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  • richardmitnick 10:22 am on July 26, 2020 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "The real science behind SETI’s hunt for intelligent aliens", , , , , , , , Technosignatures   

    From ars technica: “The real science behind SETI’s hunt for intelligent aliens” 

    From ars technica

    Madeleine O’Keefe

    Aurich Lawson / Getty

    In 1993, a team of scientists published a paper in the scientific journal Nature that announced the detection of a planet harboring life. Using instruments on the spacecraft Galileo, they imaged the planet’s surface and saw continents with colors “compatible with mineral soils” and agriculture, large expanses of ocean with “spectacular reflection,” and frozen water at the poles.

    NASA/Galileo 1989-2003

    An analysis of the planet’s chemistry revealed an atmosphere with oxygen and methane so abundant that they must come from biological sources. “Galileo found such profound departures from equilibrium that the presence of life seems the most probable cause,” the authors wrote.

    But the most telltale sign of life was measured by Galileo’s spectrogram: radio transmissions from the planet’s surface. “Of all Galileo science measurements, these signals provide the only indication of intelligent, technological life,” wrote the authors.

    The paper’s first author was Carl Sagan, the astronomer, author, and science communicator. The planet that he and his co-authors described was Earth.

    Twenty years later, as far as we can tell, Earth remains the only planet in the Universe with any life, intelligent or otherwise. But that Galileo fly-by of Earth was a case study for future work. It confirmed that modern instruments can give us hints about the presence of life on other planets—including intelligent life. And since then, we’ve dedicated decades of funding and enthusiasm to look for life elsewhere in the Universe.

    But one component of this quest has, for the most part, been overlooked: the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). This is the field of astronomical research that looks for alien civilizations by searching for indicators of technology called “technosignatures.” Despite strong support from Sagan himself (he even made SETI the focus of his 1985 science-fiction novel Contact, which was turned into a hit movie in 1997 starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey), funding and support for SETI have been paltry compared to the search for extraterrestrial life in general.

    Throughout SETI’s 60-year history, a stalwart group of astronomers has managed to keep the search alive. Today, this cohort is stronger than ever, though they are mostly ignored by the research community, largely unfunded by NASA, and dismissed by some astronomers as a campy fringe pursuit. After decades of interest and funding dedicated toward the search for biological life, there are tentative signs that SETI is making a resurgence.

    At a time when we’re in the process of building hardware that should be capable of finding signatures of life (intelligent or otherwise) in the atmospheres of other planets, SETI astronomers simply want a seat at the table. The stakes are nothing less than the question of our place in the Universe.

    The Arecibo Radio Telescope on Puerto Rico [recently unfunded by NSF and now picked up by UCF and a group of funders] receives interplanetary signals and transmissions. And it was in the movie Contact!

    How to search for life on other worlds

    You may have heard of searching for life on other planets by looking for “biosignatures”—molecules or phenomena that would only occur or persist if life were present. These could be microbes discovered by directly sampling material from the planet (known as “in-situ sampling”) or using spectroscopic biosignatures, like chemical disequilibria in the atmosphere and images of water and agriculture, like those detected by the Galileo probe in 1990.

    The biosignature search is happening now, but it comes with limitations. In-situ sampling requires sending a spacecraft to another planet; we’ve done this, for example, with rovers sent to Mars and the Cassini spacecraft that sampled plumes of water erupting from Saturn’s moon Enceladus. And while in-situ sampling is the ideal option for planets in the Solar System, with our current technology, it will take millennia to get a vehicle to a planet orbiting a different star—and these exoplanets are far, far more numerous.

    To detect spectroscopic biosignatures we will need telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) or the ground-based Extremely Large Telescope, both currently under construction.

    NASA/ESA/CSA Webb Telescope annotated

    ESO/E-ELT, 39 meter telescope to be on top of Cerro Armazones in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile. located at the summit of the mountain at an altitude of 3,060 metres (10,040 ft).

    To directly image an exoplanet and obtain more definitive spectra will require future missions like LUVOIR (Large Ultraviolet Optical Infrared Surveyor) or the Habitable Exoplanet Imaging Mission. But all of these lie a number of years in the future.

    NASA Large UV Optical Infrared Surveyor (LUVOIR)

    NASA Habitable Exoplanet Imaging Mission (HabEx) The Planet Hunter depiction

    SETI researchers, however, are interested in “technosignatures”—biosignatures that indicate intelligent life. They are signals that could only come from technology, including TV and radio transmitters—like the radio transmission detected by the Galileo spacecraft—planetary radar systems, or high-power lasers.

