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  • richardmitnick 3:21 pm on September 3, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "Everything Worth Knowing About ... Alien Contact" Almost, , SETI   

    From Discover: “Everything Worth Knowing About … Alien Contact” Almost 


    Discover Magazine

    June 12, 2017 [Up in social media today 9.3.17]
    Sarah Scoles

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

    The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) has been going for more than 50 years, with ever more sophisticated detection systems and creative ideas about how E.T. might come calling. Astronomers haven’t heard anything yet, but perhaps it’s only a matter of time. Check out what they’ve been looking for, how they would know if they found it and what the aftermath might be.

    How to Listen

    The universe emits many signals of its own. Black holes send out bursts of radio waves, X-rays and gamma rays. The dusty disks of forming planetary systems shine in infrared waves. Scientists must separate those so-called dumb signals from the smart signals that might come from extraterrestrials. Because of that necessary sifting, they assume that aliens would try to make their messages look different from the natural pings of the universe. In general, astronomers look for two hallmarks of technology.

    Jay Smith

    Frequency compression: Narrowband signals come in on a small range of frequencies, like an individual radio station. Broadband signals spread across a wider range, like a broadcast that contains the whole FM band at once. Natural objects can only make signals so skinny, so if scientists see one that covers a tiny range of frequencies — like a laser or a satellite ping — they know it had to come from technology.

    Time compression: Scientists look for signals that last only for a flash and repeat, perhaps in a pattern that looks purposeful.

    BONUS! Almost-but-not-quite-natural-looking: Astronomers also keep their telescopes’ eyes out for anything that looks nearly natural. When researchers discovered fast radio bursts — superquick bursts that release at least as much energy in milliseconds as the sun does in a month — they threw around “aliens” as a (dim) possible explanation. And when astronomers discovered a star in 2015 whose light seems to occasionally get blocked by something big, one researcher proposed it was an alien megastructure. We still aren’t sure what causes either phenomenon, but scientists are studying them as natural emissions from the universe.

    Are We There Yet?

    You wouldn’t dip a glass in the ocean, come up with no fish inside and conclude, “No fish exist.” Astronomer Jill Tarter often says that’s where humans are with SETI.

    SETI’s Jill Tarter

    To fill enough glasses to get a good sense, researchers want to look at 1 million stars within 1,000 light-years of Earth and scan all the frequencies between 1 and 10 gigahertz. When they’ve done that, maybe they’ll have caught a fish or two — or will at least be able to say more about how many swim in the cosmic sea. Here’s how close they’ve gotten, proportionally, to that goal.

    99.959% How much searching astronomers still have to do to “cover” 1 million stars.

    0.041% How much of that search they have completed, for all radio SETI projects.

    Jay Smith

    Cinematic SETI

    Sometimes, fictional film people meet extraterrestrial beings. When the encounters are good, they are very, very good. But when they are bad, they are horrid — and leave humans destabilized or dead. Here, we’ve ranked some of the most famous first-contact movies according to how naughty or nice the aliens are, as well as how realistic they, their technology and Earth’s response are.

    No image caption or credit

    Our Best Bets

    Just as you wouldn’t bird-watch in interior Antarctica, you wouldn’t search for aliens in inhospitable environments. Astronomers have discovered thousands of planets, but only a few so far meet our basic requirements for possibly hosting life: being rocky and in the habitable zones around their stars (where water can stay liquid). Here are a few potentially life-friendly star systems where astronomers will aim their alien-seeking telescopes.

    Proxima Centauri

    Centauris Alpha Beta Proxima 27, February 2012. Skatebiker

    The star system closest to our sun has a planet — Proxima b — similar to Earth’s mass. No one knows if it has any water, but it’s just 4 light-years away, so maybe we could find out in person someday.

    Wolf 1061

    Wolf 1061. http://www.drewexmachina.com/2015/12/19/habitable-planet-reality-check-wolf-1061/

    The second planet in this star’s solar system is the next-closest Earth-ish-sized planet in a habitable zone, after Proxima b. It’s just 14 light-years from where you’re sitting right now.

    GJ 667


    A mere 22 light-years away, this solar system has three super-Earth planets — between Earth’s and Uranus’ mass — in the habitable zone. And in the hunt for extraterrestrial life, every possibility counts.


    Some 39 light-years away, this sun has three potentially rocky planets in its habitable zone and — bonus — four additional rocky planets. That’s seven Earth-ish-sized planets in one spot!

    A size comparison of the planets of the TRAPPIST-1 system, lined up in order of increasing distance from their host star. The planetary surfaces are portrayed with an artist’s impression of their potential surface features, including water, ice, and atmospheres. NASA

    Kepler 186


    About 561 light-years away, the fifth planet discovered in this dwarf-star system circles its star’s habitable zone. The planet was the first astronomers found with a size similar to Earth’s.

    Searches Past and Present

    1960 Astronomer Frank Drake performs the first modern SETI experiment, called Project Ozma (after a Wizard of Oz character). With an 85-foot radio telescope in Green Bank, W.Va., he looks at two sunlike stars for signs of alien technology.

    In 1960, radioastronomer Frank D. Drake, then at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Green Bank, West Virginia, carried out humanity’s first attempt to detect interstellar radio transmissions. Project Ozma was named after the queen of L. Frank Baum’s imaginary land of Oz — a place “very far away, difficult to reach, and populated by strange and exotic beings.” The stars chosen by Drake for the first SETI search were Tau Ceti in the Constellation Cetus (the Whale) and Epsilon Eridani in the Constellation Eridanus (the River), some eleven light years (66 trillion miles) away. Both stars are about the same age as our sun.

    Frank Drake

    1961 A small SETI conference takes place in Green Bank, at which Drake presents what’s now called the Drake Equation, which scientists use to estimate how many extraterrestrial civilizations may exist in our galaxy.

    Drake Equation, Frank Drake, Seti Institute

    1973 Ohio State University undertakes a SETI program with its Big Ear Observatory.

    Ohio State Big Ear Radio Telescope

    1979 The University of California, Berkeley, begins a long-lived project called SERENDIP — the Search for Extraterrestrial Radio from Nearby Developed Populations — at Hat Creek Observatory in Northern California.

    The most recently deployed SERENDIP spectrometer, SERENDIP V.v, was installed at the Arecibo Observatory in June 2009 and is currently operational.

    NAIC/Arecibo Observatory, Puerto Rico, USA

    The digital back-end instrument is an FPGA-based 128 million-channel digital spectrometer covering 200 MHz of bandwidth. It takes data commensally with the seven-beam Arecibo L-band Feed Array[2] (ALFA).

    The next generation of SERENDIP experiments, SERENDIP VI, is in rapid development with a view to deploy it in early 2014 at both Arecibo and the Green Bank Telescope.

    GBO radio telescope, Green Bank, West Virginia, USA

    SERENDIP VI will also look for fast radio bursts.[3] SERENDIP VI receivers went into service in 2014-2015.

    1983 At Harvard University, astronomer Paul Horowitz launches Project Sentinel, using an 84-foot radio telescope.

    1988 NASA endorses its SETI studies, and scientists begin building the instruments they need to perform a search.

    1992 NASA’s SETI project, now the High Resolution Microwave Survey (HRMS), turns paperwork and plans into a physical project at Goldstone Observatory in California and the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico.

    1993 Just a year after its start, HRMS ends when Congress cancels its funding.

    1995 The private SETI Institute raises philanthropic funds and starts Project Phoenix, a reincarnated version of HRMS.

    1995 Horowitz continues his SETI work at Harvard with the Billion-Channel Extraterrestrial Assay (BETA).

    1999 Berkeley launches the citizen science project SETI@home, which lets your computer, in its downtime, dip into SERENDIP data.

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

    2004 Allen Telescope Array. First conceived by SETI pioneer Frank Drake, the idea has been a dream of the SETI Institute for years. However, it was not until early 2001 that research and development began, after a donation of $11.5 million by the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. In March 2004, following the successful completion of a three-year research and development phase, the SETI Institute unveiled a three-tier construction plan for the telescope. Construction began immediately, thanks to the pledge of $13.5 million by Paul Allen (co-founder of Microsoft) to support the construction of the first and second phases. The SETI Institute named the telescope in Allen’s honor. 2005 The SETI Institute begins building a telescope dedicated to searches for aliens.Overall, Paul Allen has contributed more than $30 million to the project.

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

    2015 METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence) International begins an optical SETI program at the Boquete Observatory in Panama.

    Boquete Observatory

    2016 The $100 million Breakthrough Listen project, sponsored by Russian magnate Yuri Milner, begins a 10-year search that includes both radio and optical strategies.

    Breakthrough Listen Project


    100 Meter Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope

    64-metre diameter Parkes Telescope

    Lick Automated Planet Finder telescope, Mount Hamilton, CA, USA

    Automated Planet Finder Telescope at Lick Observatory

    SETI Institute

    Still To Come:


    July 31, 2017
    New Laser SETI project will look for signals that most telescopes cannot see.
    Please visit https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/laser-seti-first-ever-all-sky-all-the-time-search-science#/ to learn all about Laser SETI.


    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition

  • richardmitnick 9:01 pm on July 21, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Messier 13, , , SETI, The Arecibo message,   

    From NYT: “Greetings, E.T. (Please Don’t Murder Us.)” 

    New York Times

    The New York Times

    JUNE 28, 2017

    A new initiative to beam messages into space may be
    our best shot yet at learning whether we’re alone in the
    universe. There’s just one problem: What if we’re not?

    On Nov. 16, 1974, a few hundred astronomers, government officials and other dignitaries gathered in the tropical forests of Puerto Rico’s northwest interior, a four-hour drive from San Juan. The occasion was a rechristening of the Arecibo Observatory, at the time the largest radio telescope in the world.

    NAIC/Arecibo Observatory, Puerto Rico, USA

    The mammoth structure — an immense concrete-and-aluminum saucer as wide as the Eiffel Tower is tall, planted implausibly inside a limestone sinkhole in the middle of a mountainous jungle — had been upgraded to ensure its ability to survive the volatile hurricane season and to increase its precision tenfold.

    To celebrate the reopening, the astronomers who maintained the observatory decided to take the most sensitive device yet constructed for listening to the cosmos and transform it, briefly, into a machine for talking back. After a series of speeches, the assembled crowd sat in silence at the edge of the telescope while the public-address system blasted nearly three minutes of two-tone noise through the muggy afternoon heat. To the listeners, the pattern was indecipherable, but somehow the experience of hearing those two notes oscillating in the air moved many in the crowd to tears.

    That 168 seconds of noise, now known as the Arecibo message, was the brainchild of the astronomer Frank Drake, then the director of the organization that oversaw the Arecibo facility.

    Frank Drake

    The broadcast marked the first time a human being had intentionally transmitted a message targeting another solar system. The engineers had translated the missive into sound, so that the assembled group would have something to experience during the transmission. But its true medium was the silent, invisible pulse of radio waves, traveling at the speed of light.

    It seemed to most of the onlookers to be a hopeful act, if a largely symbolic one: a message in a bottle tossed into the sea of deep space. But within days, the Royal Astronomer of England, Martin Ryle, released a thunderous condemnation of Drake’s stunt. By alerting the cosmos of our existence, Ryle wrote, we were risking catastrophe. Arguing that ‘‘any creatures out there [might be] malevolent or hungry,’’ Ryle demanded that the International Astronomical Union denounce Drake’s message and explicitly forbid any further communications. It was irresponsible, Ryle fumed, to tinker with interstellar outreach when such gestures, however noble their intentions, might lead to the destruction of all life on earth.

