A Fresh Look at Rhea

When it comes to Saturn, have you noticed what’s been missing lately? Well, actually for the last two years. While the Cassini orbiter has had high-profile encounters with Titan, it has been in a high-inclination orbit that has meant no recent flybys of other Saturnian moons. All that has now changed as Cassini returned to the planet’s equatorial plane this month, which means we can look forward to more interesting views like these mosaics of the planet’s second largest moon Rhea.


Image: Two mosaics of Saturn’s icy moon Rhea, with constituent images taken about an hour and a half apart on February 9, 2015. Images taken using clear, green, infrared and ultraviolet spectral filters were combined to create these enhanced color views, which offer an expanded range of the colors visible to human eyes in order to highlight subtle color differences across Rhea’s surface. The moon’s surface is fairly uniform in natural color. Credit: JPL.

The Rhea imagery comes from a flyby of the moon on February 9, the first encounter other than Titan since early 2013. Resolution in the smaller mosaic is 450 meters per pixel, while the view on the right has a resolution of 300 meters per pixel. The images going into the mosaic on the right were acquired at a distance that ranged from 57,900 kilometers to 51,700 kilometers; those on the left from distances between 82,100 to 74,600 kilometers. Each mosaic is made up of multiple narrow-angle camera (NAC) images, with wide-angle camera data used where necessary to fill in the areas where the NAC data were not available.

Rhea is the ninth largest moon in the Solar System, and while it doesn’t turn up very often in discussions of astrobiology, I should note a 2006 paper from Hauke Hussmann (Universidade de São Paulo) and colleagues that investigates the possibility of sub-surface oceans in the medium-sized icy satellites as well as the largest trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs). The paper argues that assuming differentiation and an equilibrium between heat production in the rocky cores and heat loss through the ice shell, sub-surface oceans are possible on Rhea, Titania, Oberon, Triton, and Pluto and on the large TNO’s Eris, Sedna, and Orcus (2004 DW).


Image: Cassini’s wide-angle camera took this image of Rhea from about 200 kilometers away from the moon’s surface in early 2011. Credit: JPL.

Back in 2011, Cassini completed a close flyby of Rhea, with closest approach achieved on January 11 of that year. The imagery above shows an old, cratered and apparently inert surface, with some evidence of straight faults that show up better in other Rhea imagery. Further study of Rhea via Cassini will help us determine how its extremely tenuous atmosphere of oxygen and CO2 interacts with particles in Saturn’s magnetosphere.

Next up for Cassini in its new, nearly equatorial orbit: A May 7 flyby of Titan, the first of four in 2015, as well as two encounters with Dione and three with the always interesting Enceladus. The Hussmann paper mentioned above is “Subsurface oceans and deep interiors of medium-sized outer planet satellites and large trans-neptunian objects,” Icarus Volume 185, Issue 1 (November 2006), pp. 258–273 (abstract).


An Alpha Centauri Bb Transit Search

Alpha Centauri continues to be a maddening and elusive subject for study. Two decades of radial velocity work on Centauri A and B have been able to constrain the possibilities — we’ve learned that there are no gas giants larger than Jupiter in orbits within 2 AU of either of the stars. But lower mass planets remain a possibility, and in 2012 we had the announcement of a planet slightly more massive than Earth in a tight orbit around Centauri B. It was an occasion for celebration (see Lee Billings’ essay Alpha Centauri and the New Astronomy for a glimpse of how that moment felt and how it fit into the larger world of exoplanet research).

But the candidate world, Centauri Bb, remains controversial, and for good reason. The work involved radial velocity methods at a level of precision that pushed our instruments to the limit. Andrew LePage explored the issues in Happy Anniversary ? Centauri Bb?, where the question-mark tells the tale. Here he discusses the instrumentation involved in the 2012 work:

The first team to announce any results from their search was the European team using the HARPS (High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planetary Searcher) spectrometer on the 3.6-meter telescope at the European Southern Observatory in La Silla, Chile. They employed a new data processing technique to extract the 0.5 meter per second signal of ? Centauri Bb out of 459 radial velocity measurements they obtained between February 2008 and July 2011. These radial velocity data had a measurement uncertainty of 0.8 meters per second and contained an estimated 1.5 meters per second of natural noise or “jitter” resulting from a range of activity on the surface of ? Centauri B modulated by its 38-day period of rotation.