    The first earnest call to search for technosignatures—and SETI’s formal beginning—came in 1959. That was the year that Cornell University physicists Giuseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison published a landmark paper in Nature outlining the most likely characteristics of alien communication. It would make the most sense, they postulated, for aliens to communicate across interstellar distances using electromagnetic waves since they are the only media known to travel fast enough to conceivably reach us across vast distances of space. Within the electromagnetic spectrum, Cocconi and Morrison determined that it would be most promising to look for radio waves because they are less likely to be absorbed by planetary atmospheres and require less energy to transmit. Specifically, they proposed a narrowband signal around the frequency at which hydrogen atoms emit radiation—a frequency that should be familiar to any civilization with advanced radio technology.

    What’s special about these signals is that they exhibit high degrees of coherence, meaning there is a large amount of electromagnetic energy in just one frequency or a very small instance of time—not something nature typically does.

    “As far as we know, these kinds of [radio] signals would be unmistakable indicators of technology,” says Andrew Siemion, professor of astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley. “We don’t know of any natural source that produces them.”

    Such a signal was detected on August 18, 1977 by the Ohio State University Radio Observatory, known as “Big Ear.”

    Ohio State Big Ear Radio Telescope, Construction of the Big Ear began in 1956 and was completed in 1961, and it was finally turned on for the first time in 1963

    Astronomy professor Jerry Ehman was analyzing Big Ear data in the form of printouts that, to the untrained eye, looked like someone had simply smashed the number row of a typewriter with a preference for lower digits. Numbers and letters in the Big Ear data indicated, essentially, the intensity of the electromagnetic signal picked up by the telescope, starting at 1 and moving up to letters in the double-digits (A was 10, B was 11, and so on). Most of the page was covered in 1s and 2s, with a stray 6 or 7 sprinkled in.

    But that day, Ehman found an anomaly: 6EQUJ5. This signal had started out at an intensity of 6—already an outlier on the page—climbed to E, then Q, peaked at U—the highest power signal Big Ear had ever seen—then decreased again. Ehman circled the sequence in red pen and wrote “Wow!” next to it.

    Alas, SETI researchers have never been able to detect the so-called “Wow! Signal” again, despite many tries with radio telescopes around the world. To this day, no one knows the source of the Wow! Signal, and it remains one of the strongest candidates for alien transmission ever detected.

    NASA began funding SETI studies in 1975, a time when the idea of extraterrestrial life was still unthinkable, according to former NASA Chief Historian Steven J. Dick. After all, no one then knew if there were even other planets outside our Solar System, much less life.

    In 1992, NASA made its strongest-ever commitment to SETI, pledging $100 million over ten years to fund the High Resolution Microwave Survey (HRMS), an expansive SETI project led by astrophysicist Jill Tarter.

    Jill Tarter

    One of today’s most prominent SETI researchers, Tarter was the inspiration for the protagonist of Sagan’s Contact, Eleanor Arroway.

    But less than a year after HRMS got underway, Congress abruptly canceled the project. “The Great Martian Chase may finally come to an end,” said Senator Richard Bryan of Nevada, one of its most vocal detractors. “As of today, millions have been spent and we have yet to bag a single little green fellow. Not a single Martian has said take me to your leader, and not a single flying saucer has applied for FAA approval.”

    The whole ordeal was “incredibly traumatic,” says Tarter. “It [the removal of funding] was so vindictive that, in fact, we became the four-letter S-word that you couldn’t say at NASA headquarters for decades.”

    Since that humiliating public reprimand by Congress, NASA’s astrobiology division has been largely focused on searching for biosignatures. And it has made sure to distinguish its current work from SETI, going so far as to say in a 2015 report that “the traditional Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence… is not a part of astrobiology.”

    Despite or because of this, the SETI community quickly regrouped and headed to the private sector for funding. Out of those efforts came Project Phoenix, rising from the ashes of the HRMS. From February 1995 to March 2004, Phoenix scanned about 800 nearby candidate stars for microwave transmission in three separate campaigns with the Parkes Observatory in New South Wales, Australia; the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia; and Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico [above].

    CSIRO/Parkes Observatory, located 20 kilometres north of the town of Parkes, New South Wales, Australia, 414.80m above sea level

    Green Bank Radio Telescope, West Virginia, USA, now the center piece of the GBO, Green Bank Observatory, being cut loose by the NSF

    The project did not find any signs of E.T., but it was considered the most comprehensive and sensitive SETI program ever conducted.

    At the same time, other projects run by the Planetary Society and UC Berkeley (including a project called SERENDIP, which is still active) carried out SETI experiments and found a handful of anomalous radio signals, but none showed up a second time.

    To search or not to search

    There is plenty of understandable skepticism surrounding the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. At first glance, one might reason that biosignatures are more common than technosignatures and therefore easier to detect. After all, complex life takes a long time to develop and so is probably rarer. But as astronomer and SETI researcher Jason Wright points out, “Slimes and fungus and molds and things are extremely hard to detect [on an exoplanet]. They’re not doing anything to get your attention. They’re not commanding energy resources that might be obvious at interstellar distances.”

