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.