    Today, more than four decades later, we still do not know if Ryle’s fears were warranted, because the Arecibo message is still eons away from its intended recipient, a cluster of roughly 300,000 stars known as Messier 13. If you find yourself in the Northern Hemisphere this summer on a clear night, locate the Hercules constellation in the sky, 21 stars that form the image of a man, arms outstretched, perhaps kneeling. Imagine hurtling 250 trillion miles toward those stars. Though you would have traveled far outside our solar system, you would only be a tiny fraction of the way to Messier 13. But if you were somehow able to turn on a ham radio receiver and tune it to 2,380 MHz, you might catch the message in flight: a long series of rhythmic pulses, 1,679 of them to be exact, with a clear, repetitive structure that would make them immediately detectable as a product of intelligent life.

    In its intended goal of communicating with life-forms outside our planet, the Arecibo message has surprisingly sparse company. Perhaps the most famous is housed aboard the Voyager 1 spacecraft — a gold-plated audiovisual disc, containing multilingual greetings and other evidence of human civilization — which slipped free of our solar system just a few years ago, traveling at a relatively sluggish 35,000 miles per hour. By contrast, at the end of the three-minute transmission of the Arecibo message, its initial pulses had already reached the orbit of Mars. The entire message took less than a day to leave the solar system.

    NASA/Voyager 1

    Voyager – The Interstellar Mission. THE GOLDEN RECORD.

    True, some signals emanating from human activity have traveled much farther than even Arecibo, thanks to the incidental leakage of radio and television broadcasts. This was a key plot point in Carl Sagan’s novel, ‘‘Contact,’’ which imagined an alien civilization detecting the existence of humans through early television broadcasts from the Berlin Olympic Games, including clips of Hitler speaking at the opening ceremony.


    Those grainy signals of Jesse Owens, and later of Howdy Doody and the McCarthy hearings, have ventured farther into space than the Arecibo pulses. But in the 40 years since Drake transmitted the message, just over a dozen intentional messages have been sent to the stars, most of them stunts of one fashion or another, including one broadcast of the Beatles’ ‘‘Across the Universe’’ to commemorate the 40th anniversary of that song’s recording. (We can only hope the aliens, if they exist, receive that message before they find the Hitler footage.)

    In the age of radio telescopes, scientists have spent far more energy trying to look for signs that other life might exist than they have signaling the existence of our own. Drake himself is now more famous for inaugurating the modern search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) nearly 60 years ago, when he used a telescope in West Virginia to scan two stars for structured radio waves. Today the nonprofit SETI Institute oversees a network of telescopes and computers listening for signs of intelligence in deep space.

    SETI Institute

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

    A new SETI-like project called Breakthrough Listen, funded by a $100 million grant from the Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, promises to radically increase our ability to detect signs of intelligent life.

    Breakthrough Listen Project


    Lick Automated Planet Finder telescope, Mount Hamilton, CA, USA

    GBO radio telescope, Green Bank, West Virginia, USA

    CSIRO/Parkes Observatory, located 20 kilometres north of the town of Parkes, New South Wales, Australia

    As a species, we are gathered around more interstellar mailboxes than ever before, waiting eagerly for a letter to arrive. But we have, until recently, shown little interest in sending our own.

    Now this taciturn phase may be coming to an end, if a growing multidisciplinary group of scientists and amateur space enthusiasts have their way. A newly formed group known as METI (Messaging Extra Terrestrial Intelligence), led by the former SETI scientist Douglas Vakoch, is planning an ongoing series of messages to begin in 2018.

    METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence) International has announced plans to start sending signals into space

    And Milner’s Breakthrough Listen endeavor has also promised to support a ‘‘Breakthrough Message’’ companion project, including an open competition to design the messages that we will transmit to the stars. But as messaging schemes proliferate, they have been met with resistance. The intellectual descendants of Martin Ryle include luminaries like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, and they caution that an assumption of interstellar friendship is the wrong way to approach the question of extraterrestrial life. They argue that an advanced alien civilization might well respond to our interstellar greetings with the same graciousness that Cortés showed the Aztecs, making silence the more prudent option.

    If you believe that these broadcasts have a plausible chance of making contact with an alien intelligence, the choice to send them must rank as one of the most important decisions we will ever make as a species. Are we going to be galactic introverts, huddled behind the door and merely listening for signs of life outside? Or are we going to be extroverts, conversation-starters? And if it’s the latter, what should we say?

    Amid the decommissioned splendor of Fort Mason, on the northern edge of San Francisco, sits a bar and event space called the Interval. It’s run by the Long Now Foundation, an organization founded by Stewart Brand and Brian Eno, among others, to cultivate truly long-term thinking. The group is perhaps most famous for its plan to build a clock that will successfully keep time for 10,000 years. Long Now says the San Francisco space is designed to push the mind away from our attention-sapping present, and this is apparent from the 10,000-year clock prototypes to the menu of ‘‘extinct’’ cocktails.

    The Interval seemed like a fitting backdrop for my first meeting with Doug Vakoch, in part because Long Now has been advising METI on its message plans and in part because the whole concept of sending interstellar messages is the epitome of long-term decision-making. The choice to send a message into space is one that may well not generate a meaningful outcome for a thousand years, or a hundred thousand. It is hard to imagine any decision confronting humanity that has a longer time horizon.

    As Vakoch and I settled into a booth, I asked him how he found his way to his current vocation. ‘‘I liked science when I was a kid, but I couldn’t make up my mind which science,’’ he told me. Eventually, he found out about a burgeoning new field of study known as exobiology, or sometimes astrobiology, that examined the possible forms life could take on other planets. The field was speculative by nature: After all, its researchers had no actual specimens to study. To imagine other forms of life in the universe, exobiologists had to be versed in the astrophysics of stars and planets; the chemical reactions that could capture and store energy in these speculative organisms; the climate science that explains the weather systems on potentially life-compatible planets; the biological forms that might evolve in those different environments. With exobiology, Vakoch realized, he didn’t have to settle on one discipline: ‘‘When you think about life outside the earth, you get to dabble in all of them.’’

    As early as high school, Vakoch began thinking about how you might communicate with an organism that had evolved on another planet, the animating question of a relatively obscure subfield of exobiology known as exosemiotics. By the time Vakoch reached high school in the 1970s, radio astronomy had advanced far enough to turn exosemiotics from a glorified thought experiment into something slightly more practical. Vakoch did a science-fair project on interstellar languages, and he continued to follow the field during his college years, even as he was studying comparative religion at Carleton College in Minnesota. ‘‘The issue that really hit me early on, and that has stayed with me, is just the challenge of creating a message that would be understandable,’’ Vakoch says. Hedging his bets, he pursued a graduate degree in clinical psychology, thinking it might help him better understand the mind of some unknown organism across the universe. If the exosemiotics passion turned out to be a dead end professionally, he figured that he could always retreat back to a more traditional career path as a psychologist.

    During Vakoch’s graduate years, SETI was transforming itself from a NASA program sustained by government funding to an independent nonprofit organization, supported in part by the new fortunes of the tech sector. Vakoch moved to California and joined SETI in 1999. In the years that followed, Vakoch and other scientists involved in the program grew increasingly vocal in their argument for sending messages as well as listening for them. The ‘‘passive’’ approach was essential, they argued, but an ‘‘active’’ SETI — one targeting nearby star systems with high-powered radio signals — would increase the odds of contact. Concerned that embracing an active approach would imperil its funding, the SETI board resisted Vakoch’s efforts. Eventually Vakoch decided to form his own international organization, METI, with a multidisciplinary team that includes the former NASA chief historian Steven J. Dick, the French science historian Florence Raulin Cerceau, the Indian ecologist Abhik Gupta and the Canadian anthropologist Jerome H. Barkow.

    The newfound interest in messaging has been piqued in large part by an explosion of newly discovered planets. We now know that the universe is teeming with planets occupying what exobiologists call ‘‘the Goldilocks zone’’: not too hot and not too cold, with ‘‘just right’’ surface temperatures capable of supporting liquid water. At the start of Drake’s career in the 1950s, not a single planet outside our solar system had been observed. Today we can target a long list of potential Goldilocks-zone planets, not just distant clusters of stars. ‘‘Now we know that virtually all stars have planets,’’ Vakoch says, adding that, of these stars, ‘‘maybe one out of five have potentially habitable planets. So there’s a lot of real estate that could be inhabited.’’

    When Frank Drake and Carl Sagan first began thinking about message construction in the 1960s, their approach was genuinely equivalent to the proverbial message in a bottle. Now, we may not know the exact addresses of planets where life is likely, but we have identified many promising ZIP codes. The recent discovery of the Trappist-1 planets, three of which are potentially habitable, triggered such excitement in part because those planets were, relatively speaking, so close to home: just 40 light-years from Earth.

    The TRAPPIST-1 star, an ultracool dwarf, is orbited by seven Earth-size planets (NASA).

    If the Arecibo message does somehow find its way to an advanced civilization in Messier 13, word would not come back for at least 50,000 years. But a targeted message sent to Trappist-1 could generate a reply before the end of the century.

    Frank Drake is now 87 and lives with his wife in a house nestled in an old-growth redwood forest, at the end of a narrow, winding road in the hills near Santa Cruz. His circular driveway wraps around the trunk of a redwood bigger than a pool table. As I left my car, I found myself thinking again of the long now: a man who sends messages with a potential life span of 50,000 years, living among trees that first took root a millennium ago.

    Drake has been retired for more than a decade, but when I asked him about the Arecibo message, his face lit up at the memory. ‘‘We had just finished a very big construction project at Arecibo, and I was director then, and so they said, ‘Can you please arrange a big ceremony?’ ’’ he recalled. ‘‘We had to have some kind of eye-catching event for this ceremony. What could we do that would be spectacular? We could send a message!’’

    But how can you send a message to a life-form that may or may not exist and that you know nothing at all about, other than the fact that it evolved somewhere in the Milky Way? You need to start by explaining how the message is supposed to be read, which is known in exosemiotics as the ‘‘primer.’’ You don’t need a primer on Earth: You point to a cow, and you say, ‘‘Cow.’’ The plaques that NASA sent into space with Pioneer and Voyager had the advantage of being physical objects that could convey visual information, which at least enables you to connect words with images of the objects they refer to. In other words, you draw a cow and then put the word ‘‘cow’’ next to the drawing and slowly, with enough pointing, a language comes into view. But physical objects can’t be moved fast enough to get to a potential recipient in useful time scales. You need electromagnetic waves if you want to reach across the Milky Way.

    But how do you point to something with a radio wave? Even if you figured out a way to somehow point to a cow with electromagnetic signals, the aliens aren’t going to have cows in their world, which means the reference will most likely be lost on them. Instead, you need to think hard about the things that our hypothetical friends in the Trappist-1 system will have in common with us. If their civilization is advanced enough to recognize structured data in radio waves, they must share many of our scientific and technological concepts. If they are hearing our message, that means they are capable of parsing structured disturbances in the electromagnetic spectrum, which means they understand the electromagnetic spectrum in some meaningful way.

    The trick, then, is just getting the conversation started. Drake figured that he could count on intelligent aliens possessing the concept of simple numbers: one, three, 10, etc. And if they have numbers, then they will also very likely have the rest of what we know as basic math: addition, subtraction, multiplication, division. Furthermore, Drake reasoned, if they have multiplication and division, then they are likely to understand the concept of prime numbers — the group of numbers that are divisible only by themselves and one. (In ‘‘Contact,’’ the intercepted alien message begins with a long string of primes: 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, and so on.) Many objects in space, like pulsars, send out radio signals with a certain periodicity: flashes of electromagnetic activity that switch on and off at regular rates. Primes, however, are a telltale sign of intelligent life. ‘‘Nature never uses prime numbers,’’ Drake says. ‘‘But mathematicians do.’’

