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  • richardmitnick 11:29 am on July 21, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , , , Is anyone out there?, , , Shelley Wright of UCSD and Niroseti at UCSC Lick Observatory's Nickel Telescope, Yuri Milner   

    From WIRED: “An Alien-Hunting Tech Mogul May Help Solve a Space Mystery” 

    Wired logo

    From WIRED

    Katia Moskvitch

    Yuri Milner. Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images

    In spring 2007, David Narkevic, a physics student at West Virginia University, was sifting through reams of data churned out by the Parkes telescope—a dish in Australia that had been tracking pulsars, the collapsed, rapidly spinning cores of once massive stars.

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

    His professor, astrophysicist Duncan Lorimer, had asked him to search for a recently discovered type of ultra-rapid pulsar dubbed RRAT. But buried among the mountain of data, Narkevic found an odd signal that seemed to come from the direction of our neighboring galaxy, the Small Magellanic Cloud.


    Small Magellanic Cloud. NASA/ESA Hubble and ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2

    The signal was unlike anything Lorimer had encountered before. Although it flashed only briefly, for just five milliseconds, it was 10 billion times brighter than a typical pulsar in the Milky Way galaxy. It was emitting in a millisecond as much energy as the sun emits in a month.

    What Narkevic and Lorimer found was the first of many bizarre, ultra-powerful flashes detected by our telescopes. For years the flashes first seemed either improbable or at least vanishingly rare. But now researchers have observed more than 80 of these Fast Radio Bursts, or FRBs. While astronomers once thought that what would be later dubbed the “Lorimer Burst” was a one-off, they now agree that there’s probably one FRB happening somewhere in the universe nearly every second.

    And the reason for this sudden glut of discoveries? Aliens. Well, not aliens per se, but the search for them. Among the scores of astronomers and researchers working tirelessly to uncover these enigmatic signals is an eccentric Russian billionaire who, in his relentless hunt for extraterrestrial life, has ended up partly bankrolling one of the most complex and far-reaching scans of our universe ever attempted.

    Ever since Narkevic spotted the first burst, scientists have been wondering what could produce these mesmerizing flashes in deep space. The list of possible sources is long, ranging from the theoretical to the simply unfathomable: colliding black holes, white holes, merging neutron stars, exploding stars, dark matter, rapidly spinning magnetars, and malfunctioning microwaves have all been proposed as possible sources.

    While some theories can now be rejected, many live on. Finally though, after more than a decade of searching, a new generation of telescopes is coming online that could help researchers to understand the mechanism that is producing these ultra-powerful bursts. In two recent back-to-back papers, one published last week and one today, two different arrays of radio antennas—the Australian Square Kilometer Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) and Caltech’s Deep Synoptic Array 10 at the Owens Valley Radio Observatory (OVRO) in the US—have for the first time ever been able to precisely locate two different examples of these mysterious one-off FRBs.

    Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) is a radio telescope array located at Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) in the Australian Mid West. ASKAP consists of 36 identical parabolic antennas, each 12 metres in diameter, working together as a single instrument with a total collecting area of approximately 4,000 square metres.

    Caltech’s Deep Synoptic Array 10 dish array at Owens Valley Radio Observatory, near Big Pine, California USA, Altitude 1,222 m (4,009 ft

    Physicists are now expecting that two other new telescopes—Chime (the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment) in Canada and MeerKAT in South Africa—will finally tell us what produces these powerful radio bursts.

    CHIME Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment -A partnership between the University of British Columbia, the University of Toronto, McGill University, Yale and the National Research Council in British Columbia, at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory in Penticton, British Columbia, CA Altitude 545 m (1,788 ft)

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

    But Narkevic’s and Lorimer’s discovery nearly got binned. For a few months after they first spotted the unusually bright burst, it looked like the findings wouldn’t make it any further than Lorimer’s office walls, just beyond the banks of the Monongahela River that slices through the city of Morgantown in West Virginia.

    Soon after detecting the burst, Lorimer asked his former graduate adviser Matthew Bailes, an astronomer at Swinburne University in Melbourne, to help him plot the signal—which to astronomers is now a famous and extremely bright energy peak, rising well above the power of any known pulsar. The burst seemed to come from much, much further away than where the Parkes telescope would usually find pulsars; in this case, probably from another galaxy, potentially billions of light-years away.

    “It just looked beautiful. I was like, ‘Whoa, that’s amazing.’ We nearly fell off our chairs,” recalls Bailes. “I had trouble sleeping that night because I thought if this thing is really that far away and that insanely bright, it’s an amazing discovery. But it better be right.”

    Within weeks, Lorimer and Bailes crafted a paper and sent it to Nature—and swiftly received a rejection. In a reply, a Nature editor raised concerns that there had been only one event, which appeared way brighter than seemed possible. Bailes was disappointed, but he had been in a worse situation before. Sixteen years earlier, he and fellow astronomer Andrew Lyne had submitted a paper claiming to have spotted the first ever planet orbiting another star—and not just any star but a pulsar. The scientific discovery turned out to be a fluke of their telescope. Months later, Lyne had to stand up in front of a large audience at an American Astronomical Society conference and announce their mistake. “It’s science. Anything can happen,” says Bailes. This time around, Bailes and Lorimer were certain that they had it right and decided to send their FRB paper to another journal, Science.

    After it was published, the paper immediately stirred interest; some scientists even wondered whether the mysterious flash was an alien communication. This wasn’t the first time that astronomers had reached for aliens as the answer for a seemingly inexplicable signal from space; in 1967, when researchers detected what turned out to be the first pulsar, they also wondered whether it could be a sign of intelligent life.