A planet with a 3.24 day orbital period was the result of an extremely low-amplitude signal, and subsequent analysis raised doubts about its validity, with Artie Hatzes (Thuringian State Observatory) finding that additional observations were needed to make sure we weren’t seeing noise in the data instead of a planet. Bear in mind that we also have Debra Fischer (Yale University) and team investigating Alpha Centauri Bb at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Chile and a team at Mt. John University Observatory in New Zealand.


Image: An artist’s impression of the still unconfirmed ? Centauri Bb, whose discovery was announced on October 16, 2012. The planet is the subject of a new transit search discussed below. (Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/Nick Risinger)

Now comes Brice-Oliver Demory (University of Cambridge), whose team has gone after a different kind of detection, working with the Hubble Space Telescope on a transit search of Centauri B in hopes of finding the signature of the controversial planet. Transits depend upon the alignment of star, planet and observer, so a null result doesn’t demonstrate that the planet doesn’t exist, but using 40 hours of observation, the team was able to rule out a transit of Centauri Bb under the published orbital parameters with a confidence level of 96.6 percent.

The story does have an intriguing coda in the form of a single 2013 event, one that lasted longer than expected for a Centauri Bb transit. The team worked through the possibilities of instrument error and other factors, as the paper explains:

We explore in the following the possibility that the July 2013 transit pattern is due to stellar variability, instrumental systematics or caused by a background eclipsing binary. We do not find any temperature or HST orbital dependent parameter, nor X/Y spectral drifts to correlate with the transit pattern. The transit candidate duration of 3.8 hours is 2.4 times longer than the HST orbital period, making the transit pattern unlikely to be attributable to HST instrumental systematics. As the detector is consistently saturated during all of our observations, we also find it unlikely that saturation is the origin of the transit signal.

Another source of confusion could be activity on the star itself, but the researchers do not see it as a factor:

…the duration of the transit candidate (3.8-hr) is not consistent with the stellar rotational period of 36.2 days…, to enable a spot (or group of spots) to come in and out of view. In such a case, star spots would change the overall observed flux level and produce transit-shape signals, as is the case for stars having fast rotational periods…

We are left with the possibility that this may have been an actual planetary transit with a different orbital period than described in the Centauri Bb discovery paper. Is it a second possible planet around Centauri B, one with an orbital period in the vicinity of 20 days? It will take follow-up photometric observations of an extremely tricky stellar system to tell us more.

In this New Scientist article on the Hubble observations, Demory mentions the possibility of a low-cost, perhaps crowd-funded mission, a small satellite whose sole purpose would be the kind of intensive Alpha Centauri ‘stare’ that busy instruments like Hubble haven’t time for. It’s an interesting idea, and would make for a KickStarter project in the range of $2 million. Says Demory: “Anyone fancy chipping in to find our nearest neighbours?”

The paper is Demory et al., “Hubble Space Telescope search for the transit of the Earth-mass exoplanet Alpha Centauri B b,” accepted at Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (preprint). For a thorough analysis of the data involved in this work, see Andrew LePage’s essay Has Another Planet Been Found Orbiting Alpha Centauri B?


SETI Explores the Near-Infrared

This has been a week devoted to extraterrestrial technologies and the hope that, if they exist, we can find them. Large constructions like Dyson spheres, and associated activities like asteroid mining on the scale an advanced civilization might use to make them, all factor into the mix, and as we’ve seen, so do starships imagined in a wide variety of propulsion systems and designs. Dysonian SETI, as it is called, takes us into the realm of the hugely speculative, but hopes through sifting our abundant astronomical data to find evidence of distant engineering.

This effort is visible in projects like the Glimpsing Heat from Alien Technologies (G-HAT) SETI program, which proceeds in the capable hands of Jason Wright and colleagues Steinn Sigurðsson and Matthew Povich at Penn State (see Wright’s Glimpsing Heat from Alien Technologies essay in these pages as well as his AstroWright blog). For those wanting to follow up these ideas, an excellent introduction is the paper “Dysonian Approach to SETI: A Fruitful Middle Ground?”, which ran in JBIS in 2011 (Vol. 64, pp. 156-165). It’s not, unfortunately, available online, though the British Interplanetary Society offers a print copy of the entire back issue here.


