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SETI and Astrobiology: Toward a Unified Strategy

Will we recognize life if and when we find it elsewhere in the cosmos? It’s a challenging question because we have only the example of life on our own world to work with. Fred Hoyle’s The Black Cloud raised the question back in 1957, a great memory for me because this was one of the earlier science fiction novels that I ever read. I remember sitting there with it in my 5th grade class in St. Louis, Missouri, having been loaned the paperback that had begun to circulate among my fellow students. I was mesmerized by the account of life as I had never imagined it.

Hoyle, you’ll recall, creates a vast cloud of gas and dust that turns out to be a kind of super-organism, and I leave the rest of this tale to those fortunate enough to be coming to it for the first time. But we’ve had the same conversation about Robert Forward’s ‘Cheela’ recently, living as they do on the surface of a neutron star. The question is one Jacob Bronowski circulated widely through his televised series The Ascent of Man back in the 1970s:

…it does not at all follow that the evolutionary path which life (if we discover it) took elsewhere must resemble ours. It does not even follow that we shall recognise it as life — or that it will recognise us.

Let’s talk about all this in terms of astrobiology and SETI. For many of us, the two have a seamless character. Detect a radio beacon from another civilization and you have, ipso facto, detected life or, at least, a technological product that life has produced. SETI then is clearly an aspect of astrobiology, just as the discipline also takes in lichen growing around a pond, or aquatic creatures of high intelligence but no technologies. With both SETI and our search for non-technological life, we’re hoping to detect living things that evolved elsewhere.

Thus I find myself in agreement with a new white paper that has been submitted to The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine as part of the process of carrying out upcoming decadal surveys in astronomy, astrophysics and planetary science. The authors are major figures from the SETI community: Jill Tarter and John Rummel (SETI Institute); Andrew Siemion (Berkeley SETI Research Center and Breakthrough Listen); Martin Rees (Breakthrough Listen, among so many other things); Claudio Maccone (chair, IAA SETI Permanent Committee); and Greg Hellbourg (International SETI Collaboration).

Titled “Three Versions of the Third Law: Technosignatures and Astrobiology,” the document makes the case that there has arisen an artificial distinction between astrobiology and SETI, with the former deemed acceptable for funding in ways that SETI has often not been, given the controversies in its history. As evidence, take the current 2015 NASA Astrobiology Strategy document, which baldly states: “While traditional Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is not part of astrobiology, and is currently well-funded by private sources, it is reasonable for astrobiology to maintain strong ties to the SETI community.”

Strong ties are good, surely, but the distinction is artificial. In what sense is SETI not part of astrobiology? As the white paper notes, the Galileo flyby described by Carl Sagan and fellow authors in a 1993 paper in Nature found that a critical lifemarker (for both life itself and intelligent life) was the presence of narrow-band, pulsed, amplitude modulated radio signals. This is the kind of data rejected by the exclusion of SETI from astrobiology.

This delightful quote from the white paper nails the issue:

This is an arbitrary distinction that artificially limits the selection of appropriate tools for astrobiology to employ in the search for life beyond Earth, one that it is not supported scientifically. The science of astrobiology recognizes life as a continuum from microbes to mathematicians. It is time to remove this artificial barrier, and to re-integrate the community of all those who wish to study the origin, evolution, and distribution of life in the universe.

From microbes to mathematicians indeed!

This is more than a matter of splitting hairs in academic documents, for how we define things can play a major role in how we as a society fund our scientific investigations. Here I would urge you to read the paper, which you can find here — click on ‘View the Submitted White Papers.’

Bear in mind the imminence of further debate. A meeting on Astrobiology Science Strategy for the Search for Life in the Universe will take place from January 16-18 in Irvine, CA, with a second meeting scheduled for March 6-8, 2018 in Washington, DC to discuss these matters. A unified astrobiology/SETI strategy may yet emerge from all this.