    Drake’s Arecibo message drew upon a close relative of the prime numbers to construct its message. He chose to send exactly 1,679 pulses, because 1,679 is a semiprime number: a number that can be formed only by multiplying two prime numbers together, in this case 73 and 23. Drake used that mathematical quirk to turn his pulses of electromagnetic energy into a visual system. To simplify his approach, imagine I send you a message consisting of 10 X’s and 5 O’s: XOXOXXXXOXXOXOX. You notice that the number 15 is a semi-prime number, and so you organize the symbols in a 3-by-5 grid and leave the O’s as blank spaces. The result is this:


    If you were an English speaker, you might just recognize a greeting in that message, the word ‘‘HI’’ mapped out using only a binary language of on-and-off states.

    Drake took the same approach, only using a much larger semiprime, which gave him a 23-by-73 grid to send a more complicated message. Because his imagined correspondents in Messier 13 were not likely to understand any human language, he filled the grid with a mix of mathematical and visual referents. The top of the grid counted from one to 10 in binary code — effectively announcing to the aliens that numbers will be represented using these symbols.

    Having established a way of counting, Drake then moved to connect the concept of numbers to some reference that the citizens of Messier 13 would likely share with us. For this step, he encoded the atomic numbers for five elements: hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and phosphorous, the building blocks of DNA. Other parts of the message were more visually oriented. Drake used the on-off pulses of the radio signal to ‘‘draw’’ a pixelated image of a human body. He also included a sketch of our solar system and of the Arecibo telescope itself. The message said, in effect: This is how we count; this is what we are made of; this is where we came from; this is what we look like; and this is the technology we are using to send this message to you.

    As inventive as Drake’s exosemiotics were in 1974, the Arecibo message was ultimately more of a proof-of-concept than a genuine attempt to make contact, as Drake himself is the first to admit. For starters, the 25,000 light-years that separate us from Messier 13 raise a legitimate question about whether humans will even be around — or recognizably human — by the time a message comes back. The choice of where to send it was almost entirely haphazard. The METI project intends to improve on the Arecibo model by directly targeting nearby Goldilocks-zone planets.

    One of the most recent planets added to that list orbits the star Gliese 411, a red dwarf located eight light-years away from Earth.

    On a spring evening in the Oakland hills, our own sun putting on a spectacular display as it slowly set over the Golden Gate Bridge, Vakoch and I met at one of the observatories at the Chabot Space and Science Center to take a peek at Gliese 411. A half moon overhead reduced our visibility but not so much that I couldn’t make out the faint tangerine glimmer of the star, a single blurred point of light that had traveled nearly 50 trillion miles across the universe to land on my retina. Even with the power of the Oakland telescope, there was no way to spot a planet orbiting the red dwarf. But in February of this year, a team of researchers using the Keck I telescope at the top of Mauna Kea in Hawaii announced that they had detected a ‘‘super-earth’’ in orbit around Gliese, a rocky and hot planet larger than our own.

    Keck Observatory, Maunakea, Hawaii, USA

    Artist’s conceptions of the probable planet orbiting a star called GJ 411. Credit: Ricardo Ramirez.

    The METI group aims to improve on the Arecibo message not just by targeting specific planets, like that super-earth orbiting Gliese, but also by rethinking the nature of the message itself. ‘‘Drake’s original design plays into the bias that vision is universal among intelligent life,’’ Vakoch told me. Visual diagrams — whether formed through semiprime grids or engraved on plaques — seem like a compelling way to encode information to us because humans happen to have evolved an unusually acute sense of vision. But perhaps the aliens followed a different evolutionary path and found their way to a technologically advanced civilization with an intelligence that was rooted in some other sense: hearing, for example, or some other way of perceiving the world around them for which there is no earthly equivalent.

    Like so much of the SETI/METI debate, the question of visual messaging quickly spirals out into a deeper meditation, in this instance on the connection between intelligence and visual acuity. It is no accident that eyes developed independently so many times over the course of evolution on Earth, given the fact that light conveys information faster than any other conduit. That transmission-speed advantage would presumably apply on other planets in the Goldilocks zone, even if they happened to be on the other side of the Milky Way, and so it seems plausible that intelligent creatures would evolve some sort of visual system as well.

    But even more universal than sight would be the experience of time. Hans Freudenthal’s Lincos: Design of a Language for Cosmic Intercourse, a seminal book of exosemiotics published more than a half-century ago, relied heavily on temporal cues in its primer stage. Vakoch and his collaborators have been working with Freudenthal’s language in their early drafts for the message. In Lincos, duration is used as a key building block. A pulse that lasts for a certain stretch (say, in human terms, one second) is followed by a sequence of pulses that signify the ‘‘word’’ for one; a pulse that lasts for six seconds is followed by the word for six. The words for basic math properties can be conveyed by combining pulses of different lengths. You might demonstrate the property of addition by sending the word for ‘‘three’’ and ‘‘six’’ and then sending a pulse that lasts for nine seconds. ‘‘It’s a way of being able to point at objects when you don’t have anything right in front of you,’’ Vakoch explains.

    Other messaging enthusiasts think we needn’t bother worrying about primers and common referents. ‘‘Forget about sending mathematical relationships, the value of pi, prime numbers or the Fibonacci series,’’ the senior SETI astronomer, Seth Shostak, argued in a 2009 book.

    SETI astronomer Seth Shostak

    ‘‘No, if we want to broadcast a message from Earth, I propose that we just feed the Google servers into the transmitter. Send the aliens the World Wide Web. It would take half a year or less to transmit this in the microwave; using infrared lasers shortens the transmit time to no more than two days.’’ Shostak believes that the sheer magnitude of the transmitted data would enable the aliens to decipher it. There is some precedent for this in the history of archaeologists studying dead languages: The hardest code to crack is one with only a few fragments.

    Sending all of Google would be a logical continuation of Drake’s 1974 message, in terms of content if not encoding. ‘‘The thing about the Arecibo message is that, in a sense, it’s brief but its intent is encyclopedic,’’ Vakoch told me as we waited for the sky to darken in the Oakland hills. ‘‘One of the things that we are exploring for our transmission is the opposite extreme. Rather than being encyclopedic, being selective. Instead of this huge digital data dive, trying to do something elegant. Part of that is thinking about what are the most fundamental concepts we need.’’ There is something provocative about the question Vakoch is wrestling with here: Of all the many manifestations of our achievements as a species, what’s the simplest message we can create that will signal that we’re interesting, worthy of an interstellar reply?

    But to METI’s critics, what he should be worrying about instead is the form that the reply might take: a death ray, or an occupying army.


    Before Doug Vakoch had even filed the papers to form the METI nonprofit organization in July 2015, a dozen or so science-and-tech luminaries, including SpaceX’s Elon Musk, signed a statement categorically opposing the project, at least without extensive further discussion, on a planetary scale. ‘‘Intentionally signaling other civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy,’’ the statement argued, ‘‘raises concerns from all the people of Earth, about both the message and the consequences of contact. A worldwide scientific, political and humanitarian discussion must occur before any message is sent.’’

    One signatory to that statement was the astronomer and science-fiction author David Brin, who has been carrying on a spirited but collegial series of debates with Vakoch over the wisdom of his project. ‘‘I just don’t think anybody should give our children a fait accompli based on blithe assumptions and assertions that have been untested and not subjected to critical peer review,’’ he told me over a Skype call from his home office in Southern California. ‘‘If you are going to do something that is going to change some of the fundamental observable parameters of our solar system, then how about an environmental-impact statement?’’

    The anti-METI movement is predicated on a grim statistical likelihood: If we do ever manage to make contact with another intelligent life-form, then almost by definition, our new pen pals will be far more advanced than we are. The best way to understand this is to consider, on a percentage basis, just how young our own high-tech civilization actually is. We have been sending structured radio signals from Earth for only the last 100 years. If the universe were exactly 14 billion years old, then it would have taken 13,999,999,900 years for radio communication to be harnessed on our planet. The odds that our message would reach a society that had been tinkering with radio for a shorter, or even similar, period of time would be staggeringly long. Imagine another planet that deviates from our timetable by just a tenth of 1 percent: If they are more advanced than us, then they will have been using radio (and successor technologies) for 14 million years. Of course, depending on where they live in the universe, their signals might take millions of years to reach us. But even if you factor in that transmission lag, if we pick up a signal from another galaxy, we will almost certainly find ourselves in conversation with a more advanced civilization.

    Carl Sagan holding the Pioneer plaque in Boston, in 1972. Credit Jeff Albertson Photograph Collection/UMass Amherst Libraries.

    It is this asymmetry that has convinced so many future-minded thinkers that METI is a bad idea. The history of colonialism here on Earth weighs particularly heavy on the imaginations of the METI critics. Stephen Hawking, for instance, made this observation in a 2010 documentary series: ‘‘If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.’’ David Brin echoes the Hawking critique: ‘‘Every single case we know of a more technologically advanced culture contacting a less technologically advanced culture resulted at least in pain.’’

    METI proponents counter the critics with two main arguments. The first is essentially that the horse has already left the barn: Given that we have been ‘‘leaking’’ radio waves in the form of Leave It to Beaver and the nightly news for decades, and given that other civilizations are likely to be far more advanced than we are, and thus capable of detecting even weak signals, then it seems likely that we are already visible to extraterrestrials. In other words, they know we’re here, but they haven’t considered us to be worthy of conversation yet. ‘‘Maybe in fact there are a lot more civilizations out there, and even nearby planets are populated, but they’re simply observing us,’’ Vakoch argues. ‘‘It’s as if we are in some galactic zoo, and if they’ve been watching us, it’s like watching zebras talking to one another. But what if one of those zebras suddenly turns toward you and with its hooves starts scratching out the prime numbers. You’d relate to that zebra differently!’’

    Brin thinks that argument dangerously underestimates the difference between a high-power, targeted METI transmission and the passive leakage of media signals, which are far more difficult to detect. ‘‘Think about it this way: If you want to communicate with a Boy Scout camp on the other side of the lake, you could kneel down at the end of the lake and slap the water in Morse code,’’ he says. ‘‘And if they are spectacularly technologically advanced Boy Scouts who happened also to be looking your way, they might build instruments that would be able to parse out your Morse code. But then you whip out your laser-pointer and point it at their dock. That is exactly the order of magnitude difference between picking up [reruns of] ‘I Love Lucy’ from the 1980s, when we were at our noisiest, and what these guys want to do.’’

    METI defenders also argue that the threat of some Klingon-style invasion is implausible, given the distances involved. If, in fact, advanced civilizations were capable of zipping around the galaxy at the speed of light, we would have already encountered them. The much more likely situation is that only communications can travel that fast, and so a malevolent presence on some distant planet will only be able to send us hate mail. But critics think that sense of security is unwarranted. Writing in Scientific American, the former chairman of SETI, John Gertz, argued that ‘‘a civilization with malign intent that is only modestly more advanced than we are might be able to annihilate Earth with ease by means of a small projectile filled with a self-replicating toxin or nano gray goo; a kinetic missile traveling at an appreciable percentage of the speed of light; or weaponry beyond our imagination.’’

    Brin looks to our own technological progress as a sign of where a more advanced civilization might be in terms of interstellar combat: ‘‘It is possible that within just 50 years, we could create an antimatter rocket that could propel a substantial pellet of several kilograms, at half the speed of light at times to intersect with the orbit of a planet within 10 light-years of us.’’ Even a few kilograms colliding at that speed would produce an explosion much greater than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki detonations combined. ‘‘And if we could do that in 50 years, imagine what anybody else could do, completely obeying Einstein and the laws of physics.’’

    Interestingly, Frank Drake himself is not a supporter of the METI efforts, though he does not share Hawking and Musk’s fear of interstellar conquistadors. ‘‘We send messages all the time, free of charge,’’ he says. ‘‘There’s a big shell out there now 80 light-years around us. A civilization only a little more advanced than we are can pick those things up. So the point is we are already sending copious amounts of information.’’ Drake believes that any other advanced civilization out there must be doing the same, so scientists like Vakoch should devote themselves to picking up on that chatter instead of trying to talk back. METI will consume resources, Drake says, that would be ‘‘better spent listening and not sending.’’

