Given that interstellar communications have been on my mind recently, I was delighted to receive this essay from Don Wilkins. Based in St. Louis, where he is a now-retired aerospace engineer, Don has plenty of experience in avionics and has the chops to know how to make widely-dispersed aircraft talk to each other. Here his scope is a bit wider: What are the implications of ‘lurker’ probes, the conceivably ancient (or newer) technologies from an extraterrestrial civilization that might be monitoring our planet? If such exist, their communications become a SETI target, and the question of how their network might operate is an intriguing one. I had no idea, for example, that the idea of gravitational lensing for such communications had made its way into the SETI field, but Don here acquaints us with several studies that tackle the concept, along with other insights as found below.
by Don Wilkins
If an expansionist star faring civilization exists, it is likely to construct an interstellar communications and control network, beaming information and commands across interstellar depths.[1-7] Information concerning discoveries along with status of developments within a system, to avoid duplication of effort, as an example, are transmitted at high data rates using a star’s gravitational field as a focusing element. Such concepts are familiar to readers of Centauri Dreams.
Failure to find “von Neumann probes” in the Solar System can be related to a hypothesis and a fact. The hypothesis posits aliens hide their presence from a developing civilization until the appropriate time to formally contact the younger society – or perhaps the aliens only want to observe, rather than interact with primitives.
A von Neumann probe is difficult to locate in the vast, uncharted spaces of the Solar System. The Solar System volume is approximately 5 × 1014 cubic astronomical units (AU3) when measured to the outer boundaries of the Oort cloud. Eight planets, hundreds of moons, asteroids, comets and “empty” space provide a multitude of nooks and crannies shy aliens might use to avoid curious neighbors.
An interstellar communications network is characterized by very long delay paths, frequent network partitions needed for delay tolerance and error correction.
The inverse square law mandates a reduction in data rates by three-fourths if the distance between a receiver and transmitter is doubled. If a mesh network links interstellar probes, data rates can be increased orders of magnitude over a communications system relying on direct messaging among the probes.
Consider: The home world of the aliens may be tens of thousands of parsecs distant from a hypothetical node in the Solar System. A mesh of nodes woven through the stars and, located at convenient points in interstellar space, such as nebulae, provide three advantages. Reduced distances between nodes enable faster transmission rates using the same power. A multitude of dispersed nodes provides enhanced reliability through alternate routes to the preferred destination. The mesh network is self-routing avoiding slow, risky centralized communications architectures. These advantages come at the cost of message complexity but are worth the trade-off.
As an aside, if communications relays are located to optimize bandwidth, it may be difficult, if not impossible, for a civilization such as ours to intercept tight beamed transmissions among the probes. Even if a transmission is intercepted, and if the aliens use store and forward architectures and use multiple frequencies to transmit portions of the messages, only combining transmissions at the receiver, it may be impossible for us to identify signals as of intelligent origin or translate them into a coherent message. Transmissions are burdened with metadata, routing information, further complicating understanding of interceptions, Figure 1.
Figure 1 Message Encapsulation for Network Transmission
Given unknown compression techniques, error correction methods, message structure, and splitting messages among different frequencies and routes, intercepting and understanding traffic on the alien network may be impossible.
Frank Drake and others proposed direct communications using simple messages among the stars. “Hello” messages are sequences of bit strings easily reformatted into images depicting the Solar System and humans. If alien probes established interstellar mesh networks, it is highly probable those networks ignore Drake-type messages.
Von Neumann probes could explain the Great Silence. If robots are spreading into every nook and cranny of the Galaxy, the efficiency of radio transmissions as the contact medium is open to doubt. The physical presence of a probe in a distant star system removes any doubts about the nature of the signal. An alien spaceship provides instantaneous interchanges rather than slow century long conversations. Information density as represented by the probe is considerably greater than a radio signal could provide. Aliens may wait for contact through probes rather than relying on energy-hungry beams subject to misunderstanding launched into the unknown.
Researchers hypothesize signals intended for solar gravitational lens receivers could serve as technosignatures of advanced alien civilizations. Figure 2 diagrams a link between a transmitter in orbit about an alien star and a receiver within the Solar System.
Figure 2 Architecture of a communications network based on an Einstein Ring .
In addition to detecting stray communications from distant transmitters, other detection methods are possible. A possible technosignature is light reflected from a station-keeping light sail. Assuming the communications node uses a light sail to maintain the system’s position, the sail reflects the Sun’s light back into the Solar System. A “star” whose spectrum suspiciously matches that of the Sun could point to the existence of an alien communications node.
Another technosignature possibility is an area of space which is slightly warmer than expected. This could be a clue that something is trying to hide by spreading its waste heat into a low temperature, innocuous blob.