Background is everything in this discussion. It was in 1993 that funding for NASA’s High Resolution Microwave Survey was terminated, with SETI essentially being sent into the wilderness. The National Science Foundation actually prohibited SETI funding in language that was not removed until 2000. SETI then achieved eligibility for funding in 2001, according to NASA associate administrator Ed Weiler, even as the various astrobiology roadmaps leading up to today’s strategy at times included and at other times excluded SETI.

Similarly inconsistent have been the annual NASA funding efforts known as ROSES — Research Opportunities in Earth and Space Science. The white paper goes through the history of these changes.

There is no question that SETI has at various times become a political football, which accounts for its inclusions and exclusions from the astrobiology roadmaps of past years. We need a unified strategy sans politics. Goal 7 of previous astrobiology roadmaps has been stated as: “Determine how to recognize the signatures of life on other worlds.“ Searching for technosignatures is clearly one such method, leading the authors of the white paper to make their case:

It is time that we end this scientific schizophrenia. It is of course reasonable for a funding agency to elect not to fund any given proposal, but it is unscientific to exclude clearly related proposals from consideration. Historical politics or a perceived (but unverified) funding status from other sources should not enter into an estimation of the scientific value of an approach.

The title of the white paper, incidentally, is a nod to Arthur C. Clarke’s third law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In this case, the quote is used to explore how difficult it may be to find extraterrestrial life of any kind. If intelligent, such life might build enormous structures observable by our astronomy.

Or perhaps not: Karl Schroeder has posited that advanced technologies may be indistinguishable not from magic but from nature. In other words, the future means continual advances in efficiencies “…until our machines approach the thermodynamic equilibria of their environment, and our economics is replaced by an ecology where nothing is wasted.” That’s yet another possibility for the so-called Great Silence.

We can’t know exactly where or how to look, which is why all feasible strategies have to be on the table in the search for biosignatures as well as technosignatures. The paper concludes:

There is no scientific justification for excluding SETI, or any other technosignature modality, from the suite of astrobiological investigations. Arguments based on political sensitivities or apparent access to other funding sources are inappropriate. In this white paper, we argue for a level playing field.

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{ 36 comments… add one }
  • Al Jackson January 12, 2018, 14:40

    ” indistinguishable not from magic but from nature.”
    Hmmm… I like the reformulation :
    “Any sufficiently advanced technology may be indistinguishable.”

    I looked can’t find out who put that forward, I love the economy.

    • Martinache January 12, 2018, 15:39

      I agree, but as far as I know, “undistinguishable” should per definition be “from something else”, since something cannot be “undistinguishable” just on its own. So I suppose the right sentence should rather be “Any sufficiently advanced technology may be undetectable”. In which case we may be facing a serious detection problem, to say the least!

      • Al Jackson January 12, 2018, 23:23

        As for ‘first contact’ many science fiction writers have covered just about all that could possibly be thought on this subject.
        My favorite is in 1954 by Fredric Brown “Martians, Go Home”. Aliens make a non violent invasion, irritate everybody, and leave, … nobody knows why they came or why they left, or what the hell they were doing here! The essence of a transcendental encounter!

        • ljk January 15, 2018, 15:07

          I thought they were a commentary on how other nations often view American tourists. :^)

    • NS January 14, 2018, 4:59

      I don’t have a link at hand, but IIRC the Russian scientist Kardashev suggested that we might have detected ETI activity already, but haven’t recognized it because we think it’s part of the natural universe.

  • Joe H. January 12, 2018, 16:09

    Paul, Any chance the meeting on Astrobiology Science Strategy for the Search for Life in the Universe will be webcast like the Breakthrough Starshot conferences?

    • Paul Gilster January 12, 2018, 16:51

      I have no information on that, Joe, but will pass along anything I do hear.

  • DJ Kaplan January 12, 2018, 16:38

    Great article!
    Since we began gazing at stars, humanity has projected its expectations upon the cosmos.
    But given the vastness of the universe and the vast possibilities, only one thing is for certain: our definitions for life, intelligence and civilization will be challenged.
    We can manufacture our own definitions for life, but this definition does not constrain nature; it only constrains our understanding of the cosmos.
    The truth is undoubtedly stranger than we can imagine.

