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An Abundance of Technosignatures?

What expectations do we bring to the hunt for life elsewhere in the universe? Opinions vary depending on who has the podium, but we can neatly divide the effort into two camps. The first looks for biosignatures, spurred by our remarkably growing and provocative catalog of exoplanets. The other explicitly looks for signs of technology, as exemplified by SETI, which from the start hunted for signals produced by intelligence.

My guess is that a broad survey of those looking for biosignatures would find that they are excited by the emerging tools available to them, such as new generations of ground- and space-based telescopes, and the kind of modeling we saw in the last post applied to a hypothetical Alpha Centauri planet. We use our growing datasets to examine the nature of exoplanets and move beyond observation to model benchmarks for habitable worlds, including their atmospheric chemistry and even geology.

Technosignatures are a different matter, and it’s fascinating to read through a new paper from Jason Wright and colleagues. – Jacob Haqq-Misra, Adam Frank, Ravi Kopparapu, Manasvi Lingam and Sofia Sheikh – discussing just how. The intent is to show that technosignatures offer a vast search space that in a sense dwarfs the hunt for biosignatures. That’s not what you would expect, as the latter are usually described as a kind of all-encompassing envelope within which technosignatures would be a subset.

On the contrary, write the authors, “there is no incontrovertible reason that technology could not be more abundant, longer-lived, more detectable, and less ambiguous than biosignatures.” How this potential is unlocked impacts how the search proceeds, and it also sends out a call for collaboration among all those hunting for life elsewhere.

Image: Photo of the central region of the Milky Way. Credit: UCLA SETI Group/Yuri Beletsky, Carnegie Las Campanas Observatory.

Technosignatures as Subset?

Remember that technosignatures do not require an intent to communicate, but are evidence of technologies in use or even long abandoned, perhaps found in already existing datasets needing re-examination, or in results from upcoming observatories. Check your own assumptions here, based on the Drake equation, in which factors include the fraction of habitable planets that develop life, the fraction that produce species that are intelligent and can communicate, and so on. Traditional thinking sees technosignatures as an embedded feature within a broader spectrum of life.

Reasonably enough, then, we might decide that if intelligence is a rare subset within biological systems, technosignatures would prove even rarer. Our own planet seems to exemplify this, with our species having become communicative only within roughly a century of today, despite 4.6 billion years in which to evolve. But Wright and team make the case that technology cannot be bounded in this way. Its emergence may be rare, but once it appears, it is possible that it will outlive its biological creators.

Biology may confine itself to a single habitable planet, but why should technosignatures be thus limited? In our own Solar System, we are producing, the authors argue, technosignatures for multiple worlds right now, especially at Mars, where we have our combined force of landers and orbital assets taking data and communicating results back to Earth. Such signals should increase as we follow through on plans to explore Mars with human crews and robotic spacecraft. As we spread into the Solar System, new technosignatures will emerge at each venue we study.

Why, too, should technology not spread through self-replication, perhaps not under the control of the biological beings who set it into motion? For that matter, why should we confine technology to planets? Places with no biology may prove extremely useful for our species, as for example the asteroid belt for resource extraction. We might expect technosignatures to emerge from these operations, another separate appearance of technology that grows ultimately out of the single planetary source. Moreover, this diaspora is unlikely to confine itself to a single star system, as the authors point out:

There is also no reason to think that technological life in the galaxy cannot spread beyond its home planetary system (see Mamikunian & Briggs 1965; Drake 1980). While interstellar spaceflight of the sort needed to settle a nearby star system is beyond humanity’s current capabilities, the problem is one being seriously considered now, and there are no real physical or engineering obstacles to such a thing happening (e.g., Mauldin 1992; Ashworth 2012; Lingam & Loeb 2021). Even if we cannot envision it happening for humans in the near future, it is not hard to imagine it transpiring in, say, 10,000 or 100,000 yr.

