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SETI’s Charismatic Megafauna

The search for technosignatures that could flag the presence of extraterrestrial cultures has accelerated in recent times with projects like Glimpsing Heat from Alien Technologies at Penn State and numerous papers. Or is the better term not ‘cultures’ but ‘societies,’ or ‘civilizations’? SETI’s funding challenges, at least from government agencies, point to the need for defining its terms in ways that NASA, for example, can live with. Nick Nielsen examines the question in today’s essay, probing the issue of terminology in relation to public support, and noting the ongoing effort to evaluate and revise how SETI is described. Nielsen, a frequent Centauri Dreams contributor and a member of the board of directors for Icarus Interstellar, is a prolific writer who tracks these and other space-related issues in Grand Strategy: The View from Oregon, and Grand Strategy Annex.

by J. N. Nielsen

Recently there have been some signs that NASA may consider a rapprochement with SETI and SETI scientists, after more than twenty years of a de facto NASA ban on funding SETI (cf. NASA Renews Interest in SETI by David Grinspoon). It’s not yet clear how far this rapprochement will extend, but NASA did lend its name to the NASA Technosignatures Workshop (NTW18) last September. The event webpage names the Lunar and Planetary Institute, Universities Space Research Association, and National Aeronautics and Space Administration as having provided “institutional support”; I do not know if this involved financial support from NASA. The recent NASA Technosignatures Workshop also resulted in a 70 page paper, “NASA and the Search for Technosignatures: A Report from the NASA Technosignatures Workshop.”

I have to wonder if the term “technosignatures” is ultimately more palatable than the acronym “SETI,” with the latter’s explicit reference to ETI (extraterrestrial intelligence). “Technosignatures” sounds tech-savvy and doesn’t explicitly invoke aliens, though the idea of aliens is still there implicitly as a presupposition. This may sound like an overly-subtle gloss on the situation, but it is still a significant consideration. It is conceivable that NASA eventually will consider funding projects that mention “technosignatures” while continuing to pass over any project that mentions “SETI.”

The need to re-brand SETI was discussed in ‘Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence’ Needs a New Name, SETI Pioneer Says by Calla Cofield, primarily discussing the recent work of SETI notable Jill Tarter. The author attributes to Tarter the idea that the acronym “SETI,” and what it has come to signify, “…generates an incorrect perception of what scientists in this field are actually doing.” Tarter also discusses the need for terminology reform. The question of SETI terminology has come in for a lot of discussion lately. We have seen the explicit consideration of SETI terminology in Wright’s paper “Taxonomy and Jargon in SETI as an Interdisciplinary Field of Study” and in the collective effort “Recommendations from the Ad Hoc Committee on SETI Nomenclature” by Jason T. Wright, Sofia Sheikh, Iván Almár, Kathryn Denning, Steven Dick, and Jill Tarter.

I found myself rather annoyed by the second of the two papers named in the paragraph above (I will henceforth call it the “Recommendations paper”), because it failed to deal with the hard conceptual problems presented by the terminology commonly used, and the hardest problems are usually the most interesting problems once you buckle down and focus on them with a will to really understand what is going on. Usually one finds that vague and imprecise terms paper over a multitude of subtle meanings, easily conflated, and it is a lot of work—sometimes tedious work—to separate out all these threads and give a full accounting of the ideas that are the background of the natural language employed in a science before that science is fully formalized.

Early analytical philosophers had a word for this clarification that has sadly fallen out of use: explication; take a look at Chapter 1 of Carnap’s Logical Foundations of Probability, “On Explication,” for a detailed exposition of explication. Carnap’s conception of explication could provide a framework for thinking about the explication of concepts employed in SETI. It was disappointing to me that the Recommendations paper is a laundry list of terms to use and terms to avoid, but, in fairness to the authors, the remit of the ad hoc committee was, “…to recommend standardized definitions for terms,” and not a root-and-branch re-thinking of the conceptual foundations of the discipline (which is what I would have liked to have seen).

Of particular interest to me in the Recommendations paper was its treatment of “civilization”:

Civilization

In a SETI context, e.g. (extraterrestrial or alien civilization) usually synonymous with technological species. Use with care.

Notes: The term civilization has imprecise popular meanings, but also particular scholarly meanings in relation to human history that are not generally what is meant by the term in a SETI context. Because of its ambiguity and anthropocentrism, the term is a suboptimal synonym for technological species, but it is nonetheless widely used in the literature. Society is a good alternative but not yet in common use.

It could be pointed out that “society” also has both imprecise popular meanings and particular scholarly meanings, so it is difficult to say how “society” is any better in this respect than “civilization.” I also question the idea that “technological species” is in any sense more precise or any less ambiguous than “civilization.”

The authors of the paper note that the use of “civilization” in SETI differs from its use in other scholarly contexts, but they don’t seem to be at all interested in why this is the case, or in finding some conception of civilization that is non-anthropocentric and is equally suitable for use in SETI and other sciences. This would be like someone saying that “BTU” is used to indicate energy in heating and “watt” is used to indicate energy in electricity, but that there is no need for any common conception of energy that might be an umbrella conception for BTU and watt (or calorie, or joule, etc.).

The same paper takes on the use of the term “advanced,” and while I agree that the term “advanced” is problematic, it is not problematic for the reasons cited in the paper. “Advanced” in isolation means nothing; it is a relational term. What would make sense is a formulation such as “x is more advanced than y.” With a little refinement we get, “x is a more advanced F than y.” Now, this latter formulation could be said to be in the same spirit as the recommendation in the paper of, “…simply specifying the scale or nature of the technology referenced.” I’m on board with this, as long as it is made clear that “advanced” is a relational term that is meaningless in isolation. What we find in most cases of using “advanced” in isolation is that the comparison is implicit; one of the virtues of formalizing any usage in a schema such as, “x is a more advanced F than y,” is that it forces us to make our assumptions explicit.