  • Andrew Palfreyman January 12, 2018, 16:39

    It may be the final ‘I’ in SETI which gives academics and politicians pause. After all, astrobiology _per se_ bears no explicit mention of intelligence, and if we wish to unify SETI and astrobiology, we need simply focus on Life rather than on Intelligence. Thus SETL.

    • DJ Kaplan January 16, 2018, 13:43

      It implies that in order for a lifeform to be detected across interstellar distances, with tools that we have, the ETs must be something that we call “intelligent”. But consider that the universe is wide with possibilities.

  • Michael Fidler January 12, 2018, 22:10

    There is one way we may be able to see an indication of advanced civilizations and that is looking for the ones that are not much more advance then we are. It would depend on how many and how long they would be in that juvenile stage before becoming undetectable. The older advanced civilizations may make direct contact with us but in forms that are designed to advance mankind but also to confuse the subject so that only the information gets thru. Maybe one way is to look seriously at historical accounts and recent encounters in the light of some type of contact but without the religious or pseudoscience aspect. This type of research has already been done to some extent but the scientific establishment consider it a taboo subject for numerous reasons. (Especialy SETI) If a rigorous OPEN minded study was done there may be ways to learn how to observe and study these contacts. The cost for such a study would be minimal but the outcome could include learning about working with nature and advanced magic! The big plus is the popularity of such subjects for the general world populations, instead of trying to sweep it under the rug, use it for the public support of SETI.

  • Gregory Benford January 12, 2018, 22:30

    I’m attending the Irvine meeting but there’s no internet for it.

    I prefer my addendum:
    “Any technology that does not seem magical is insufficiently advanced.” Arthur laughed a lot when I told him that.

  • Robin Datta January 13, 2018, 5:54

    Any sufficiently advanced sentience may also be undetectable – to less “advanced” sentiences, whether their substrate be biological or “post”-biological, detectable or undetectable. While a sentence may be missed in a detectable substrate, all bets are off if both the sentience and the substrate are undetectable.

  • Anton M. January 13, 2018, 8:17

    I believe that a truly non-terrestrial-chauvinistic definition of life should be based on thermodynamics-based blackbox analysis of information flow inside a system. The degree of e.g. self-reflection or control above a certain threshold should be considered an indication of life, no matter how exotic would it appear.

  • Anton M. January 13, 2018, 8:26

    P.S. I strongly disagree with the thesis what “nothing is wasted” is an indication of any advancement. Dead bodies do not waste energy, nor do minerals. Mammals waste a lot more energy compared to reptilians, and the human brain is probably the single most wasteful organ on Earth, energy-wise. If there are two competing systems, one producing more thermodynamical entropia than the other, more “wasteful” wins. Spaceflight is wasteful, navel-gazing is not. The problem is, galaxy-spanning civilization will not be built by navel-gazing.

  • James Benford January 13, 2018, 11:44

    Schroeder’s concept that in a mature advanced technology civilization, “our machines approach thermodynamic equilibrium with their environment, where nothing is wasted”
    Ultimately the energy sources for civilization are heat engines that take advantage of the heat of some process (chemical reactions, such as combustion, or nuclear reactions) at a temperature higher than the temperature to which the exhaust is expelled from the system doing the work. If there is no difference between these two temperatures then the thermodynamic efficiency is identically zero and civilization has no source of energy. So Anton M. is right to say that this advanced technology definition of is simply wrong.

    Tale the lighting of our cities, which we have all seen in photographs taken from space. The dark regions such as North Korea or the wilds of Siberia are not evidence of advanced technologies but rather the absence of such. After all, the earth didn’t have artificial lighting 10,000 years ago and therefore was largely indistinguishable from the earth of millions of years previously. Earlier organisms before humans basically just another took advantage of energy to keep their bodies going and produced no technology above very rudimentary tools. The dinosaurs were not advanced civilization. This is another wishful thinking ecofantasy. Not going to happen.