What a shift in thinking in the above paragraph, which to us merely states the obvious, when compared to a mere 75 years ago, a time when the idea of interstellar flight was considered science fictional in the extreme, and we were only beginning to probe the physics of the engines that might make crossing to another star possible. Today we’re more likely to be thinking about interstellar journeys as expeditions awaiting new generations of technology and engineering rather than a mystical new physics. We also factor artificial intelligence into an interstellar future that may be exclusively robotic.

Image: A rendering of a potential Dyson sphere, collect stellar energy on a system wide scale for highly advanced civilizations. How many separate technosignatures might have emerged out of a single biological source in the building of such a thing? Credit: sentientdevelopments.com.

Recall our recent discussion of von Neumann probes. While the average distance between stars is vast, Greg Matloff looked at the problem in an exceedingly practical way. Suppose, he said, we confine ourselves to times when stars are within a single light year of each other, which happens to our Sun every 500,000 years or so. If we launch a self-replicating probe only every 500,000 years, we nonetheless set up a process of such crossings that fills a large percentage of stellar systems in the galaxy within a time frame of tens of thousands of years. All of these can produce technosignatures.

Thus even the most conservative assumptions for interstellar flight using speeds not much beyond what we can achieve with a Jupiter gravity assist today still create the opportunity for technology to spread far beyond the planet of its origin. As the authors are quick to point out, the Drake equation cannot capture this spreading, and the search space for technosignatures could vastly outnumber that for biological life.

Lifetimes Civilizational and Technological

Looming over discussion of the Drake equation has always been the issue of the lifetime of a technological civilization, the L factor. How likely would we be to pick up a signal from another civilization if our own is threatened at this comparatively early stage of its growth by factors like nuclear or biological war? The Fermi question may be answered simply enough by saying that no technological species lives very long.

Here it’s fair to ask how much we are projecting human tendencies onto our extraterrestrial counterparts. This gets intriguing. The collapse of civilization would be a dire event, but absent actual extinction, our species might recover or, indeed, re-develop the technologies that once proliferated. The time between catastrophe and potential recovery is not known, but such events do not put a fixed limit on a civilization’s lifetime. Even if we assume that technological civilizations will roughly track our own, we may understand our own only imperfectly. From the paper:

…humanity is the first species on Earth that can prevent its own extinction with technology, for instance by diverting asteroids, stopping or mitigating pandemics, or building “lifeboat” settlements elsewhere in the solar system or beyond (Baum et al. 2015; Turchin & Green 2017; Turchin & Denkenberger 2018). This means that the upper limit on our technology’s survival is essentially unlimited in theory, even in the face of inevitable natural catastrophes. Apart from these modern examples, Earth-analogs from human history teach us that a technological downshift—to temporarily become less technological until circumstances improve—is a common and healthy adaptation to catastrophe in human history and that technology and longevity are in this way inextricably linked…

Nor can we rule out the possibility that the Earth could develop other species beyond our own in the future that can produce a technological society following humanity’s extinction. For that matter, are we so sure about our past? If there have been prior periods of technology on Earth, the processes of time over millions of years would likely have eradicated them. Thus using our experience on Earth as the model for the Drake L factor is inadvisable because of how little we know about L for our own planet.

Technosignatures can outlast the beings that create them, and as the authors point out, the ones we produce are already on a par with Earth’s biosignatures in terms of detectability. While we would not be able to detect the biosignatures of Earth from Alpha Centauri’s distance, the final iteration of the Square Kilometre Array should be sensitive enough to pick up our radars at distances of several parsecs, and an advanced space telescope within our engineering capabilities now (such as the proposed LUVOIR) might be able to detect atmospheric pollution at 10 parsecs.

It seems a safe assumption that if our biosignatures and technosignatures are roughly comparable in terms of detectability today, the advance of technology as a species continues to innovate should produce ever more robust technosignatures. We cannot, in other words, assume a biology-like trajectory, as implicit in the Drake equation, for the evolution of technosignatures and their detectability through SETI. Indeed:

…the spread of technology could reasonably imply that the number of sites of technosignatures might be larger than that of biosignatures, potentially by a factor of as much as > 1010 if the galaxy were to be virtually filled with technology.

