for exoplanets. We’re heavily involved with NASA’s Kepler Mission and that particular effort has found over 4,000 planets orbiting stars, some of which appear to be similar to Earth. We are also planning a large survey of dim stars, which are smaller than the Sun, because these might have habitable planets orbiting them. Finally, we’re making improvements to our equipment; for example, building new radio receivers.


    As part of a new trend in radio astronomy, the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) uses a large number of small dishes (LNSD) array to simultaneously survey numerous SETI targets. How does the ATA work and what are the key advantages of this approach?

    The ATA uses 42 relatively small antennas, which are 20 feet in diameter. This differs from past approaches in that radio telescopes built in the 1960s and 1970s used the largest possible antennas. While bigger antennas are able to receive more cosmic static and fainter signals, they are far more expensive to build. Thanks to advances in electronics, however, it’s now possible to connect a lot of small antennas together to achieve the same performance as one big antenna, only for a lot less money. Not only that, but small antennas can scan large swathes of the sky much more quickly than large antennas.

    Can you summarise the Institute’s most significant achievements to date?

    Our planetary discoveries have certainly made the headlines. For example, the planet Kepler 452b is 1,400 light-years away and orbits a star that is just like the Sun. This planet could be Earth’s cousin in that it’s a little bit bigger than Earth and its year is 385 days long rather than 365 days. Another planet, which is similar in size to Jupiter, was found by one of our astronomers around a nearby star. This planet was found using a ground-based telescope, which isn’t usually possible.

    Another significant achievement is the New Horizons mission. It took New Horizons almost ten years to arrive at Pluto, and the team working on this project didn’t know whether the spacecraft would actually make it or if there would be any data to collect at the end of its journey. It has been wonderfully successful, however, and we’ll be continuing to receive data for the next year and a half.

    In terms of the ATA, we haven’t found a signal yet, but the speed of our search is continually increasing. I have bet everyone a Starbucks coffee that we’ll find ET within 20 years. I may have to buy a lot of coffee, but there’s hope!

    What are the greatest challenges facing signal detection technology and how can the Center help to overcome these issues?

    One of the biggest challenges we face is funding because this directly affects what we can achieve and the types of equipment we can develop. The astrobiologists benefit from NASA funding but all of the Institute’s SETI experiments are privately funded. There are a number of approaches we could adopt to speed up our research; for example, the technology developed for video games uses specialised hardware that can complete computational tasks very quickly. The technical challenges associated with doing this could certainly be solved. When I bet people a cup of Starbucks coffee that we’re going to find ET, this assumes that we can develop the equipment necessary to greatly speed up our work – and this is possible if we have the funds.

    What more can be done to attract support from funding bodies and further engage the public?

    We get a lot of media attention and the public is interested in what we do. Indeed, we even have the attention of the House Committee on Science, Space & Technology in congress, where I testified about a year ago. I would say the public is aware of what we’re doing but what they don’t know is that we can’t do very much because of funding issues. Communicating that message would enable us to have a decent chance of success; if we can build the right equipment we might be able to find ET.

    Can you reveal what the future holds for the Institute?

    I’m very optimistic about the future because this really is a special time in history. We know so much more about astronomy and the planets orbiting other stars than we did when I was a kid, or even twenty-odd years ago. Now we know what’s out there, we have the ability to build equipment that could, in principle, find proof of life, whether in our solar system or somewhere else in space. This is the first time we can say this.

    I think the public recognises this at some level. Some people will have read about planets orbiting other stars or water on Mars, and it may occur to them that this could be the generation that finds extraterrestrial life. It’s rather like being alive at the end of the 15th Century when people were finally able to build wooden ships that could cross the ocean, and that rapidly changed the world as they knew it.


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  • richardmitnick 1:59 pm on September 19, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From SETI Institute: “Could We Really Find E.T?” 

    SETI Institute


    By Seth Shostak, Director of the Center for SETI Research, and Nathalie Cabrol, Director of the Carl Sagan Center

    Seth Shostak

    Nathalie Cabrol

    Some recent articles in the press convey the impression that our current efforts to find intelligent life beyond Earth are unlikely to succeed simply because our technology is not advanced enough to sense alien signals.

    Of course, that’s not true. Consider the Allen Telescope Array[ATA], currently being used every day by the SETI Institute in its hunt for signals from other star systems.

