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  • richardmitnick 5:21 am on March 21, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , NIROSETI, 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: , Institute for Advanced Studies, 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: , , , Frank Drake, 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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  • richardmitnick 9:01 am on February 8, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , SETI,   

    From Space.com: “How Would the World Change If We Found Alien Life?” 

    space-dot-com logo


    February 06, 2015
    Elizabeth Howell

    If contact with extraterrestrial life is made through radio telescopes, a decipherment process may have to take place to understand the message.
    Credit: NASA

    In 1938, Orson Welles narrated a radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds” as a series of simulated radio bulletins of what was happening in real time as Martians arrived on our home planet. The broadcast is widely remembered for creating public panic, although to what extent is hotly debated today.

    Still, the incident serves as an illustration of what could happen when the first life beyond Earth is discovered. While scientists might be excited by the prospect, introducing the public, politicians and interest groups to the idea could take some time.

    How extraterrestrial life would change our world view is a research interest of Steven Dick, who just completed a term as the Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair of Astrobiology. The chair is jointly sponsored by the NASA Astrobiology Program and the John W. Kluge Center, at the Library of Congress.

    Dick is a former astronomer and historian at the United States Naval Observatory, a past chief historian for NASA, and has published several books concerning the discovery of life beyond Earth. To Dick, even the discovery of microbes would be a profound shift for science.

    “If we found microbes, it would have an effect on science, especially biology, by universalizing biology,” he said. “We only have one case of biology on Earth. It’s all related. It’s all DNA-based. If we found an independent example on Mars or Europa, we have a chance of forming a universal biology.”

    Dick points out that even the possibilities of extraterrestrial fossils could change our viewpoints, such as the ongoing discussion of ALH84001, a Martian meteorite found in Antarctica that erupted into public consciousness in 1996 after a Science article said structures inside of it could be linked to biological activity. The conclusion, which is still debated today, led to congressional hearings.

    Photo of the martian meteorite ALH84001. Dull, dark fusion crust covers about 80% of the sample

    “I’ve done a book about discovery in astronomy, and it’s an extended process,” Dick pointed out. “It’s not like you point your telescope and say, ‘Oh, I made a discovery.’ It’s always an extended process: You have to detect something, you have to interpret it, and it takes a long time to understand it. As for extraterrestrial life, the Mars rock showed it could take an extended period of years to understand it.”

    Mayan decipherments

    In his year at the Library of Congress, Dick spent time searching for historical examples (as well as historical analogies) of how humanity might deal with first contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. History shows that contact with new cultures can go in vastly different directions.

    Hernan Cortes’ treatment of the Aztecs is often cited as an example of how wrong first contact can go. But there were other efforts that were a little more mutually beneficial, although the outcomes were never perfect. Fur traders in Canada in the 1800s worked closely with Native Americans, for example, and the Chinese treasure fleet of the 15th Century successfully brought its home culture far beyond its borders, perhaps even to East Africa.

    Even when both sides were trying hard to make communication work, there were barriers, noted Dick.

    “The Jesuits had contact with Native Americans,” he pointed out. “Certain concepts were difficult, like when they tried to get across the ideas of the soul and immortality.”

    Indirect contact by way of radio communications through the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), also illustrates the challenges of transmitting information across cultures. There is historical precedence for this, such as when Greek knowledge passed west through Arab translators in the 12th Century. This shows that it is possible for ideas to be revived, even from dead cultures, he said.

    Allen Telescope Array
    SETI’s Institute’s Allen Telescope Array

    SETI@home screensaver
    SETI@home project

    Arecibo Observatory
    Arecibo Observatory. used by SETI@home

    “There will be a decipherment process. It might be more like the Mayan decipherments,” Dick said.

    The ethics of contact

    As Dick came to a greater understanding about the potential cultural impact of extraterrestrial intelligence, he invited other scholars to present their findings along with him. Dick chaired a two-day NASA/Library of Congress Astrobiology Symposium called “Preparing for Discovery,” which was intended to address the impact of finding any kind of life beyond Earth, whether microbial or some kind of intelligent, multicellular life form.