Clearly, however, the authors of the Recommendations paper mean to condemn, “…deprecated theories of human history which rank human societies from ‘primitive’ to ‘advanced’ based on ill-defined and ethnocentric measures.” No doubt the authors have the most virtuous motives for condemning what they see as ethnocentric measures to distinguish primitive from advanced civilizations, but—Alas!—science is unconcerned with the virtue of its practitioners, or the lack thereof. We could go a long way toward improving the situation by offering a precisely defined scale by which civilizations could be rank-ordered, but I doubt that this would quell the misgivings of those whose concern is addressing the grievances claimed to follow from ethnocentric bias. I will say no more at present regarding this.

In addition to his advocacy for SETI terminology reform, Jason Wright has also argued strongly that SETI is and ought to be a part of astrobiology (cf. “SETI is Part of Astrobiology”). Wright counters the official NASA line that, “Traditional SETI is not part of astrobiology,” by arguing that some of the most obvious signs of terrestrial habitability are Earth’s technosignatures. Wright also points out that NASA arbitrarily excludes technosignatures from “traditional SETI.” Obviously, to the extent that NASA’s exclusion is arbitrary, it is dissatisfying. Given that NASA has been deeply involved with astrobiology since its inception (cf. The Living Universe: NASA and the Development of Astrobiology by Steven J. Dick and James E. Strick, which discusses NASA’s involvement in astrobiology since the term was introduced), if SETI is part of astrobiology, and NASA was present at the foundations of astrobiology, then the case could be made that NASA’s astrobiology program should include SETI as an integral component, organically present ab initio. That is to say, SETI is not some foreign body that has become inexplicably lodged in astrobiology.

However, in a Twitter post, Jason Wright referenced two posts by Dr. Linda Billings, SETI: on the edge of astrobiology and Astrobiology and SETI: different evolutionary pathways, which argue against including SETI under the umbrella of astrobiology. These posts conclude, respectively, “The bottom line is that traditional SETI—using ground-based radio telescopes to listen for signals of extraterrestrial intelligent origin—falls outside the boundaries of NASA’s astrobiology program.” And, “…the history/evolution of exo/astrobiology more closely parallels the history/evolution of planetary protection. Exo/astrobiology and SETI evolved on very different, non-parallel tracks.” Thus the argument whether SETI ought to be considered a part of astrobiology has been made both in the affirmative and in the negative. It seems pretty weak to me to argue that SETI is intrinsically about ground-based observations, as SETI observations from space-based telescopes would be a great boost for the discipline, if only these resources were made available to SETI research. Wright deals with this weakness as one of the erroneous perceptions he identifies that has led to the exclusion of SETI from NASA’s astrobiology portfolio.

Much of this discussion is taking place because SETI is poorly funded, and if government monies were made available to SETI researchers, the discipline could pursue a more ambitious scientific research program. But because SETI has been largely frozen out of government funding through NASA, which would be its natural home (unless, like Billings, we see the National Science Foundation funded ground-based telescopes as the natural home of SETI), SETI funding efforts have taken creative forms. One of these creative ways of doing SETI science on the cheap has been projects that can be described as “parasitic,” “piggyback,” and “opportunistic.” This was taken up explicitly by Jill Tarter in 1984 in “Parasitic, Piggyback and Opportunistic SETI: It’s Cheap and It Just Might Work?”

A year prior, in 1983, the idea was already floated in “The Berkeley parasitic SETI program” by S. Bowyer, G. Zeitlin, J. Tarter, M. Lampton, and W. J. Welch. And since then we have seen, “The SERENDIP piggyback SETI project” by M. Lampton, S. Bowyer, D. Werthimer, C. Donnelly, and W. Herrick (1992) and “An Opportunistic Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence (SETI) with the Murchison Widefield Array” by S. J. Tingay, C. Tremblay, A. Walsh, and R. Urquhart (2016). The latter paper characterizes their “opportunistic” SETI as follows:

“In this Letter, we present a first, and opportunistic, SETI pilot experiment with the MWA, in the frequency range 103–133 MHz, placing limits on narrow band radio emission toward 38 known planetary systems. The experiment is opportunistic in the sense that the observations were undertaken for a spectral line survey of the Galactic Plane that is ongoing; utility of the data for a SETI experiment was realised post-observation.”

There is a kind of subtle irony in SETI science having to operate parasitically on other projects deemed more fundable, or, at least, projects that would not draw the ire of politicians looking for a soft budgetary target to attack. Arguably, whatever public support that there is for space exploration (and however correct or mistaken it may be to connect space exploration with SETI), derives from the hope, perhaps even the titillating hope, of finding something “out there” that would mean that we are not alone.

I have often said that any excitement over things like exoplanet searches always turns on whether the planets are habitable, any excitement over whether the planet is habitable largely turns on whether we can ever determine whether or not these planets actually have life, any excitement over whether or not we can determine if these planets have life largely turns on whether that life could be intelligent, and any excitement over whether or not this life could be intelligent largely turns on whether we might possibly communicate with or travel to these intelligent beings. Space science, then, is to a large extent an artifact of our cosmic loneliness, and our desire to mitigate that cosmic loneliness.