    Just like Narkevic decades later, Cambridge graduate student Jocelyn Bell had stumbled across a startling signal in the reams of data gathered by a radio array in rural Cambridgeshire.

    Women in STEM – Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell

    Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell, discovered pulsars with radio astronomy. Jocelyn Bell at the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory, Cambridge University, taken for the Daily Herald newspaper in 1968. Denied the Nobel.

    Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell at work on first plusar chart 1967 pictured working at the Four Acre Array in 1967. Image courtesy of Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory.

    Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell 2009

    Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell (1943 – ), still working from http://www. famousirishscientists.weebly.com

    Not much of the array is left today; in the fields near the university where it once stood, there’s an overgrown hedge, hiding a collection of wonky, sad-looking wooden poles that were once covered in a web of copper wire designed to detect radio waves from faraway sources. The wire has long been stolen and sold on to scrap metal dealers.

    “We did seriously consider the possibility of aliens,” Bell says, now an emeritus professor at Oxford University. Tellingly, the first pulsar was half-jokingly dubbed LGM-1 —for little green men. With only half a year left until the defense of her PhD thesis, she was less than thrilled that “some silly lot of little green men” were using her telescope and her frequency to signal to planet Earth. Why would aliens “be using a daft technique signaling to what was probably still a rather inconspicuous planet?” she once wrote in an article for Cosmic Search Magazine.

    Just a few weeks later, however, Bell spotted a second pulsar, and then a third just as she got engaged, in January 1968. Then, as she was defending her thesis and days before her wedding, she discovered a fourth signal in yet another part of the sky. Proof that pulsars had to be a natural phenomenon of an astrophysical origin, not a signal from intelligent life. Each new signal made the prospect even more unlikely that groups of aliens, separated by the vastness of the space, were somehow coordinating their efforts to send a message to an uninteresting hunk of rock on the outskirts of the Milky Way.

    Lorimer wasn’t so lucky. After the first burst, six years would pass without another detection. Many scientists began to lose interest. The microwave explanation persisted for a while, says Lorimer, as skeptics sneered at the notion of finding a burst that was observed only once. It didn’t help that in 2010 Parkes detected 16 similar pulses, which were quickly proven to be indeed caused by the door of a nearby microwave oven that had been opened suddenly during its heating cycle.

    Yuri Milner on stage with Mark Zuckerberg at a Breakthrough Prize event in 2017. Kimberly White/Getty Images

    When Avi Loeb first read of Lorimer’s unusual discovery, he too wondered if it was nothing more than the result of some errant wiring or miscalibrated computer. The chair of the astronomy department at Harvard happened to be in Melbourne in November 2007, just as Lorimer’s and Bailes’ paper appeared in Science, so he had a chance to discuss the odd burst with Bailes. Loeb thought the radio flash was a compelling enigma—but not much more than that.

    Still, that same year Loeb wrote a theoretical paper arguing that radio telescopes built to detect very specific hydrogen emissions from the early universe would also be able to eavesdrop on radio signals from alien civilizations up to about 10 light-years away. “We have been broadcasting for a century—so another civilization with the same arrays can see us from a distance out to 50 light-years,” was Loeb’s reasoning. He followed up with another paper on the search for artificial lights in the solar system. There, Loeb showed that a city as bright as Tokyo could be detected with the Hubble Space Telescope even if it was located right at the edge of the solar system. In yet another paper he argued how to detect industrial pollution in planetary atmospheres.

    Ever since he was a little boy growing up in Israel, Loeb has been fascinated with life—on Earth and elsewhere in the universe. “Currently, the search for microbial life is part of the mainstream in astronomy—people are looking for the chemical fingerprints of primitive life in the atmosphere of exoplanets,” says Loeb, who first dabbled in philosophy before his degree in physics.

    But the search for intelligent life beyond Earth should also be part of the mainstream, he argues. “There is a taboo, it’s a psychological and sociological problem that people have. It’s because there is the baggage of science fiction and UFO reports, both of which have nothing to do with what actually goes on out there in space,” he adds. He’s frustrated with having to explain—and defend—his point of view. After all, he says, billions have been poured into the search for dark matter over decades with zero results. Should the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, more commonly known as SETI, be regarded as even more fringe than this fruitless search?

    Lorimer didn’t follow Loeb’s SETI papers closely. After six long and frustrating years, his luck turned in 2013, when a group of his colleagues—including Bailes—spotted four other bright radio flashes in Parkes’ data. Lorimer felt vindicated and relieved. More detections followed and the researchers were on a roll: At long last, FRBs had been confirmed as a real thing. After the first event was dubbed “Lorimer’s Burst,” it swiftly made it onto the physics and astronomy curricula of universities around the globe. In physics circles, Lorimer was elevated to the position of a minor celebrity.

    Keeping an eye on events from a distance was Loeb. One evening in February 2014, at a dinner in Boston, he started chatting to a charismatic Russian-Israeli called Yuri Milner, a billionaire technology investor with a background in physics and a well-known name in Silicon Valley. Ever since he could remember, Milner had been fascinated with life beyond Earth, a subject close to Loeb’s heart; the two instantly hit it off.

    Milner came to see Loeb again in May the following year, at Harvard, and asked the academic how long it would take to travel to Alpha Centauri, the star system closest to Earth.

    Centauris Alpha Beta Proxima 27, February 2012. Skatebiker

    Loeb replied he would need half a year to identify the technology that would allow humans to get there in their lifetime. Milner then asked Loeb to lead Breakthrough Starshot, one of five Breakthrough Initiatives the Russian oligarch was about to announce in a few weeks—backed by $100 million of his own money and all designed to support SETI.