    Linda Billings, a communications consultant for NASA’s Astrobiology Division, is not so convinced that SETI is worth it. She worked with SETI in the early 1990s when it was still being funded by the space agency.

    “I felt like there was a resistance to providing a realistic depiction of the SETI search, of how limited it is, how little of our own galaxy that we are capable of detecting in radio signals,” Billings says.

    While she supports NASA’s biosignature searches, she feels that there are too many assumptions embedded into the idea that intelligent aliens would emit signals that we can intercept and understand, so the likelihood of successfully detecting technosignatures is too low.

    What is the likelihood of encountering extraterrestrial intelligence? Astronomers have thought about this question and have even tried to quantify it, most famously in the Drake equation, introduced by radio astronomer Frank Drake in 1961. The equation estimates the number of active and communicative alien civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy by considering seven factors:

    Frank Drake with his Drake Equation. Credit Frank Drake

    Drake Equation, Frank Drake, Seti Institute

    Since these values have been largely conjectural, the Drake equation has served as more of a thought exercise than a precise calculation of probability. But SETI skeptics reason that the equation’s huge uncertainties render the search futile until we know more.

    Plus, the question remains as to whether we are looking the “right” way. By assuming aliens will transmit radio waves, SETI researchers also assume that alien civilizations must have intelligence similar to humans’. But intelligence—like life—could develop elsewhere in ways we can’t possibly imagine. So for some, the small chance that aliens are sending out radio transmissions isn’t enough to justify the search.

    Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, defended the radio approach in a blog post honoring Frank Drake’s 90th birthday earlier this year. “…[A] search for radio transmissions is not a parochial enterprise,” he wrote. “It doesn’t assume that the aliens are like us in any particular, only that they live in the same Universe, with the same physics.”

    SETI researchers can also cast a much wider net with their radio searches: Optical telescopes looking for biosignatures can only resolve data from exoplanets within a few tens of light-years, totaling to no more than 100 tractable targets. But existing radio observatories, like those at Green Bank and in Arecibo, can detect signals as far as 10,000 light-years away, producing 10-million more targets than biosignature search methods.

    The SETI community has no desire to stop the search for biosignatures. “Technosignatures and biosignatures both lie under the same umbrella that we call ‘astrobiology,’ so we are trying to learn from each other,” says Tarter.

    The current state of SETI

    Since the 1990s, new discoveries have strengthened the case to search for technosignatures. For example, NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope has identified over 4,000 exoplanets, and Kepler data suggest that half of all stars may harbor Earth-sized exoplanets, many of which may be the right distance from their stars to be conducive to life.

    NASA/Kepler Telescope, and K2 March 7, 2009 until November 15, 2018

    NASA/MIT TESS replaced Kepler in search for exoplanets

    Plus, the discovery of extremophiles—organisms that can grow and thrive in extreme temperature, acidity, or pressure—has shown astrobiologists that life exists in environments previously assumed to be inhospitable.

    But of the two arms of the search for life, SETI is still up against a perception problem—what some call a “giggle factor.” What does it take for SETI to be taken seriously? There are some indications that the perception problem is solving itself, albeit slowly.

    In 2015, SETI got a much-needed injection of cash—and faith—when Russian-born billionaire Yuri Milner pledged $100 million over 10 years to form the Breakthrough Initiatives, including Breakthrough Listen, a SETI project based at UC Berkeley and directed by Andrew Siemion.

    Breakthrough Listen Project


    UC Observatories Lick Autmated Planet Finder, fully robotic 2.4-meter optical telescope at Lick Observatory, situated on the summit of Mount Hamilton, east of San Jose, California, 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

    SKA Meerkat telescope, 90 km outside the small Northern Cape town of Carnarvon, SA

    Newly added

    CfA/VERITAS, a major ground-based gamma-ray observatory with an array of four Čerenkov Telescopes for gamma-ray astronomy in the GeV – TeV energy range. Located at Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory,Mount Hopkins, Arizona, US in AZ, USA, Altitude 2,606 m (8,550 ft)

    As the name suggests, Breakthrough Listen’s goal is to listen for signs of intelligent life. Breakthrough Listen has access to more than a dozen facilities around the world, including the NRAO in Green Bank, the Arecibo Observatory, and the MeerKAT radio telescope in South Africa.

    A few years later in 2018, NASA—prodded by SETI fan and Texas Congressman Lamar Smith—hosted a technosignatures workshop at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas. Over the course of three days, SETI scientists including Wright and Siemion met and discussed the current state of technosignature searches and how NASA could contribute to the field’s future. But Smith retired from Congress that same year, which put SETI’s future with federal funding back into question.