    Allen Telescope Array

    This instrument is exquisitely sensitive – it could find some of the powerful radars that we have here on Earth at a distance of dozens of light-years. Any society that is even slightly more technically advanced than our own could easily manage a deliberate radio transmission that the Array could pick up. For SETI researchers, it’s a matter of aiming our antennas in the right direction, and tuning to the correct spot on the dial.

    But could it be that our incomplete understanding of physics is keeping us from finding the extraterrestrials? Perhaps they don’t use radio, but have moved on to some hypothetical new communication mode. Of course that’s possible, but it’s at least as probable that radio and light are – and always will be – the most efficient method of sending bits of information from one star system to another.

    In any case, the possibility of “new physics” invalidating today’s SETI experiments is an indefensible reason to abandon the search. One might have pointed out to Columbus that wooden ships were a poor way to traverse an ocean, and he should just wait for aviation. But the wooden ships were good enough.

    Our SETI technology will, of course, improve with time. Nonetheless, the discovery of a signal betraying extraterrestrial intelligence could still happen today, tomorrow, or next week. But only if we search.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 3:54 pm on September 17, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From SETI Institute: “Jill Tarter Elected President of California Academy of Sciences” 

    SETI Institute

    No Writer Credit

    Jill Tarter

    She’s a renowned SETI researcher, and member of the SETI Institute’s Board of Trustees. And now Jill Tarter has been selected to be the new president of San Francisco’s prestigious California Academy of Sciences.

    Jill was pivotal to the creation of the SETI Institute in 1984; The NASA SETI program of which she was a part became the Institute’s first project. In 1998, she was appointed to the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI Research, and more recently Tarter became officially affiliated with the California Academy’s Board of Trustees.

    “In the eight years that I’ve been a Scientist Trustee at the Academy, I’ve found a number of different ways that that organization and the SETI Institute could help each other on projects,” Tarter says. “After all, we have overlapping interests regarding life, both here on Earth and beyond. And both organizations have a passion for sharing what they know with the world.”

    Tarter’s efforts in the SETI enterprise are legendary, and include the initiative for constructing the Allen Telescope Array [ATA], the only radio telescope deliberately designed for searching for signals due to extraterrestrial transmitters.

    Allen Telescope Array

    An informed and energetic champion of the search for company in the cosmos, she can be frequently seen explaining the science behind this enterprise on television and in print. She has also been identified as the prototype for the Ellie Arroway character in the Carl Sagan novel, Contact.

    A winner of many awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from Women in Aerospace, Tarter has a long-standing interest in education and in promoting a better understanding of science by the public. She gives several dozen talks each year.

    “As I assume the role of President of the Academy and continue my service on the SETI Institute Board of Trustees, I look forward to finding or creating many more ways we can work together,” Tarter notes.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 3:22 pm on August 25, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From io9 via SETI: “How SETI Will Understand Messages Broadcast by an Alien Intelligence” 

    SETI Institute


    George Dvorsky

    Karl V. Jansky Very Large Array

    Imagine the day when we finally receive a signal from an extraterrestrial intelligence, only to find that there’s a message embedded within. Given that we don’t speak the same language, how could we ever hope to make sense of it? We spoke to the experts to find out.

    Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence, aka “CETI”, is the branch of SETI concerned with both the transmission and reception of messages between ourselves and an alien civilization. Scientists have been trying to detect signals from an extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) since the 1960s, but haven’t found anything.

    Allen Telescope Array
    SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array

    SETI@home, a public distributed computing project running on BOINC software and using data from the Arecibo Observatory
    Arecibo Observatory
    Arecibo Observatory


    At least not yet. If and when we do receive a signal, whether it be an intercepted transmission or a deliberate attempt to get our attention, we’ll be tasked with deciphering an alien message. It could prove to be a monumental task, but it’s a problem with no shortage of solutions.

    Natural or Unnatural Signals?

    The first challenge will be to recognize an incoming alien signal. This may prove easier said than done.

    When pulsars were first discovered, for example, their eerily precise spectral flashes convinced some scientists that we were actually looking at some sort of alien beacon. And in 1977, the 72-second-long Wow! signal was likewise interpreted as extraterrestrial in nature. More plausibly, it was just a natural, continuous signal, or some human-instigated artifact.


    These episodes aside, most SETI researchers agree that an alien signal will be unambiguous.