No wonder some authors have considered adding a ‘spreading factor’ to the Drake equation, which accounts for the possibility of technologies moving far beyond their home worlds. Thus one technosphere produces myriad technosignatures, while the Drake equation in its classic form inevitably does not account for such growth. If the equation assumes life emerges and stays on its home world, the authors of this paper see technology as having a separate evolutionary arc which potentially takes it far into the galaxy in ever proliferating form.

While the search for biosignatures continues, it makes sense given all these factors for technosignatures to remain under active investigation, and to encourage the astrobiology and SETI communities to engage with each other in the common pursuit of extraterrestrial life. Comparative and cooperative analysis should enhance the work of both disciplines.

The paper is Wright et al., “The Case for Technosignatures: Why They May Be Abundant, Long-lived, Highly Detectable, and Unambiguous,” Astrophysical Journal Letters 927, L30 (10 March 2022). Full text.


A New Title on Extraterrestrial Intelligence

Just a quick note for today as I finish up tomorrow’s long post. But I did want you to be aware of this new title, Extraterrestrial Intelligence: Academic and Societal Implications, which has connections with recent topics and will again tomorrow, when we discuss a new paper from Jason Wright and SETI colleagues on technosignatures. As with the recent biography of John von Neumann, I haven’t had the chance to read this yet, but it’s certainly going on the list. The book is out of Cambridge Scholars Publishing. Here’s the publisher’s description:

What are the implications for human society, and for our institutions of higher learning, of the discovery of a sophisticated extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) operating on and around Earth? This book explores this timely question from a multidisciplinary perspective. It considers scientific, philosophical, theological, and interdisciplinary ways of thinking about the question, and it represents all viewpoints on how likely it is that an ETI is already operating here on Earth. The book’s contributors represent a wide range of academic disciplines in their formal training and later vocations, and, upon reflection on the book’s topic, they articulate a diverse range of insights into how ETI will impact humankind. It is safe to say that any contact or communication with ETI will not merely be a game changer for human society, but will also be a paradigm changer. This means that it makes sense for human beings to prepare themselves now for this important transition.

Important indeed, but how demoralizing to see another title at a stiff tariff: £63.99 (that’s about $84 US). I will spare you my thoughts on the academic side of publishing, and in the meantime see if I can get a review copy, as I assume most Centauri Dreams readers aren’t going to want to pony up this amount for a book they know little about (although if you live near a good academic library, this one should turn up there).


Modeling a Habitable Planet at Centauri A/B

Why is it so difficult to detect planets around Alpha Centauri? Proxima Centauri is one thing; we’ve found interesting worlds there, though this small, dim star has been a tough target, examined through decades of steadily improving equipment. But Centauri A and B, the G-class and K-class central binary here, have proven impenetrable. Given that we’ve found over 4500 planets around other stars, why the problem here?

Proximity turns out to be a challenge in itself. Centauri A and B are in an orbit around a common barycenter, angled such that the light from one will contaminate the search around the other. It’s a 79-year orbit, with the distance between A and B varying from 35.6 AU to 11.2. You can think of them as, at their furthest, separated by the Sun’s distance from Pluto (roughly), and at their closest, by about the distance to Saturn.

The good news is that we have a window from 2022 to 2035 in which, even as our observing tools continue to improve, the parameters of that orbit as seen from Earth will separate Centauri A and B enough to allow astronomers to overcome light contamination. I think we can be quite optimistic about what we’ll find within the decade, assuming there are indeed planets here. I suspect we will find planets around each, but whether we find something in the habitable zone is anyone’s guess.

Image: This is Figure 1 from today’s paper. Caption: (a) Trajectories of α-Cen A (red) and B (blue) around their barycenter (cross). The two stars are positioned at their approximate present-day separation. The Hill spheres (dashed circles) and HZs (nested green circles) of A and B are drawn to scale at periapsis. (b) The apparent trajectory of B centered on A, with indications of their apparent separation on the sky over the period from CE 2020 to 2050. The part of trajectory in yellow indicates the coming observational window (CE 2022–2035) when the apparent separation between A and B is larger than 6 and the search for planets around A or B can be conducted without suffering significant contamination from the respective companion star. Credit: Wang et al.