    METI critics, of course, might be right about the frightening sophistication of these other, presumably older civilizations but wrong about the likely nature of their response. Yes, they could be capable of sending projectiles across the galaxy at a quarter of the speed of light. But their longevity would also suggest that they have figured out how to avoid self-destruction on a planetary scale. As Steven Pinker has argued, human beings have become steadily less violent over the last 500 years; per capita deaths from military conflict are most likely at an all-time low. Could this be a recurring pattern throughout the universe, played out on much longer time scales: the older a civilization gets, the less warlike it becomes? In which case, if we do get a message to extraterrestrials, then perhaps they really will come in peace.

    These sorts of questions inevitably circle back to the two foundational thought experiments that SETI and METI are predicated upon: the Fermi Paradox and the Drake Equation. The paradox, first formulated by the Italian physicist and Nobel laureate Enrico Fermi, begins with the assumption that the universe contains an unthinkably large number of stars, with a significant percentage of them orbited by planets in the Goldilocks zone. If intelligent life arises on even a small fraction of those planets, then the universe should be teeming with advanced civilizations. And yet to date, we have seen no evidence of those civilizations, even after several decades of scanning the skies through SETI searches. Fermi’s question, apparently raised during a lunch conversation at Los Alamos in the early 1950s, was a simple one: ‘‘Where is everybody?’’

    The Drake Equation is an attempt to answer that question. The equation dates back to one of the great academic retreats in the history of scholarship: a 1961 meeting at the Green Bank observatory in West Virginia, which included Frank Drake, a 26-year-old Carl Sagan and the dolphin researcher (and later psychedelic explorer) John Lilly. During the session, Drake shared his musings on the Fermi Paradox, formulated as an equation. If we start scanning the cosmos for signs of intelligent life, Drake asked, how likely are we to actually detect something? The equation didn’t generate a clear answer, because almost all the variables were unknown at the time and continue to be largely unknown a half-century later. But the equation had a clarifying effect, nonetheless. In mathematical form, it looks like this:

    N= R* x ƒp x ne x ƒl x ƒi x ƒc x L

    N represents the number of extant, communicative civilizations in the Milky Way. The initial variable R* corresponds to the rate of star formation in the galaxy, effectively giving you the total number of potential suns that could support life. The remaining variables then serve as a kind of nested sequence of filters: Given the number of stars in the Milky Way, what fraction of those have planets, and how many of those have an environment that can support life? On those potentially hospitable planets, how often does life itself actually emerge, and what fraction of that life evolves into intelligent life, and what fraction of that life eventually leads to a civilization’s transmitting detectable signals into space? At the end of his equation, Drake placed the crucial variable L, which is the average length of time during which those civilizations emit those signals.

    What makes the Drake Equation so mesmerizing is in part the way it forces the mind to yoke together so many different intellectual disciplines in a single framework. As you move from left to right in the equation, you shift from astrophysics, to the biochemistry of life, to evolutionary theory, to cognitive science, all the way to theories of technological development. Your guess about each value in the Drake Equation winds up revealing a whole worldview: Perhaps you think life is rare, but when it does emerge, intelligent life usually follows; or perhaps you think microbial life is ubiquitous throughout the cosmos, but more complex organisms almost never form. The equation is notoriously vulnerable to very different outcomes, depending on the numbers you assign to each variable.

    The most provocative value is the last one: L, the average life span of a signal-transmitting civilization. You don’t have to be a Pollyanna to defend a relatively high L value. All you need is to believe that it is possible for civilizations to become fundamentally self-sustaining and survive for millions of years. Even if one in a thousand intelligent life-forms in space generates a million-year civilization, the value of L increases meaningfully. But if your L-value is low, that implies a further question: What is keeping it low? Do technological civilizations keep flickering on and off in the Milky Way, like so many fireflies in space? Do they run out of resources? Do they blow themselves up?

    Since Drake first sketched out the equation in 1961, two fundamental developments have reshaped our understanding of the problem. First, the numbers on the left-hand side of the equation (representing the amount of stars with habitable planets) have increased by several orders of magnitude. And second, we have been listening for signals for decades and heard nothing. As Brin puts it: ‘‘Something is keeping the Drake Equation small. And the difference between all the people in the SETI debates is not whether that’s true, but where in the Drake panoply the fault lies.’’

    If the left-hand values keep getting bigger and bigger, the question is which variables on the right-hand side are the filters. As Brin puts it, we want the filter to be behind us, not the one variable, L, that still lies ahead of us. We want the emergence of intelligent life to be astonishingly rare; if the opposite is true, and intelligent life is abundant in the Milky Way, then L values might be low, perhaps measured in centuries and not even millenniums. In that case, the adoption of a technologically advanced lifestyle might be effectively simultaneous with extinction. First you invent radio, then you invent technologies capable of destroying all life on your planet and shortly thereafter you push the button and your civilization goes dark.

    The L-value question explains why so many of METI’s opponents — like Musk and Hawking — are also concerned with the threat of extinction-level events triggered by other potential threats: superintelligent computers, runaway nanobots, nuclear weapons, asteroids. In a low L-value universe, planet-wide annihilation is an imminent possibility. Even if a small fraction of alien civilizations out there would be inclined to shoot a two-kilogram pellet toward us at half the speed of light, is it worth sending a message if there’s even the slightest chance that the reply could result in the destruction of all life on earth?

    Other, more benign, explanations for the Fermi Paradox exist. Drake himself is pessimistic about the L value, but not for dystopian reasons. ‘‘It’s because we’re getting better at technology,’’ he says. The modern descendants of the TV and radio towers that inadvertently sent Elvis to the stars are far more efficient in terms of the power they use, which means the ‘‘leaked’’ signals emanating from Earth are far fainter than they were in the 1950s. In fact, we increasingly share information via fiber optics and other terrestrial conduits that have zero leakage outside our atmosphere. Perhaps technologically advanced societies do flicker on and off like fireflies, but it’s not a sign that they’re self-destructive; it’s just a sign that they got cable.

    But to some METI critics, even a less-apocalyptic interpretation of the Fermi Paradox still suggests caution. Perhaps advanced civilizations tend to reach a point at which they decide, for some unknown reason, that it is in their collective best interest not to transmit any detectable signal to their neighbors in the Milky Way. ‘‘That’s the other answer for the Fermi Paradox,’’ Vakoch says with a smile. ‘‘There’s a Stephen Hawking on every planet, and that’s why we don’t hear from them.’’

    In his California home among the redwoods, Frank Drake has a version of the Arecibo message visually encoded in a very different format: not a series of radio-wave pulses but as a stained-glass window in his living room. A grid of pixels on a cerulean blue background, it almost resembles a game of Space Invaders. Stained glass is an appropriate medium, given the nature of the message: an offering dispatched to unknown beings residing somewhere in the sky.

    There is something about the METI question that forces the mind to stretch beyond its usual limits. You have to imagine some radically different form of intelligence, using only your human intelligence. You have to imagine time scales on which a decision made in 2017 might trigger momentous consequences 10,000 years from now. The sheer magnitude of those consequences challenges our usual measures of cause and effect. Whether you believe that the aliens are likely to be warriors or Zen masters, if you think that METI has a reasonable chance of making contact with another intelligent organism somewhere in the Milky Way, then you have to accept that this small group of astronomers and science-fiction authors and billionaire patrons debating semi-prime numbers and the ubiquity of visual intelligence may in fact be wrestling with a decision that could prove to be the most transformative one in the history of human civilization.

    Frank Drake in front of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory Green Bank 300-foot radio telescope in West Virginia in the mid-1960’s.
    Credit National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

    All of which takes us back to a much more down-to-earth, but no less challenging, question: Who gets to decide? After many years of debate, the SETI community established an agreed-­upon procedure that scientists and government agencies should follow in the event that the SETI searches actually stumble upon an intelligible signal from space. The protocols specifically ordain that ‘‘no response to a signal or other evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence should be sent until appropriate international consultations have taken place.’’ But an equivalent set of guidelines does not yet exist to govern our own interstellar outreach.

    One of the most thoughtful participants in the METI debate, Kathryn Denning, an anthropologist at York University in Toronto, has argued that our decisions about extraterrestrial contact are ultimately more political than scientific. ‘‘If I had to take a position, I’d say that broad consultation regarding METI is essential, and so I greatly respect the efforts in that direction,’’ Denning says. ‘‘But no matter how much consultation there is, it’s inevitable that there will be significant disagreement about the advisability of transmitting, and I don’t think this is the sort of thing where a simple majority vote or even supermajority should carry the day . . . so this keeps bringing us back to the same key question: Is it O.K. for some people to transmit messages at significant power when other people don’t want them to?’’

    In a sense, the METI debate runs parallel to other existential decisions that we will be confronting in the coming decades, as our technological and scientific powers increase. Should we create superintelligent machines that exceed our own intellectual capabilities by such a wide margin that we cease to understand how their intelligence works? Should we ‘‘cure’’ death, as many technologists are proposing? Like METI, these are potentially among the most momentous decisions human beings will ever make, and yet the number of people actively participating in those decisions — or even aware such decisions are being made — is minuscule.

    ‘‘I think we need to rethink the message process so that we are sending a series of increasingly inclusive messages,’’ Vakoch says. ‘‘Any message that we initially send would be too narrow, too incomplete. But that’s O.K. Instead, what we should be doing is thinking about how to make the next round of messages better and more inclusive. We ideally want a way to incorporate both technical expertise — people who have been thinking about these issues from a range of different disciplines — and also getting lay input. I think it’s often been one or the other. One way we can get lay input in a way that makes a difference in terms of message content is to survey people about what sorts of things they would want to say. It’s important to see what the general themes are that people would want to say and then translate those into a Lincos-like message.’’

    When I asked Denning where she stands on the METI issue, she told me: ‘‘I have to answer that question with a question: Why are you asking me? Why should my opinion matter more than that of a 6-year-old girl in Namibia? We both have exactly the same amount at stake, arguably, she more than I, since the odds of being dead before any consequences of transmission occur are probably a bit higher for me, assuming she has access to clean water and decent health care and isn’t killed far too young in war.’’ She continued: ‘‘I think the METI debate may be one of those rare topics where scientific knowledge is highly relevant to the discussion, but its connection to obvious policy is tenuous at best, because in the final analysis, it’s all about how much risk the people of Earth are willing to tolerate. . . . And why exactly should astronomers, cosmologists, physicists, anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, biologists, sci-fi authors or anyone else (in no particular order), get to decide what those tolerances should be?’’

    Wrestling with the METI question suggests, to me at least, that the one invention human society needs is more conceptual than technological: We need to define a special class of decisions that potentially create extinction-level risk. New technologies (like superintelligent computers) or interventions (like METI) that pose even the slightest risk of causing human extinction would require some novel form of global oversight. And part of that process would entail establishing, as Denning suggests, some measure of risk tolerance on a planetary level. If we don’t, then by default the gamblers will always set the agenda, and the rest of us will have to live with the consequences of their wagers.

    In 2017, the idea of global oversight on any issue, however existential the threat it poses, may sound naïve. It may also be that technologies have their own inevitability, and we can only rein them in for so long: If contact with aliens is technically possible, then someone, somewhere is going to do it soon enough. There is not a lot of historical precedent for humans voluntarily swearing off a new technological capability — or choosing not to make contact with another society — because of some threat that might not arrive for generations. But maybe it’s time that humans learned how to make that kind of choice. This turns out to be one of the surprising gifts of the METI debate, whichever side you happen to take. Thinking hard about what kinds of civilization we might be able to talk to ends up making us think even harder about what kind of civilization we want to be ourselves.

    Near the end of my conversation with Frank Drake, I came back to the question of our increasingly quiet planet: all those inefficient radio and television signals giving way to the undetectable transmissions of the internet age. Maybe that’s the long-term argument for sending intentional messages, I suggested; even if it fails in our lifetime, we will have created a signal that might enable an interstellar connection thousands of years from now.