    “Due to the random motions of the particles that are ultimately at the source of natural electromagnetic emission, these emissions tend to get spread out in frequency or in time,” says Andrew Siemion, a PhD candidate in astronomy at SETI-Berkeley. “Technology, on the other hand, is capable of producing very fine time and frequency structure. We can use this fine structure to distinguish between natural and ‘unnatural’ sources.”

    Siemion says it’s important to keep in mind that our knowledge of physics and the cosmos isn’t complete, and it’s conceivable that there are some natural processes that could mimic the types of signals we look for in SETI experiments.

    “But discovering these would be great as well,” he told io9.

    According to Douglas Vakoch, Director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI Institute, we should actively look for signals that stand out from the cosmic static as distinctly artificial.

    “The radio signals created by nature are spread out on the radio dial,” he says. “We’re looking for narrowband signals at one place on the radio dial.”

    Overcoming the Language Barrier

    Given that an ETI would most assuredly “speak” a different language than any found on Earth, it’s fair to ask how we could ever hope to overcome such a barrier.

    How SETI Will Understand Messages Broadcast by an Alien Intelligence

    Linear A tablets. (Credit: University of Houston/CC BY 3.0)

    And indeed, linguists are already struggling with this issue as it pertains to Linear A—an undeciphered writing system used in ancient Greece. It’s not immediately obvious if we’ll ever crack the code of this ancient language. Likewise, if we ever intercept an unintentional alien message, say something akin to a radio or television transmission, we may never be able to decipher the message, save for any visual or acoustic information gleaned from the broadcast.

    But it would likely be a different story if the message was intentional.

    “If an advanced civilization did want to communicate with us, they would probably choose to base their communication on something we have in common, such as the fact that we live in the same physical universe,” says Siemion. “They might use the properties of astrophysical objects, like pulsars, quasars or the shape of our galaxy, as a first step at teaching us their language.”

    Siemion says that an advanced ETI, if they were fairly close to us, say within 40-50 light-years, might actually know quite a lot about us. They may have already taken it upon themselves to decipher parts of our early radio and television transmissions. If this is the case, Siemion says it may be very easy for them to communicate with us in a way we understand.

    Speaking in Math

    Alternately, we can forgo arbitrary symbolic communication altogether and use the logic of math as a communication medium. As Vakoch says, the ability to communicate mathematics will allow aliens to communicate virtually anything that can be quantified.

    “One of the most basic parts of mathematics is counting,” Vakoch told io9. “When we think of counting, we usually imagine counting 1, 2, 3, and so on. But there are other ways to count as well.”

    For example, Vakoch says we could tell an ETI about the Fibonacci series by starting with the simplest numbers, zero and one, and then add them together, and then repeat the process over and over, adding the last two numbers in the series. Zero plus one is one, one plus two is two, and so on until the Fibonacci series is obvious.

    Spencer Greenberg from Ask a Mathematician says it shouldn’t be too hard for an ETI to develop a signal that, if we received it, could tell us it was created by another intelligent life.

    To understand why, Greenberg considers how we ourselves might construct a signal if we wanted aliens to notice that we’re intelligent. To that end, he devised a (somewhat oversimplified) approach that assumes an ETI would have developed the notions of binary encodings of integers (which is by no means an overreaching assumption).

    Talking in code: Greenberg says we could pulse our signal by emitting a relatively high frequency, and at other times emitting a relatively low frequency. Each high section of our signal could represent the digit 1, and each low section, the digit 0. “With this mechanism in place, it’s easy to transmit in binary,” says Greenberg.

    By sending out pulses in binary, Greenberg says we could let the receiver know how many bits we’re using to represent a single number. After settling on the number of bits per group (e.g. 16), we could communicate our system by simply starting the message off with counting.

    So for instance, if we wanted to signal that we are treating groups of 16 bits as a single number, we could transmit all the binary numbers from 0 to 65,535 in order, each of which would be represented by 16 binary digits. Therefore, our transmission would start 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, and so on, which in binary, with 16 bits per number, would be:

    0000000000000000, 0000000000000001, 0000000000000010, 0000000000000011, 0000000000000100, etc.

    Greenberg says that instead of sending each of these numbers a single time through, we might actually want to send each sequence of 16 bits a fixed number of times in a row (say, 100 times each) to provide for redundancy. That way if our signal gets corrupted in transit, it’s still easy to correct any mistakes that are introduced.