If we don’t yet have a planet detection around the binary Centauri stars, we continue to explore the possibilities even as the search continues. Thus a new paper from Haiyang Wang (ETH Zurich), who along with colleagues at the university has been modeling the kind of rocky planet in the habitable zone that we hope to find there. The idea is to create the benchmarks that predict what this world should look like.

The numerical modeling involved examines the composition of the hypothetical world, drawing on what we do know, based on spectroscopic measurements, of the chemical composition of Centauri A and B. Here there is a great deal of information to work with, especially on so-called refractory elements, the iron, magnesium and silicon that go into rock formation. Centauri A and B are among the Gaia “benchmark stars” for which stellar properties have been carefully calibrated, and up to 22 elements have been found in high-quality spectra, so we know a lot about their chemical makeup.

But a key issue remains. While rocky planets are known to have rock and metal chemical compositions similar to that of their host stars, there is no necessary correspondence when it comes to the readily vaporized volatile elements. The authors suggest that this is because the process of planetary formation and evolution quickly does away with key telltale volatiles.

The researchers thus develop their own ‘devolatilization model’ to project the possible composition of a supposed habitable zone planet around Centauri A and B, linking stellar composition with both volatile and refractory elements. The model grew out of Wang’s work with Charley Lineweaver and Trevor Ireland at the Australian National University in Canberra, and it continues at Wang’s current venue at ETH. This is fundamentally new ground that extends our notions of exoplanet composition.

Wang and team call their imagined world ‘a-Cen-Earth,’ delving into its internal structure, mineralogy and atmospheric composition, all factors in evolution and habitability. The findings reveal a planet that is geochemically similar to Earth, with a silicate mantle, although carbon-bearing species like graphite and diamond are enhanced. Water storage in the interior is roughly the same as Earth, but the deduced world has a somewhat larger iron core mixed with a possible lack of plate tectonics. Indeed, “…the planet may be in a Venus-like stagnant-lid regime, with sluggish mantle convection and planetary resurfacing, over most of its geological history.”

As to the atmosphere of the hypothetical world that grows out of Wang’s model, its early era shows an envelope rich in carbon dioxide, methane and water, which harks back to the Earth’s atmosphere in the Archean era, between 4 and 2.5 billion years ago. That gives life a promising start if we assume abiogenesis occurring in a similar environment.

Image: α Centauri A (left) and α Centauri B viewed by the Hubble Space Telescope. At a distance of 4.3 light-​years, the α Centauri group (which includes also the red dwarf α Centauri C) is the nearest star system to Earth. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA.

How far can we take a model like this? We may soon have data to measure it against, but it’s worth remembering what the paper’s authors point out. After noting that planets around the “Sun-like” Centauri A and B cannot be extrapolated from the already known planets around the red dwarf Proxima Centauri, they go on to say:

Second, although α Cen A and B are “Sun-like” stars, their metallicities are ∼72% higher than the solar metallicity (Figure 3). How this difference would affect the condensation/evaporation process, and thus the devolatilization scale, is the subject of ongoing work (Wang et al. 2020b).

That’s a big caveat and a useful pointer to the needed clarification that further work on the matter should bring – metallicity is obviously significant. The paper adds:

Third, we ignore any potential effect of the “binarity” of the stars on their surrounding planetary bulk chemistry during planet formation, even though we highlight that, dynamically, the planetary orbits in the HZ around either companion are stable. Finally, we have yet to explore a larger parameter space, e.g., in mass and radius, but have only benchmarked our analysis with an Earth-sized planet, which would otherwise have an impact on the interior modeling…

So we’re in early days with planet modeling using these methods, which are being examined and extended through the team’s collaborations at Switzerland’s National Centre of Competence in Research PlanetS. Note too that the authors do not inject any catastrophic impact into their model of the sort that could affect both a planet’s mantle and/or its atmosphere, with dramatic consequences for the outcome. We know from the Earth’s experience in the Late Heavy Bombardment that this can be a factor.