I’ve read a few candid comments to this effect (I can’t remember the source), and I have no doubt that this is the case. In the same way that conservation biology has an easier time raising money to fight for charismatic megafauna, but has a much more difficult time raising money based on conservation efforts for unattractive animals or very small animals, so too space science efforts do better when they are related to some “sexy” space science topic like aliens — but this has to be done sotto voce, with a wink and a nudge, because NASA, to be taken seriously, must keep up the appearance of high seriousness. NASA’s budgetary choices are held hostage by the “giggle factor.”

In a sense, then, it is space science that is parasitic upon SETI and human spaceflight (which appeals as a source of national pride in accomplishment), which, when the latter dominated NASA and NASA’s budget, took the lion’s share of the money and left little for space science. In recent decades, the focus has been more on space science, and so it is SETI (rather than prestige) which is the unspoken background to what is going on explicitly in the foreground. While I care deeply about space science, and I know how much NASA’s space science programs have transformed our knowledge of the universe, few in the wider public share my sentiments, and they cannot be expected to so share these sentiments. But they can share an interest in the “charismatic megafauna” of astrobiology, which are the intelligent aliens that SETI is seeking.

If NASA can embrace technosignatures as a part of astrobiology, it may find a way to excite the interest of the public while maintaining its scientific respectability. And if that requires a shift in terminology, I suspect that SETI researchers will be ready to make that shift. An article by Lisa Grossman, It’s time to start taking the search for E.T. seriously, astronomers say: Some scientists are pushing for NASA to make looking for alien technology an official goal, notes that Jason Wright is part of a group of scientists who are actively seeking to have the search for technosignatures incorporated into NASA’s next Decadal Survey, which, if successful, would mean federal funding for SETI projects. Everyone is well aware that such funding would transform the discipline, and SETI advocates are now actively campaigning for the funding.

We can already see this transition to the language of technosignatures taking place. For example, if we take as a recent example the paper, “A search for technosignatures from TRAPPIST-1, LHS 1140, and 10 planetary systems in the Kepler field with the Green Bank Telescope at 1.15-1.73 GHz” by Pavlo Pinchuk, et al., we find that “technosignatures” are mentioned repeatedly throughout the text, “extraterrestrial” is mentioned ten times, “SETI” is mentioned a couple of times (as well as in the bibliography, in an internet address, and in a title), “civilization” is mentioned once, and “alien” appears nowhere in the document.

Any scientific discipline, as it evolves, eventually revises its terminology, as it usually begins with imprecise terms taken from ordinary language and eventually settles upon more formalized usages that are defined with scientific precision, and which become the accepted jargon of the discipline. There is scientific precision in spades to be found in SETI research papers. What is wanting in SETI (and in discussions of technosignatures, for that matter) is the conceptual framework within which these terms are formulated. SETI science is strong, but its concepts are often weak and ambiguous, as is evidenced by the recent concern with terminology. I have had this conceptual weakness on my mind for some time, and I hope to be able to write more about this as I clarify my own thoughts on the matter. Others seem to have noted this weakness as well. In a paper that has just come out by Jim Pass of the Astrosociology Research Institute, Exo-Astrosociology and the Search for Technosignatures, Pass notes:

“Unlike with the regard to discoveries associated with the search for biosignatures mostly in our Solar System, which have produced discoveries and insights of tangible value, the research associated with the search for technosignatures is less impressive.”

The charismatic megafauna of SETI—little green men, space aliens, Martians, and their kin—are emblematic of this conceptual weakness, and they could be made more respectable with a prolonged inquiry into and clarification of the conceptual framework within which we discuss the possibility of the emergent complexities we know on Earth—life, sentience, consciousness, intelligence, mind, technology, and civilization, inter alia — also existing elsewhere. If we have gotten the sequence of emergent complexities right, this sequence begins with biology, and so is initially an astrobiological inquiry. However, at some point it becomes an inquiry larger than astrobiology (or, if you prefer, an inquiry no longer narrowly contained within the boundaries of biological thought), and our conceptual framework must expand in order to accommodate this larger domain of inquiry. Explication, then, could play a crucial role in exorcising space aliens and replacing them with a theoretical construction more consonant with NASA’s demand for high seriousness.

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  • ljk February 20, 2019, 12:07

    https://arxiv.org/abs/1902.06784

    Multiverse Predictions for Habitability: Number of Habitable Planets

    McCullen Sandora

    (Submitted on 18 Feb 2019)

    How good is our universe at making habitable planets? The answer to this depends on which factors are important for life: Does a planet need to be Earth mass? Does it need to be inside the temperate zone? Are systems with hot Jupiters habitable?

    Adopting different stances on the importance of each of these criteria, as well as the underlying physical processes involved, can affect the probability of being in our universe; this can help to determine whether the multiverse framework is correct or not.

    Comments: 43 pages, 5 figures and 9 tables

    Subjects: Earth and Planetary Astrophysics (astro-ph.EP); Cosmology and Nongalactic Astrophysics (astro-ph.CO)

    Cite as: arXiv:1902.06784 [astro-ph.EP]
    (or arXiv:1902.06784v1 [astro-ph.EP] for this version)

    Submission history

    From: McCullen Sandora [view email]

    [v1] Mon, 18 Feb 2019 20:18:51 UTC (249 KB)

    https://arxiv.org/pdf/1902.06784.pdf

  • ljk February 20, 2019, 13:31

    HAPPINESS AND THE SEARCH FOR
    EXTRATERRESTRIAL INTELLIGENCE

    Hans-Jürgen Engelbrecht*

    Department of Applied and International Economics,
    College of Business, Massey University, Palmerston North,
    New Zealand.

    e-mail: H.Engelbrecht@massey.ac.nz .