    In March 2019, Pennsylvania State University announced the new Penn State Extraterrestrial Intelligence Center (PSETI)—to be led by Wright, who is an associate professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the school. One of just two astrobiology PhD programs in the world (the other is at UCLA), PSETI plans on hosting the first Penn State SETI Symposium in June 2021.

    Some of PSETI’s main goals are to permanently fund SETI research worldwide, train the next generation of SETI practitioners, and support and foster a worldwide SETI community. These elements are important to any scientific endeavor but are currently lacking in the small field, even with initiatives like Breakthrough Listen. According to a recent white paper, only five people in the US have ever earned a PhD with SETI as the focus of their dissertations, and that number won’t be growing rapidly any time soon.

    “If you can’t propose for grants to work on a topic, it’s really difficult to convince young graduate students and postdocs to work in the field, because they don’t really see a future in it,” says Siemion.

    Tarter agrees that community and funding are the essential ingredients to SETI’s future. “We sort of lost a generation of scientists and engineers in this fallow period where a few of us could manage to keep this going,” she says. “A really well-educated, larger population of young exploratory scientists—and a stable path to allow them to pursue this large question into the future—is what we need.”

    Wright often calls SETI low-hanging fruit. “This field has been starved of resources for so long that there is still a ton of work to do that could have been done decades ago,” says Wright. “We can very quickly make a lot of progress in this field without a lot of effort.” This is made clear in Wright’s SETI graduate course at Penn State, in which his students’ final projects have sometimes become papers that get published in peer-reviewed journals—something that rarely happens in any other field of astronomy.

    In February 2020, Penn State graduate student Sofia Sheikh submitted a paper to The Astrophysical Journal outlining a survey of 20 stars in the “restricted Earth Transit Zone,” the area of the sky in which an observer on another planet could see Earth pass in front of the sun. Sheikh didn’t find any technosignatures in the direction of those 20 stars, but her paper is one of a number of events in the past year that seem to signal the resurgence of SETI.

    In July 2019, Breakthrough Listen announced a collaboration with VERITAS, an array of gamma-ray telescopes in Arizona [above]. VERITAS agreed to spend 30 hours per year looking at Breakthrough Listen’s targets for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence starting in 2021. Breakthrough Listen also announced, in March 2020, that it will soon partner with the NRAO to use the Very Large Array (VLA), an array of radio telescopes in Socorro, New Mexico.

    NRAO/Karl V Jansky Expanded Very Large Array, on the Plains of San Agustin fifty miles west of Socorro, NM, USA, at an elevation of 6970 ft (2124 m)

    (Coincidentally, the VLA was featured in the film Contact but was never actually used in SETI research.)

    And there are other forthcoming projects that take advantage of alternate avenues to search. Optical SETI instruments, like PANOSETI, will look for bright pulses in optical or near-infrared light that could be artificial in origin. Similarly, LaserSETI will use inexpensive, wide-field, astronomical grade cameras to probe the whole sky, all the time, for brief flickers of laser light coming from deep space. However, neither PANOSETI nor LaserSETI are fully funded.



    Just last month, though, NASA did award a grant to a group of scientists to search for technosignatures. It is the first time NASA has given funding to a non-radio technosignature search, and it’s also the first grant to support work at PSETI. The project team, led by Adam Frank from the University of Rochester, includes Jason Wright.

    “It’s a great sign that the winds are changing at NASA,” Wright said in an email. He credits NASA’s 2018 technosignatures workshop as a catalyst that led NASA to relax its stance against SETI research. “We have multiple proposals in to NASA right now to do more SETI work across its science portfolio and I’m more optimistic now that it will be fairly judged against the rest of the proposals.”

    Despite all the obstacles in their path, today’s SETI researchers have no plans to stop searching. After all, they are trying to answer one of the most profound and captivating questions in the entire Universe: are we alone?

    “You can certainly get a little tired and a little beat down by the challenges associated with any kind of job. We’re certainly not immune from that in SETI or in astronomy,” admits Siemion. “But you need only take 30 seconds to just contemplate the fact that you’re potentially on the cusp of making really an incredibly profound discovery—a discovery that would forever change the human view of our place in the universe. And, you know, it gets you out of bed.”

    SETI Institute

    Laser SETI, the future of SETI Institute research

    SETI/Allen Telescope Array situated at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory, 290 miles (470 km) northeast of San Francisco, California, USA, Altitude 986 m (3,235 ft), the origins of the Institute’s search.