    • Alex Tolley January 13, 2018, 12:54

      @James, Anton
      The energy point is well taken, but I think you are still wrong. As you know, there is an effort to replace outdoor lighting with LEDs that do not emit any light into the sky in order to reduce night sky light pollution and let us see the stars again in cities. Similarly, in WW2, European countries blacked out their interior lights with heavy drapes and even cars had restricted emission of headlamp lights. In both cases the result is/was to darken cities from above. Your conclusion in both cases would be lack of high tech civilization, the opposite of what is/was happening in both cases.
      When energy was getting expensive in the 1970s, there was a renewal of the idea of building houses and even cities underground and returning the surface to nature. Observationally, the surface of the Earth would look less technological and energy using than with surface cities.

      There is a trend to energy efficiency to reduce waste and there may yet come a time when the Earth’s surface is allowed to become “natural” again. Both cases would make it hard to observe signs of technology without being in conflict with the physics of heat engines.

    • Michael Fidler January 13, 2018, 21:45

      Advanced civilizations may have existed a half billion years after the big bang, if the radiation levels were low enough.(If no Big Bang, much, much older.) Point being they would probably have seen earth as a great place to garden, but since the dinosaurs had some 200 million years to evolve intelligence they gave up and wiped them out for something better to come along. Now our population dinosaur threatens to destroy us from the fumes of their bodies. I would not call that eco-fantasy but Poetic justice.

      • scherben January 15, 2018, 12:27

        You seem to be implying some quasi/semi-religious notion that advanced aliens have singled out this irrelevant “blue dot” (that isn’t even visible as a ‘blue dot’ from interstellar, let alone intergalactic, distances), and are tampering with the evolution of said ‘blue dot’ with some benign purpose of raising one specially selected species (human exceptionalism?) to their ‘elevated’ level.

        Now, not only does that project a (Western?) human value judgement (the dinosaurs were incredible) onto the cosmos, there’s not one scintilla of evidence, or even reason, to think that this would be so. It would require on a practical level, a will and capability of making interstellar (Intergalactic?) travel, which is extremely problematic in itself (I’m not declaring it impossible); and an entertaining of the notion that they would even care about life forms on other planets. The ‘mind’ of an alien species, even one advanced technologically (or maybe just intellectually), may be, to quote Stephen King: “as different as our minds are from spiders.” I, personally, would favour indifference, or even complete failure to recognise us, as a more likely option than interference, or even compassion.

        Of course, the complete lack of current data, does render my entire hypothesis (if it deserves such a honorific), moot.

        • ljk January 15, 2018, 15:13

          The dinosaurs existed from 220 million BCE to 65 BCE, and continued on to the present day in the form of birds. Even if you take away the birds, that is 160 million years on this planet, a pretty darn good track record for a species that apparently didn’t have a civilized society.

          If an ETI visited Earth just before that space rock hit roughly 65 MY BCE and studied its creatures, I wonder how impressed they would have been with the contemporary mammals compared to the dinosaurs?

          I dare say if they were going to uplift anyone at the time, their version of the Monolith would have likely shown up in front of some dinosaurs, possibly the Troodon:

          http://www.daviddarling.info/encyclopedia/D/dinosaurintell.html

          Or maybe the T. Rex, because let’s face it, they were just so cool.

          • Michael Fidler January 17, 2018, 9:39

            Yes, but T. Rex arms where to short to reach the spacecraft controls. :-(

            • ljk January 18, 2018, 14:23

              They used ambulatory robots controlled by helmets with Wi-Fi.

  • Alex Tolley January 13, 2018, 13:25

    I am going to push back and suggest the white paper is special pleading for SETI funding as part of the renewed astrobiology interest.