    The symposium participants discussed how to move beyond human-centered views of defining life, how to understand the philosophical and theological problems a discovery would bring, and how to help the public understand the implications of a discovery.

    “There is also the question of what I call astro-ethics,” Dick said. “How do you treat alien life? How do you treat it differently, ranging from microbes to intelligence? So we had a philosopher at our symposium talking about the moral status of non-human organisms, talking in relation to animals on Earth and what their status is in relation to us.”

    Dick plans to collect the lectures in a book for publication next year, but he also spent his time at the library gathering materials for a second book about how discovering life beyond Earth will revolutionize our thinking.

    “It’s very farsighted for NASA to fund a position like this,” Dick added. “They have all their programs in astrobiology, they fund the scientists, but here they fund somebody to think about what the implications might be. It’s a good idea to do this, to foresee what might happen before it occurs.”

    It’s also quite possible that the language we receive across these indirect communications would be foreign to us. Even though mathematics is often cited as a universal language, Dick said there are actually two schools of thought. One theory is that there is, indeed, one kind of mathematics that is based on a Platonic idea, and the other theory is that mathematics is a construction of the culture that you are in.

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 7:16 pm on November 12, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Alien life, , SETI   

    From BBC: “Are we sending aliens the right messages?” 



    12 November 2014
    Tracey Logan

    Despite decades of sending sounds and pictures into space no aliens have responded. Have we been doing it wrong? Tracey Logan investigates, and discovers some novel attempts to make contact – including the smells of our planet.


    For decades we’ve been sending signals – both deliberate and accidental – into space, and listening out for alien civilisations’ broadcasts. But what is the plan if one day we were to hear something?

    Artist Carrie Paterson has long dreamed of beaming messages far out to the emptiness of space. Except her messages would have an extra dimension – smell.

    By broadcasting formulae of aromatic chemicals, she says, aliens could reconstruct all sorts of whiffs that help to define life on Earth: animal blood and faeces, sweet floral and citrus scents or benzene to show our global dependence on the car. This way intelligent life forms on distant planets who may not see or hear as we do, says Paterson, could explore us through smell, one of the most primitive and ubiquitous senses of all.

    It is nearly 40 years since the Arecibo facility sent messages out into space

    Her idea is only the latest in a list of attempts to hail intelligent life outside of the Solar System. Forty years ago this month, the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico sent an iconic picture message into space – and we’ve arguably been broadcasting to aliens ever since we invented TV and radio.

    However in recent years, astronomers, artists, linguists and anthropologists have been converging on the idea that creating comprehensible messages for aliens is much harder than it seems. This week, Paterson and others discussed the difficulties of talking to our cosmic neighbours at a conference called Communicating Across the Cosmos, held by SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). It seems our traditional ways of communicating through pictures and language may well be unintelligible – or worse, be catastrophically misconstrued. So how should we be talking to ET?

    Lost in translation?

    We have always wanted to send messages about humanity beyond the planet. According to Albert Harrison, a space psychologist and author of Starstruck: Cosmic Visions in Science, Religion and Folklore, the first serious designs for contacting alien life appeared two centuries ago, though they never got off the ground.

    In the 1800s, mathematician Carl Gauss proposed cutting down lines of trees in a densely forested area and replanting the strips with wheat or rye, Harrison wrote in his book. “The contrasting colours would form a giant triangle and three squares known as a Pythagoras figure which could be seen from the Moon or even Mars.” Not long after, the astronomer Joseph von Littrow proposed creating huge water-filled channels topped with kerosene. “Igniting them at night showed geometric patterns such as triangles that Martians would interpret as a sign of intelligence, not nature.”

    Odours needn’t be pleasant – the smell of gasoline, for instance, could hint at our reliance on fossil fuels (Getty Images)

    But in the 20th Century, we began to broadcast in earnest. The message sent by Arecibo hoped to make first contact on its 21,000 year journey to the edge of the Milky Way. The sketches it contained, made from just 1,679 digital bits, look cute to us today, very much of the ‘Pong’ video game generation. Just before then, NASA’s Pioneer 10 and 11 space probes each carried a metal calling card bolted onto their frame with symbols and drawings on the plaque, showing a naked man and woman.