    It should be obvious to an alien receiver that we are sending digits in groups of 16, with each 16 digit block representing a number. That would allow us to transmit any number we please (so long as it’s between 0 and 65,535) by representing it in the next 16 digits of our binary code.

    At that point there would be plenty of options for what to send to prove that we’re reasonably intelligent. We could transmit all the prime numbers from 2 up to 65,521. We could also send triplets of numbers where the third number in the triplet is equal to the first two multiplied together, or we could send pairs of numbers that are twin primes. We could even convey mathematical formulas by creating special symbols like an equal sign.

    Other ways to Communicate


    In 1974, scientists transmitted a message into space consisting of 1,679 bits, arranged into 73 lines of 23 characters per line. Called the Arecibo Message, it consisted of the Arecibo telescope itself, our Solar System, DNA, a stick figure of a human, the biochemicals of terrestrial life, and other things.

    Such messages aren’t perfect or overly sophisticated, but they can convey simple concepts, like our location relative to our Sun, and our physical appearance. Clearly, an ETI could send or transmit a similar pictorial message.

    The Pioneer message: So simple even an alien could understand it. (Credit: NASA)

    Mathematics could also be used to send algorithmic messages. These systems, such as CosmicOS and logic gate matrices, use a small set of math and logic symbols to form the basis of a simple programming language that an alien receiver could conceivably run on a virtual machine. Algorithmic messages, if complex enough, could actually be used to convey advanced concepts—and even signs of intelligence—if run on a sufficiently advanced computer system.

    Binary logarithms represent a microarray of expression data for 8,700 mouse genes. (Credit: Louis M. Staudt/National Cancer Institute/Public domain)

    As for natural language processing, we’re still a long ways off from having the ability to make sense of arbitrary symbols. But Laurance Doyle, a member of the SETI institute, is using math to do just that. Doyle is trying to use information theory—a branch of math that looks at the structure and relationships of information—to separate binary code from random 0’s and 1’s. The idea is to find linguistic substance within undefined symbols, whether they be written or oral, and an associated grammar and syntax. Fascinatingly, Doyle’s work is being applied by marine biologists in an effort to crack the dolphin language code.
    Hmm, What to Talk About…

    Assuming that an alien civilization wants to reach out to us and say “hello”, it’s reasonable to wonder what else they might want to say to us.

    Vakoch says the most important thing an alien civilization could communicate to another is their intention to make contact.

    Siemion says ETIs might offer tips on existential dangers to humanity, both intrinsic threats, like biological weapons or artificial superintelligence, and extrinsic threats, such as asteroid impacts or a looming nearby supernova.

    “Some people believe that technological progression and increased altruistic tendency go hand-in-hand—that is, that the more advanced a civilization becomes, the friendlier they get,” says Siemion. “Personally, I don’t think we have any evidence of that. In fact, I think we have evidence that the contrary may be the case.”

    The Risk Factor

    Indeed, this could be a rather dangerous exercise. We run the risk of receiving and translating a malign message, such as a trojan horse that contains a kind of computer virus, or the seeds of our own destruction.

    And as we’ve written before at io9, the effort to deliberately transmit messages to aliens—an endeavor known as METI—needs to be seriously re-considered. Our efforts to reach ETIs could alert an evil force to our presence.

    Alien Outpost

    “Sending messages of our own creation to try to make any possible aliens aware that we exist, is an incredibly risky proposition,” says Greenberg. “Sure, they might be friendly, but then again, they might not—and that’s a big risk to take,” says Greenberg. “Attempting to wake up a force more powerful than ourselves that we do not understand is simply not a good plan.”

    Vakoch says that concerns of alerting an ETI to our presence are too late.

    “Any civilization with the ability to travel between the stars would already know we’re here from our accidental leakage radiation,” he says. “So a sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial might already have picked up ‘I Love Lucy.’ But they still don’t know that we’re attempting to communicate with them. That’s the most important reason for us to transmit powerful, intelligible signals to other stars—to let any intelligence out there know we’re ready to make contact.”

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 10:06 pm on August 19, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , SETI Institute   

    From Seth Shostak at SETI Institute: “Are You a Martian?” 

    SETI Institute


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

    No image credit

    Could your favorite Earthling also be your favorite Martian?