    (…) SETI then is clearly an aspect of astrobiology, just as the discipline also takes in lichen growing around a pond, or aquatic creatures of high intelligence but no technologies.

    This is akin to saying that the humanities and engineering departments are a part of the science departments, especially biology disciplines. This is most certainly not the case for obvious reasons.

    Consider that some future Schliemann on Mars uncovers a Martian city. Would that result in a call to Lowell University biologists? No, the archaeology department would become involved. Similarly, should a “monolith” be discovered on the Moon, would a biologist be called to investigate? Clearly not.

    For targets reachable in the solar system, SETI need not be involved in the search for life. Should an artifact be found, then SETI experts should get involved.

    What about targets that are currently unreachable? The evidence of technology is not de facto evidence of life. Even if it were, the appropriate means and tools of investigation are not inherently biological, any more than a psychologist needs to understand biology to do experiments or work with a patient. Should some aspect of biology emerge, then a cross-disciplinary team would include a biologist.

    Biology has always had some ambiguity in defining its boundaries. Even at [high] school, the biology teacher raised the question of what defines “life” and it is fuzzy. Viruses were on that borderline back in the 1960’s. Combustion processes could also make the grade for inclusion. Like planetologists creating rules for planets and excluding Jupiter, biologists created some rules to try to put a boundary around what constituted life. Academic disciplines have historically, and I think rightly, excluded the cultural products of life and placed them outside the domain studied by biologists.

    This is not to say that SETI shouldn’t have a seat at the table and be funded, but rather that their projects are rather different from those of [astro]biologists. By analogy, while you might want to bring an anthropologist or linguist to a newly discovered land, if your primary goal is to find and catalog organisms like Darwin, then you really want to put your resources into supporting the tools of the naturalist. To push the analogy to breaking point, the SETI people are wanting to come along for the ride to listen for drums and look for smoke signals, even if the likelihood of a new land being inhabited is very low. However, if such signals are detected, send for the appropriate scientists and maybe communication with the inhabitants can even help with the collection of specimens.

  • Alex Tolley January 13, 2018, 14:11

    jason Wright’s whitepaper in the set “SETI is a part of Astrobiology” makes a very similar argument and claim as the Tarter et alpaper:
    Since SETI is, quite obviously, part of astrobiology, SETI practitioners should at the very least be expressly encouraged to compete on a level playing field with practitioners other subfields for NASA astrobiology resources. (emphasis Wright’s).

    I don’t agree that SETI is obviously part of astrobiology. The claim is based not or much argument, but a complaint about lack of funding from NASA and the link between the low probability of finding an intelligent artifact and the higher probability that life exists, even as current detection methods are not very good. The argument that SETI has driven technology can equally be applied to biosignature detection. So why not fund remote biosignature detection techniques and develop that technology over the next half-century?

    Again, that should not fully exclude SETI from government funding, but to claim that equal footing funding should be made for SETI because it is part of astrobiology is wrong, IMO.

  • Francisco January 14, 2018, 3:27

    That quote from Karl Schroeder “advanced life may be undistinguishable from nature” is so right-on! Never thought about that in that way. We often think of huge quantities of radio energy or light. But Karl is right, I think. What better model to emulate than nature itself, which has tested all potentials and variables for billions of years. Why would they (ET) reinvent the wheel? Happiness should surpass knowledge – for after all is worked & known comes retirement! Utopia. Great concept for sure. That ‘great silence’ is not silence, but the purring of a cat huddled in its den. The sound is muted and private – as it should be.

  • James Stilwell January 14, 2018, 11:04

    Asimov wrote a novel titled, The Naked Sun, in which 20,000 people and 400 million robots (artilects) populate an entire planet…Future spacefarers might overlook encountering such a world as being a misfit in the search for a flourishing civilization. Some people still think a civilization must surely include billions and billions of people…The earth will have a hard time feeding 25 billion in a century of two…maybe synthetic meats will rescue a protein deficient civilization such as ours…Maybe a terraformed Mars is our next continent to settle…

  • Marc Millis January 14, 2018, 12:28

    I am pleased to see well-reasoned scientific progress erode the confirmation bias against the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere. I am also relieved to see so much openness to the possibility of life and intelligence that may elude our perceptions. Such openness and systematic process bodes well that we will decipher nature as it truly is.