    Drake leaned forward, nodding. ‘‘It raises a very interesting, nonscientific question, which is: Are extraterrestrial civilizations altruistic? Do they recognize this problem and establish a beacon for the benefit of the other folks out there? My answer is: I think it’s actually Darwinian; I think evolution favors altruistic societies. So my guess is yes. And that means there might be one powerful signal for each civilization.’’ Given the transit time across the universe, that signal might well outlast us as a species, in which case it might ultimately serve as a memorial as much as a message, like an interstellar version of the Great Pyramids: proof that a technologically advanced organism evolved on this planet, whatever that organism’s ultimate fate.

    As I stared at Drake’s stained-glass Arecibo message, in the middle of that redwood grove, it seemed to me that an altruistic civilization — one that wanted to reach across the cosmos in peace — would be something to aspire to, despite the potential for risk. Do we want to be the sort of civilization that boards up the windows and pretends that no one is home, for fear of some unknown threat lurking in the dark sky? Or do we want to be a beacon?

    Correction: June 30, 2017

    An earlier version of this article misstated the impact a few kilograms traveling half the speed of light would have if they collided with Earth. The impact would be less than that of the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs, not more.

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  • richardmitnick 12:27 pm on October 12, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , SETI   

    From ABC via SETI Institute: “Where is the search for extraterrestrial life up to?” 

    ABC News bloc

    ABC News

    Mark Llewellyn

    Photo: Scientists are stepping up their search to eavesdrop on ET. Facility not identified.

    Despite the headlines, no alleged signals from ET have ever been confirmed. Yet far from being put off their search, scientists are stepping it up.

    For decades scientists have been searching for evidence of life beyond Earth — intelligent or otherwise — using an array of methods.

    “If you are talking about life in the solar system, like life on Mars, or maybe Saturn’s moon Titan, or maybe one of Jupiter’s moons like Europa, then you just send a rocket and look for it,” said Seth Shostak, of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute in Mountain View, California.

    There could be microbial life in all of these places, Dr Shostak said, “but you have to look hard, probably underneath the surfaces of these planets and moons”.

    As for finding life around other stars, scientists have to use really big telescopes to scan distant planets for chemicals — like oxygen, methane and water vapour.

    The challenge is that these kinds of molecular tracers for life could also indicate geological events.

    Scientists are still trying to pin down the exact chemical signature that would really prove life and not just the existence of volcanoes, Dr Shostak said.

    Other chemicals like ammonia, carbon and amino acids could also be signs of life.

    Meanwhile, the SETI Institute and others are focusing on another technique: looking for potential communication signals from ET.

    “You just do what Jodie Foster did in the movie Contact and eavesdrop on radio signals,” Dr Shostak explained.

    Optical laser transmissions as well as narrow-band radio signals are possible signs of intelligent life out there.

    But again it is hard to be sure where a signal really comes from, especially when you can’t pick it up more than once.

    False alarms and hoaxes

    Take the recent report that the giant Russian RATAN-600 radio telescope had picked up a signal while scanning a star called HD164595, in the constellation Hercules, the year before.

    “I’ve no doubt the signal was there, but the question was: is it ET, or just some satellite that’s just wheeling overhead and producing some radio emission that they picked up?” Dr Shostak said.

    He used SETI’s Allen Telescope Array in northern California, to zoom in on the star system.

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

    “We didn’t find anything, the guys at the University of California Berkeley using their big telescope in West Virginia didn’t find anything. The Russians looked in this direction, I think 39 times, and only found this signal once,” Dr Shostak said.

    So, this looks very much like another false alarm — just like the claim last year that a giant alien engineering project had been set up on a planet orbiting a star called KIC 8462852.

    At least it wasn’t a hoax like the claim, by an amateur UK radio astronomer in 1998, that he had found radio signals coming from a system of two dwarf stars in the constellation Pegasus.

    The best candidate for an alien radio transmission remains the so-called WOW! signal, detected in 1977 by Ohio University’s Big Ear radio telescope, Dr Shostak said.

    Ohio State Big Ear Radio Telescope
    Ohio State Big Ear Radio Telescope

    The signal has not been heard again since so remains unconfirmed.

    Scientists step up the search

    Despite the lack of definitive evidence so far, the search for extraterrestrial life continues, and indeed scientists are stepping up the search.

    The European Space Agency’s ExoMars program is concentrating on Mars. An orbiter launched in March this year aims to examine the Martian atmosphere and a follow-up mission, featuring a rover vehicle, has a launch date of 2020.

    Looking outside our solar system is NASA’s Kepler space observatory, which lifted off in 2009. It has found thousands of planets, including dozens that could possibly support life.

    The number of planets has increased substantially over the past few years thanks to faster data processing.

    Meanwhile, the James Webb Space Telescope, planned for launch in 2018, will investigate the potential for extraterrestrial life by “sniffing” the atmospheric chemistry of Earth-like planets around other stars.

    Back on Earth, the world’s biggest single dish radio telescope, the 500-metre Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST), began operating in south-western China last month.

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

    Construction of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), a giant multi radio telescope — made up of thousands of dishes and up to 1 million antennas — is also due to start in 2018.

    SKA Square Kilometer Array

    If it goes ahead, Australia will host more than 500 stations, each containing about 250 individual antennas.

    As part of a key science program, called Cradle of Life, SKA will focus on searching for carbon-containing chemicals in planetary atmospheres, while also trying to detect radio emissions from extraterrestrial civilisations.

    Parkes Observatory moves to centre stage

    CSIRO/Parkes Observatory, located 20 kilometres north of the town of Parkes, New South Wales, Australia
    CSIRO/Parkes Observatory, located 20 kilometres north of the town of Parkes, New South Wales, Australia

    Meanwhile, the biggest-ever search for intelligent alien life ramps up this month when Parkes Observatory joins Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia in the $100 million Breakthrough Listen initiative.

    GBO radio telescope, West Virginia, USA
    GBO radio telescope, West Virginia, USA

    The project picks up fainter radio signals and covers 10 times more sky than previous hunts for alien life.

    Data is being analysed by computers belonging to volunteers of the citizen science project SETI@home.

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

    About 10 million people around the world have downloaded the free SETI@home software.

    While some scientists are sceptical about finding life on other planets, Dr Shostak said it was only a matter of time.

    He plans to buy everyone he knows a flat white coffee if SETI doesn’t find ET “within the next two decades”.

    “I might be wrong about that, and I may have to buy a lot of flat whites, but that’s my estimate of how long it will take,” he said.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 3:44 pm on June 24, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , SETI, ,   

    From SPACE.com: “SETI Eavesdrops on Nearby Star in Smart Alien Hunt” 

    space-dot-com logo


    June 24, 2016
    Ian O’Neill

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

    Astronomers seeking out extraterrestrial intelligence have used a powerful radio telescope to eavesdrop on a star system that is relatively close to Earth in the hope of hearing the faint radio whisper of an alien civilization.

    Using the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) located in California (pictured top), members of the SETI Institute chose Trappist 1 as they know the red dwarf-type star plays host to at least 3 exoplanets.

    SETI Institute

    Trappist 1 system. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

    Traditional SETI searches have looked to random stars in the sky in the hope of detecting an artificial radio signal using luck and some educated guesses. But now we know certain stars play host to exoplanets, alien hunters can be a little more discerning with the selection of stellar targets.

    Known as “targeted SETI”, the ATA has been used to “listen in” on star systems that NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope and other exoplanet-hunting missions have confirmed the presence of exoplanets.

    NASA/Kepler Telescope
    NASA/Kepler Telescope

    Even better than that, as Kepler can identify the physical size and orbit of a given exoplanet, astronomers can deduce whether that planet is located in the star’s “habitable zone.” The habitable zone around any star is the distance at which a hypothetical rocky planet can orbit that is not too hot or too cold for liquid water to exist. As we know from life on our planet, where there’s water, there’s life; could intelligent alien life be living on one of these potentially habitable worlds?

    Earth has been leaking a faint radio signals into space for over 100 years since the advent of commercial radio transmissions around the globe at the beginning of the 20th century. More recently, we’ve been pinging asteroids and the planets with powerful radar. And let’s not forget the controvercial Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or METI, a practice that has unsettled some scientists. Therefore, in theory, any intelligent aliens living within 100 light-years of Earth — assuming they possess sensitive enough radio receivers — could be aware of our presence.

    And this is what SETI is doing: listening out for alien transmissions that, so far, have proven inconclusive.

    However, last year, Kepler discovered a bizarre transit signal from the star KIC 8462852, otherwise known as Tabby’s Star. Kepler detects exoplanets by detecting their faint shadows cross the faces of their host stars. When Kepler detected Tabby’s Star transit, it was like nothing it had ever recorded; the brightness dip dimmed around 20 percent. Though the generally-accepted hypothesis is that a swarm of comets may have caused this strange transit signal, there’s another idea that it could be evidence of an advanced alien civilization building a “megastructure” around their star.

    Tabby’s Star quickly became a target for SETI, but no transmissions were detected by the ATA.

    According to a SETI Institute news release on Wednesday, even if there were transmitting aliens at Tabby’s Star, the fact it’s nearly 1,500 light-years away would make the detection of alien radio signals extremely unlikely, unless said aliens were deliberately beaming extremely powerful radio waves right at us.

    This is why Trappist 1 was selected for a follow-up SETI investigation. Though there’s no evidence of weird transit signals around this small star, it is an ancient compact planetary system that might, after some assumptions, be considered habitable. What’s more, Trappist 1 is only 40 light-years away — pretty much on our interstellar doorstep. Any signal transmitted from the Trappist 1 system would be athousand times stronger than a signal of identical strength transmitted from Tabby’s Star.

    So, for 2 days in May, the ATA focused on Trappist 1, seeking out an artificial narrowband signal of around 1 Hz or less. As the headline of this article isn’t “Aliens Found!” you can guess what the outcome was: no aliens were detected on this pass. But the ATA did put a valuable upper limit on the strength of a signal if there is a hypothetical alien civilization transmitting a signal at us.

    SETI researchers estimate that if aliens are transmitting from that star system, they’d have to build a 300 meter-wide radio antennae (the approximate size of the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico) with a transmitter power of 300 kilowatts. Interestingly, the most powerful radio transmitter on Earthoperates at around 700 kilowatts, so building a transmitter for interstellar messaging purposes is well within the realms of technological possibility.

    So this latest directed SETI campaign drew a blank, but it’s helping us probe regions of the radio frequency spectrum and the expected power output from a hypothetical alien civilization — valuable research if we are to detect and recognize a signal from extraterrestrials in the future.

    See the full article here .



    The science of SETI@home
    SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is a scientific area whose goal is to detect intelligent life outside Earth. One approach, known as radio SETI, uses radio telescopes to listen for narrow-bandwidth radio signals from space. Such signals are not known to occur naturally, so a detection would provide evidence of extraterrestrial technology.

    Radio telescope signals consist primarily of noise (from celestial sources and the receiver’s electronics) and man-made signals such as TV stations, radar, and satellites. Modern radio SETI projects analyze the data digitally. More computing power enables searches to cover greater frequency ranges with more sensitivity. Radio SETI, therefore, has an insatiable appetite for computing power.

    Previous radio SETI projects have used special-purpose supercomputers, located at the telescope, to do the bulk of the data analysis. In 1995, David Gedye proposed doing radio SETI using a virtual supercomputer composed of large numbers of Internet-connected computers, and he organized the SETI@home project to explore this idea. SETI@home was originally launched in May 1999.

    SETI@home is not a part of the SETI Institute

    The SET@home screensaver image
    SETI@home screensaver

    To participate in this project, download and install the BOINC software on which it runs. Then attach to the project. While you are at BOINC, look at some of the other projects which you might find of interest.