With all this in mind, it’s fascinating to see the lines of observation and theory converging on the Alpha Centauri binary pair. Finding a habitable zone planet around Proxima Centauri was exhilarating. How much more so to go beyond the many imponderables of red dwarf planet habitability to two stars much more like our Sun, each of which might have a planet in its habitable zone? The Alpha Centauri triple system may turn out to be a bonanza, showing us both red dwarf and Sun-like planetary outcomes in a single system that just happens to be the closest to us.

The paper is Wang et al,, “A Model Earth-sized Planet in the Habitable Zone of α Centauri A/B,” The Astrophysical Journal Vol. 927, No. 2 (10 March 2022). Abstract/Full Text. Preprint also available.


Why Fill a Galaxy with Self-Reproducing Probes?

We can’t know whether there is a probe from another civilization – a von Neumann probe of the sort we discussed in the previous post – in our own Solar System unless we look for it. Even then, though, we have no guarantee that such a probe can be found. The Solar System is a vast place, and even if we home in on the more obvious targets, such as the Moon, and near-Earth objects in stable orbits, a well hidden artifact a billion or so years old, likely designed not to draw attention to itself, is a tricky catch.

As with any discussion of extraterrestrial civilizations, we’re left to ponder the possibilities and the likelihoods, acknowledging how little we know about whether life itself is widely found. One question opens up another. Abiogenesis may be spectacularly rare, or it may be commonplace. What we eventually find in the ice moons of the outer system should offer us some clues, but widespread life doesn’t itself translate into intelligent, tool-making life. But for today, let’s assume intelligent toolmakers and long-lived societies, and ponder what their motives might be.

Let’s also acknowledge the obvious. In looking at motivations, we can only peer through a human lens. The actions of extraterrestrial civilizations, and certainly their outlook on existence itself, would be opaque to us. They would possibly act in ways we consider inexplicable, for reasons that defy the logic we apply to human decisions. But today’s post is a romp into the conjectural, and it’s a reflection of the fact that being human, we want to know more about these things and have to start somewhere.

Motivations of the Probe Builders

Greg Matloff suggests in his paper on von Neumann probes that one reason a civilization might fill the galaxy with these devices is the possibly universal wish to transcend death. A walk through the Roman ruins scattered around what was once the province of Gaul gave weight to the concept when my wife and I prowled round the south of France some years back. Humans, at least, want to put down a marker. They want to be remembered, and their imprint upon a landscape can be unforgettable.

But in von Neumann terms, I have trouble with this one. I stood next to a Roman wall near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence on a late summer day and felt the poignancy of all artifacts worn by time, but the Romans were decidedly mortal. They knew death was a horizon bounding a short life, and could transcend it only through propitiations to their gods and monuments to their prowess. A civilization that is truly long-lived, defined not by centuries but aeons, may have less regard for personal aggrandizement and even less sense of a coming demise. Life might seem to stretch indefinitely before it.

Image: Some of the ruins of the Roman settlement at Glanum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, recovered through excavations beginning in 1921. Walking here caused me to reflect on how potent memorials and monuments would be to a species that had all but transcended death. Would the impulse to build them be enhanced, or would it gradually disappear?

Probes as a means of species reproduction, another Matloff suggestion, ring more true to me, and I would suggest this may flag a biological universal, the drive to preserve the species despite the death of the individual. Here we’re in familiar science fiction terrain in which biological material is preserved by machines and flung to the stars, to be activated upon arrival and raised to awareness by artificial intelligence. Or we could go further – Matloff does – to say that biological materials may prove unnecessary, with computer uploads of the minds of the builders taking their place, another SF trope.