  • Stephen January 14, 2018, 13:27

    90% of any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from trash.

    Archaeologists might agree
    Nature often does look rather messy, like trash.

  • RobertL January 14, 2018, 20:03

    We must always guard against the danger that what we regard as absolutes are no such thing, but byproducts of human biology. To deconstruct the phrase ”technological civilization”, the beginning of civilization is a social structure which inhibits our natural impulse to murder one another. From there you get to organized exploitation of resources, which means larger populations and competition between civilizations, and war. Technology springs from successful attempts to improve efficiency of resource utilization, and from the fact that the human brain wants to be occupied at all times. A better designed brain would have an energy saving level to which it would default when there was nothing that needed thinking about. The basic first contact story says that aliens form civilizations, make spaceships using technology, and we meet up and establish to each other’s satisfaction that our similarities outweigh our differences because we agree on the value of pi. My point is that it is not obvious that technology or civilization or knowing pi cannot be taken, without argument, as universals: they may all be local side effects of biology. Navel gazing may be the rule and not the exception.

  • Alex Tolley January 15, 2018, 14:07

    The Wiley paper is very interesting. It tries to come up with a modified colonization approach that allows for sparse populations and machine replicators to explain the Fermi paradox. It even suggests that we should spend some resources looking for such replicating probes in our solar system.

    The assumption that physical colonizers, whether biological or machine, is what we expect from civilizations may be an artifact of human culture at our level of development. Civilizations in the biological stage may understand that this limits them to their home system unless a near perfect world can be “terraformed” for their colonization (assuming they don’t want artificial worlds). If “computerized” entities, they may have transcended physical presence and therefore be unobservable. Biological beings might prefer to seed worlds with simple life allowing evolution to create abiospheres adapated to their worlds. Such seeders need not be self-replicating machines but natural panspermia. Unless populations of life forms are isolated, we might expect just one successful biology to emerge on any planet, eliminating others.

    One thing that we can be sure of, civilization growth requiring increasing energy and resource use will quickly use up our galaxy in a blink of a cosmic eye. If there are other civilizations out there, they must be fairly static in resource use, likely highly efficient at recycling materials and using energy to maintain themselves. Long term growth over millions of years is unsustainable.

  • hiro January 15, 2018, 15:57

    Yeah, this reminds me a short sf story that I’ve read only once for quite some time in the public library, the name is “Hot Rock” by Egan I think, not certain because I can’t check it out again.

  • ljk January 16, 2018, 10:38

    Scientists want future space telescopes to look for risky signs of alien civilizations

    by Alan Boyle on January 15, 2018 at 10:46 am

    Global warming and nuclear blasts may be bad for humanity, but astrobiologists say they could be good indicators of the presence of intelligent life on distant worlds.

    Such signatures of risky biological behavior should therefore be included in the list of things for future space telescopes to seek out, researchers say In a white paper prepared for the National Academy of Sciences.

    The strategy would add a contemporary twist to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, reflecting the view that Earth is transitioning into a technology-driven geological era some call the Anthropocene.

    “Examining the Anthropocene epoch through the lens of astrobiology can help to understand the future evolution of life on our planet and the possible evolution of technological, energy-intensive life elsewhere in the universe,” the researchers write.

    Full article here:

    https://www.geekwire.com/2018/scientists-want-future-space-telescopes-look-risky-signs-alien-life/

    The paper is online here:

    https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1801/1801.00052.pdf

    To quote:

    The researchers also called on the NASA Astrobiology Institute to establish a focus group on Anthropocene-themed astrobiology. They said such a group could identify the
    potential “technosignatures” of alien civilizations.