    Paper presented to the IAREP-SABE Congress 2006, Paris, 5-8 July.

    ABSTRACT

    Voluntary non-commercial Internet-based distributed computing (‘social sharing’ for short) is emerging as a distinct mode of resource allocation and economic production, alongside price-based and hierarchy- (i.e. firm-) based modes. This paper presents a cross-country analysis of the factors determining participation in the classic example of a social sharing project, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI@home). The key hypothesis tested is that the average level of happiness in a country is a major positive and statistically significant motivational factor for participating in SETI@home, even after controlling for cross-country differences in ICT access and GDP per capita. Another hypothesis tested is that trust, i.e. social capital, is a less important motivational factor than happiness. Both hypotheses are confirmed, but only for the group of developed and advanced countries.

    https://worlddatabaseofhappiness.eur.nl/hap_bib/freetexts/engelbrecht_hj_2006.pdf

  • ljk February 20, 2019, 13:54

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5111820/

    Astrobiology. 2016 Sep 1; 16(9): 661–676.

    Published online 2016 Sep 1. doi: 10.1089/ast.2016.1536

    PMCID: PMC5111820

    PMID: 27383691

    Alien Mindscapes—A Perspective on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

    Nathalie A. Cabrol, corresponding author

    Abstract

    Advances in planetary and space sciences, astrobiology, and life and cognitive sciences, combined with developments in communication theory, bioneural computing, machine learning, and big data analysis, create new opportunities to explore the probabilistic nature of alien life.

    Brought together in a multidisciplinary approach, they have the potential to support an integrated and expanded Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI1), a search that includes looking for life as we do not know it.

    This approach will augment the odds of detecting a signal by broadening our understanding of the evolutionary and systemic components in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI), provide more targets for radio and optical SETI, and identify new ways of decoding and coding messages using universal markers.

    Key Words: SETI—Astrobiology—Coevolution of Earth and life—Planetary habitability and biosignatures. Astrobiology 16, 661–676.

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5111820/pdf/ast.2016.1536.pdf

  • ljk February 20, 2019, 13:58

    Life probably exists beyond Earth. So how do we find it?

    With next-generation telescopes, tiny space probes, and more, scientists aim to search for life beyond our solar system—and make contact.

    https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2019/03/extraterrestrial-life-probably-exists-how-do-we-search-for-aliens/

  • Harry R Ray February 21, 2019, 10:43

    Earth’s exosphere extends way beyond the Hill radius to the point where the Moon orbits ENTIRELY WITHIN IT!!!!! Go to https://www.portaltotheuniverse.org for details. Add that to the fact that the Moon penetrates Earth’s magnetotail once every month for roughly six days, there should be some VERY INTERESTING PHYSICS as a result of this! Could this help to characterize exoplanet atmospheres? Case in point: TRAPPIST-1.

  • ljk February 26, 2019, 13:56

    This is why good publicity and good science writing are so important, even for a space agency you would think could sell itself just from its line of work:

    http://nasawatch.com/archives/2019/02/nasas-astrobiol-1.html

    To quote:

    Meanwhile, NASA Administrator Bridenstine is making prominent mention of NASA’s search for life elsewhere (see “We’re ‘Well On Our Way’ to Discovering Alien Life, NASA Chief Says”). Multiple news outlets have picked up on his comments. You’d think that the Astrobiology folks at NASA would want to be talking up what they do. Guess again.

    https://www.space.com/nasa-alien-life-search-jim-bridenstine.html

  • ljk February 26, 2019, 14:14

    In search of ET: Fear of what’s out there causes big split among space scientists

    Peter Fimrite

    Feb. 25, 2019 Updated: Feb. 25, 2019 11:58 a.m.

    A cosmic rift has opened between Bay Area astronomers and a splinter group of San Francisco stargazers who are hell-bent on contacting space aliens, hang the consequences.

    The schism pits the traditionalists, who believe humans should only look and listen for extraterrestrials to avoid tipping off evil aliens, against a rebel faction that wants to broadcast messages to intelligent beings, assuming they are altruistic.

    The battle is so heated that one prominent scientist quit the Mountain View group known as SETI, or Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, to form METI, or Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

    “Are there intelligent beings out there? We don’t know, but the only way we can find out is if we look,” said Douglas Vakoch, who founded METI International in San Francisco after the SETI board voted in 2014 against beaming messages into space.

    Full article here:

    https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/In-search-of-ET-Fear-of-what-s-out-there-has-13640953.php

    To quote:

    Vakoch and his supporters, including some astronomers at SETI, call the dark forest analogy silly. Any predatory civilization would probably have detected us by now simply by analyzing our atmosphere, they reason. Humans, Vakoch said, have been using radar, which can purportedly be detected 70 light-years away, since World War II. Television and radio signals would long ago have signaled our presence to malevolent space ruffians, he said.

    “This notion that you have to be cryptic doesn’t make sense to me,” Shostak said. “We have not examined very much of the sky. You don’t want to cripple technology in the future by saying, ‘No transmissions into the sky because there might be nasty aliens out there.’ That’s just paranoia. Paranoia is not a good long-term policy.”