    Breakthrough Starshot Initiative

    Breakthrough Starshot

    ESO 3.6m telescope & HARPS at LaSilla, 600 km north of Santiago de Chile at an altitude of 2400 metres.

    SPACEOBS, the San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations Observatory is located at 2450m above sea level, north of the Atacama Desert, in Chile, near to the village of San Pedro de Atacama and close to the border with Bolivia and Argentina

    SNO Sierra Nevada Observatory is a high elevation observatory 2900m above the sea level located in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in Granada Spain and operated maintained and supplied by IAC

    Teide Observatory in Tenerife Spain, home of two 40 cm LCO telescopes

    Observatori Astronòmic del Montsec (OAdM), located in the town of Sant Esteve de la Sarga (Pallars Jussà), 1,570 meters on the sea level

    Bayfordbury Observatory,approximately 6 miles from the main campus of the University of Hertfordshire

    Fast-forward six months, and at the end of December 2015 Loeb got a call asking him to prepare a presentation summarizing his recommended technology for the Alpha Centauri trip. Loeb was visiting Israel and about to head on a weekend trip to a goat farm in the southern part of the country. “The following morning, I was sitting next to the reception of the farm—the only location with internet connectivity—and typing the PowerPoint presentation that contemplated a lightsail technology for Yuri’s project,” says Loeb. He presented it at Milner’s home in Moscow two weeks later, and the Breakthrough Initiatives were announced with fanfare in July 2015.

    The initiatives were an adrenaline shot in the arm of the SETI movement—the largest ever private cash injection into the search for aliens. One of the five projects is Breakthrough Listen, which was championed, among others, by the famous astronomer Stephen Hawking (who has died since) and British astronomer royal Martin Rees.

    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 12m optical reflectors 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)

    Echoing the film Contact, with Jodie Foster playing an astronomer listening out for broadcasts from aliens (loosely based on real-life SETI astronomer Jill Tarter), the project uses radio telescopes around the world to look for any signals from extraterrestrial intelligence.

    Jill Tarter Image courtesy of Jill Tarter

    After the Breakthrough Initiatives were announced, Milner’s money quickly got invested into the deployment of cutting-edge technology—such as computer storage and new receivers—at existing radio telescopes, including Green Bank in West Virginia and Parkes in Australia; whether the astronomers using these observatories believed in alien life or not, they welcomed the investment with open arms. It didn’t take long to receive the first scientific returns.

    After the Breakthrough Initiatives were announced, Milner’s money quickly got invested into the deployment of cutting-edge technology—such as computer storage and new receivers—at existing radio telescopes, including Green Bank in West Virginia and Parkes in Australia; whether the astronomers using these observatories believed in alien life or not, they welcomed the investment with open arms. It didn’t take long to receive the first scientific returns.

    In August 2015 one of the previously spotted FRBs decided to make a repeat appearance, triggering headlines worldwide because it was so incredibly powerful, brighter than the Lorimer Burst and any other FRB. It was dubbed “the repeater” and is also known as the Spitler Burst, because it was first discovered by astronomer Laura Spitler of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany.

    Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy

    Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy Bonn Germany

    Over the next few months, the burst flashed many more times, not regularly, but often enough to allow researchers to determine its host galaxy and consider its possible source—likely a highly magnetized, young, rapidly spinning neutron star (or magnetar).

    This localization was done with the Very Large Array (VLA), a group of 27 radio dishes in New Mexico that feature heavily in the film Contact. But the infrastructure at Green Bank Telescope upgraded by Breakthrough Listen caught the repeating flashes many more times, says Lorimer—allowing researchers to study its host galaxy more in detail. “It’s wonderful—they have a mission to find ET, but along the way they want to show that this is producing other useful results for the scientific community,” he adds. Detecting FRBs has quickly become one of the main objectives of Breakthrough Listen.

    Netting the repeater was both a boon and a hindrance—on the one hand, it eliminated models that cataclysmic events such as supernova explosions were causing FRBs; after all, these can happen only once. On the other hand, it deepened the mystery. The repeater lives in a small galaxy with a lot of star formation—the kind of environment where a neutron star could be born, hence the magnetar model. But what about all the other FRBs that don’t repeat?

    Researchers started to think that perhaps there were different types of these bursts, each with its own source. Scientific conferences still buzz with talks of mights and might-nots, with physicists eagerly debating possible sources of FRBs in corridors and at conference bars. In March 2017, Loeb caused a media frenzy by suggesting that FRBs could actually be of alien origin—solar-powered radio transmitters that might be interstellar light sails pushing huge spaceships across galaxies.

    That Parkes is part of the SETI project is obvious to any visitor. Walking up the flight of stairs to the circular operating tower below the dish, every button, every door, and every wall nostalgically screams 1960s, until you reach the control room full of modern screens where astronomers remotely control the antenna to observe pulsars.

    Up another flight of stairs is the data storage room, stacked with columns and columns of computer drives full of blinking lights. One thick column of hard drives is flashing neon blue, put there by Breakthrough Listen as part of a cutting-edge recording system designed to help astronomers search for every possible radio signal in 12 hours of data, much more than ever before. Bailes, who now splits his time between FRB search and Breakthrough Listen, takes a smiling selfie in front of Milner’s drives.

    While many early FRB discoveries were made with veteran telescopes—single mega dishes like Parkes and Green Bank—new telescopes, some with the financial backing of Breakthrough Listen, are now revolutionizing the FRB field.