    Further to the story

    UCSC alumna Shelley Wright, now an assistant professor of physics at UC San Diego, discusses the dichroic filter of the NIROSETI instrument, developed at the Dunlap Institute, U Toronto and brought to UCSD and installed at the Nickel telescope at UCSC (Photo by Laurie Hatch)

    Shelley Wright of UC San Diego, with NIROSETI, developed at Dunlap Institute U Toronto, at the 1-meter Nickel Telescope at Lick Observatory at UC Santa Cruz

    NIROSETI team from left to right Rem Stone UCO Lick Observatory Dan Werthimer UC Berkeley Jérôme Maire U Toronto, Shelley Wright UCSD Patrick Dorval, U Toronto Richard Treffers Starman Systems. (Image by Laurie Hatch)


    And separately and not connected to the SETI Institute

    SETI@home a BOINC project based at UC Berkeley

    SETI@home, a BOINC project originated in the Space Science Lab at UC Berkeley

    For transparency, I am a financial supporter of the SETI Institute. I was a BOINC cruncher for many years.

    My BOINC

    I am also a financial supporter of UC Santa Cruz and Dunlap Institute at U Toronto.

    See the full article here .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

    Ars Technica was founded in 1998 when Founder & Editor-in-Chief Ken Fisher announced his plans for starting a publication devoted to technology that would cater to what he called “alpha geeks”: technologists and IT professionals. Ken’s vision was to build a publication with a simple editorial mission: be “technically savvy, up-to-date, and more fun” than what was currently popular in the space. In the ensuing years, with formidable contributions by a unique editorial staff, Ars Technica became a trusted source for technology news, tech policy analysis, breakdowns of the latest scientific advancements, gadget reviews, software, hardware, and nearly everything else found in between layers of silicon.

    Ars Technica innovates by listening to its core readership. Readers have come to demand devotedness to accuracy and integrity, flanked by a willingness to leave each day’s meaningless, click-bait fodder by the wayside. The result is something unique: the unparalleled marriage of breadth and depth in technology journalism. By 2001, Ars Technica was regularly producing news reports, op-eds, and the like, but the company stood out from the competition by regularly providing long thought-pieces and in-depth explainers.

    And thanks to its readership, Ars Technica also accomplished a number of industry leading moves. In 2001, Ars launched a digital subscription service when such things were non-existent for digital media. Ars was also the first IT publication to begin covering the resurgence of Apple, and the first to draw analytical and cultural ties between the world of high technology and gaming. Ars was also first to begin selling its long form content in digitally distributable forms, such as PDFs and eventually eBooks (again, starting in 2001).

  • richardmitnick 2:43 pm on June 22, 2020 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , CfA Scientists Collaborate on New Study to Search the Universe for Signs of Technological Civilizations", Exoplanet LHS 1140b, Technosignatures,   

    From Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and University of Rochester: “CfA Scientists Collaborate on New Study to Search the Universe for Signs of Technological Civilizations” 

    University of Rochester

    Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

    From Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

    June 19, 2020

    Amy Oliver
    Public Affairs
    Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian
    Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory

    Artist’s impression of the exoplanet LHS 1140b, which orbits its star within the “habitable zone” where liquid water might exist on the surface. The LHS 1140 system is only about 40 light-years from Earth, making it a possible target for studying the atmosphere of the planet if it has one. Credit: M. Weiss/CfA

    Scientists at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian and the University of Rochester are collaborating on a project to search the universe for signs of life via technosignatures, after receiving the first NASA non-radio technosignatures grant ever awarded, and the first SETI-specific NASA grant in over three decades.

    Researchers believe that although life appears in many forms, the scientific principles remain the same, and that the technosignatures identifiable on Earth will also be identifiable in some fashion outside of the solar system. “Technosignatures relate to signatures of advanced alien technologies similar to, or perhaps more sophisticated than, what we possess,” said Avi Loeb, Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard. “Such signatures might include industrial pollution of atmospheres, city lights, photovoltaic cells (solar panels), megastructures, or swarms of satellites.”

    Knowing where to look for technosignatures hasn’t always been easy, making it difficult for researchers to obtain grants and a footing in mainstream astronomy. The surge of results in exoplanetary research—including planets in habitable zones and the presence of atmospheric water vapor—over the past five years has revitalized the search for intelligent life. “The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has always faced the challenge of figuring out where to look. Which stars do you point your telescope at and look for signals?” said Adam Frank, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester, and the primary recipient of the grant. “Now we know where to look. We have thousands of exoplanets including planets in the habitable zone where life can form. The game has changed.”

    The study, “Characterizing Atmospheric Technosignatures,” will initially focus on searching for two particular signatures that may indicate the presence of technological activities on extrasolar planetary bodies: solar panels and pollutants.

    Solar panels are rapidly gaining in popularity as a means for harnessing the energy of Earth’s sun, and researchers believe other civilizations will do the same with their own stars as they seek new means to produce energy. “The nearest star to Earth, Proxima Centauri, hosts a habitable planet, Proxima b.