    “The terraforming of otherwise uninhabitable planets within a planetary system is one example of a possible technosignature, where powerful artificial greenhouse gases may be deployed to warm a planet outside the formal habitable zone,” they wrote. “Such planets may be identified from the spectral features of greenhouse gases such as perfluorocarbons (PFCs), which are not known to otherwise occur in high abundances.”

    The identification of planetary-scale megastructures would be another example, they said. Just this month, a different team of researchers reported using telescopic observations to rule out the presence of an alien megastructure around a strangely dimming star known as KIC 8462852, or Boyajian’s Star.

    Yet another long-lasting technosignature could be the presence of radioactive compounds associated with nuclear fallout. Here on Earth, the first atomic bomb test left just such a signature in 1945, which is seen as heralding the dawn of the Anthropocene Age.

    Even if astrobiologists don’t detect the signs of energy-consuming civilizations beyond our solar system, the exercise could well yield payoffs closer to home. The authors point out that getting a better understanding of the theoretical constraints on alien civilizations — and the risks they may face — would improve policy decisions for the future of our own civilization as well.

  • ljk January 16, 2018, 10:46

    I do not hold out much hope for an ETI coming to literally save us from ourselves – and their idea of “saving” humanity could have unfortunate consequences along the lines of they mean well, but… – however, we may be able to learn from them how to survive our technological adolescence, assuming they are not too different from us.

    Could extraterrestrials help us save the Earth?

    Vikram Zutshi

    9 January 2018

    If human beings are so ineffective in confronting planetary problems, shouldn’t we seek out help wherever we can find it?

    https://www.opendemocracy.net/transformation/vikram-zutshi/could-extraterrestrials-help-us-save-earth

    To quote:

    In July 2015, a group led by physicist Stephen Hawking launched “Breakthrough Listen,” an initiative that’s claimed to be the largest ever scientific research program aimed at finding evidence of civilizations beyond Earth. During the launch of the initiative at the Royal Society in London, Hawking voiced his fears about what might happen in any such encounter, and why humankind needed to be much better prepared for what they might bring:

    “We don’t know much about aliens,” he told the audience, “but we know about humans. If you look at history, contact between humans and less intelligent organisms have often been disastrous from their point of view, and encounters between civilizations with advanced versus primitive technologies have gone badly for the less advanced.”

    Science journalist Ann Druyan—who was part of the announcement panel—seemed more upbeat: “We may get to a period in our future where we outgrow our evolutionary baggage and evolve to become less violent and shortsighted,” she said. “My hope is that extraterrestrial civilizations are not only more technologically proficient than we are but more aware of the rarity and preciousness of life in the cosmos.”

  • ljk January 16, 2018, 11:44

    China Ups Ante On Search for Alien Life –Another New Radio Telescope “Will Be Largest Antenna on Earth Able to Trace Origin of Any Signal”:

    http://www.dailygalaxy.com/my_weblog/2018/01/china-ups-the-ante-on-alien-search-another-new-radio-telescope-will-be-the-largest-antenna-on-earth-.html

    To quote:

    China will have a new radio telescope to “listen” to the universe that trumps its 500-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST), the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope completed in 2016. The Chinese government has approved a plan to build the giant radio telescope in Qitai County, in the far western region of Xinjiang. Chinese scientists claim that the device, named the QTT, will be the world’s largest steerable radio telescope.

    Some strange signals have been found recently by the FAST (below), “but it’s hard to confirm their origins, because these signals do not repeat,” says Li Di, chief scientist of China’s new FAST Radio telescope. “We look for not only television signals, but also atomic bomb signals. We’ll give full play to our imaginations when processing the signals,” Li says. “It’s a complete exploration, as we don’t know what an alien is like.”

    With a dish the size of 30 football fields, China’s new FAST radio telescope, which measures 500 meters in diameter, dwarfs Puerto Rico’s 300-meter Arecibo Observatory. Having the world’s largest and most powerful new radio telescope, the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST), “We can receive weaker and more distant radio messages,” said Wu Xiangping, director-general of the Chinese Astronomical Society, “It will help us to search for intelligent life outside of the galaxy and explore the origins of the universe,” he added underscoring the China’s race to be the first nation to discover the existence of an advanced alien civilization.