    BOINC WallPaper

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  • richardmitnick 1:54 pm on September 12, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , SETI,   

    From Ethan Siegel: “Are we looking for ET all wrong?” 

    Starts with a bang
    Starts with a Bang

    Ethan Siegel

    Is looking for radio transmissions in space like claiming the lack of smoke signals means there are no modern humans?

    “[W]hat Fermi immediately realized was that the aliens have had more than enough time to pepper the Galaxy with their presence. But looking around, he didn’t see any clear indication that they’re out and about. This prompted Fermi to ask what was (to him) an obvious question: ‘where is everybody?’” –

    SETI Seth Shostak

    Seth Shostak

    Our Ask Ethan series gives the opportunity for two great things to happen: one for you and one for me. You get the chance to send in your questions and suggestions for a chance to be featured here, and I get the opportunity to consider ideas that I never would have had on my own. This week’s honor goes to Jan Rolstad, who asks a brilliant question:

    Does searching for ET in the electro-magnetic spectrum make sense? Isn’t this search analogous to pre-technological tribal people trying to listen in on modern Western communications by searching for drum or smoke signals while the modern world is using cell phones and radio? It seems unlikely that a space faring civilization would bother communicating with itself across interstellar distances if limited by the speed of light and the many years required. Whose got the time?

    Image credit: Rady Ananda, via http://www.globalresearch.ca/military-weather-modification-chemtrails-atmospheric-geoengineering-and-environmental-warfare/5356630

    This question, of course, is extraordinarily speculative, but gives us a chance to look at our own technological progress, and to consider how that might play out elsewhere in the Universe.

    Image credit: public domain painting, original source unidentified, via http://tellmewhyfacts.com/Electricity-Benjamin-Franklin.

    The mechanism of electricity only began to be understood in the late 18th century, with the work of Ben Franklin. The power of electricity only began to be harnessed to run electric circuits and other powered devices during the 19th century, and the phenomena associated with classical electromagnetism only became understood through the latter half of that century. The first transmissions of electromagnetic signals for communication didn’t take place until 1895, and the power of radio broadcasts to extend far out into interplanetary and interstellar space wasn’t achieved until the 1930s.

    Image credit: Zidbits, via http://zidbits.com/2011/07/how-far-have-radio-signals-traveled-from-earth/.

    The speed of light [in a vacuum] is quite a limiting thing as well: if our radio signals have been traveling through interstellar space for 80 years, that means that only civilizations within 80 light years of us would have had an opportunity to receive those signals, and that only civilizations within forty light years would have had the opportunity to receive those signals and send something back to us that we would’ve received by now. If the Fermi Paradox is the question of “where is everyone,” the answer is, “not within 40 light years of us,” which doesn’t tell us very much about intelligent life in the Universe at all.

    A graphical representation of the Arecibo message – Humanity’s first attempt to use radio waves to actively communicate its existence to alien civilizations

    While there might be hundreds of billions of stars within our galaxy alone, and at least 200 billion galaxies in the observable Universe, there are less than 1000 stars within 40 light years of Earth.

    Image credit: ©2015 Bruce MacEvoy, via http://www.handprint.com/ASTRO/bineye5.html.

    And to make matters worse, electromagnetic signals going out from Earth into interstellar space are decreasing, not increasing. Television and radio broadcasts are increasingly being run through cables or via satellite, not from transmission towers here on Earth. By time another century passes, it’s very likely that the signals we sent out (and hence, began looking for) during the 20th century will cease to be emitted from Earth altogether. Perhaps an alien civilization, making note of these observations when the signals do arrive, would draw the conclusion that this blue, watery planet orbiting our star in the great distance actually achieved intelligent, technologically advance life for a short while, and then wiped ourselves out as the signals gradually stopped.

    Of course, this isn’t the case at all. Perhaps a better conclusion is the one implicit in Jan’s question: maybe looking for electromagnetic signals is wrongheaded altogether.

    Image credit: Alamy, via http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/dec/28/2014-internet-comes-of-age-cybercrime.

    If we were to look at Earth from a nearby distance in visible light, there would be no doubts about the fact of whether or not it’s inhabited: the great glow of cities at night is unmistakably a sign of our activity. Yet this light pollution is relatively new, and is something we’re finally learning how to manage and control if we put the effort (i.e., time, money, manpower and resources) into it. There’s no reason not to be optimistic that by the end of the 21st or 22nd centuries, the Earth at night will look no different than it did for billions of years: dark, except for the occasional aurora, lightning storm or erupting volcano.

    Image credit: Wendy Worrall Redal, via http://goodnature.nathab.com/northern-lights-natures-winter-magic/.

    But if we weren’t looking for electromagnetic signals, what would we look at? Indeed, everything in the known Universe is limited by the speed of light, and any signal created on another world would necessitate that we be able to observe it. These signals — in terms of what could reach us — fall into four categories:

    1.Electromagnetic signals, which include any form of light of any wavelength that would indicate the presence of intelligent life.
    2.Gravitational wave signals, which, if there is one unique to intelligent life, would be detectable with sensitive enough equipment anywhere in the Universe.
    3.Neutrino signals, which — although incredibly low in flux at great distances — would have an unmistakeable signature dependent on the reaction that created them.
    4.And finally, actual, macroscopic space probes, either robotic, computerized, free-floating or inhabited, which made its way towards Earth.

    How remarkable that our science-fiction imaginations focus almost exclusively on the fourth possibility, which is by far the least likely!

    Image credit: Metro Goldwyn Mayer.

    When you think about the vast distances between the stars, how many stars there are with potentially habitable planets (or potentially habitable moons), and how much it takes, in terms of resources, to physically send a space probe from one planet around one star to another planet around another star, it seems literally crazy to consider that method to be a good plan.

    Far more likely, you’d think, it would be smart to build the right type of detector, to survey all the various regions of the sky, and seek out the signals that could unambiguously show us the presence of intelligent life.

    Image credit: Insolation of Earth, via UC Santa Barbara, at http://www.geog.ucsb.edu/ideas/Insolation.html.

    In the electromagnetic spectrum, we know what our living world does in response to the seasons. With winters and summers, there are seasonal (and hence, orbital) changes in what electromagnetic signals our planet emits. As the seasons change, so do the colors on various parts of our planet. With a large enough telescope (or array of telescopes), perhaps the individual signs of our civilization could be seen: cities, satellites, airplanes and more.

    But perhaps the best thing we could look for is alterations of the natural environment, consistent with something that only an intelligent civilization would create.

    Image credit: Message to Eagle, via http://www.messagetoeagle.com/extraterrestrialcivilizations.php#.VfNh8WTBzGc.

    We haven’t yet done these things, but perhaps large-scale modifications of a planet would be the exact thing we should be looking for, and should be the large-scale projects we’d aspire towards. Remember, any civilization that we find is unlikely to be in their technological infancy like we are. If they survive it and thrive through it, we’ll likely encounter them in a state tens or hundreds of thousands of years more advanced than we are. (And if that doesn’t boggle your mind, consider how much more advanced we are than we were just a few hundred years ago!)

    But this brings up two other possibilities, too.

    Image credit: ESA / NASA and the LISA collaboration.

    Perhaps — as our gravitational wave technology becomes set to detect the first signals from the Universe — we’ll discover that there are subtle effects that lend themselves to detection across the cosmos. Perhaps there’s something to be said for a world with tens of thousands of satellites orbiting it, something unique that a gravitational wave detector could spot? We haven’t worked it out in great detail because this field is in its infancy and not yet developed to the point where it could detect such a small signal.

    But these signals don’t degrade the way electromagnetic ones do, nor is there anything that shields them. Perhaps this new branch of astronomy will be the way to go, hundreds of years from now. But my money’s on the third options, if you want an out-of-the-box thought.

    Image credit: Reactor nuclear experimental RA-6 (Republica Argentina 6), en marcha, Centro Atomico Bariloche, via Pieck Darío.

    What’s likely to be the power source for a sufficiently advanced civilization? I submit to you that it’s nuclear power, most likely fusion power, and most likely a specific type of fusion that’s proven to be efficient, abundant, different from what occurs in the cores of stars, and that emits a very, very specific neutrino (or antineutrino) signature as a by-product.

    And those neutrinos should come with a very specific, explicit energy signature, one that isn’t produced by any natural process.

    Image credit: IceCube collaboration / NSF / University of Wisconsin, via https://icecube.wisc.edu/masterclass/neutrinos. Note the unique signal of “reactor anti-neutrinos.”

    If we can predict what that signature is, understand it, build a detector for it and measure it, we can find a fusion-powered civilization anywhere, and not have to worry about whether they’re broadcasting or not. So long as they’re making power, we can find them.

    This isn’t to say I have the final answer to Jan’s question; this is speculation (albeit scientifically well-informed speculation) concerning what we’re likely to find out there in the Universe. We may, at present, be looking for the cosmic equivalent of smoke signals in a cellphone-filled world, but we likely won’t be for long. As our technology continues to advance, our knowledge of what to look for will advance along with it. And perhaps someday — perhaps even someday soon — the Universe may have the most pleasant surprise of all in store for us: the news that we aren’t alone, after all.

    See the full article here .

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    Starts With A Bang! is a blog/video blog about cosmology, physics, astronomy, and anything else I find interesting enough to write about. I am a firm believer that the highest good in life is learning, and the greatest evil is willful ignorance. The goal of everything on this site is to help inform you about our world, how we came to be here, and to understand how it all works. As I write these pages for you, I hope to not only explain to you what we know, think, and believe, but how we know it, and why we draw the conclusions we do. It is my hope that you find this interesting, informative, and accessible.

  • richardmitnick 9:39 am on July 26, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Breakthrough Message, SETI   

    From The Guardian: “Making contact with alien worlds could make us care more about our own” 

    The Guardian Logo

    The Guardian

    Sunday 26 July 2015
    Ann Druyan

    Temp 1
    Nebulosity in Cygnus: ‘We will not send a message until a global debate has taken place.’ Photograph: Alan Dyer/Stocktrek Images/Corbis

    The scientific search for extraterrestrial civilisations has languished for more than a decade, as the hunt for habitable planets and simpler forms of life has thrived. Nasa’s stunningly successful Kepler mission has discovered a thousand new worlds orbiting other stars.

    NASA Kepler Telescope

    Astrobiology is a burgeoning field. But the search for intelligent life, begun in 1960 by astronomer Frank Drake, somehow fell off the funding radar.

    That changed this past week at a press conference at London’s Royal Society, with the announcement by entrepreneur Yuri Milner and Stephen Hawking of Milner’s $100m, 10-year Breakthrough Listen Initiative. Utilising two of the world’s most powerful radio telescopes, Breakthrough Listen will survey the million closest stars and hundred closest galaxies, 10 times more sky than ever before. Milner’s commitment will also support the broadest search for optical laser transmissions ever mounted. The project leadership includes astronomer royal Martin Rees, Geoff Marcy, discoverer of some 70 extra-solar planets and Pete Worden, former director of the Nasa Ames Research Centre.

    I was at the press conference in my capacity as co-chair, with Frank Drake, of Breakthrough Message, an open global competition with $1m in prizes. It invites entrants to create messages to form a digital portrait of life on Earth. Although there is no immediate plan to broadcast these messages into space.

    Frank and I have collaborated on this kind of thing before. In 1977, we worked with Carl Sagan and others to create the Voyager interstellar message, the golden phonograph records affixed to Nasa’s Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft.

    NASA Voyager 1

    Our message consisted of greetings in 55 human languages, and the salutations of humpback whales, as well as 118 images, 27 pieces from the world’s great musical traditions and an essay written in sound that tells the story of our planet from its earliest formation, through the evolution of life and development of technology up to the present. We also sought to convey something about the joy of being alive. It included the first words of a mother to her new-born baby, a kiss and the brain waves of a young woman in love.