    Centauris Alpha Beta Proxima 27, February 2012. Skatebiker

    The planet is thought to be tidally locked with permanent day and night sides,” said Loeb. “If a civilization wants to illuminate or warm up the night side, they would place photovoltaic cells on the day side and transfer the electric power gained to the night side.” Frank added, “Our job is to say, ‘this wavelength band’ is where you would see sunlight reflected off solar panels. This way astronomers observing a distant exoplanet will know where and what to look for if they’re searching for technosignatures.”

    In the search for life outside of the solar system, scientists also often turn to biosignatures detected as chemicals in planetary atmospheres. Jason Wright, Penn State University, said, “We have come a long way toward understanding how we might detect life on other worlds from the gases present in those worlds’ atmospheres.” While scientists can search for those chemicals produced naturally by life, like methane, they are now also searching for artificial chemicals and gases. “We pollute Earth’s atmosphere with our industrial activity,” said Loeb. “If another civilization had been doing it for much longer than we have, then their planet’s atmosphere might show detectable signs of artificially produced molecules that nature is very unlikely to produce spontaneously, such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).” The presence of CFCs—or refrigerant—therefore, could indicate the presence of industrial activity.

    Loeb, Frank, and Wright are joined by Mansavi Lingam of the Florida Institute of Technology, and Jacob Haqq-Misra of Blue Marble Space. The study aims to eventually produce the first entries for an online technosignatures library.

    “My hope is that, using this grant, we will quantify new ways to probe signs of alien technological civilizations that are similar to or much more advanced than our own,” said Loeb. “The fundamental question we are trying to address is: are we alone? But I would add to that: even if we are alone right now, were we alone in the past?”

    About Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian

    Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian (CfA) is a collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. CfA scientists, organized into six research divisions, study the origin, evolution and ultimate fate of the universe.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

    The Center for Astrophysics combines the resources and research facilities of the Harvard College Observatory and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory under a single director to pursue studies of those basic physical processes that determine the nature and evolution of the universe. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) is a bureau of the Smithsonian Institution, founded in 1890. The Harvard College Observatory (HCO), founded in 1839, is a research institution of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University, and provides facilities and substantial other support for teaching activities of the Department of Astronomy.

    U Rochester

    The University of Rochester is one of the country’s top-tier research universities. Our 158 buildings house more than 200 academic majors, more than 2,000 faculty and instructional staff, and some 10,500 students—approximately half of whom are women.

    Learning at the University of Rochester is also on a very personal scale. Rochester remains one of the smallest and most collegiate among top research universities, with smaller classes, a low 10:1 student to teacher ratio, and increased interactions with faculty.

  • richardmitnick 3:49 pm on February 15, 2020 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "New Technologies Strategies Expanding Search for Extraterrestrial Life", , , , , Technosignatures   

    From National Radio Astronomy Observatory: “New Technologies, Strategies Expanding Search for Extraterrestrial Life” 

    From National Radio Astronomy Observatory

    NRAO Banner

    February 15, 2020
    Dave Finley, Public Information Officer
    (575) 835-7302

    Credit: Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF

    Emerging technologies and new strategies are opening a revitalized era in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).

    New discovery capabilities, along with the rapidly-expanding number of known planets orbiting stars other than the Sun, are spurring innovative approaches by both government and private organizations, according to a panel of experts speaking at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Seattle, Washington.

    New approaches will not only expand upon but also go beyond the traditional SETI technique of searching for intelligently-generated radio signals, first pioneered by Frank Drake’s Project Ozma in 1960.

    Frank Drake with his Drake Equation. Credit Frank Drake

    Scientists now are designing state-of-the-art techniques to detect a variety of signatures that can indicate the possibility of extraterrestrial technologies. Such “technosignatures” can range from the chemical composition of a planet’s atmosphere, to laser emissions, to structures orbiting other stars, among others.

    The National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) and the privately-funded SETI Institute announced an agreement to collaborate on new systems to add SETI capabilities to radio telescopes operated by NRAO. The first project will develop a system to piggyback on the National Science Foundation’s Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) that will provide data to a state-of-the-art technosignature search system.

    “As the VLA conducts its usual scientific observations, this new system will allow for an additional and important use for the data we’re already collecting,” said NRAO Director Tony Beasley. “Determining whether we are alone in the Universe as technologically capable life is among the most compelling questions in science, and NRAO telescopes can play a major role in answering it,” Beasley continued.

    “The SETI Institute will develop and install an interface on the VLA permitting unprecedented access to the rich data stream continuously produced by the telescope as it scans the sky,” said Andrew Siemion, Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI at the SETI Institute and Principal Investigator for the Breakthrough Listen Initiative at the University of California, Berkeley. “This interface will allow us to conduct a powerful, wide-area SETI survey that will be vastly more complete than any previous such search,” he added.