    NASA Pioneer 10
    NASA/Pioneer 10

    Yet it’s possible that these kinds of message may turn out to be incomprehensible to aliens; they might find it as cryptic as we find Stone Age etchings.

    Antique tech

    “Linear drawings of a male and a female homo sapiens are legible to contemporary humans,” says Marek Kultys, a London-based science communications designer. ”But the interceptors of Pioneer 10 could well assume we are made of several separate body parts (i.e. faces, hair and the man’s chest drawn as a separate closed shapes) and our body surface is home for long worm-like beings (the single lines defining knees, abdomens or collarbones.).”

    Man-made tech may also be an issue. The most basic requirement for understanding Voyager’s Golden Record, launched 35 years ago and now way out beyond Pluto, is a record player. Aliens able to play it at 16 and 2/3 revolutions a minute will hear audio greetings in 55 world languages, including a message of ‘Peace and Friendship’ from former United Nations Secretary General Kurt Waldheim. But how many Earthlings today have record players, let alone extraterrestrials?

    Our sights and sounds of Earth might be unintelligible to an alien audience (NASA, Pioneer)

    What if the aliens we’re trying to talk to are utterly different from us, physically and mentally? What if alien life is like the type encountered in Stanislav Lem’s Solaris, for instance, where a planet is surrounded by an intelligent ocean. The ocean itself is the alien being, a disembodied mind.

    “Supposing an “alienish” speaking human wished to explain the whole concept of sexual reproduction to a homogenous sentient ocean, would there be any chance for the human to become understood?” says Kultys. “Sharing the same context is essential for comprehension.”

    Time capsule

    Inevitably such messages become outdated too, like time capsules. Consider the case of the Oglethorpe Atlanta Crypt of Civilization – a time capsule sealed on Earth in 1940, complete with a dry martini and a poster of Gone With the Wind. It was intended as a snapshot of 20th Century life for future humans, not aliens, but like an intergalactic message, may only give a limited picture to future generations. When, in 61,000 years, the Oglethorpe time capsule is opened, would Gone With The Wind have stood the test of time?

    Oglethorpe Atlanta
    Oglethorpe Atlanta Crypt of Civilization interior

    This message was taken into the stars by Pioneer – but we have no idea if aliens would be able to understand it (Nasa)

    Kultys argues that all these factors should be taken into account when we calculate the likelihood of communicating with intelligent life. The astronomer Frank Drake’s famous equation de allows anyone to calculate how many alien species are, based on likely values of seven different factors. At a UK Royal Society meeting in 2010 Drake estimated there are roughly 10,000 detectable civilisations in the galaxy. Yet Kultys points out that we should also factor in how many aliens are using the same channel of communications as us, are as willing to contact us as we are them, whose language we hope to learn, and who are physically similar to us.

    Another barrier we might consider is the long distance nature of trans-cosmos communication. It means that many years ‒ even a thousand ‒ could pass between sending a message and receiving a reply. Paterson sees romance in that. “Our hope for communication with another intelligent civilisation has a melancholic aspect to it. We are on an island in a vast, dark space. Imagine if communication… became like an exchange of perfumed love letters with the quiet agony of expectation… Will we meet? Will we be as the other imagined? Will the other be able to understand us?”

    Ready for an answer?

    Anthropologist John Traphagan of the University of Texas in Austin has been asking the same question, though his view is more cautious. “When it comes to ET, you’ll get a signal of some kind; not much information and very long periods between ‘Hi, how are you?’ and whatever comes back. We may just shrug our shoulders and say ‘This is boring’, and soon forget about it or, if the time lag wasn’t too long, we might use the minimal information we get from our slow-speed conversation to invent what we think they’re like and invent a kind concept of what they’re after.”

    The aliens in Independence Day (1996) did not come in peace (20th Century Fox)

    While we have been sending out messages, we have not been preparing the planet for what happens when we get an interstellar return call. First contact could cause global panic. We might assume those answering are bent on galactic domination or, perhaps less likely, that they are peaceful when in fact they’re nasty.