Image: NGC 2403 in Camelopardalis. Dysonian SETI, not limited to relatively nearby stars, looks for signs of astroengineering not just in our own but in distant galaxies like this one, some ten million light years away.. Credit & Copyright: Martin Pugh.

Into the Infrared

The more conventional radio and optical SETI methods continue as well. I’ve written often in these pages about Frank Drake’s Project Ozma at the Green Bank (WV) site, and cited the classic 1959 paper “Searching for Interstellar Communications” by Giuseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison, which more or less opened up the entire field. But equally significant is Charles Townes’ 1961 paper “Interstellar and Interplanetary Communication by Optical Masers,” which ran in Nature (Vol. 190, No. 4772, pp. 205-208), from which this quote:

We propose to examine the possibility of broadcasting an optical beam from a planet associated with a star some few or some tens of light-years away at sufficient power-levels to establish communications with the Earth. There is some chance that such broadcasts from another society approximately as advanced as we are could be adequately detected by present telescopes and spectrographs, and appropriate techniques now available for detection will be discussed. Communication between planets within our own stellar system by beams from optical masers appears a fortiori quite practical.

Townes, who died recently, built the first maser, which worked primarily in the microwave region of the spectrum. He was a major figure in the development of both maser and laser technologies, and a winner of the Nobel Prize in 1964. The field of optical SETI has not been as visible as the older radio SETI but its proponents are actively pursuing the search at sites like Lick Observatory, where the 1-meter Nickel Telescope has been equipped with a new pulse-detection system using three light detectors, an installation that allows what Frank Drake calls “…perhaps the most sensitive optical SETI search yet undertaken.”

The new instrument is called NIROSETI, which stands for near-infrared optical SETI. It promises to gather copious data by recording levels of light over time to look for patterns that might signify a distant civilization. The beauty of working at near-infrared wavelengths is that such light penetrates much farther through gas and dust than visible light, helping us widen the search to stars thousands of light years away. NIROSETI saw first light on March 15.

Unlike Dysonian SETI, optical SETI operates under the premise that an extraterrestrial civilization may be trying to communicate with us, beaming light explicitly at our Solar System. According to this news release from the SETI Institute, NIROSETI’s use of three light detectors will allow the team to separate the brief pulses of light they are looking for from false alarms of the sort that have troubled other optical SETI experiments using fewer detectors. Optical SETI ‘noise’ can consist of cosmic rays, incident starlight, muon showers and radioactive decay in the glass of the photomultiplier tubes of the detectors, all events to be screened out of the data.

Dan Werthimer, who along with Richard Treffers (UC-Berkeley) designed an earlier instrument for optical SETI, notes where NIROSETI departs from its predecessors:

“This is the first time Earthlings have looked at the universe at infrared wavelengths with nanosecond time scales. The instrument could discover new astrophysical phenomena, or perhaps answer the question of whether we are alone.”

Shelley Wright (UC-San Diego) led the development of the new instrument while at the University of Toronto, finally signing off on detectors sensitive enough to deploy on the telescope. In addition to Wright and Werthimer, the group also includes Geoff Marcy and Andrew Siemion (UC-Berkeley), Patrick Dorval and Elliot Meyer (University of Toronto) and pioneering SETI scientist Frank Drake, whose take on the investigation is determinedly optimistic:

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


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

We can hope that Frank Drake’s ideas come to pass. In any event, it’s clear that the definition of SETI is evolving as we continue to explore radio, optical and Dysonian strategies. In my view, the emergence of the Dysonian approach has been a genuine boon for our investigations. It reminds us how much astronomical data we have accumulated that can now be subjected to analysis in these terms. Will evidence of the existence of an extraterrestrial civilization come, if it does come, through a radio burst, an optical signal, or the observation of an anomaly in a distant galaxy?