    Siemion highlighted the singular role the $100-million Breakthrough Listen Initiative has played in reinvigorating the field of SETI in recent years. Siemion also announced the latest scientific results from Listen, a SETI survey in the direction of stars where a distant civilization could observe the Earth’s passage across the sun, and the availability of nearly 2 PetaBytes of data from the Listen Initiative’s international network of observatories.

    Other indicators of possible technologies include laser beams, structures built around stars to capture the star’s power output, atmospheric chemicals produced by industries, and rings of satellites similar to the ring of geosynchronous communication satellites orbiting above Earth’s equator.

    “Such indicators are becoming detectable as our technology advances, and this has renewed interest in SETI searches at both government agencies and private foundations,” Siemion said.

    Life forms, whether intelligent or not, also can produce detectable indicators. These include the presence of large amounts of oxygen, smaller amounts of methane, and a variety of other chemicals. Victoria Meadows, Principal Investigator for NASA’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory at the University of Washington, described how scientists are developing computer models to simulate extraterrestrial environments and to help support future searches for habitable planets and life beyond the Solar System.

    “Upcoming telescopes in space and on the ground will have the capability to observe the atmospheres of Earth-sized planets orbiting nearby cool stars, so it’s important to understand how best to recognize signs of habitability and life on these planets,” Meadows said, “These computer models will help us determine whether an observed planet is more or less likely to support life.”

    NASA/ESA/CSA Webb Telescope annotated

    ESO/E-ELT, 39 meter telescope to be on top of Cerro Armazones in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile. located at the summit of the mountain at an altitude of 3,060 metres (10,040 ft).

    TMT-Thirty Meter Telescope, proposed and now approved for Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA4,207 m (13,802 ft) above sea level, the only giant 30 meter class telescope for the Northern hemisphere


    Giant Magellan Telescope, 21 meters, to be at the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Las Campanas Observatory, to be built some 115 km (71 mi) north-northeast of La Serena, Chile, over 2,500 m (8,200 ft) high

    As new programs implement the expanding technical capabilities for detecting extraterrestrial life and intelligence, it’s important to define what constitutes compelling, credible evidence, according to Jill Tarter, of the SETI Institute.

    Jill Tarter Image courtesy of Jill Tarter

    “How strong does the evidence need to be to justify claiming a discovery? Can we expect to find smoking guns? If the evidence requires many caveats, how do we responsibly inform the public,” Tarter asked.

    Tarter pointed out that projects such as the University of California at San Diego’s PANOSETI visible-light and infrared search, and the SETI Institute’s Laser SETI search are being built with co-observing sites to reduce false positives. Such measures, she said, will boost confidence in reported detections, but also add to the expense of the project.

    The news media also share responsibility for communicating accurately with the public, Tarter emphasized. She cited cases in recent years of “exuberant reporting” of bogus claims of SETI detections. “A real detection of extraterrestrial intelligence would be such an important milestone in our understanding of the Universe that journalists need to avoid uncritical reporting of obviously fake claims,” she said.

    “As continuing discoveries show us that planets are very common components of the Universe, and we are able to study the characteristics of those planets, it’s exciting that at the same time, technological advances are giving us the tools to greatly expand our search for signs of life. We look forward to this new realm of discovery,” said Beasley, who organized the AAAS panel.

    “We also look forward to the coming decade, when we hope to build a next-generation Very Large Array, which will be able to search a volume of the Universe a thousand times larger than that accessible to current telescopes — making it the most powerful radio technosignature search machine humanity has ever constructed,” Beasley added.

    The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.

    See the full article here .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

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

    The NRAO operates a complementary, state-of-the-art suite of radio telescope facilities for use by the scientific community, regardless of institutional or national affiliation: the Very Large Array (VLA)



    ESO/NRAO/NAOJ ALMA Array in Chile in the Atacama at Chajnantor plateau, at 5,000 metres

    Access to ALMA observing time by the North American astronomical community will be through the North American ALMA Science Center (NAASC).

    *The Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) comprises ten radio telescopes spanning 5,351 miles. It’s the world’s largest, sharpest, dedicated telescope array. With an eye this sharp, you could be in Los Angeles and clearly read a street sign in New York City!

    Astronomers use the continent-sized VLBA to zoom in on objects that shine brightly in radio waves, long-wavelength light that’s well below infrared on the spectrum. They observe blazars, quasars, black holes, and stars in every stage of the stellar life cycle. They plot pulsars, exoplanets, and masers, and track asteroids and planets.

    largest, sharpest, dedicated telescope array. With an eye this sharp, you could be in Los Angeles and clearly read a street sign in New York City!

    Astronomers use the continent-sized VLBA to zoom in on objects that shine brightly in radio waves, long-wavelength light that’s well below infrared on the spectrum. They observe blazars, quasars, black holes, and stars in every stage of the stellar life cycle. They plot pulsars, exoplanets, and masers, and track asteroids and planets.