  • ljk February 26, 2019, 14:38

    https://blog.oup.com/2019/02/technopreneurs-technology-aliens

    There are no aliens… at least officially

    By D.W. Pasulka

    February 25, 2019

    There are no aliens, officially, at least….” Elon Musk, writing on his Twitter account, is one of a number of smart technopreneurs who considers that if there is extraterrestrial life, it would most likely already be observing us, and, it will be technological. Artist and singer David Bowie came to a similar conclusion years ago, stating that the internet is an alien life form, and technology is not something we just use, but something with which we are intricately connected. Philosopher Susan Schneider spoke to NASA about her essay “Alien Minds,” and told them that alien minds would most likely resemble our best technology. As Musk says, “Digital Super Intelligence will be like an alien.”

    My own research among the technopreneurs of Silicon Valley reveals a similar way of understanding possible alien life. The idea is that since humans are already being spliced with technology, that is, we are already cyborg-like, a more advanced civilization will likely be completely technological, or technological in a way we don’t yet understand. Gaming expert Rizwan Virk at MIT notes that media technologies, particularly immersive realities, generate “memories within the minds of consumers. Neuroscience confirms this, too, that the more we interface with our media technologies, the more our worlds become co-implicated. If human-technology interfaces are shaping what people remember and what they believe, they are also shaping culture, history, and the future. Contemporary humans are cyborg-like techno-beings, immersed within a sea of invisible technology in the form of frequencies, waves, and radiation. Dreams of going off the grid are just that, dreams. The idea of these scientists is that as humans advance they merge more and more with their technologies. If there were a very advanced civilization, its members may very well be a form of technology.

    Where, then, are the aliens? Virk suggests we aren’t looking in the right places. Technopreneurs from Jacques Vallee to Virk suggest that we should use our own understanding of technology, which arguably is the apex of human knowledge, to try to understand how alien communication or contact would work. Virk states, “Another explanation is that we don’t have the right tools to see them or aren’t scanning the right frequencies. A recent article in MIT Technology Review went over the parameters that a search for extraterrestrial intelligence would need and found that there were 8 dimensions that need to be searched, and the searches to date have been done on only one fraction of one of these dimensions. Among the biotechnologists I interviewed recently, several believed that humans possessed a biological sensor to contact possible alien, or even future, civilizations. Not surprisingly, these scientists prefer to remain anonymous with respect to this belief, but told me that their data reveals that human beings, and our internal worlds, might provide answers to possible extraterrestrial worlds. “Our human bodies and DNA are naturally designed to be a human receiver and transmitter, and strangely run at similar frequencies as communication technology we’ve put into outer space,” said one.

    Technological advancement naturally influences beliefs in transcendence, including possible contact with other worlds.

    The paper online here:

    http://www.datascienceassn.org/sites/default/files/Alien%20Minds%20-%20Susan%20Schneider.pdf

  • ljk February 27, 2019, 13:25

    https://arxiv.org/abs/1901.04057

    A search for technosignatures from TRAPPIST-1, LHS 1140, and 10 planetary systems in the Kepler field with the Green Bank Telescope at 1.15-1.73 GHz

    Pavlo Pinchuk, Jean-Luc Margot, Adam H. Greenberg, Thomas Ayalde, Chad Bloxham, Arjun Boddu, Luis Gerardo Chinchilla-Garcia, Micah Cliffe, Sara Gallagher, Kira Hart, Brayden Hesford, Inbal Mizrahi, Ruth Pike, Dominic Rodger, Bade Sayki, Una Schneck, Aysen Tan, Yinxue “Yolanda” Xiao, Ryan S. Lynch

    (Submitted on 13 Jan 2019)

    As part of our ongoing search for technosignatures, we collected over three terabytes of data in May 2017 with the L-band receiver (1.15-1.73 GHz) of the 100 m diameter Green Bank Telescope. These observations focused primarily on planetary systems in the Kepler field, but also included scans of the recently discovered TRAPPIST-1 and LHS 1140 systems.

    We present the results of our search for narrowband signals in this data set with techniques that are generally similar to those described by Margot et al. (2018). Our improved data processing pipeline classified over 98% of the ∼ 6 million detected signals as anthropogenic Radio Frequency Interference (RFI). Of the remaining candidates, 30 were detected outside of densely populated frequency regions attributable to RFI. These candidates were carefully examined and determined to be of terrestrial origin.

    We discuss the problems associated with the common practice of ignoring frequency space around candidate detections in radio technosignature detection pipelines. These problems include inaccurate estimates of figures of merit and unreliable upper limits on the prevalence of technosignatures.

    We present an algorithm that mitigates these problems and improves the efficiency of the search. Specifically, our new algorithm increases the number of candidate detections by a factor of more than four compared to Margot et al. (2018).

    Comments: 17 pages, 9 figures

    Subjects: Earth and Planetary Astrophysics (astro-ph.EP); Instrumentation and Methods for Astrophysics (astro-ph.IM); Popular Physics (physics.pop-ph)

    DOI: 10.3847/1538-3881/ab0105

    Cite as: arXiv:1901.04057 [astro-ph.EP]
    (or arXiv:1901.04057v1 [astro-ph.EP] for this version)

    Submission history

    From: Pavlo Pinchuk [view email]

    [v1] Sun, 13 Jan 2019 20:38:23 UTC (2,367 KB)

    https://arxiv.org/pdf/1901.04057.pdf

  • ljk February 28, 2019, 15:18

    University research center will search for extraterrestrial intelligence

    By Steve Nadis

    Feb. 28, 2019 , 8:00 AM

    The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) is getting a home base. On 1 March, Pennsylvania State University in State College will announce the first contributions to a campaign that hopes to raise $110 million for the new Penn State Extraterrestrial Intelligence (PSETI) Center with endowed professorships and a degree-granting graduate program.