    Deep in South African’s semi-desert region of the Karoo, eight hours by car from Cape Town, stands an array of 64 dishes, permanently tracking space. They are much smaller than their mega-dish cousins, and all work in unison. This is MeerKAT [above], another instrument in Breakthrough Listen’s growing worldwide network of giant telescopes. Together with a couple of other next-generation instruments, this observatory might hopefully tell us one day, probably in the next decade, what FRBs really are.

    The name MeerKAT means “More KAT,” a follow up to KAT 7, the Karoo Array Telescope of seven antennas—although real meerkats do lurk around the remote site, sharing the space with wild donkeys, horses, snakes, scorpions and kudus, moose-sized mammals with long, spiraling antlers. Visitors to MeerKAT are told to wear safety leather boots with steel toes as a precaution against snakes and scorpions. They’re also warned about the kudus, which are very protective of their calves and recently attacked the pickup truck of a security guard, turning him and his car over. Around MeerKAT there is total radio silence; all visitors have to switch off their phones and laptops. The only place with connectivity is an underground “bunker” shielded by 30-centimeter-thick walls and a heavy metal door to protect the sensitive antennas from any human-made interference.

    MeerKAT is one of the two precursors to a much bigger future radio observatory—the SKA, or Square Kilometer Array.

    SKA Square Kilometer Array

    SKA South Africa

    Once SKA is complete, scientists will have added another 131 antennas in the Karoo. The first SKA dish has just been shipped to the MeerKAT site from China. Each antenna will take several weeks to assemble, followed by a few more months of testing to see whether it actually works the way it should. If all goes well, more will be commissioned, built, and shipped to this faraway place, where during the day the dominant color is brown; as the sun sets, however, the MeerKAT dishes dance in an incredible palette of purples, reds, and pinks, as they welcome the Milky Way stretching its starry path just above. MeerKAT will soon be an incredible FRB machine, says Bailes.

    There is another SKA precursor—ASKAP in Australia.

    Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) is a radio telescope array located at Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) in the Australian Mid West. ASKAP consists of 36 identical parabolic antennas, each 12 metres in diameter, working together as a single instrument with a total collecting area of approximately 4,000 square metres.

    Back in 2007, when Lorimer was mulling over the Nature rejection, Ryan Shannon was finishing his PhD in physics at Cornell University in New York—sharing the office with Laura Spitler, who would later discover the Spitler Burst. Shannon had come to the US from Canada, growing up in a small town in British Columbia. About half an hour drive from his home is the Dominion and Radio Astronomical Observatory (DRAO)—a relatively small facility that was involved in building equipment for the VLA.


    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)

    Subconsciously, says Shannon, DRAO must have impacted his choice of career. And it was at DRAO that a few years later a totally new telescope—Chime [above]—would be built that would greatly impact the nascent field of FRB research. But in 2007 that was still to come. After graduating from Cornell in 2011, Shannon decided not to stay close to home—“something my mum would’ve wanted.” Instead, he moved to Australia and ultimately to Swinburne University on the outskirts of Melbourne.

    Shannon joined Bailes’ team in 2017—and by then astronomers had begun to understand why they weren’t detecting more FRBs, even though they were already estimating that these flashes were happening hundreds of times every day, if not more. “Our big radio telescopes don’t have wide fields of view, they can’t see the entire sky—that’s why we missed nearly all FRBs in the first decade of realizing these things exist,” says Shannon.

    When he, Bailes, and other FRB hunters saw the ultra-bright repeater, the Spitler Burst, they understood that there were fast radio bursts which could be found even without gigantic telescopes like Parkes, by using instruments that have a wider field of view. So they started building ASKAP [above]—a new observatory conceived in 2012 and recently completed in the remote Australian outback. It sports 36 dishes with a 12-meter diameter each, and just like with MeerKAT, they all work together.

    To get to ASKAP, in a very sparsely populated area in the Murchison Shire of Western Australia, one has to first fly to Perth, change for a smaller plane bound for Murchison, then squeeze into a really tiny single propeller plane, or drive for five hours across 150 kilometers of dirt roads. “When it rains, it turns to mud, and you can’t drive there,” says Shannon, who went to the ASKAP site twice, to introduce the local indigenous population to the new telescope constructed—with permission—on their land and see the remote, next-generation ultra-sensitive radio observatory for himself.

    MeerKAT and ASKAP bring two very different technological approaches to the hunt for FRBs. Both observatories look at the southern sky, which makes it possible to see the Milky Way’s bright core much better than in the northern hemisphere; they complement old but much upgraded observatories like Parkes and Arecibo in South America. But the MeerKAT dishes have highly sensitive receivers which are able to detect very distant objects, while ASKAP’s novel multi-pixel receivers on each dish offer a much wider field of view, enabling the telescope to find nearby FRBs more often.

    “ASKAP’s dishes are less sensitive, but we can observe a much larger portion of the sky,” says Shannon. “So ASKAP is going to be able to see things that are usually intrinsically brighter.” Together, the two precursors will be hunting for different parts of the FRB population—since “you want to understand the entire population to know the big picture.”

    MeerKAT only started taking data in February, but ASKAP has been busy scanning the universe for FRBs for a few years now. Not only has it already spotted about 30 new bursts, but in a new paper just released in Science, Shannon and colleagues have detailed a new way to localize them despite their short duration, which is a big and important step toward being able to determine what triggers this ultra-bright radiation. Think of ASKAP’s antennas as the eye of a fly; they can scan a wide patch of the sky to spot as many bursts as possible, but the antennas can all be made to point instantly in the same direction. This way, they make an image of the sky in real time, and spot a millisecond-long FRB as it washes over Earth. That’s what Shannon and his colleagues have done, and for the first time ever, managed to net one burst they named FRB 180924 and pinpoint its host galaxy, some 4 billion light-years away, all in real time.