    The world’s largest fully steerable single-dish radio telescope will be built in Qitai County in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The telescope will be 110 meters in diameter, over 100 meters tall and weigh around 6,000 tonnes. Scheduled to go into service in 2023, it will cover three-fourths of the sky.

    “The antenna, the world’s largest, will be able to trace the origins of any signals received,” said Song Huagang of the Chinese Academy of Science Xinjiang observatory. The telescope will operate at 150 MHz to 115 GHz and assist research on gravitational waves, black holes and dark matter. The Xinjiang observatory is currently equipped with a 25-meter radio telescope. The new telescope will be roughly 20 times bigger.

    The new site in Shihezi is a sparsely populated foothill of Tianshan Mountains in northeast Xinjiang. The mountain ranges surrounding the site will shield the telescope from electromagnetic noise.

    Besides the planned telescope, China is already planning or completed impressive astronomical telescopes. In 2016, the 500-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST), the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope, went into service in southwest China’s Guizhou Province. China’s largest optical telescope, at 12 meters, is expected to be built in Tibet Autonomous Region. The project is included in China’s large-scale sci-tech infrastructure plan for 2016 to 2020. (Xinhua).

    The Daily Galaxy via Chinese Academy of Sciences

  • ljk January 18, 2018, 10:30

    New biggest radio telescope to help detect alien signals

    China plans to build another big radio telescope that could boost the quest to determine if we’re alone in the universe, and solve other long-standing mysteries.

    by Eric Mack

    January 17, 2018 at 2:28 PM PST

    https://www.cnet.com/news/radio-telescope-china-qtt-alien-signals/

    To quote:

    Doug Vakoch of METI International, which searches for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) and develops potential messages for E.T., said this overlap is significant because it includes the so-called “water hole” of particular interest to SETI researchers.

    “It’s a quiet space between prominent spectral lines created by hydrogen and hydroxyl, the constituents of water that is so central to life on Earth,” he explained via email. “The partially overlapping frequency range of the QTT and FAST means that the detection of a candidate signal by one telescope can be followed up immediately by the other instrument, assuming the data is being analyzed in real time.”

    But the value of QTT, Vakoch adds, may not be so much in its ability to search for signs of distant advanced civilizations, but in how it will contribute to unraveling other natural mysteries of the universe. During its trial testing phase, FAST already managed to discover two pulsars.

    We’ll still have to wait to see how effective the tag-team operation of FAST and the QTT will be at picking up alien signals and who knows what else, though: QTT isn’t scheduled to go into operation until 2023.

  • ljk January 18, 2018, 10:49

    Search for Extraterrestrial Irregularities — Expanding the Spectrum for Advanced Alien Life

    January 17, 2018

    http://www.dailygalaxy.com/my_weblog/2018/01/todays-top-space-headline-extraterrestrial-irregularities-scientists-expanding-the-spectrum-for-the-.html

    To quote:

    “Two hundred years from now, people are going to look at what we’re doing, and probably laugh and say, ‘Why weren’t they looking for tachyons, or subspace communications,’ or something like that,” says Dan Wertheimer, chief scientist for SETI at the University of California at Berkeley.

    “We’re just starting to learn how to look for, in machine learning, what’s called anomaly detection,” said Wertheimer during a presentation held at the university in conjunction with the World Conference of Science Journalists in October.

    “In anomaly detection, you classify things — ‘this is a curved signal, this is a sinusoidal signal, this is a pulsed signal’ — and if it’s not one of those things, it’ll say, ‘Hey, I found something that’s not following all these categories, this is an anomaly.’ It will alert you, and you’ll take a look at it and see if it’s interesting. We are not doing that now, we’re learning how to do that.”

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