    Allow me to respond: The answer is “yes.” It’s possible that billions of years ago, tiny bits of biology quit the Red Planet and infected ours. If so, your family tree — and that of every other terrestrial life form — has its deepest roots not in the ancient oceans of Earth, but in the vanished seas of Mars.

    The mechanism by which biology can spread through space without the benefit of expensive space-agency hardware is known as panspermia. Life hitches a ride on sunlight or inside rocks — not rockets.

    This is more than a curiosity. It has important implications for the search for life in the solar system — a search that’s heating up.

    Panspermia is hardly a new idea: the philosopher Anaxagoras was the first to publish on the subject more than two millennia ago. But its current vogue can be traced to thought experiments by the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius at the beginning of the twentieth century. He figured microorganisms, which can be tougher than old boots, might be pushed from one world to the next by the radiation pressure of stars.

    That idea might work if the emigres are tiny and don’t insist on going far. But a much better bet is to be a protoplasmic pilgrim inside a dirt clod kicked into space by a meteor impact. Sometimes called “lithopanspermia” for reasons that are obvious if you studied Greek, this mode of transport has the benefit of a protective environment. That’s a necessity if your travel time is really long – hundreds of thousands or millions of years. After all, space is hardly benign: cosmic rays, extreme temperatures, and prolonged desiccation will relentlessly corrode any biology that takes too much time en route. Being inside a rock helps.

    But is this Johnny Appleseed mechanism for spreading life between worlds likely to be for real?

    To answer that, you first need to ask whether enough rocks are actually kicked off a planet to ensure that at least a few will accidentally land on another world. And second, would any of their microscopic passengers survive the trip?

    Consider the panspermia prospects between Mars and Earth. Scientists estimate that in the early days of the solar system, billions of rocks between an inch and a yard in size were involuntarily shuttled from the Red Planet to ours. Their travel time might have been as short as a year, but most would have taken much longer, more like a million years. A rock can wander around the inner solar system for quite a while before actually hitting anything.

    So could any biology within these space-borne lumps survive such an extended trip? After all, the conditions on board are worse than RyanAir. The rocks and their passengers would have been bombarded by radiation, cut off from water, and subjected to temperature extremes as bad as the moon. But it turns out that some hardy earthly microbes could survive these steerage-class conditions. Astrobiologists have identified terrestrial bacteria able to zone out in spore form for a million years. If you eventually put them in contact with water, they’ll come back to life like sea monkeys.

    It seems that panspermia was possible between Mars and Earth roughly four billion years ago, assuming there was any life on the Red Planet to make the trip. And perhaps there was. In its youth, Mars was wetter and warmer than now, and could have spawned living things at a time when Earth was as lifeless as an octogenarian slumber party. Because so many martian rocks were kicked into space, it’s highly probable that at least some would have come from an inhabited patch of Mars — assuming it had inhabitants. And some of those would have landed in a suitably welcoming patch of Earth.

    In this way, our planet may have garnered its biota — not as the result of any processes here on Earth, but thanks to a rain of rocks from Mars. If sometime in the next few decades we discover the remnants of ancient life on the Red Planet that are based on DNA, then we’ll have good reason to believe that terrestrial biology is an import. We could say that not only men are from Mars; we all are.

    The possibility that Earth’s carpet of life might not be indigenous may sway our priorities in the search for life in the solar system. Should we continue to place our heavy bets on Mars, or would it be better to explore the moons of Jupiter and Saturn? Biology would be far more isolated on these latter worlds, and unlikely to be related to us. They would be true aliens — perhaps the most interesting sort of life to find.

    As intriguing as it is, panspermia doesn’t offer any clues about life’s origins. Indeed, it only seems to push the problem of biology’s beginnings to another planet. But there’s this: If life can spread, then countless worlds could be encrusted with biology even if generating it in the first place is difficult or highly improbable.

    Turning hydrocarbons into protoplasm might be a semi-miracle, but life itself could be as common as fast food.

    See the full article here.