    Another team, at Caltech’s Owens Valley Radio Observatory (OVRO) in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California, have also just caught a new burst and traced it back to its source, a galaxy 7.9 billion light years away.

    Caltech’s Deep Synoptic Array 10 dish array at Owens Valley Radio Observatory, near Big Pine, California USA, Altitude 1,222 m (4,009 ft

    And just like Shannon, they didn’t do it with a single dish telescope but a recently built array of 10 4.5-meter antennas called the Deep Synoptic Array-10. The antennas act together like a mile-wide dish to cover an area on the sky the size of 150 full moons. The telescope’s software then processes an amount of data equivalent to a DVD every second. The array is a precursor for the Deep Synoptic Array that, when built by 2021, will sport 110 radio dishes, and may be able to detect and locate more than 100 FRBs every year.

    What both ASKAP’s and OVRO’s teams found was that their presumably one-off bursts originated in galaxies very different from the home of the first FRB repeater. Both come from galaxies with very little star formation, similar to the Milky Way and very different from the home of the repeater, where stars are born at a rate of about a hundred times faster. The discoveries show that “every galaxy, even a run-of-the-mill galaxy like our Milky Way, can generate an FRB,” says Vikram Ravi, an astronomer at Caltech and part of the OVRO team.

    But the findings also mean that the magnetar model, accepted by many as the source of the repeating burst, does not really work for these one-off flashes. Perhaps, Shannon says, ASKAP’s burst could be the result of a merger of two neutron stars, similar to the one spotted two years ago by the gravitational wave detectors LIGO and Virgo in the US and Italy, because both host galaxies are very similar. “It’s a bit spooky that way,” says Shannon. One thing is clear though, he adds: The findings show that there is likely more than one type of FRBs.

    Back in Shannon’s hometown in Canada, the excitement has also been growing exponentially because of CHIME. Constructed at the same time as MeerKAT and ASKAP, this is a very different observatory; it has no dishes but antennas in the form of long buckets designed to capture light. In January, the CHIME team reported the detection of the second FRB repeater and 12 non-repeating FRBs. CHIME is expected to find many, many more bursts, and with ASKAP, MeerKAT and CHIME working together, astronomers hope to understand the true nature of the enigmatic radio flashes very soon.

    But will they fulfill Milner’s dream and successfully complete SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence? Lorimer says that scientists hunting for FRBs and pulsars have for decades been working closely with colleagues involved in SETI projects.

    After all, Loeb’s models for different—alien—origins of FRBs are not fundamentally wrong. “The energetics when you consider what we know from the observations are consistent and there’s nothing wrong with that,” says Lorimer. “And as part of the scientific method, you definitely want to encourage those ideas.” He personally prefers to find the simplest natural explanation for the phenomena he observes in space—but until we manage to directly observe the source of these FRBs, all theoretical ideas should stand, as long as they are scientifically sound—whether they involve aliens or not.

    Any image repeats in this post were required for complete coverage.

    See the full article here .

    Totally missing from this article on SETI-

    SETI Institute

    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)

    UCSC alumna Shelley Wright, now an assistant professor of physics at UC San Diego, discusses the dichroic filter of the NIROSETI instrument. (Photo by Laurie Hatch).jpg

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

    Laser SETI, the future of SETI Institute research

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


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

  • richardmitnick 11:03 am on November 28, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: A billionaire’s plan to search for life on Enceladus, , , , , Breakthrough Starshot Foundation, , , , Yuri Milner   

    From EarthSky: “A billionaire’s plan to search for life on Enceladus” 


    From EarthSky

    November 27, 2018
    Paul Scott Anderson

    Russian entrepreneur and physicist Yuri Milner wants to send a probe back to Saturn’s ocean moon Enceladus, to search for evidence of life there. NASA wants to help him.

    Illustration showing plumes on Saturnian moon Enceladus. Illustration: NASA /JPL-Caltech

    Saturn’s moon Enceladus is very small – only about 310 miles (500 kilometers) across – but it may hold clues to one of the biggest mysteries of all time – are we alone? Beneath the icy crust lies a global salty ocean, not too different from Earth’s oceans. Could that ocean contain life of some kind? That is a question that many scientists – and the public alike – would like to find an answer for. Enceladus, however, is very far away and planetary missions are expensive – but there may be an ideal solution.

    Billionaire entrepreneur and physicist Yuri Milner wants to send a private mission back to this intriguing world, and NASA wants to help him. This incredible idea was first reported in New Scientist on November 8, 2018 (please note this article is behind a paywall). It was then reported by Gizmodo the same day.

    “It looks like NASA will offer billionaire entrepreneur and physicist Yuri Milner help on the first private deep-space mission: a journey designed to detect life, if it exists, on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, according to documents acquired by New Scientist.

    New Scientist’s Mark Harris reports:

    Agreements signed by NASA and Milner’s non-profit Breakthrough Starshot Foundation in September show that the organisations are working on scientific, technical and financial plans for the ambitious mission. NASA has committed over $70,000 to help produce a concept study for a flyby mission. The funds won’t be paid to Breakthrough but represent the agency’s own staffing costs on the project.

    The teams will be working in the project plan and concepts through next year, New Scientist reports.”