I can go with that as a satisfactory motivator, and it’s enough to make me want to at least try to find what Jim Benford calls ‘lurkers’ in our own corner of the galaxy. Another motivator that deeply satisfies me because it’s so universal among humankind is simple curiosity. A long-lived, perhaps immortal civilization that wants to explore can send von Neumann probes everywhere possible in the hope of learning everything it can about the universe. Encyclopedia Galactica? Why not? Imputing any human motive to an extraterrestrial civilization is dangerous, of course, but we have little else to go on. And centuries of human researchers and librarians attest to the power of this one.

Would such probes be configured to establish communication with any societies that arise on the planets under observation? This is the Bracewell probe notion that extends von Neumann self-reproduction to include this much more immediate form of SETI, with potential knowledge stored at planetary distances. Obviously, 2001: A Space Odyssey comes to mind as we recall the mysterious monoliths found on the early Earth and, much later, on the Moon, and the changes to humanity they portend.

But are long-lived civilizations necessarily friendly? Fred Saberhagen’s ‘berserker’ probes key off the Germanic and particularly Norse freelance bodyguards and specialized troops that became fixtures at the courts of royalty in early medieval times (the word is from the Old Norse word meaning ‘bearskin’). These were not guys you wanted to mess with, and associations with their attire of bear and wolfskins seem to have contributed to the legend of werewolves. Old Norse records show that they were prominent at the court of Norway’s king Harald I Fairhair (reigned 872–930).

Because they made violence into a way of life, we should hope not to find the kind of probe that would be named after them, which might be sent out to eliminate competition. Thus Saberhagen’s portrayal of berserker probes sterilizing planets just as advanced life begins to appear. The fact that we have not yet been sterilized may be due to the possibility that such a probe does not yet consider us ‘advanced,’ but more likely implies we have no berserker probes nearby. Let’s hope to keep it that way.

Or what about the spread of life itself? If abiogenesis does turn out to be unusually rare, it’s possible that any civilization with the power to do so would decide to seed the cosmos with life. In this case, we’re not sending uploaded intelligence or biological beings in embryonic form in our probes, but rather the most basic lifeforms that can proliferate on any planets offering the right conditions for their development. Perhaps there becomes an imperative – written about, for example, by Michael Mautner and Matloff himself – to spread life as a way to transform the cosmos. Milan Ćirković continues to explore the implications of just such an effort.

In an interesting post in Sentient Developments, Canadian futurist George Dvorsky points out that self-reproduction has more than an outward-looking component. Supposing a civilization interested in building a megastructure – a Dyson sphere, let’s say – decides to harness self-reproduction to supply the needed ‘worker’ devices that would mine the local stellar system and create the object in question.

At a truly cosmic level, Matloff speculates, self-replicating probes might be deployed to build megastructures that could alter the course of cosmic evolution. We’re in Stapledon territory now, freely mixing philosophy and wonder. We’re also in the arena claimed by Frank Tipler in his The Physics of Immortality (Doubleday, 1994).

We’ll want to search the Earth Trojan asteroids and co-orbitals for any indication of extraterrestrial probes, though it’s also true that the abundant resources of the Kuiper Belt might make operations there attractive to this kind of intelligence. One of the biggest questions has to do with the size of such probes. Here I’ll quote Matloff:

In a search for active or quiescent von Neumann probes in the solar system, human science would contend with great uncertainty regarding the size of such objects. Some science fiction authors contend that these devices might be the size of small planetary satellites (see for example L. Johnson, Mission to Methone and A. Reynolds, Pushing Ice). On the other hand, Haqq-Misra and Kopparapu (2012) believe that they may be in the 1-10 m size range of contemporary human space probes and these might be observable.

But there may be a limit to von Neumann probe detection. If they can be nano-miniaturized as suggested by Tipler (1994), the solar system might swarm with them and detection efforts would likely fail.

I remember having a long phone conversation two decades ago with Robert Freitas on this very point. Freitas had originally come up with a self-reproducing probe concept at the macro-scale called REPRO, but went on to delve into the implications of nano-technology. He made Matloff’s point in our discussion: If probe technologies operate at this scale, the surface of planet Earth itself could be home to an observing network about which we would have no awareness. Self-reproductive probes will be hard to rule out, but looking where we can to screen for the obvious makes sense.