    The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.

  • richardmitnick 12:52 pm on January 28, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Astro 2020: Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics, , , , , , , Technosignatures   

    From Science News: “It’s time to start taking the search for E.T. seriously, astronomers say” 

    From Science News

    January 28, 2019
    Lisa Grossman

    WE’RE LISTENING The Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia was the first to listen for signals from intelligent aliens in 1960. The radio telescope has gotten back into the search for extraterrestrial intelligence in recent years.

    GBO radio telescope, Green Bank, West Virginia, USA

    Long an underfunded, fringe field of science, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence may be ready to go mainstream.

    Astronomer Jason Wright is determined to see that happen. At a meeting in Seattle of the American Astronomical Society in January, Wright convened “a little ragtag group in a tiny room” to plot a course for putting the scientific field, known as SETI, on NASA’s agenda.

    The group is writing a series of papers arguing that scientists should be searching the universe for “technosignatures” — any sign of alien technology, from radio signals to waste heat. The hope is that those papers will go into a report to Congress at the end of 2020 detailing the astronomical community’s priorities. That report, Astro 2020: Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics, will determine which telescopes fly and which studies receive federal funding through the next decade.

    “The stakes are high,” says Wright, of Penn State University. “If the decadal survey says, ‘SETI is a national science priority, and NSF and NASA need to fund it,’ they will do it.”

    SETI searches date back to 1960, when astronomer Frank Drake used the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia to listen for signals from an intelligent civilization (SN Online: 11/1/09). But NASA didn’t start a formal SETI program until 1992, only to see it canceled within a year by a skeptical Congress.

    Drake Equation, Frank Drake, Seti Institute

    Frank Drake speaking at Cornell University in Schwartz Auditorium, 19 October 2017 by Amalex5

    Private organizations picked up the baton, including the SETI Institute, founded in Mountain View, Calif., in 1985 by astronomer Jill Tarter — the inspiration for Jodie Foster’s character in the movie Contact (SN Online: 5/29/12).

    Jill Tarter Image courtesy of Jill Tarter

    SETI/Allen Telescope Array situated at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory, 290 miles (470 km) northeast of San Francisco, California, USA, Altitude 986 m (3,235 ft)

    Then in 2015, Russian billionaires Yuri and Julia Milner launched the Breakthrough Initiatives to join the hunt for E.T.

    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

    SKA Meerkat telescope, 90 km outside the small Northern Cape town of Carnarvon, SA

    But the search for technosignatures still hasn’t become a more serious, self-sustaining scientific discipline, Wright says.

    “If NASA were to declare technosignatures a scientific priority, then we would be able to apply for money to work on it. We would be able to train students to do it,” Wright says. “Then we could catch up” to more mature fields of astronomy, he says.

    Wright himself is a relative newcomer to SETI, entering the field in 2014 with a study on searching for heat from alien technology. He was also one of a group to suggest that the oddly flickering “Tabby’s star” could be surrounded by an alien megastructure — and then to debunk that idea with more data (SN: 9/30/17, p. 11).

    In the last five years, scientists’ attitudes toward the search for intelligent alien life have been changing, Wright says. SETI used to have a “giggle factor,” raising images of little green men, he says. And talking about SETI work as an astronomer was considered taboo, if not academic suicide. Now, not so much. “I have the pop sociology theory that the ascension of geek culture has something to do with it,” Wright says. “Now it’s like all the top movies are comic books and science fiction.”

    When NASA requested a report in 2018 on what technosignatures are and how to look for them, SETI researchers thought hopefully that the space agency might be ready to get back into the SETI game. Colleagues tapped Wright to organize a meeting to prepare the technosignatures report, posted online December 20 at arXiv.org.

    But Wright didn’t stop there. He convened the new workshop group with the goal of dividing up the work of writing at least nine papers on specific SETI opportunities for the decadal survey. By contrast, there was only one submission on SETI research, written by Tarter, in the 2010 decadal survey.

    The SETI situation has also evolved since the 2009 launch of the Kepler space telescope, which discovered thousands of exoplanets before its mission ended in 2018 (SN Online: 10/30/18). Some of those planets outside our solar system are similar in size and temperature to Earth, raising hopes that they may also host life. Old arguments that planets like Earth are rare “don’t hold much water any longer,” Wright says.

    The exoplanet rush has sparked a surge in research about biosignatures, signs of microbial life on other planets. NASA’s next big space telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, is planning to search directly for signs of alien life in exoplanet atmospheres (SN: 4/30/16, p. 32). So far, though, no one has found any biosignatures, let alone technosignatures. But the focus on searching for the one makes the case for ignoring the other seem all the weaker, Wright says.

    See the full article here .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

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