    Enceladus is a very small moon, but it has a global ocean beneath its icy crust. Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech.

    Breakthrough Initiatives, part of Milner’s non-profit Breakthrough Starshot Foundation, would lead and pay for the mission, with consultation from NASA. The board of Breakthrough Initiatives includes billionaires Yuri Milner and Mark Zuckerberg, and the late physicist Stephen Hawking. Breakthrough Initiatives has been studying various mission concepts for space exploration, including a solar sail to nearby stars, advancing the technology to discover other Earth-like planets and sending out a direct message, similar to the previous Arecibo message, specifically to try and catch the attention of aliens.

    Solar sail. Breakthrough Starshot image. Credit: Breakthrough Starshot

    This radio message was transmitted toward the globular cluster M13 using the Arecibo telescope in 1974. Image Credit Arne Nordmann (norro) Wikipedia

    NAIC Arecibo Observatory operated by University of Central Florida, Yang Enterprises and UMET, Altitude 497 m (1,631 ft).

    Enceladus has become a prime target in the search for extraterrestrial life in our solar system, since its subsurface ocean is thought to be quite similar to oceans on Earth, thanks to data from the Cassini mission, which orbited Saturn from 2004 until September of last year.

    NASA/ESA/ASI Cassini-Huygens Spacecraft

    Scientists already know it is salty and there is evidence for geothermal activity on the ocean floor, such as “smoker” volcanic vents on the bottom of oceans on Earth. Such geothermal vents – at least on Earth – are oases for a wide variety of ocean life despite the darkness and cold temperatures away from the vents.

    Cassini also investigated the plumes of Enceladus – huge “geysers” of water vapor erupting through cracks in the surface at the south pole of Enceladus. Cassini flew right through some of them, analyzing their composition, and found they contain water vapor, ice particles, complex organic molecules and salts. Cassini wasn’t capable of finding life directly, but it did find valuable clues and hints that there may well be something alive in that alien ocean, even if only microbes.

    Earlier this year, New Scientist also reported that there may already be some tentative evidence for microbes in Enceladus’s ocean [Nature Communications]. Cassini detected traces of methane in the water vapor plumes, and when scientists tested computer models of conditions in the ocean, they found that microbes that emit methane after combining hydrogen and carbon dioxide – called methanogens – could easily survive there. According to Chris McKay at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California:

    “This [team] has taken the first step to showing experimentally that methanogens can indeed live in the conditions expected on Enceladus.”

    The scientists found that the microbes were able to thrive at temperatures and pressures likely found in Enceladus’s oceans, ranging from 0 to 90 degrees Celsius, and up to 50 Earth atmospheres. They also found that olivine minerals, thought to exist in the moon’s core, could be chemically broken down to produce enough hydrogen for methanogens to thrive.

    Another proposed return mission to Enceladus is the Enceladus Life Finder (ELF), which would orbit Saturn and make repeated passes through the plumes – like Cassini, but with updated instruments. Image via Jonathan Lunine.

    Another proposed return mission to Enceladus is the Enceladus Life Finder (ELF), which would orbit Saturn and make repeated passes through the plumes – like Cassini, but with updated instruments that could even test whether any amino acids found have predominately left or right-handed structures. (Life on Earth predominately creates left-handed forms, and scientists think that life elsewhere will also favor one form over the other instead of a random mixture as would occur from abiotic chemistry.)

    Cassini wasn’t designed to detect life directly, but on a future mission – such as the one proposed – a mass spectrometer would be able to detect carbon isotope ratios unique to living organisms, as well as other potential “biomarkers” of methanogens, including lipids and hydrocarbons.

    Bottom line: Scientists are eager to return to Enceladus to learn more about its intriguing subsurface ocean. The new plan by billionaire Yuri Milner, with NASA’s assistance, may be the best bet to go back and see if anything is swimming in those mysterious alien waters.

    See the full article here .

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    Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.orgin 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. “Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers,” she says.

    • stewarthoughblog 10:52 pm on November 28, 2018 Permalink | Reply

      This substantiates the maxim that intelligence can only be coincidently related to financial possession. Even considering that science can be expected to pursue the investigation of a wide array of physical phenomenon, wasting $billions on speculation of the possibility of life on remote bodies is nonsensical considering that there is virtually a total absence of any evidence of naturalist creation of life on Earth. Projection of any conditions on Enceladus of conditions similar to primordial Earth is pure faith, not based on scientific evidence.

      But, it is true that anyone can spend their money (peaceably) on what they want to


      • richardmitnick 2:08 pm on November 29, 2018 Permalink | Reply

        I totally agree with your assessment of this proposed project. But, of course, it is Milner’s money. The real problem beyond is that we cannot squelch even the wildest quests in hopes for new science. Science never sleeps. The best example of this is that when our Congress in 1993 killed the Superconducting super collider, we left the door wide open for Europe via CERN to build its substitute, the LHC and High Energy Physics simply moved to Europe.


  • richardmitnick 4:05 pm on December 6, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Breakthrough awards announce winners in physics, life sciences and mathematics, , Yuri Milner   

    From SA: “Black-Hole Fireworks Win Big in Multimillion-Dollar Science Prizes” 

    Scientific American

    Scientific American

    December 5, 2016
    Zeeya Merali

    Breakthrough awards announce winners in physics, life sciences and mathematics

    Credit: Kimberly White Getty Images

    Posing problems in science can be just as rewarding as solving them. The discovery of the black-hole firewall paradox — one of the most confounding puzzles to emerge in physics in recent years — has bagged its co-founder a share of one of this year’s US$3-million Breakthrough Prizes, the most lucrative awards in science.