    It would be one of just a few academic SETI research centers and, if plans are realized, it could be the first to offer courses from the undergraduate to Ph.D. level. Some astronomers say it would provide a badly needed boost to a subdiscipline that has long suffered from neglect.

    “There really isn’t an academic ecosystem for the field as a whole,” says Penn State astronomer Jason Wright, who will serve as the PSETI Center head. “You can’t work on it if you can’t hire students and postdocs.”

    Financial backing for SETI research has been scarce ever since 1993, when the U.S. Congress banned NASA from funding it. “We became the four-letter word at NASA,” recalls astronomer Jill Tarter, a co-founder of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, one of the few other centers to support SETI research with nongovernmental funds.

    Full article here:

    https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/02/university-research-center-will-search-extraterrestrial-intelligence

    To quote:

    The cutoff in federal funding has had a long-term, chilling effect, Wright says. He has identified just five people with Ph.D.s in research related to SETI. “It takes a special kind of person to go into a field that’s unfunded and holds few job prospects,” says Wright, who has, until now, had to pursue SETI as a hobby and sideline to his main job as an exoplanet investigator.

    The new Penn State center would hire faculty and postdocs and introduce undergraduate and graduate courses. It could eventually offer grants to researchers outside the university.

    So far, Penn State has received two private gift pledges totaling $3.5 million, which will create a new professorship within the astronomy department and subsidize other SETI research. Although that leaves a considerable sum to be raised, Wright considers it a good start, showing that “this idea is something that resonates.” He believes, moreover, that Penn State is an ideal base for SETI research because it has the pieces needed for such a far-reaching, interdisciplinary enterprise: a strong astronomy department, a NASA-funded Astrobiology Research Center, and the Center for Astrostatistics. The university also serves as the hub for the worldwide Astrophysical Multimessenger Observatory Network.

    Andrew Siemion, director of the SETI Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, applauds the Penn State effort. “Having SETI in the school’s curriculum gives a stamp of approval to the field that is very important,” says Siemion, one of the five aforementioned Ph.D.s who never thought he could carve out a career in SETI.

    Tarter is similarly enthused. She sees the plans unveiled by Penn State as part of a “resurgence” of the field. She is excited by the steady stream of newly discovered worlds and is anxious to find out whether potentially habitable planets are, in fact, inhabited by intelligent life. “I don’t think you can ask the question of life beyond Earth and stop at microbes,” Tarter says.

    doi:10.1126/science.aax1712

    Penn State graduate course in SETI page here:

    https://sites.psu.edu/seticourse/

  • ljk March 5, 2019, 15:02

    https://theswaddle.com/scientists-are-asking-kids-to-write-a-message-to-send-into-space/

    Scientists Are Asking Kids to Write a Message to Send into Space

    By Nadia Nooreyezdan

    March 4, 2019

    The scientists working at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico have put out a call to children across the globe — to write a message to aliens. On the 45th anniversary of the first time humanity intentionally tried to contact extraterrestrials, the Arecibo message will be updated to reflect our world, and will center the voices of children.

    In 1974, the first message into space was beamed from the observatory’s 1,000-foot-wide radio telescope. In binary code, Dr. Frank Drake (with help from others, including Carl Sagan) crafted a message meant to give extraterrestrials some understanding of humans and the Earth itself. It included numbers (one to 10); the elements that DNA comprises (hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and phosphorus); a graphic of the double helix structure of DNA; a map of the solar system; the human population of Earth; and a figure of a man. The message was aimed at a star cluster about 25,000 light years from Earth, meaning that even if aliens did receive the message and sent one back to us, it would take another 25,000 years to reach us.

    It was a momentous occasion, when we sent that first intentional transmission into space. Now, however, armed with a whole lot of information that we didn’t have before, including knowledge of exoplanets in the “Goldilocks zone” — that is, just the right temperature for life to evolve — researchers think the time is ripe to try once more. And the old message definitely needs an update; the size of Earth’s human population has certainly increased and the information provided about DNA has been disproven. But this time, the message we send out is up to kids.

    The Arecibo Observatory has put out an open call to international teams of 10 students (and one mentor/teacher) to design the new message. The call is in binary code, which teams will have to crack in order to unlock the registration form. The idea is for kids, aged four to 16 years old, to learn about the scientific method and space sciences, while solving brain-puzzles and collaborating with scientists.

    The winning 20-page proposal would include the group’s message, as well as address the peaceful uses of space technology and the risks of exposure to humanity. Suitable targets for the broadcast, the environmental impact of energy used in transmission, and the frequency, coding, etc., would also be things to bear in mind, the call suggests.

    The ask is a tough one — but then so is the idea behind the project itself. Many scientists have spoken against sending the first broadcast, or attempting contact with extraterrestrials at all. In 2017, Stephen Hawking warned that alien life could be “rapacious marauders roaming the cosmos in search of resources to plunder, and planets to conquer and colonize.” Communicating with them, and providing details about humans and the Earth could potentially end in world annihilation. But for others, the Arecibo message offers hope; if we’re the ones harming the Earth, maybe another species can provide us with the tools to save it.

    No matter what our fears or hopes, science will always search for the truth, and the Arecibo message is just a manifestation of that scientific drive. What’s inspiring is the acknowledgement that everyone, even children, have a stake in what we want to say about ourselves. Everyone’s voice matters, and this competition is leveling the playing field: Humanity can be represented by a 15-year-old girl from Chhattisgarh, as much as it can from a 52-year-old scientist in Puerto Rico.