If an alien probe is located, we could message the robot. “Active ” SETI, where humans transmit to aliens, rather than listen for alien communications, has roused protests from those who worry aliens are hostile. Communicating with alien nodes within the Solar System does not provide aliens with information which they do not already possess and avoids the concerns of active SETI opponents.
Researchers avoid the issue of identifying a signal by content. An alien relay using gravitational lensing is effectively motionless in relation to the Sun. Monochromatic signals should present Doppler shifts resulting from the Earth’s orbit and rotation assuming terrestrial based sensors.
Kerby and Wright generated criteria for a long-duration node using gravitational lensing :
1. Close or moderately-distanced companion stars impart huge delta-v costs on a relay spacecraft, and thus close binary or multiple-star systems should be avoided.
2. The presence of gas giant planets either limits the maximum gain total of the stellar relay (depending on the reflex semimajor axis imparted on the host star) or imparts a delta-v cost of a few m s−1 per year to maintain alignment.
3. A more massive host star requires proportionally higher delta-v costs to resist its inward gravity.
4. A host star that is rapidly rotating will be deformed away from a spherical shape, resulting in a lens that does not have an exact focal point from which to transmit, resulting in significantly lowered gains.
The search for alien communications nodes orbiting nearby stars has already begun,
Table 1. Nearest network node: location priority list (top 10)
Note: In game theory, a Schelling point is a choice made without communication among the involved parties. Sagittarius A* may be chosen as a communications hub by aliens simply because it is such a visible feature located in the center of the Galaxy.
M. Gillon and other researchers examined Wolf 359 and TRAPPIST–1 for evidence of communications nodes in the vicinity of those stars. No evidence of alien communications nodes was uncovered although there are any number of possible explanations for failure. The search continues and, contingent on funding, will expand to between ten and twenty stars.
For six months, a team led by G.W. Marcy searched for continuous and short period laser emissions from Proxima and Alpha Centuri.  Search equipment can detect power levels as low as one hundred Watts. No artificial laser light was observed in frequencies between 380 to 950 nanometers.
From the paper:
The intended recipient of the transmission is located at an unknown location near Proxima Centauri, leaving uncertain the most likely location of the local transmitter. Thus, during a year of observations, a transmitter located near the SGL focus line could appear within a region of roughly 400 arcsec from the coordinates given above. Parallax and aberration can be predicted for any instant, but the unknown location of the receiver near Proxima Centauri leaves the SGL location unknown within roughly 60 arcsec. We search within the full 400 arcsec domain for both sub-second pulses and long-lived emission of monochromatic sources. Our total field of view of 2.2 x 2.2 deg easily includes that 400 arcsec domain. Exploring the relatively large area around the anti-solar position of Proxima Cen expands the survey to include emitters located off-center that target only a fraction of the focal ring surrounding the Sun.
Two telescopes were used in the search. Candidate detections in the first were checked against exposures taken in the second telescope. No correlations were found.
Finally, a team used the Green Bank Telescope (GBT) and Breakthrough Listen (BL) backend to listen in the L and S bands for nodes using the Sun as for gravitational focusing . The search covered possible nodes for Alpha Centauri AB system and HD 13908. This search was also unsuccessful although the work was regarded as proof-of-concept.
Searching for nodes in an interstellar network with a terminus within the Solar System has just begun. Earth based sensors can make relatively low-cost searches for Lurkers. Even if the probability of success is low, the enormous rewards of success merit the investment.
1. M. Gillon, A Novel SETI Strategy Targeting the Solar Focal Regions of the Most Nearby Stars, Acta Astronautica 94, 629 (2014)
2. M. Hippke, Interstellar Communications I Network, Overview and Assumptions, arXiv 1912.02616v2 (2019)
3. M. Hippke, Interstellar Communications II Deep Space Nodes with Gravitational Lensing, arXiv 2009.01866v1 (2020)
4. M. Hippke, Interstellar Communications III Locating Deep Space Nodes, arXiv 2104.09564v1 (2020)
5. M. Gillon, A. Burdanov, and J.T. Wright, Search for an Alien Communication from the Solar System to a Neighbor Star, arXiv 2111.05334 (2021)
6. G.W. Marcy, S.K.Tellis, and E.H. Wishnow, Laser Communications with Proxima Centauri using the Solar Gravitational Lens, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 509-3, 3798-3814, https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/2110/2110.10247.pdf, (2022)
7. Nick Tusay, et al, A Search for Radio Technosignatures at the Solar Gravitational Lens Targeting Alpha Centauri, arXiv 2206.14807v1 (2022)
8. Stephen Kerby and Jason T. Wright, Stellar Gravitational Lens Engineering for Interstellar Communication and Artifact SETI, The American Astronomical Society, 2021 November 19, https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.3847/1538-3881/ac2820