    Consider how easy it is to mess up human-to-human communications; I got Traphagan’s first name wrong when I e-mailed him for this article. An apology within minutes cleared up the confusion, yet if he had been an alien anthropologist on some distant planet it would have taken much longer to fix. He later confessed: “I could have thought this is a snooty English journalist and our conversation might never have happened.”

    Even if Earth’s interstellar messaging committees weeded out the typos, cultural gaffes are always a possibility. These can only be avoided by understanding the alien’s culture – something that’s not easy to do, especially when you’ve never met those you’re communicating with.

    Rosy picture

    So, what is the best way to communicate? This is still up for grabs – perhaps it’s via smell, or some other technique we haven’t discovered yet. Clearly, creating a message that is timeless, free of cultural bias and universally comprehensible would be no mean feat.

    But for starters, being honest about who we are is important if we want to have an extra-terrestrial dialogue lasting centuries, says Douglas Vakoch, director of interstellar message composition at Seti. (Otherwise, intelligent civilisations who’ve decoded our radio and TV signals might smell a rat.)

    The golden discs aboard the Voyager spacecraft require aliens to understand how to play a record (NASA)

    “Let’s not try to hide our shortcomings,” says Vakoch. “The message we should send to another world is straightforward: We are a young civilisation, in the throes of our technological adolescence. We’re facing a lot of problems here on Earth, and we’re not even sure that we’ll be around as a species when their reply comes in. But in spite of all of these challenges, we humans also have hope – especially hope in ourselves.”

    Voyager’s Golden Record paints a rosy picture of humanity. It doesn’t mention our wars or famines, Earth’s pollution or nuclear explosions. According to Traphagan, any aliens who came to Earth on the basis of that would say: “Hey, I thought this was a really nice place but they’ve polluted the crap out of it.”

    Yet ultimately what matters, says Paterson, is that they stop and consider the beings who sent them a message; the people who wanted to say: “Here are some important things. Here’s our DNA, here is some maths and universal physics. And here is our longing and desire to say “I’m like you, but I’m different.”

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 2:57 pm on August 19, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , SETI,   

    From The New York Times: “The Intelligent-Life Lottery” 

    New York Times

    The New York Times

    AUG. 18, 2014
    George Johnson

    Almost 20 years ago, in the pages of an obscure publication called Bioastronomy News, two giants in the world of science argued over whether SETI — the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence — had a chance of succeeding. Carl Sagan, as eloquent as ever, gave his standard answer. With billions of stars in our galaxy, there must be other civilizations capable of transmitting electromagnetic waves. By scouring the sky with radio telescopes, we just might intercept a signal.

    But Sagan’s opponent, the great evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr, thought the chances were close to zero. Against Sagan’s stellar billions, he posed his own astronomical numbers: Of the billions of species that have lived and died since life began, only one — Homo sapiens — had developed a science, a technology, and the curiosity to explore the stars. And that took about 3.5 billion years of evolution. High intelligence, Mayr concluded, must be extremely rare, here or anywhere. Earth’s most abundant life form is unicellular slime.

    Since the debate with Sagan, more than 1,700 planets have been discovered beyond the solar system — 700 just this year. Astronomers recently estimated that one of every five sunlike stars in the Milky Way might be orbited by a world capable of supporting some kind of life.

    That is about 40 billion potential habitats. But Mayr, who died in 2005 at the age of 100, probably wouldn’t have been impressed. By his reckoning, the odds would still be very low for anything much beyond slime worlds. No evidence has yet emerged to prove him wrong.

    Maybe we’re just not looking hard enough. Since SETI began in the early 1960s, it has struggled for the money it takes to monitor even a fraction of the sky. In an online essay for The Conversation last week, Seth Shostak, the senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, lamented how little has been allocated for the quest — just a fraction of NASA’s budget.

    “If you don’t ante up,” he wrote, “you will never win the jackpot. And that is a question of will.”

    Three years ago, SETI’s Allen Telescope Array in Northern California ran out of money and was closed for a while. Earlier this month, it was threatened by wildfire — another reminder of the precariousness of the search.