    The deadline for team registrations is March 21, so if anyone’s planning on sending a postcard to aliens, you better get cracking.

    http://www.areciboobservatory.org/challenge/about-challenge.html

  • ljk March 7, 2019, 14:00

    SETI Institute Audit by NASA Office of Inspector General

    By Leonard David

    March 7, 2019

    An audit of the SETI Institute has been performed by the NASA Office of Inspector General.

    Over the past 25 years, NASA has, according to Agency officials, provided only three grants totaling $1.6 million for research associated with the direct search for extraterrestrial intelligent life through the use of electromagnetic signals, the OIG report explains.

    Full article here:

    http://www.leonarddavid.com/seti-institute-audit-by-nasa-office-of-inspector-general/

  • ljk March 9, 2019, 14:50

    Austin Just Sent Its Favorite Queso Recipe to the Moon

    One small step for cheese, one giant leap for cheese, kinda.

    BY REINA GATTUSO

    FEBRUARY 26, 2019

    https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/queso-recipe

  • ljk March 9, 2019, 15:27

    Astronomers are asking kids to help them contact aliens
    This is a science contest unlike any other.

    By Sigal Samuel

    Feb 21, 2019, 7:20 am EST

    https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/2/21/18224984/arecibo-message-aliens-kids-contest-seti-meti-extraterrestrial

    To quote:

    I asked Alessandra Abe Pacini, a researcher at Arecibo who helped generate the idea for the contest, why kids are the best people for the job. “Sometimes the scientists are so focused on their topics and they can see stuff very deep but they cannot see very broad,” she said. “Students know a little bit about everything, so they can see the big picture better. For sure they can design a message that is actually much more important.”

    Arecibo researchers aren’t yet entirely sure whether they’ll actually broadcast one of the competing teams’ designs into the sky — it depends on the quality of the proposals they receive. If they get a contest entry with an innovative plan for the content of the message as well as a practical plan for where to send it (the destination has to be within Arecibo’s declination range), “that will be crucial to make us fight for the transmission,” Abe Pacini said.

    Just as crucial, she added, is a solid assessment of the “risks of exposure” inherent in messaging alien civilizations. One of the main goals of the contest is to educate youth about these risks. To win, they have to show that they’re aware of the concerns and include a proposal for addressing them. Abe Pacini emphasized that the question of whether any message should be sent into space at all is “very controversial,” adding: “Even here among the scientists at Arecibo, there is no consensus.”

    • ljk March 9, 2019, 15:29

      One other quote from the Vox article:

      So far, the Arecibo contest hasn’t inspired much opposition from scientists who are anti-transmission, partly because the contest guidelines are (perhaps intentionally) vague on the question of whether the winning message will actually be transmitted. But if the observatory does end up deciding to make a broadcast, it may become the target of considerable criticism — and not for the first time. After it broadcast the original Arecibo Message, some scientists expressed concern over the fact that a transmission had gone out without international consultation and buy-in. Even Drake, the man who designed the message, reportedly said he regrets transmitting it.

  • ljk March 19, 2019, 9:17

    https://arxiv.org/abs/1903.05839

    A Shiny New Method for SETI: Specular Reflections from Interplanetary Artifacts

    Brian C. Lacki

    (Submitted on 14 Mar 2019)

    Glints of light from specular reflection of the Sun are a technosignature of artificial satellites. If extraterrestrial intelligences have left artifacts in the Solar System, these may include flat mirror-like surfaces that also can glint. I describe the characteristics of the resulting flashes. An interplanetary mirror will appear illuminated for several hours, but if it is rotating, its glint may appear as a train of optical pulses. The resulting glints can be very bright, but they will be seen only if the mirror happens to reflect sunlight to the Earth. The detection of large mirrors is limited mainly by the fraction oriented to reflect sunlight toward Earth.

    I give rough calculations for the expected reach of each exposure of Pan-STARRS1, LSST, and Evryscope for mirror glints. A single exposure of Pan-STARRS1 has an effective reach of 10^-9 – 10^-7 AU^3 for interplanetary mirrors with effective areas of 10 m^2, depending on rotation rate.

    Over several years, Pan-STARRS1 might accumulate a reach ~10^5 times greater than this, as it tiles the sky and different mirrors enter and exit a favorable geometry.

    Comments: 13 pages, 8 figures, submitted

    Subjects: Earth and Planetary Astrophysics (astro-ph.EP); Instrumentation and Methods for Astrophysics (astro-ph.IM); Popular Physics (physics.pop-ph)

    Cite as: arXiv:1903.05839 [astro-ph.EP]
    (or arXiv:1903.05839v1 [astro-ph.EP] for this version)

    Submission history

    From: Brian Lacki [view email]

    [v1] Thu, 14 Mar 2019 07:15:38 UTC (1,782 KB)

    https://arxiv.org/pdf/1903.05839.pdf

    • Harry R Ray March 21, 2019, 11:35

      ljk: I am so glad you are still posting comments on this blog post. I recently posted a comment on this paper in another posting that appeared a few days ago. In case you did not read it, I will re-iterate it here. I STRONGLY believe that this phemonenon has ALREADY BEEN DETECTED on A10bMLZ and may be REPEATEDLY detected with follow-up observations. Since, at this time, A10bMLz is still viewed as being man-made, despite its extremely bizarre orbit, I seriously doubt that these observations are currently in the works! In my previous comment on this subject, I wondered if Dr Lacki would be amenable to doing a guest post on this subject on this website. I hope he does, because he may be the ONLY astronomer who may still find it worthwhile to schedule these observations, which, in my mind are DESPERATELY needed! I hope you agree.

      • ljk May 9, 2019, 11:51

        My apologies for seeing this so late, Harry. This blog really needs a comment reply alert system.