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

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    SETI Institute – 189 Bernardo Ave., Suite 100
    Mountain View, CA 94043
    Phone 650.961.6633 – Fax 650-961-7099
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  • richardmitnick 4:09 pm on August 19, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , SETI Institute,   


    SETI Institute

    August 18 2015
    Nathalie Cabrol
    SETI Institute
    Ph: 650-810-0226
    Email: ncabrol@seti.org

    Bill Diamond
    SETI Institute
    Ph: 650-960-510
    Email: bdiamond@seti.org

    Seth Shostak
    SETI Institute
    Ph: 650-960-4530
    Email: seth@seti.org


    The SETI Institute announces the appointment of Nathalie Cabrol as the lead for its multidisciplinary research programs into the nature and distribution of life beyond Earth. She will head the Institute’s Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe.

    Cabrol, who has been with the Institute since 1998, is an astrobiologist specializing in planetary science, and is deeply involved in efforts to explore and characterize Mars. She also develops exploration strategies for the moons of the outer solar system where the conditions essential for the origin and sustenance of life are present. She is conducting research at Mars analog sites in the Andes, and in particular the adaptation strategies of life in these extreme environments. Cabrol was the spokesperson for the selection of Gusev crater as the landing site for the Spirit Rover, and is a science team member for NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover mission.

    The Martian crater Gusev, with Ma’adim Vallis snaking into it

    “Over its thirty-year history, the SETI Institute has grown from a group of visionary scientists who search for evidence of technologically advanced civilizations to an organization embracing the full breadth of astrobiology research,” says President and CEO Bill Diamond. “This includes solar system exploration, the discovery of exoplanets, fundamental astrophysics, and both radio and optical SETI experiments.”

    Cabrol has extensively published in academic journals, and is the author of several books on the subjects of planetary science and terrestrial extreme environments. She is the recipient of NASA and other research awards. Cabrol is a Wings Worldquest Carey Fellow and was elected Air and Space Wings Worldquest Woman of Discovery. She is a frequent lecturer in both academic and public settings.

    “Our Institute is often associated with SETI efforts only,” notes Senior Astronomer Seth Shostak. “But in fact the organization is heavily involved with a truly catholic range of studies, all bearing on the scientific study of life. This new appointment recognizes that breadth of effort and interest, and will increase cross-pollination of ideas and effort among the science teams.”

    Research programs at the SETI Institute include involvement in past and ongoing Mars missions, participation in the New Horizons Mission to Pluto, climate and geo-science, the study of asteroids and meteors, the hunt for, and characterization of, exoplanets with the Kepler telescope, discoveries of planetary moons and rings, and both optical and radio SETI searches, the latter using the Institute’s own Allen Telescope Array. The Institute also investigates and sponsors symposia on the societal consequences of the discovery of extraterrestrial life.

    NASA New Horizons spacecraft
    New Horizons

    NASA Kepler Telescope

    Allen Telescope Array
    Allen Telescope Array

    “We are building a new, vibrant and more relevant SETI Institute on the foundation of a proud past,” says Diamond. With Nathalie’s leadership of the Carl Sagan Center, we bring new strength and vitality to our mission of understanding the origins and nature of life in the universe.”

    See the full article here.

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

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    Mountain View, CA 94043
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  • richardmitnick 11:22 am on August 9, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , E.T., SETI Institute   

    From Daily Galaxy: “New Advances in the Search for Extraterrestrial Life –‘Will It Be Inconceivable to Us?'” 

    Daily Galaxy
    The Daily Galaxy

    August 09, 2015
    No Writer Credit

    No image credit

    A thin layer near the surface of Earth is teeming with life of huge diversity: from micro-organisms to plants and animals, and even intelligent species. Up to now, this forms the only known sample of life in the Universe. We now readily accept that the laws and concepts of physics and chemistry apply throughout the cosmos. Is there a general biology as well: is there life beyond Earth?
    With the Sun just about half-way through its life-time, humankind as we know it is likely to constitute a rather short transient episode, and advanced extra-terrestrial life might be inconceivable to us in its complexity, just as human life is to amoebae.

    Pinpoints of light in the night sky have probably always made humankind speculate about the existence of other worlds, but the presence of planets orbiting stars other than the Sun has become a proven reality only within the last 15 years. While the vast majority of the more than 450 [number is far larger] extra-solar planets that are known to date are gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn, some spectacular discoveries of about 20 planets of less than 10 Earth masses have already indicated that rocky planets with conditions suitable to harbour life are probably rather common.

    One of the big unknowns is how likely it is for life to emerge once all conditions are right. There is no lack of its building blocks; the number of molecules fundamental to Earth’s biochemistry that have already been found in the interstellar medium, planetary atmospheres and on the surfaces of comets, asteroids, meteorites and interplanetary dust particles is surprisingly large. Giant “factories”, where complex molecules are being synthesised, appear to make carbonaceous compounds ubiquitous in the Universe.

