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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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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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  • richardmitnick 9:32 am on October 27, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From Seth Shostak at SETI Institute: “The Mysterious Star KIC 8462852” 

    SETI Institute


    SETI Seth Shostak
    Dr. Seth Shostak wrote this article

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

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

    NASA Kepler Telescope

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

    See the full article here .

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  • 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
    Tags: , , , SETI Institute   

    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
    Tags: , , , , SETI Institute   

    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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