The paper is Matloff, “Von Neumann probes: rationale, propulsion, interstellar transfer timing,” International Journal of Astrobiology, published online by Cambridge University Press 28 February 2022 (abstract).


Probing von Neumann Expansion

Before getting into the paper I want to discuss today, I want to mention the new biography of John von Neumann by Ananyo Bhattacharya. I make no comment on The Man from the Future (W. W. Norton & Company, 2022) yet because while I have a copy, I haven’t had time to read it. But be aware that it’s out there – it’s getting good reviews, and given the impact of this remarkable figure on everything from programmable computers to game theory and the interstellar dispersion of civilizations, it’s a book you’ll at least want to stick on your reference list.

I figure anyone who masters calculus by the age of eight, as von Neumann is reputed to have done, is going to turn out to make a substantial contribution somewhere. I’m also interested in how polymaths function, moving with what seems effortless ease through diverse fields of study and somehow leaving their mark on each. What a contrast to our age of micro-specialization, where relentless drilling down into a single topic – and this seems true of most academic disciplines – is the mode of choice.

Image: John von Neumann, shown here with technology that might have been more to his taste, the 18,000 vacuum-tube strong ENIAC. One can only wonder what the sybaritic mathematician would have made of quantum computing. If only he were here to tell us.

It’s a good time for this book to come out, because von Neumann isn’t exactly in the spotlight these days. In a review in Science, Dov Greenbaum and Mark Gerstein note that he seems to have dropped out of public view:

In 2022…von Neumann could be the smartest person most people have never heard of. To wit, Google Trends shows that his online popularity last year was almost an order of magnitude less than that of Alan Turing, a contemporary in computing; Erwin Schrödinger, a predecessor in quantum mechanics; and Stephen Wolfram, a successor in the world of automata.

All fame is fleeting, but it’s also mutable, and the Bhattacharya biography should go some distance in pumping up von Neumann’s recognition. But let’s talk interstellar, where his name comes up today because Greg Matloff has just published a new paper dealing with what we now call ‘von Neumann probes.’ By this we simply mean probes that are self-replicating, a notion that originated with von Neumann and has now gone on to wide-ranging study. Throw self-replication and interstellar probes together and you generate various notions about how long it takes to populate the entire galaxy, as found in the work of, for example, Frank Tipler, Michael Hart and others.

Most of those exploring this space have been what Milan Ćirković calls ‘contact pessimists,’ who point out that if von Neumann probes could visit all stars with habitable planets in an entire galaxy, and do this within a small fraction of the galaxy’s age, their existence should be obvious. A more subtle school of thought holds that 1) dispersion need not be uniform and 2) a von Neumann probe may already be in our own Solar System, much less others, for we have only begun to explore deep space.

We can imagine these probes as having the built-in intelligence to make the interstellar crossing, which could be on the order of tens of thousands of years or more given that no biological crews need be involved. Around a target star, such a probe uses local resources – mining a native asteroid system, perhaps – to produce a new probe that, in turn, moves on to the next nearest star, or whatever target it chooses. Robert Freitas has considered self-replication in terms of nanotechnology, in which the size of the probe may be reduced to something as tiny as a needle packed with assemblers.

I come back to the question of biological crews, for without them (or perhaps given probes that carry biological materials that can be activated at destination), the von Neumann probes are free of the massive constraints of species lifespans. Miniaturize a probe to nanotechnological levels and a space-based solar-pumped laser array can push it up to relativistic velocities, possibly using materials like graphene or some kind of future metamaterial at levels of thickness no more than a single atom. But Matloff believes a 20-nm aluminum sail performing an Oberth maneuver (close pass by the Sun followed by a propulsive burn to maximize the gravity slingshot) could reach speeds in the range of 300 kilometers per second. That translates to one light year every 1,000 years.

Either way, we have a method to move human technologies out into the galaxy once our engineering is up to the challenge – the physics behind the project do not preclude this. So let’s imagine that we or some other civilization reach a stage in which we can build von Neumann probes and set them on their journeys. Matloff develops a conservative estimate of the expansion rate of a civilization using such probes.