    Allen Telescope Array
    Allen Telescope Array

    It has been more than 3.5 billion years since the first simple cells arose, and it took another billion years or so for some of them to evolve and join symbiotically into primitive multicellular organisms. These biochemical hives, through random mutations and the blind explorations of evolution, eventually led to creatures with the ability to remember, to anticipate and — at least in the case of humans — to wonder what it is all about.

    Every step was a matter of happenstance, like the arbitrary combination of numbers — 3, 12, 31, 34, 51 and 24 — that qualified a Powerball winner for a $90 million prize this month. Some unknowing soul happened to enter a convenience store in Rifle, Colo., and — maybe with change from buying gasoline or a microwaved burrito — purchase a ticket just as the machine was about to spit out those particular numbers.

    According to the Powerball website, the chance of winning the grand prize is about one in 175 million. The emergence of humanlike intelligence, as Mayr saw it, was about as likely as if a Powerball winner kept buying tickets and — round after round — hit a bigger jackpot each time. One unlikelihood is piled on another, yielding a vanishingly rare event.

    In one of my favorite books, “Wonderful Life,” Stephen Jay Gould celebrated what he saw as the unlikelihood of our existence. Going further than Mayr, he ventured that if a slithering creature called Pikaia gracilens had not survived the Cambrian extinction, about half a billion years ago, the entire phylum called Chordata, which includes us vertebrates, might never have existed.

    Gould took his title from the Frank Capra movie in which George Bailey gets to see what the world might have been like without him — idyllic Bedford Falls is replaced by a bleak, Dickensian Pottersville.

    For Gould, the fact that any of our ancestral species might easily have been nipped in the bud should fill us “with a new kind of amazement” and “a frisson for the improbability of the event” — a fellow agnostic’s version of an epiphany.

    “We came this close (put your thumb about a millimeter away from your index finger), thousands and thousands of times, to erasure by the veering of history down another sensible channel,” he wrote. “Replay the tape a million times,” he proposed, “and I doubt that anything like Homo sapiens would ever evolve again. It is, indeed, a wonderful life.”

    Other biologists have disputed Gould’s conclusion. In the course of evolution, eyes and multicellularity arose independently a number of times. So why not vertebrae, spinal cords and brains? The more bags of tricks an organism has at its disposal, the greater its survival power may be. A biological arms race ensues, with complexity ratcheted ever higher.

    But those occasions are rare. Most organisms, as Daniel Dennett put it in “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,” seem to have “hit upon a relatively simple solution to life’s problems at the outset and, having nailed it a billion years ago, have had nothing much to do in the way of design work ever since.” Our appreciation of complexity, he wrote, “may well be just an aesthetic preference.”

    In Five Billion Years of Solitude, by Lee Billings, published last year, the author visited Frank Drake, one of the SETI pioneers.

    “Right now, there could well be messages from the stars flying right through this room,” Dr. Drake told him. “Through you and me. And if we had the right receiver set up properly, we could detect them. I still get chills thinking about it.”

    He knew the odds of tuning in — at just the right frequency at the right place and time — were slim. But that just meant we needed to expand the search.

    “We’ve been playing the lottery only using a few tickets,” he said.

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 2:49 pm on August 13, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , SETI, , ,   

    From SPACE.com: “Hairspray Chemical Could Aid Search for Alien Life” 

    space-dot-com logo


    August 13, 2014
    Charles Q. Choi

    Chemicals once found in hairspray may serve as signs of alien life on faraway worlds, researchers say.

    These compounds may reveal that extraterrestrials have disastrously altered their planets, scientists added.

    To detect biomarkers, or signs of life, on distant worlds, scientists have often focused on molecules such as oxygen, which theoretically disappears quickly from atmospheres unless life is present to provide a constant supply of the gas. By looking at light passing through atmospheres of alien worlds, past studies have suggested future instruments such as NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope could detect telltale traces of oxygen.

    But the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) has mostly concentrated on “technosignatures,” such as radio and other electromagnetic signals that alien civilizations might give off. Now researchers suggest that searches for atmospheric biomarkers could also look for industrial pollutants as potential signs of intelligent aliens.

    SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array

    SETI@home screensaver
    SETI@home, citizen science, Public Distributed Computing running on BOINC software

    Astronomers at Harvard University focused on tiny, superdense stars known as white dwarfs. More than 90 percent of all stars in the Milky Way, including our own sun, will one day end up as white dwarfs, which are made up of the dim, fading cores of stars.

    Image of Sirius A and Sirius B taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Sirius B, which is a white dwarf, can be seen as a faint pinprick of light to the lower left of the much brighter Sirius A.

    Though white dwarfs are quite cold for stars, they would still be warm enough to possess so-called habitable zones — orbits where liquid water can exist on the surfaces of circling planets. These zones are considered potential habitats for life, as there is life virtually everywhere there is liquid water on Earth.

    The scientists examined how Earth-size planets in the habitable zones of white dwarfs might look if they possessed industrial pollutants in their atmosphere. They focused on chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which are entirely artificial compounds, with no known natural process capable of creating them in atmospheres.

    CFCs are nontoxic chemicals that were once used in hairspray and air conditioners, among many other products, before researchers discovered they were causing a hole in Earth’s ozone layer, which protects the planet from dangerous ultraviolet radiation.

    “Very hairy extraterrestrials may be a little easier to detect,” joked lead study author Henry Lin, a physicist at Harvard.

    CFCs are strong greenhouse gases, meaning they are very effective at absorbing heat. This means that if CFCs are in the atmosphere of a distant Earth-size planet, they could alter a white dwarf’s light when that world passes in front of that star — enough for the $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is due to launch in 2018, to detect them.

    In addition, the researchers noted that CFCs are long-lived molecules, capable of lasting up to about 100,000 years in atmospheres. This means they could even serve as markers of long-dead alien civilizations. [10 Alien Encounters Debunked]

    The investigators simulated the amount of time it would take JWST to detect the fluorocarbon CF4 and the chlorofluorocarbon CCl3F in the atmosphere of an Earth-size planet in the habitable zone of a white dwarf. They modeled concentrations of these gases 100 times greater than the highs currently seen on Earth.

    The scientists found it would take JWST three days of looking at such a white dwarf to detect signs of CF4, and only a day and a half for CCl3F.

    NASA Webb Telescope

    “The most exciting aspect of the results is that within the next decade we might be able to search for excessive industrial pollution in the atmospheres of Earth-like planets,” study co-author Abraham Loeb, a theoretical astrophysicist and chair of Harvard’s astronomy department, told Space.com.

    Ironically, “aliens are often referred to as green little creatures, but ‘green’ also means ‘environmentally friendly,'” Loeb said. “Detectable CFC-rich civilizations would not be ‘green.'”

    The scientists did caution that it would take much longer to detect these industrial pollutants than it would biomarkers such as oxygen, which JWST could find after about three hours of looking at such a planet. Astronomers should only attempt to discover technosignatures such as CFCs if initial searches for fundamental biomarkers like oxygen were successful, the research team suggested.

    The astronomers cautioned it would be 100 times more difficult to detect industrial pollutants on planets orbiting yellow dwarf stars like the sun, making such searches beyond the capabilities of JWST. It would also take an unrealistically long time to detect CFC levels on alien planets that match those currently found on Earth, Loeb said.

    One potentially sobering future discovery might be of alien worlds that possess long-lived industrial pollutants such as CFCs but no longer have any short-lived biomarkers such as oxygen.

    “If we find graveyards of other civilizations, most rational people would likely get engaged in protecting the Earth from a similar catastrophe,” Loeb said.

    “We call industrial pollution a biomarker for intelligent life, but perhaps a civilization much more advanced than us with their own exoplanet program will classify industrial pollution as a biomarker for unintelligent life,” Lin said

    However, if astronomers discover a world heavy with CFCs that exists outside the habitable zone of its star, that could mean an extraterrestrial civilization may have intentionally “terraformed” that planet, making it livably warmer “by polluting it with greenhouse gases,” Loeb said. Scientists have previously suggested terraforming Mars by warming and thickening the Red Planet’s atmosphere so that humans can roam its surface without having to wear spacesuits.

    The scientists detailed their findings in a paper submitted to the Astrophysical Journal.

    See the full article here.

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