Starship Detection: The K2 Perspective

‘Classical’ SETI, if I can use that term, is based on studying the electromagnetic spectrum primarily in the radio wavelengths thought most likely to be used for communication by an extraterrestrial civilization. SETI’s optical component is largely focused on searching for signals intended as communication. What is now being called Dysonian SETI is a different approach, one based on gathering observational evidence that may already be in our archives, data that demonstrate the existence of extraterrestrial activity far beyond our capability.

Just as a Dyson Sphere would reveal the workings of a civilization of Kardashev Type II — producing something like ten billion times the energy of a Type I culture — the detection of a starship would show us technology in action, even if the craft were, as Ulvi Yurtsever and Steven Wilkinson have speculated, a vehicle pushing up against light speed millions of light years away. As physicist Al Jackson has tackled starship detection in recent years, he has taken note of the work of D. R. J. Viewing and Robert Zubrin, which dealt with some but not all design and detection possibilities. Beamed propulsion, for example, does not turn up in these sources.


Jackson also points to a caveat in such work: If we are hoping to detect a starship using many of the methods described in previous studies, we need to be inside the engine’s exhaust cone or the transmitter cone of the energy beam. We also know that the cone will be narrow. Even so, there are a number of ways to proceed, ranging from the craft’s interactions with the interstellar medium to detection of its own waste heat.

Image: Physicist Al Jackson. I can’t remember who took this (it may even have been me).

Imagine a highly advanced ship built by a Kardashev Type II civilization. Give it a gamma factor of 500, which translates to 0.999998 times the speed of light. Assume the ship is as hot as 5000 K (near the melting temperature of graphene). All these are extreme assumptions (see below) but we’re pushing the envelope here. This is, after all, K2.

Would we be able to detect such a craft? Waste heat can be modeled as isotropic radiation, says Jackson, in the rest frame of the ship, while to an observer in another inertial frame, this radiation appears beamed. We get this result:

Considering a ship of modest size and mass, a K2 ship accelerating at one gravity. For instance, if we have a ship 1000 meters long and 50 meters in diameter, generating 11402 terawatts in its rest frame, Doppler boosting will generate approximately 1.2×108 terawatts beamed into the forward direction. However… unless the ship is headed straight at the observer, it will be hard to see. Take into account the Doppler shifting of the characteristic wavelength, from near green in the rest frame to soft x-ray in the observer’s frame. One might look for small anomalies in data from a host of new astrophysical satellite observatories.

Not very encouraging, but then, detecting the signature of a starship is not going to be easy. One possible place to look is in the realm of what Jackson calls ‘gravitational machines,’ such as the massive binaries Freeman Dyson once suggested could be used as gravitational slingshots. We might consider not just white dwarf and neutron star binaries but even black hole binaries. A gravitational assist in such scenarios might reach as high as .006c.

On the other hand, wouldn’t a civilization that could already reach binaries like these have acquired capabilities greater than those it would gain by using the binaries in the first place? Perhaps better to consider black holes as a source of direction change for fast-moving starships. Jackson points out that a starship orbiting a black hole will have visible waste radiation. In fact, a close-orbiting ship will have fluctuating emissions peaked at those times that the ship, black hole and observer line up, a phenomenon that is the result of gravitational focusing.

Figure 2

Other extreme astronomical objects may be worthy of investigation in these terms. Jackson points to SS 433, a neutron star or black hole orbited by a companion star, with material being drawn from the companion into an accretion disk. Jets of particles are being blown outward from the poles. While at SS 433 the particles in the jets are moving at 26 percent of the speed of light, jet material in configurations like these can reach 95 percent of lightspeed. Using such jets to propel magsails that reach .5 times the speed of light would allow a K2 civilization an abundant source of energy for repeated missions at a high percentage of c.

Image: Magsail ‘jet riding’. Credit: Doug Potter.