    Temp 1
    Nasa’s Golden Record, sent on Voyager 1 and 2. Photograph: AP

    The Voyager spacecraft were destined to venture further than anything our hands had ever touched, exiting our solar system for the ocean of interstellar space. Our golden records have a shelf-life of a billion years. We undertook this work with a profound appreciation of the honour of creating a kind of Noah’s Ark of human culture. This was during the period when our long-term prospects for survival as a species were shadowed by the ever-ratcheting nuclear arms race. We agonised over whether to portray our species accurately, with its hunger and violence, or to only send the best of us. In the end, we opted for the studio portrait rather than the candid, afraid that images of cruelty or deprivation would be open to misinterpretation.

    Space is mostly empty, so the chance of either spacecraft encountering another world is virtually nil. Our message will only be received in the event that an alien craft finds a derelict Voyager and examines its contents.

    The Voyager Golden Record is a message in a bottle tossed in the cosmic ocean with long odds of being found and understood. That seems harmless enough, but a concerted attempt to send a message via radio telescope raises fears of existential danger. Human advanced technology is so recently acquired that any spacefaring civilisation would, most likely, be far ahead of us. Hawking has said he doesn’t know anything about the extraterrestrials, but he knows about us. If our own history is any guide, he warns, first contact with a technologically superior civilisation would be disastrous.

    Temp 1
    Ann Druyan with Geoff Marcy in London on 20 July for the the Breakthrough Initiatives press conference. Photograph: Stuart C Wilson

    We respect that view and pledge not to send our message until a global debate has taken place. Still, I cannot help but wonder if we can assume that the extraterrestrials will have made technological leaps but somehow remained as politically and emotionally stunted as we are today. Perhaps they will have succeeded in finding ways to conquer their tendencies toward greed and violence, their shortsightedness – just as so many of us struggle to do here on Earth. Could a deeper familiarity with the vast emptiness foster a greater respect for the preciousness and ancient continuity of life?

    Whether we decide to transmit our message or not, the act of conceptualising it can be transformative. Every gesture of recognition that we share a planetary civilisation takes us closer to maturity. We can’t think about how we might present ourselves to the beings of another world without seeing this one anew. And that is what is called for if we are to awaken from our stupor and act to protect it.

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 2:15 pm on July 20, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , SETI,   

    From UCO: “Automated Planet Finder at Lick Observatory Joins Massive Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe” 

    UC Santa Cruz

    UC Santa Cruz

    July 20, 2015
    Hilary Lebow

    Venus appears bright in the sky just behind the 2.4-meter Automated Planet Finder dome at Lick Observatory. Fully robotic and equipped with a high-resolution spectrograph optimized for precision Doppler measurements, the APF telescope enables off-site astronomers to detect rocky planets of Earth-size masses within our local galactic neighborhood. Photo by Laurie Hatch.

    Today investor Yuri Milner and physicist Stephen Hawking announced a $100 Million Breakthrough Prize Initiative to dramatically reinvigorate the search for intelligent life in the universe over the next ten years.

    This is the biggest scientific search yet for signs of intelligent life beyond Earth. Lick Observatory’s Automated Planet Finder (APF) Telescope above San Jose, California, will undertake a new deep and broad search for optical laser transmissions from nearby civilizations, if any exist.

    The APF is the newest telescope at Lick Observatory. It consists of a 2.4-meter automated telescope and enclosure, and the high-resolution Levy spectrograph. It operates robotically on every clear night of the year; its main emphasis to date has been on discovering and characterizing extrasolar planets.

    With this new Breakthrough Prize Initiative, the APF telescope and its Levy spectrometer will search 1,000 nearby stars and 100 nearby galaxies for visible-light laser emission from technological sources. Lasers may be used by other civilizations for communication between their home planet and satellites, interplanetary spacecraft, or colonies on other worlds.

    Such laser emissions will be distinguished from the emission from astronomical objects by the extreme single-wavelength nature of laser emission, and by the unresolved point source (a dot in the sky) from which the emission originates. It may even be that the Milky Way contains a galactic internet of laser emission. If so, the APF may be able to eavesdrop on their transmissions.

    “As part of the Breakthrough Prize Initiative, the APF telescope will undertake the most extensive search for optical laser transmissions in history,” said Claire Max, Interim Director of UC Observatories. It is a tremendous honor to participate in a project of this size and scope.”

    The initiative was announced today (July 20) at The Royal Society in London. The Breakthrough Prize Foundation is also contracting with two of the world’s largest radio telescopes for the search– the 100-meter Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope [GBT] in West Virginia and the 64-meter Parkes Telescope in New South Wales, Australia.


    CSIRO Parkes Observatory
    CSIRO Parkes Observatory

    “We’ve learned a lot in the last fifty years about how to look for signals from space. With the Breakthrough Initiatives, the learning curve is likely to bend up-ward significantly,” said Frank Drake, SETI pioneer and UCSC Professor Emeritus in Astronomy and Astrophysics. “Right now there could be messages from the stars flying right through the room, through us all. That still sends a shiver down my spine. The search for intelligent life is a great adventure.”

    The overall program will include a survey of the 1,000,000 closest stars to Earth. It will scan the center of our galaxy and the galactic plane. Beyond the Milky Way galaxy, telescopes will listen for messages from the 100 closest galaxies.

    “We learned from the NASA Kepler mission that our Milky Way Galaxy contains tens of billions of Earth-size planets at lukewarm temperatures, any of which might harbor life,” said Geoff Marcy, Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at UC Berkeley.

    Other project leaders include Dan Wertheimer (SETI), Andrew Siemion (Berkeley SETI Research Center), Lord Martin Rees (University of Cambridge), Pete Worden (Breakthrough Prize Foundation) and Ann Druyan (Cosmos Studios).

    Lick Observatory is located on the summit of Mt. Hamilton in the Diablo Range east of San Jose, CA. Founded in 1888, Lick Observatory is a forefront astronomical research facility operated by the UC Observatories (UCO), a multicampus research unit that serves eight University of California campuses and is headquartered at UC Santa Cruz.

    Inside the dome of the Automated Planet Finder at Lick Observatory.Photo by Laurie Hatch.

    See the full article here.

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    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.

  • richardmitnick 5:21 am on March 21, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , SETI, ,   

    From UCSD: “Search for extraterrestrial intelligence extends to new realms” 

    UC San Diego bloc

    UC San Diego

    March 19, 2015
    Susan Brown

    The NIROSETI team with their new infrared detector inside the dome at Lick Observatory. Left to right: Remington Stone, Dan Wertheimer, Jérome Maire, Shelley Wright, Patrick Dorval and Richard Treffers. Photos by © Laurie Hatch [at the UCO Lick Nickel One meter telescope on which NIROSETI is installed]

    New instrument will scan the sky for pulses of infrared light

    Astronomers have expanded the search for extraterrestrial intelligence into a new realm with detectors tuned to infrared light. Their new instrument has just begun to scour the sky for messages from other worlds.

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

    Pulses from a powerful infrared laser could outshine a star, if only for a billionth of a second. Interstellar gas and dust is almost transparent to near infrared, so these signals can be seen from greater distances. It also takes less energy to send the same amount of information using infrared signals than it would with visible light.

    The idea dates back decades, Wright pointed out. Charles Townes, the late UC Berkeley scientist whose contributions to the development of lasers led to a Nobel Prize, suggested the idea in a paper published in 1961.

    Scientists have searched the heavens for radio signals for more than 50 years and expanded their search to the optical realm more than a decade ago. But instruments capable of capturing pulses of infrared light have only recently become available.

    Shelley Wright holds a fiber tht emits infrared light for calibration of the detectors.

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

    Three years ago while at the Dunlap Institute, Wright purchased newly available detectors and tested them to see if they worked well enough to deploy to a telescope. She found that they did. Jérome Maire, a Fellow at the Dunlap, “turned the screws,” Wright said, playing a key role in the hands-on effort to develop the new instrument, called NIROSETI for near-infrared optical SETI.

    NIROSETI will also gather more information than previous optical detectors by recording levels of light over time so that patterns can be analyzed to for potential signs of other civilizations, a record that could be revisited as new ideas about what signals extraterrestrials might send emerge.

    Because infrared light penetrates farther through gas and dust than visible light, this new search will extend to stars thousands rather than merely hundreds of light years away. And the success of the Kepler Mission, which has found habitable planets orbiting stars both like and unlike our own, has prompted the new search to look for signals from a wider variety of stars.

    NASA Kepler Telescope

    NIROSETI has been installed at the University of California’s Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton east of San Jose and saw first light on March 15.

    Skies cleared for a successful first night for NIROSETI at Lick Observatory. The ghost image is Shelley Wright, pausing for a moment during this long exposure as the rest of her team continued to test the new instrument inside the dome.

    Lick Observatory has been the site of several previous SETI searches including an instrument to look in the optical realm, which Wright built as an undergraduate student at UC Santa Cruz under the direction of Remington Stone, the director of operations at Lick at that time. Dan Werthimer* and Richard Treffers of UC Berkeley designed that first optical instrument. All three are playing critical roles in the new search.

    NIROSETI could uncover new information about the physical universe as well. “This is the first time Earthlings have looked at the universe at infrared wavelengths with nanosecond time scales,” Werthimer said. “The instrument could discover new astrophysical phenomena, or perhaps answer the question of whether we are alone.”

    Patrick Dorval, Jérome Maire and Shelley Wright in the control room of the Nickel 1-meter telescope at Lick Observatory, where their new instrument has been deployed.

    The group also includes SETI pioneer Frank Drake of the SETI Institute and UC Santa Cruz who serves as a senior advisor to both past and future projects and is an active observer at the telescope.

    Drake pointed out several additional advantages to a search in this new realm. “The signals are so strong that we only need a small telescope to receive them. Smaller telescopes can offer more observational time, and that is good because we need to search many stars for a chance of success.” he said. The receivers are also much more affordable that those used on radio telescopes.

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

    The NIROSETI team also includes Geoffrey Marcy and Andrew Siemion from UC Berkeley; Patrick Dorval, a Dunlap undergraduate, and Elliot Meyer, a Dunlap graduate student. Shelley Wright is also a member of the Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences at UC San Diego. Richard Treffers is now at Starman Systems. Funding for the project comes from the generous support of Bill and Susan Bloomfield.

    See the full article here.
    [The owner of this blog is a small financial supporter of UCO Lick, SETI Institute, UC Santa Cruz where UCO is managed, and SETI@home, which caused him to spend an inordinate amount of time on this post. I hope it gets read by a lot of people.

    *Dan Werthimer is co-founder and chief scientist of the SETI@home project and directs other UC Berkeley SETI searches at radio, infrared and visible wavelengths, including the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Radio Emissions from Nearby Developed Intelligent Populations (SERENDIP). He is also the principal investigator for the worldwide Collaboration for Astronomy Signal Processing and Electronics Research (CASPER). SETI@home runs on software developed by BOINC at UC Berkeley.

    SETI@home screensaver

    Dan Werthimer

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    UC San Diego Campus

    The University of California, San Diego (also referred to as UC San Diego or UCSD), is a public research university located in the La Jolla area of San Diego, California, in the United States.[12] The university occupies 2,141 acres (866 ha) near the coast of the Pacific Ocean with the main campus resting on approximately 1,152 acres (466 ha).[13] Established in 1960 near the pre-existing Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego is the seventh oldest of the 10 University of California campuses and offers over 200 undergraduate and graduate degree programs, enrolling about 22,700 undergraduate and 6,300 graduate students. UC San Diego is one of America’s Public Ivy universities, which recognizes top public research universities in the United States. UC San Diego was ranked 8th among public universities and 37th among all universities in the United States, and rated the 18th Top World University by U.S. News & World Report ‘s 2015 rankings.

  • richardmitnick 2:11 pm on March 20, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , SETI   

    From physicsworld.com: “Have alien civilizations built cosmic accelerators from black holes?” 