    Joseph Polchinski, at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is one of three string theorists to share the fundamental-physics prize — announced along with the life-sciences and mathematics awards on 4 December at a glitzy ceremony at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.

    Joseph Polchinski

    Polchinski co-authored an analysis in 2012 that concluded that either black holes are surrounded by a ring of high-energy particles known as a firewall — a possibility that contradicts the general theory of relativity — or physicists’ understanding of quantum theory is wrong. As yet, there is no consensus as to which of these two cornerstones of physics has to give.

    “I made a list of about 11 distinct solutions proposed by some of the biggest names in physics, but none are quite convincing, and none are clearly wrong,” says Polchinski. “I’m completely mystified.”

    Andrew Strominger and Cumrun Vafa, both at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, share the physics prize with Polchinski.

    Andrew Strominger

    Cumrun Vafa

    All three have examined black-hole physics from the perspective of string theory, which posits that at the fundamental level, elementary particles are made up of strings that are anchored to higher-dimensional membranes, or ‘branes’.

    Theories without experiments

    The Breakthrough physics prizes have previously been criticized for honouring string theorists because string theory lies beyond the reach of direct experimental testability. But the prize’s founder, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, argues that this helps to set the prize apart from awards such as the Nobels, which require ideas to be backed up by experiments. “The physics prizes are really recognizing intellectual achievement,” he says. In this case of firewalls, he adds, “this can be in the asking of a question, rather than the finding of an answer”.

    This May, the Breakthrough prizes cemented another distinction from the Nobels by announcing a special collective prize to 1,015 people working on the LIGO project. In February, researchers working at LIGO announced the first detection of gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of space-time created when two black holes merge. The Nobel prizes honour at most three people in their science categories.

    The three LIGO project leaders — physicists Ronald Drever and Kip Thorne at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and Rainer Weiss of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge — will share $1 million; the remaining $2 million will be distributed among the other 1,012 physicists who worked on the project. This continues a trend set last year, when 1,377 neutrino physicists split the mega-prize. “The physics prize selection committee want to send a clear message here that experimental physics is collaborative,” Milner says.

    Ronald Drever

    Kip Thorne

    Rainer Weiss

    LIGO bloc new
    Caltech/MIT Advanced aLigo Hanford, WA, USA installation
    Caltech/MIT Advanced aLigo Hanford, WA, USA installation

    Caltech/MIT Advanced aLigo detector installation Livingston, LA, USA
    Caltech/MIT Advanced aLigo detector installation Livingston, LA, USA

    Gravitational waves. Credit: MPI for Gravitational Physics/W.Benger-Zib
    Gravitational waves. Credit: MPI for Gravitational Physics/W.Benger-Zib

    Cornell SXS, the Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes (SXS) project
    Cornell SXS, the Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes (SXS) project

    Life-sciences awards

    Harry Noller, a molecular biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, was honoured with a life-sciences prize for his research revealing the centrality of RNA to protein synthesis. Some argue that he missed out on winning the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistrybecause of the award’s limitation to three winners. And this year’s Nobel laureate for physiology or medicine, Yoshinori Ohsumi at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, in Japan, also picked up a Breakthrough gong for his work on autophagy, cells’ recycling system.

    The other life-sciences winners were: geneticist Stephen Elledge at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, for elucidating how cells sense and respond to DNA damage; developmental biologist Roeland Nusse at Stanford University in California for pioneering research into the Wnt signalling pathway, which transmits signals from outside to inside cells; and geneticist Huda Zoghbi at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, for discovering the causes of the neurological disordersspinocerebellar ataxia and Rett syndrome.

    The Breakthrough prize in mathematics went to Jean Bourgain at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, for work on the geometry of multidimensional spaces and techniques for solving partial differential equations, with applications to quantum physics, and other research. Bourgain also won the $1-million Shaw Prize in mathematics in 2010.

    The award ceremony, hosted by movie star Morgan Freeman, also honoured six early-career scientists, and the winner of a junior science video-making prize.

    See the full article here .

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    Scientific American, the oldest continuously published magazine in the U.S., has been bringing its readers unique insights about developments in science and technology for more than 160 years.

  • richardmitnick 6:47 am on May 27, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , Yuri Milner   

    From AAAS: “Q&A: Web billionaire describes his plan to shoot for the stars” 



    May. 26, 2016
    Zeeya Merali

    Breakthrough Starshot lasers. Breakthrough Starshot will require lasers many times more powerful than any existing today.
    Breakthrough Initiatives

    Last month, Russian internet billionaire Yuri Milner announced plans to send thousands of tiny spacecraft to visit Alpha Centauri, the closest star system at 4.4 light-years from Earth. Dubbed Breakthrough Starshot, the mission aims to take close-up images and collect data from any potentially habitable planets there.

    Centauris Alpha Beta Proxima 27, February 2012. Skatebiker
    Centauris Alpha Beta Proxima 27, February 2012. Skatebiker

    In order to cover the vast distance—41 trillion kilometers—in a reasonable time, the proposed spacecraft will each weigh less than a gram. Once in space, they will unfurl lightweight sails to catch laser beams shot from Earth, accelerating to one-fifth the speed of light under light pressure. Launch could be 30 years off, and the trip to Alpha Centauri would take a further 2 decades.