We don’t know what a K2 civilization will choose to do, but exploiting naturally occurring resources like these may be an attractive proposition. There may be interesting prospects not just for magsails but so-called ‘lightsails’ around extreme astronomical objects:

Consider a K2 civilization taking advantage of a Schwarzschild or Kerr black hole as a means of focusing radiation from a beaming station onto a sail. The advantage of this is the tremendous amount of amplification possible. One of the most promising modes of interstellar flight propulsion is the use of a sail, a transmitter, and maybe a ‘lens’ to focus a beam of laser light or microwaves. Extrapolate to a K2 civilization the use of a black hole as the focusing device. An approximate calculation for a Schwarzschild black hole shows that beamed radiation can be amplified by a factor 105 to 1015.

So-called ‘strong focusing’ is tricky to model and, as Jackson explains in some detail, the astronomical configuration — the location of a source and the best location for the sail — are topics that need much more work. But the idea that a K2 civilization would use the immense energies available in the area of black holes makes them a natural hunting ground for Dysonian SETI activity. Could a black hole in the vicinity of a starship’s destination be used for braking?

Robert Bussard’s 1960 paper on interstellar ramjets posited a spacecraft that could collect gas from the interstellar medium, compressing it to a plasma that could be brought to fusion temperatures. Carl Sagan would later suggest that a magnetic scoop would be the ideal way for this gas collection to proceed, but later work by Dana Andrews and Robert Zubrin revealed how much drag such a magnetic scoop would produce. The ‘magsail’ actually acts like a brake.

Why not, then, use these magsail properties, shedding energy and momentum as a spacecraft nears its destination? Craft moving at relativistic velocities might find this an efficient way to arrive, one that produces a ‘bow shock’ whose radiation ranges from the optical to the X-ray bands. “A starship will be much smaller than a neutron star,” writes Jackson, “but detection of the radiation signature of a starship’s bow shock could imply a very peculiar object.”

Figure 3

Image: Two examples of neutron star bow shock, the one on the right an artist’s concept. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Jackson’s paper is a work in progress, with an early version printed in Horizons, the AIAA bulletin for the organization’s Houston chapter. A journal submission is in the works as he refines the draft. It’s a fascinating discussion that reminds us how much we have to speculate about when we talk K2 civilizations. Jackson notes the major assumptions: Ships can run ‘hot,’ and that means as high as 5000 K; material structural strength limits have been overcome; extreme accelerations are allowable and dust/gas shielding issues resolved. We can argue about the limits here, but it’s clear that a K2 civilization will have capabilities far beyond our science, and it may be the random anomaly in astronomical data that flags its existence.


Our View of a Decelerating Magsail

Yesterday’s post looked at the question of starship detection. But the paper by Ulvi Yurtsever and Steven Wilkinson that I discussed actually focused on a highly specific subset of such observations, the case of an artificial object moving at such high gamma factors that the ship’s velocity was over 99 percent of the speed of light. It may be that such things become possible to sufficiently advanced civilizations, but if they do and we observe them, we will be doing something akin to what Richard Carrigan does when he looks for Dyson spheres. Hunting a relativistic starship between galaxies is a kind of interstellar archaeology.

What I mean is that if any of the researchers now looking for observational data of advanced civilizations turn something up in, say, M31, that construct will be so far away from us in both space and time that we might well be studying the ruins of an ancient culture. I made this case not long ago in an essay called Distant Ruins for Aeon magazine. This is a different kind of SETI, one in which communication is almost certainly not an issue, just as would be the case if we detected the signature of a starship in the intergalactic deep.

Science fiction that looks at starship detection usually takes a more active stance. In Arthur C. Clarke’s wonderful Rendezvous with Rama (1973), it is an early warning system to detect dangerous asteroids that initially notices the starship humans will name Rama. Further observations help nail down a trajectory that comes from interstellar space and will return there, while the detection of a rapid rotation and, later, photographs of the object as a perfect cylinder make it clear that this will be our species’ first encounter with an alien vessel.

And then there’s The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, published the following year, in which astronomers detect a starship in the form of a laser-beamed lightsail. It’s an older technology in the world of the novel, for in this future scenario humans have already produced a star drive that eclipses the much slower sail method. Observed changes in the brightness and color of a Sun-like star in a binary system (the star is called the Mote for reasons explained in the novel) turn out to have been caused by the operation of the laser system beaming the craft toward the Earth.