    Mar 19, 2015
    Hamish Johnston

    Cosmic collider: could an advanced civilization harness a black hole

    Has an advanced alien civilization built a black-hole-powered particle accelerator to study physics at “Planck-scale” energies? And if such a cosmic collider is lurking in a corner of the universe, could we detect it here on Earth?

    Brian Lacki of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, New Jersey, has done calculations that suggest that if such an accelerator exists, it would produce yotta electron-volt (YeV or 1024 eV) neutrinos that could be detected here on Earth. As a result, Lacki is calling on astronomers involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) to look for these ultra-high-energy particles. This is supported by SETI expert Paul Davies of Arizona State University, who believes that the search should be expanded beyond the traditional telescope searches.

    Like humanity, it seems reasonable to assume that an advanced alien civilization would have a keen interest in physics, and would build particle accelerators that reach increasingly higher energies. This energy escalation could be the result of the “nightmare scenario” of particle physics in which there is no new physics at energies between the TeV energies of the Standard Model and the 1028 eV Planck energy (10 XeV) – where the quantum effects of gravity become strong. “The nightmare of particle physics is the dream of astronomers searching for extraterrestrials,” says Lacki.

    An important problem facing alien physicists would be that the density of electromagnetic energy needed to reach the Planck scale is so great that the device would be in danger of collapsing into a black hole of its own making. However, Lacki points out that a clever designer could, in principle, get round this problem and “reaching [the] Planck energy is technically allowed, if extremely difficult”.

    Not surprisingly, such an accelerator would have to be rather large. Lacki believes that if electric fields are used for acceleration, the device would have to be at least 10 times the radius of the Sun. However, a magnetic synchrotron-type accelerator could be somewhat smaller. As for what materials could be used to make the accelerator, Lacki says that normal materials could not withstand the strong electromagnetic fields. Indeed, one of the few places where such a high energy density could exist is in the vicinity of a black hole, which he argues could be harnessed to create a Planck-scale accelerator.

    “Vast amounts of pollution”

    Colliding particles at tens of XeVs is only half the battle, however. Lacki calculates that the vast majority of collisions in such a cosmic collider would be of no interest to alien researchers. To get useful information about Planck-scale physics, he reckons that the total collision rate in the accelerator would have to be about 1024 times that of the Large Hadron Collider. “As such, accelerators built to detect Planck events are extremely wasteful and produce vast amounts of ‘pollution’,” explains Lacki.

    While much of this pollution would be extremely high-energy particles, that in principle could reach Earth, it is unclear whether they could escape the intense electromagnetic fields within the collider. Furthermore, like colliders here on Earth, the builders of a cosmic machine would probably try to shield the surrounding region from damaging radiation. Indeed, Lacki’s analysis suggests that neutrinos are the only particles that are likely to reach Earth.

    These neutrinos would have energies that are a billion or more times greater than the highest energy neutrinos ever detected here on Earth. However, unlike their lower-energy counterparts, these accelerator neutrinos would be much easier to detect because they interact much more strongly with matter. Lacki calculates that the majority of such neutrinos passing through the Earth’s oceans will deposit their energy in the form of a shower of secondary particles. While the oceans are far too murky for physicists to detect the light given off by the showers, Lacki reckons that the sound of a shower could be detected by a network of hydrophones in the water. However, because these neutrinos are expected to be extremely rare, he calculates that about 100,000 hydrophones would be needed to have a chance of detecting the neutrinos.

    Whole of the Moon

    Another possibility, albeit less sensitive, is to use the Moon as a neutrino detector. Indeed, the NuMoon experiment is currently using a ground-based radio telescope to try to detect showers created when 1020 eV neutrinos smash into the lunar surface.

    While the detection of YeV neutrinos would not be proof that an alien accelerator exists – some theories suggest that they could be produced naturally by the decay of a cosmic strings – Lacki says that spotting such high-energy particles would be an important breakthrough in physics.

    While Davies is keen to expand SETI, he does identify one important drawback of looking for cosmic colliders. “My main problem is that once the [alien] experiments are done, there would be no need to keep the thing running, so unless there are mega-machines like this popping up all over the place, there would be only transient pulses,” he told physicsworld.com.

    Davies believes that it is very difficult for humans today to understand why an advanced civilization would want to build a Planck-scale collider. “Why do it? Perhaps to create a baby universe or some other exotic space–time sculpture,” he speculates. “Why do that? Perhaps because this hypothetical civilization feels it faces a threat of cosmic dimensions. What might that threat be? I have no idea! However, a civilization that knows a million times more than humanity might perceive all sorts of threats of which we are blissfully unaware.”

    Lacki’s calculations are described in a preprint on arXiv.

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 7:33 pm on March 3, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , SETI,   

    From Space.com: “The Father of SETI: Q&A with Astronomer Frank Drake” 

    space-dot-com logo


    February 26, 2015
    Leonard David

    Arecibo Observatory

    Detecting signals from intelligent aliens is a lifelong quest of noted astronomer Frank Drake. He conducted the first modern search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) experiment in 1960. More than five decades later, the hunt remains front-and-center for the scientist.

    Frank Drake

    Drake also devised a thought experiment in 1961 to identify specific factors believed to play a role in the development of civilizations in our galaxy. This experiment took the form of an equation that researchers have used to estimate the possible number of alien civilizations — the famous Drake Equation.

    The Drake equation is:

    N = R*. fp. ne. fl. fi. fc. L


    N = the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which radio-communication might be possible (i.e. which are on our current past light cone);


    R* = the average rate of star formation in our galaxy
    fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets
    ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
    fl = the fraction of planets that could support life that actually develop life at some point
    fi = the fraction of planets with life that actually go on to develop intelligent life (civilizations)
    fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
    L = the length of time for which such civilizations release detectable signals into space

    Drake constructed the “Arecibo Message” of 1974 — the first interstellar message transmitted via radio waves from Earth for the benefit of any extraterrestrial civilization that may be listening.

    The message consists of seven parts that encode the following (from the top down):[4]

    The numbers one (1) to ten (10)
    The atomic numbers of the elements hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and phosphorus, which make up deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA)
    The formulas for the sugars and bases in the nucleotides of DNA
    The number of nucleotides in DNA, and a graphic of the double helix structure of DNA
    A graphic figure of a human, the dimension (physical height) of an average man, and the human population of Earth
    A graphic of the Solar System indicating which of the planets the message is coming from
    A graphic of the Arecibo radio telescope and the dimension (the physical diameter) of the transmitting antenna dish

    This is the message with color added to highlight its separate parts. The actual binary transmission carried no color information.

    Space.com caught up with Drake to discuss the current state of SETI during an exclusive interview at the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) 2015 symposium, which was held here from Jan. 27 to Jan. 29.

    Drake serves on the NASA NIAC External Council and is chairman emeritus of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. and director of the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe.

    Space.com: What’s your view today concerning the status of SETI?

    Frank Drake: The situation with SETI is not good. The enterprise is falling apart for lack of funding. While NASA talks about “Are we alone?” as a number one question, they are putting zero money into searching for intelligent life. There’s a big disconnect there.

    We’re on the precipice. The other thing is that there are actually negative events on the horizon that are being considered.

    Space.com: And those are?

    Drake: There are two instruments, really the powerful ones for answering the “are we alone” question … the Arecibo telescope[above] and the Green Bank Telescope [GBT].


    They are the world’s two largest radio telescopes, and both of them are in jeopardy. There are movements afoot to close them down … dismantle them. They are both under the National Science Foundation and they are desperate to cut down the amount of money they are putting into them. And their choice is to just shut them down or to find some arrangement where somebody else steps in and provides funding.

    So this is the worst moment for SETI. And if they really pull the rug out from under the Green Bank Telescope and Arecibo … it’s suicide.

    Space.com: What happens if they close those down?

    Drake: We’re all then sitting in our living rooms and watching science fiction movies.

    Space.com: How about the international scene?

    Drake: The international scene has gone down too because all the relevant countries are cash-strapped also.

    There is a major effort in China, a 500-meter [1,640 feet] aperture spherical radio telescope. The entire reflector is under computer control with actuators. They change the shape of the reflector depending on what direction they are trying to look. The technology is very complicated and challenging. The Russians tried it and it never worked right. But … there are serious resources there.

    Space.com: Why isn’t SETI lively and bouncing along fine given all the detections?

    Drake: You would think. All those planetary detections are the greatest motivator to do SETI that we ever had. But it hasn’t had any impact, at least yet.

    Space.com: How do you reconcile the fact that exoplanet discoveries are on the upswing, yet mum’s the word from ET?

    Drake: People say that all the time … saying that you’ve been searching for years and now you’ve searched thousands of stars and found nothing. Why don’t you just give up … isn’t that the sensible thing?

    There’s a good answer to all that. Use the well-know equation and put in the parameters as we know them. A reasonable lifetime of civilizations is like 10,000 years, which is actually much more than we can justify with our own experience. It works out one in every 10 million stars will have a detectable signal. That’s the actual number. That means, to have a good chance to succeed, you have to look at a million stars at least — and not for 10 minutes — for at least days because the signal may vary in intensity. We haven’t come close to doing that. We just haven’t searched enough.

    Space.com: What are we learning about habitable zones?

    Drake: Actually the case is very much stronger for a huge abundance of life. The story seems to be that almost every star has a planetary system … and also the definition of “habitable zone” has expanded. In our system, it used to be that only Mars and Earth were potentially habitable. Now we’ve got an ocean on Europa … Titan.

    The habitable zone goes out. A habitable zone is not governed just by how far you are from the star, but what your atmosphere is. If you’ve got a lot of atmosphere, you’ve got a greenhouse effect. And that means the planet can be much farther out and be habitable.

    “Radio waving” to extraterrestrials. Outward bound broadcasting from Earth has announced humanity’s technological status to other starfolk, if they are out there listening.
    Credit: Abstruse Goose

    Space.com: What is your view on the debate regarding active SETI — purposely broadcasting signals to extraterrestrials?

    Drake: There is controversy. I’m very against sending, by the way. I think it’s crazy because we’re sending all the time. We have a huge leak rate. It has been going on for years. There is benefit in eavesdropping, and you would have learned everything you can learn through successful SETI searches. There’s all kinds of reasons why sending makes no sense.

    Frank Drake, center, with his colleagues, Optical SETI (OSETI) Principal Investigator Shelley Wright and Rem Stone with the 40-inch Nickel telescope at Lick Observatory in California. Outfitted with the OSETI instrument, the silver rectangular instrument package protrudes from the bottom of the telescope, plus computers, etc.
    Credit: Laurie Hatch Photography

    That reminds me of something else. We have learned, in fact, that gravitational lensing works. If they [aliens] use their star as a gravitational lens, they get this free, gigantic, super-Arecibo free of charge. They are not only picking up our radio signals, but they have been seeing the bonfires of the ancient Egyptians. They can probably tell us more about ourselves than we know … they’ve been watching all these years.

    Space.com: Can you discuss the new optical SETI efforts that you are involved with? You want to search for very brief bursts of optical light possibly sent our way by an extraterrestrial civilization to indicate their presence to us.

    Drake: It’s alive and well. We’ve gotten a couple of people who are actually giving major gifts. There’s no funding problem. There is a new instrument that has been built, and it’s going to be installed at the Lick Observatory [in California] in early March.

    The whole thing is designed to look for laser flashes. The assumption is — and this is where it gets to be tenuous — the extraterrestrials are doing us a favor. It does depend on extraterrestrials helping you by targeting you. These stellar beams are so narrow that you’ve got to know the geometry of the solar system that you’re pointing it at. They want to communicate. They have to be intent on an intentional signal specifically aimed at us. That’s a big order. So there are required actions on the part of the extraterrestrials for this to work. The big plus is that it’s cheap and relatively easy to do.

    See the full article here.

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