        Yes, I certainly do agree there needs to be a follow-up on A10bMLZ if for no other reason than to satisfy our curiosity. Of course this should also be done in case it is something more than just space junk, as most people assume. My non-alien space probe conjecture is that it may be a prototype military CubeSat test, which may explain why no one seems to be publicly pursuing it now (see below).

        While of course I do not really know what A10bMLZ is and outside of your posts here I have seen very little news or talk on the subject, I did conduct a quick online search for information about the object. The top items all come from late January, 2019, such as this one:

        https://www.livescience.com/64631-empty-trash-bag-space-debris.html

        You may find this source very interesting and useful, if you are not aware of it already, but just in case:

        https://www.projectpluto.com/pluto/mpecs/a10bmlz.htm

        Note this comment from it:

        At present, we have no idea as to the origin of this object. That’s mostly because its past trajectory is really uncertain. As with an empty trash bag blowing down the street, it may zig and zag in unpredictable ways. The nominal orbit, though, suggests that this object has generally had a much higher perigee; it dropped to within a few hundred kilometers on this most recent perigee. I don’t see any recent lunar flybys, and wouldn’t speculate on when it might hit the earth or moon or leave the earth-moon system.

        The retrograde orbit was originally very puzzling. Almost all artsats above low-earth orbit are in prograde orbits. I thought this might just be an old bit of junk that went past the moon and got its orbit flipped around. But the huge non-grav forces on this object probably did the job instead. Run this object back a few months, and you have a prograde orbit of the sort at which nobody would have blinked.

        An interesting and unexpected quote from the end of this same item linked above that I wanted to share if for no other reason that it is unexpected and interesting from such a source:

        While this model currently fits nicely, that may just reflect a lack of the data required to rubbish it. You can get a good fit to almost any dataset if you add enough parameters. Or as John von Neumann put it:

        “If you allow me four free parameters I can build a mathematical model that describes exactly everything that an elephant can do. If you allow me a fifth free parameter, the model I build will forecast that the elephant will fly.”

  • ljk March 20, 2019, 16:27

    And the slow but steady thinking outside of the Radio SETI box continues…

    https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/03/if-alien-ship-left-its-trash-near-earth-here-s-what-it-might-look

    If an alien ship left its trash near Earth, here’s what it might look like

    By Daniel Clery

    March 15, 2019 , 5:05 PM

    Iridium flares are a familiar sight for sky watchers: The brilliant flashes take place when sunlight bounces off the solar panels of the remaining, low-orbiting satellites that were launched as part of the first Iridium communications system. Now, a researcher involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence wonders what similar flashes farther out might mean—perhaps a shiny alien artifact or spacecraft?

    To find out, he calculated what a shiny “technosignature” might look like. He started with the observation that even though a reflective surface can be seen from a long way off, our ability to see it from Earth depends on the surface area, which way it is oriented, whether it is spinning, and the sensitivity of Earth-bound telescopes. The Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS1), a 1.8-meter telescope on Haleakala in Hawaii that scans the sky for potentially threatening near-Earth objects, for example, could spot a mirror the size of a coaster out to 1 astronomical unit, the distance between the sun and Earth, if it was rotating slowly. For Pan-STARRS1 to see a fast-rotating mirror at the same distance, it would need to be the size of a tennis court.

    Given these variables, the researcher estimates there would need to be millions of mirrors across the inner solar system to see one in a single Pan-STARRS1 exposure, he reports today on the arXiv preprint server. Those chances might go up by focusing on Lagrange points, gravitational sinkholes where alien detritus might accumulate.

    If only a few hundred mirrors were present, a much smaller telescope could spot one. But the fact that we haven’t seen such flashes yet suggests any alien visitors—if they are out there—are doing a good job of cleaning up after themselves. [Noting that once again, most humans probably would not actually recognize alien “refuse”, nor would most professionals want to recognize it as such. So much growing to do, but at least the baby steps are moving in a forward direction.]

    The paper is online here:

    https://arxiv.org/abs/1903.05839

  • ljk March 26, 2019, 13:33

    What Is This?

    Astronomers discover mysterious star displaying never-seen-before behaviour

    22 March 2019

    Many, if not most, stars vary in brightness, typically by just a little and very predictably. These changes occur on timescales from minutes to years, and can tell us about the internal structure of stars in a way that no other observations can.

    But recently, a team of astronomers used ESO facilities to discover an extreme variable star named VVV-WIT-07, with WIT being short for “What is this?”.

    Seen from Earth, this strange star suddenly and irregularly reduces in brightness by 30–40%. In one extraordinary case it even dimmed by about 80%. But “normal” stars just don’t do that. The research was led by Roberto Saito from the Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina. ESO astronomer Valentin Ivanov was involved in the research and tells us more.

    Valentin D. Ivanov

    https://www.eso.org/public/blog/what-is-this/

    • Harry R Ray March 27, 2019, 10:03

      Before we start hyping this as Boyajian’s Star on steroids, we really need to know what its spectral type and spectral class are. BUT, this shouldn’t stop Dr Boyajian’s KIC8462852 kickstarter observation campaign to start monitoring THIS star in the three month time period when Boyjian’s Star is too close to the sun for LCO to get good data

  • ljk May 9, 2019, 14:11

    The guy who came up with the Gaia concept says that Artilects will make it possible:

    https://hillofcontentbookshop.com/p/science-novacene-the-next-phase-of-gaia-the-machines-take-over–2

    If there are ETI out there and we are destined to meet them, they will likely not be organic. I could be wrong, but that is where I lean.