    Milner, who also supports the multimillion-dollar Breakthrough Prizes and Breakthrough Listen, a search for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence, has committed $100 million to this venture. But Breakthrough Starshot has polarized opinion: Some are enthused by its ambition, whereas others say it is costly and unnecessary, isn’t feasible, or is downright dangerous. Milner spoke with Science by phone about the challenges facing the project and how he answers his critics. His responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

    Q: How did your interest in space travel and in this mission to Alpha Centauri come about?

    A: I was named Yuri after Yuri Gagarin because I was born the same year the Russian cosmonaut was launched on the first manned space flight. So I’ve carried this message about space travel in my name my whole life!

    Breakthrough Starshot came from a small working group we put together to devise a practical space project to a neighboring star system that could achieve results within the lifetime of a generation. They considered various propulsion mechanisms for interstellar travel—including fusion engines and matter-antimatter propulsion—and concluded that the sail configuration is the most feasible in a reasonable time frame.

    The idea of using spacecraft with solar-powered sails is actually very old, but until recently it was purely theoretical. Over the past 20 years there has been significant progress in microelectronics, nanomaterials, and laser technology that means we can now have a sensible conversation about making a gram-scale starship and accelerating it to 20% of the speed of light.

    Starstruck: Yuri Milner. Breakthrough Initiatives

    Q: You’ve contributed $100 million dollars, but the final project could cost $10 billion. Where will this extra money come from?

    A: We’ve been open from day one that this is not something you can build in a garage and no one person can finance this machine. If this is going to happen, I envisage this as something that will need international collaboration on a financial scale comparable to CERN [the particle physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland].

    The seed money covers the first 5 to 10 years’ research and development phase, and within that time we should know if the challenges the project faces can be overcome or if they are insurmountable. The second phase will be to build a prototype and I think that can be financed by private investors, too. The final machine will need international backing.

    Q: Might the money be better spent on a new planet-hunting telescope?

    A: We’re actually in negotiations to spend some of the money to increase the capability of some ground-based telescopes to take a direct image of possible planets around Alpha Centauri. That would use existing infrastructure and we hope to announce it soon. This is important because we don’t even know with any degree of certainty if there are potentially habitable planets in the Alpha Centauri system to target with Breakthrough Starshot.

    But there is no substitute for a flyby and taking close-up images. This would be the equivalent of the New Horizons mission to Pluto.

    NASA/New Horizons spacecraft
    NASA/New Horizons spacecraft

    To get an equal quality image with a ground or near-Earth telescope, you would need a telescope on the scale of a few hundred kilometers and that’s not a small endeavor.

    Q: Even if the project’s giant lasers can be built, what about the damage they could potentially cause to the environment or their misuse as a weapon?

    A: Laser technology is following its own Moore’s law trajectory, so in a couple of decades’ time we think laser power will have increased sufficiently and such lasers will not be prohibitively expensive. But from the outset we identified that there must be some form of global consensus on its use. It may be that we have the technological capability but the project stalls because there is no agreement about the governance of such a machine.

    The 4LGSF is part of the Adaptive Optics Facility on Unit Telescope 4 of the VLT.

    Q: Won’t laser beams fired through the atmosphere lose power through dispersion? Wouldn’t a space-based array be better?

    A: That would increase the cost 100 times and push the mission back a few hundred years. So for a space-based system, let’s just stop talking now. It’s not going to happen in our lifetime. A space-based laser also poses more serious policy issues because it could be pointed at Earth and is more difficult to control.

    The power from Earth-based lasers will not be dramatically different. The basic principle would be to utilize the adaptive optics already used by ground-based telescopes to deal with the challenges of the distortion of light passing through the atmosphere.

    Q: Critics have warned that the powerful laser beam could set the tiny craft spinning out of control or destroy the fragile sails. Have you considered such scenarios?

    A: Our experts have been looking into this and now think that a spinning craft may actually be more stable than a nonspinning one. But we don’t know whether the sails will melt when the laser hits them or what the craft will meet in interstellar space. We’ve identified more than 20 technological challenges to the successful completion of this project. More work is needed and that’s what the research phase is for.

    Q: Can you miniaturize the sensors, imaging, and signaling equipment to fit on such a small craft?

    A: We have carried out pretty detailed calculations that show we can shrink down the imaging equipment and sensors, even today. And surprisingly, to send a signal over trillions of miles you only need a small laser on board, powered by a watt-scale battery, and that can be made gram-scale. The sail would then be used as a dish to help transmit the signal, while the laser array on Earth would act as a receiver. So miniaturization of nanocraft is probably the least of the problems—the sails and the lasers are bigger obstacles.

    Q: Are you worried about sustaining a workforce for such a long-term project?

    A: It took two or three hundred years to build some cathedrals, but people did not lose interest. We have proven that we can focus on long term scientific projects, too: 2016 will be remembered as the year we detected gravitational waves but the LIGO experiment took 50 years; CERN is another example of experiments stretching over decades. This is the exciting next stage of space exploration being ignited and the fire will keep burning.

    Caltech/MIT Advanced aLigo detector in Livingston, LA, USA
    Caltech/MIT Advanced aLigo detector in Livingston, LA, USA

    CERN/LHC Map
    CERN LHC Grand Tunnel
    CERN LHC particles
    LHC at CERN

    Q: You have identified many ways this project might fail. Are you worried that your investment might ultimately go to waste?

    A: Honestly, we are a very lucky generation because we are the first that could pull this off and, if we do, it will be incredible. But if not, we have promised to keep all the results of our research open to the public. One day our civilization will make use of it. It is human nature to explore the world around us and I don’t think that curiosity will ever go away.

    See the full article here .

    The American Association for the Advancement of Science is an international non-profit organization dedicated to advancing science for the benefit of all people.

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