    If the genesis of life arises from chemistry with a high probability, one might speculate whether this process occurred more than once on Earth itself, leading to the existence of a terrestrial “shadow biosphere” with a distinct Tree of Life. Moreover, there are several other promising targets within the Solar System, namely Mars, Europa, Enceladus, and, for biochemistry based on a liquid other than water, Titan. Evidence for life is not easy to gather; any chemical footprint needs to be unambiguously characteristic, and to exclude an abiogenic origin. The most powerful probe would result from returning a sample to a laboratory on Earth.

    The year 2010 marks the 50th anniversary of the first search for radio signals originating from other civilizations and up to now all “Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence” (SETI) experiments have provided a negative result.

    Allen Telescope Array
    SETI Institut’s Allen Telescope Array

    SETI@home screensaver
    SETI@home massive personal computer project

    However these have probed only up to about 200 light-years distant, whereas the center of the Milky Way is 25,000 light-years away from us. And, even if there is no other intelligent life in the Milky Way, it could still be hosted in another of the remaining hundreds of billions of other galaxies.

    Advanced efforts are now on the drawing board or already underway for the further exploration of the Solar System and the detection of biomarkers in the atmospheres of extra-solar planets, while searches for signals of extra-terrestrial intelligence are entering a new era with the deployment of the next generation of radio telescopes.

    With the detection of extra-terrestrial life being technically feasible, one needs to address whether perceived societal benefits create an imperative to search for it, or whether such an endeavour may rather turn out to be a threat to our own existence.

    Evolutionary convergence, as seen in the biological history on Earth, suggests that the limited number of solutions to sensory and social organizational problems will make alien civilizations at a comparable stage of evolution not look too different from our own. As historical examples indicate, meeting a civilization similar to ours might actually turn into a disaster.

    Rather than aliens invading Earth, realistically expected detection scenarios will involve microbial organisms and/or extra-terrestrial life at a safe distance that prevents physical contact. As far as exploring other lifeforms is concerned, any applied strategy must exclude biological contamination – not only to protect ourselves, but also to support cosmic biodiversity. No legally enforceable procedures are in place yet, and a broad dialogue on the development of a societal agenda on extra-terrestrial life is required.

    The search for life elsewhere is nothing but a search for ourselves, where we came from, why we are here, and where we will be going. It encompasses many, if not all, of the fundamental questions in biology, physics, and chemistry, but also in philosophy, psychology, religion and the way in which humans interact with their environment and each other. The question of whether we are alone in the Universe still remains unanswered, with no scientific evidence yet supporting one possible outcome or the other. If, however, extra-terrestrial life does exist, an emerging new age of exploration may well allow living generations to witness its detection.

    See the full article here.

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools


    STEM Education Coalition

  • richardmitnick 1:12 pm on August 8, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , KQED, SETI Institute,   

    From KQED via UC Santa Cruz: “What Would Really Happen If a Tsunami Hit San Francisco?” 

    UC Santa Cruz

    UC Santa Cruz

    KQED bloc

    August 5, 2015
    Johanna Varner, KQED Science


    As part of our series Bay Curious, we’re answering questions from KQED listeners and readers. This question comes from Steven Horowitz, who wanted to know:

    If a tsunami were to hit the Golden Gate, what would be its real effect on communities facing the San Francisco Bay?

    Steven’s question came from watching the summer’s action flick, “San Andreas.”

    “I was sitting there watching the giant tsunami course through the Golden Gate and into the bay,” he says. “I looked at that and thought: Wouldn’t there be some kind of dissipation coming through the Golden Gate?”

    It’s All About Our Faults

    Despite the terrifying image of a 500-foot wave about to wash over the Golden Gate Bridge, tsunamis do not actually pose a considerable threat to the Bay Area.

    It all has to do with the kinds of geologic faults that we have (and don’t have).

    Tsunamis are caused when a tectonic plate under the ocean smashes into and slides underneath a continent.

    The tectonic plates of the world were mapped in the second half of the 20th century.

    That process, known as subduction, never happens smoothly or quietly. It shakes up the seabed, displacing a huge volume of ocean water that races across the ocean, and eventually floods the shore.