Here the scene is the bridge of a human starship as the crew discusses the observations that lead to the discovery that they are dealing with an alien technology, specifically its laser beaming system:

“…I checked with Commander Sinclair. He says his grandfather told him the Mote was once brighter than Murcheson’s Eye [the other star in the binary pair], and bright green. And the way Gavin’s describing that holo – well, sir, stars don’t radiate all one color. So -”

“All the more reason to think the holo was retouched. But it is funny, with that intruder coming straight out of the Mote…”

“Light,” Potter said firmly.

“Light sail!” Rod shouted in sudden realization…”

Niven and Pournelle had vetted their lightsail concept with Robert Forward at a time when the idea was just gaining traction thanks to the latter’s work in the journals.

In both novels, the starship detection has huge consequences for our species as the craft in question is entering human space. When I went back and looked at Robert Zubrin’s 1995 paper on starship detection, I remembered that he came up with interesting figures for different kinds of starships. An antimatter photon rocket would produce gamma ray emissions that would be undetectable at visual wavelengths, but Zubrin found that based on his assumptions on an arbitrarily chosen 1,000,000 ton craft, an exhaust with an effective irradiated power of 1,800,000 TW would be produced. He went on to describe its detectability:

Such an object at a distance of 1 light-year would be seen from Earth as a 17th magnitude light source, and could be detected on film by a first class amateur telescope. The 200 inch telescope on Mount Palomar could image it at 20 light years, and the Hubble Space Telescope at a distance of about 300 light years… Since at least for the upper-end telescopes considered, the number of stellar systems within range is significant (100,000 stars are within 200 light years of Earth) this approach offers some hope for a successful search. The light from the photon rocket could be distinguished from that of a dim star by the lack of hydrogen lines in the rocket’s emissions.

Here again we’re dealing with a vast volume of space but a distance of no more than 200 light years in any direction. But beyond the visual spectrum, Zubrin discusses a variety of scenarios, noting that radio waves may be emitted from a starship due to plasma interactions with the deceleration field of a magnetic sail, or the confinement field of a plasma drive engine. Now the detection distances grow greater. The plasma drive engine‘s electron and ion cyclotron radiation could be detected on the ground by radio telescopes. Magsails produce electron cyclotron radiation with frequencies of tens of kHz and ion cyclotron radiation with frequencies of tens of Hz. No ground detection here, but the magsail radiation would be apparent to receivers of sufficient size working outside the Earth’s atmosphere.


Image: One configuration of a magsail as envisioned by Steve Bowers on the Orion’s Arm site. This design uses multiple superconducting loops for maximum braking effect against the interstellar medium. Credit: Steve Bowers.

The low frequency magsail radiation is made to order for large antennae in space, making it the easiest starship configuration to detect:

It can be seen that the magsail radiation of a characteristic fusion starship being decelerated from a cruise velocity of 0.1c could be detected by a 6 km orbiting antenna from a distance of 400 light years, while that emitted by a characteristic antimatter photon rocket in its deceleration phase could be seen as far away as 2,000 light years. There are about 100,000,000 stellar systems to be found within the latter distance. This extended range detection capability combined with magsail radiation’s unique time-dependent frequency spectrum appears to make a search for magsail radiation the most promising option for extraterrestrial starship detection.

As mentioned yesterday, Al Jackson has been considering the question of starship detectability for some time, and in mid-2014 published a preliminary paper on the matter describing his findings. It’s Jackson’s work that, even more than Yurtsever and Wilkinson, pushes the boundaries of speculation the furthest, or as Al puts it in the paper, “…the methods used to attain relativistic speed, using high-energy astrophysical processes, are far out in the tail of the distribution of speculation…” And he adds this tantalizing thought: “Is there a ‘Wow!’ signal lurking in the non-standard parts of the SETI electromagnetic spectrum? Starships braking in a dense interstellar region are attractive possible observations.”

Tomorrow I want to look at some of these speculative starship ideas and the kind of signatures they might throw, as per Jackson’s paper. For today, the Zubrin paper is “Detection of Extraterrestrial Civilizations via the Spectral Signature of Advanced Interstellar Spacecraft,” Progress in the Search for Extraterrestrial Life, ASP Conference Series Vol. 74 (1995). Available online.