    But the San Andreas Fault is different.

    Map of the San Andreas Fault, showing relative motion

    It’s called a slip-strike fault because the two plates slide past each other horizontally. Of course, any time plates move, the ground shakes. But here, there is no subduction and no displaced ocean.

    Meaning no killer tsunamis. Even San Francisco’s infamous 1906 earthquake generated only a 4-inch wave at the Presidio gauge station.

    Small Waves Still Pack a Punch

    Although they aren’t generated here, tsunamis do occasionally hit our shores. Since 1850, more than 50 tsunamis have been recorded in San Francisco Bay. Most were generated by earthquakes in subduction zones near Russia, Japan or Alaska.

    Eric Geist, a geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, says that size is the most important factor in evaluating risk.

    “We can look at anything, from huge waves to micro-tsunamis, that you’d never see with your eyes but our instruments can detect,” he says.

    The worst tsunami to hit the Bay Area was triggered in 1964 by a magnitude 9.4 earthquake in Alaska, Geist says. That wave rolled in at just under 4 feet and damaged marinas and private boats in Marin County.

    The infamous 2011 tsunami that devastated parts of Japan also arrived in the East Bay 10 ten hours later at just over a foot in height, and caused millions of dollars of damage in Crescent City.

    The 2011 Japanese tsunami, photographed as it arrived in Emeryville.

    The Cascadia subduction zone, which runs roughly from Mendocino County to Vancouver Island, could also produce a massive earthquake and tsunami.

    The area of the Cascadia subduction zone.

    But Geist says it’s unclear how a tsunami from “The Really Big One” would affect the Bay Area.

    “Oregon, Washington and California north of Eureka would really bear the brunt of that tsunami,” he explains.

    But What If a Big One Arrived?

    Although it’s unlikely, Steven Ward, a professor of Earth & Planetary Sciences at UC Santa Cruz, has created a series of animations to show how a big tsunami might spread through San Francisco Bay.

    In Ward’s simulations, the incoming wave stands just over 16 feet tall. This is much larger than historical tsunamis, but Geist agrees that a wave this size is theoretically possible.

    Approaching the Golden Gate at 55 mph, the wave would first hit the outlying areas of Point Reyes National Seashore and Montara. It would then start to flood low-lying areas like Half Moon Bay.

    “It’s not like splash and dash,” explains Ward. “When the water comes in, it’s going to flood.”

    It would feel like a 12-hour tidal cycle was packed into an hour.

    “And it will do as much damage when it goes back out and drags along cars and debris,” he adds.

    A 30-foot-high tsunami would barely reach the top of the pylon on the Golden Gate Bridge. (Salim Virji/Flickr)

    The original wave and splashbacks from shore would then start to pile up as they squeeze through the 1-mile-wide Golden Gate Strait. In Ward’s simulations, the wave reaches a maximum height of about 30 feet.

    “That’s barely to the top the pylon,” says Ward, who is confident that the bridge would have no trouble withstanding the wave energy. “It probably wouldn’t even touch the steel.”

    Finally, the wave would fan out into San Francisco Bay. Parts of Mission Bay and the Marina could see significant flooding, but by the time it reached Treasure Island or the East Bay, the wave would be less than 3 feet tall. It would probably not even make it to the South Bay.

    Red regions of San Francisco may be vulnerable to inundation by a tsunami.

    Verdict: San Francisco Is Relatively Safe

    Steven Horowitz, who asked Bay Curious the question, was glad to hear that the tsunami would be nothing like the movie.

    “By the time it gets to Berkeley, which is where I’m sitting right now, I think I’m pretty safe,” he says. “Sounds like it’s not going to come rushing up University Avenue.”

    Bay Area residents can also rest assured that there have been no recorded deaths from tsunami-related events in San Francisco. And even a worst-case-scenario Cascadia tsunami would take several hours to reach the city, providing ample time to mobilize a response.

    And just in case, the City and County of San Francisco has a tsunami plan in place. It includes a strategy for evacuating people from vulnerable areas like Ocean Beach, coordinating basic services (like shelter, water, food, and medical attention) and performing search and rescue.

    Still, “if you get a warning and are in a tsunami zone, follow the evacuation instructions,” says Ward. “What do you have to lose, a couple hours of your time?”

    See the full article here, and you can view the animations referred to above.

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

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

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