Because of the vast canvas of time we have to work with given the age of our galaxy, we can afford to be quite conservative in our assumptions. Suppose that to minimize transit times, we say that civilizations doing this send out probes only when another star makes a close approach to the parent probe’s planetary system. Remember, the goal here is the eventual placement of probes galaxy-wide. We give up on all notions of probes reaching destinations within the lifetime of those who build them, even the lifetime of their civilization!

This gets intriguing, based on current data. The second data release of the Gaia space observatory tells us that a star like the Sun will pass within one light year of the Sun every half million years or so. This is, Matloff notes, a pretty conservative figure, for Gaia underestimates the number of low-mass red dwarfs that might also serve. Working the math, we come up with an estimated rate of expansion, granting that some stellar systems will not be suitable. After 500,000 years, we have but two occupied stellar systems. After 18 million years, we have 68.7 billion systems. Says Matloff:

This approach is only an approximation; not all stellar systems will be suitable for occupation by von Neumann probes, and some close stellar encounters will be repeated. But it does indicate that not many long-lived space-faring civilizations that deploy von Neumann probes are required to occupy the galaxy. Even if the slowest interstellar propulsion technique presented above — unpowered giant planet gravity assists — is the one selected by ET, the required galactic occupation time is not substantially increased.

Ah, the joys of exponential growth. I’m reminded of George Gamow’s treatment of such growth in his delightful One Two Three… Infinity, first published in 1947. With probes generating new probes and continuing to push outward, it becomes clear that it would not take a great number of spacefaring civilizations to occupy the entire galaxy even using nothing more than sundiver maneuvers or even gravity assists around gas giant planets to serve as the propulsion technique. Obviously, the process quickens if we reach relativistic speeds with nanotech probes that can exploit the resources they find. The process is fast enough that it’s inevitable to ask where such probes might be located if they are already here.

But first, why would a civilization choose to mount a campaign to spread through the galaxy using such probes? In the next post, we’ll consider a range of possible motivations.

The paper is Matloff, “Von Neumann probes: rationale, propulsion, interstellar transfer timing,” International Journal of Astrobiology, published online by Cambridge University Press 28 February 2022 (abstract).


HOEE: The Starshade and the Ground

I always keep an eye on the Phase I and Phase II studies in the pipeline at the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. The goal is to support ideas in their early stages, with the 2022 awards going out to 17 different researchers to the tune of a combined $5.1 million. Of these, 12 are Phase I studies, which deliver $175,000 for a nine-month period, while the five Phase II awards go to $600,000 over two years. We looked at one of the Phase I studies, Jason Benkoski’s solar-thermal engine and shield concept, in the last post. Today we go hunting exoplanets with a starshade.

This particular iteration of the starshade concept is called Hybrid Observatory for Earth-like Exoplanets (HOEE), as proposed by John Mather (NASA GSFC). Here the idea is to leverage the resources of the huge ground-based telescopes that should define the next generation of such instruments – the Giant Magellan Telescope, the Extremely Large Telescope, etc. – by using a starshade to block the glare of the host star, thus uncovering images of exoplanets. Remember that at visible wavelengths, our Sun is 10 billion times brighter than the Earth. The telescope/starshade collaboration would produce what Mather believes will be the most powerful planet finder yet designed.

Image: Three views of a starshade. Credit: NASA / Exoplanet Exploration Program.

Removing the overwhelming light of a star can be done in more than one way, and we’ve seen that an internal coronagraph will be used, for example, with the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope. It’s what NASA describes as “a system of masks, prisms, detectors and even self-flexing mirrors” that is being built at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the mission.

In conjunction with a space telescope, a starshade operates as a separate spacecraft, a large, flat shade positioned tens of thousands of kilometers away. Starshades have heretofore been studied in this configuration, so the innovation in Mather’s idea is to align the starshade with instruments on the ground. His team believes that we could detect oxygen and water on an Earth-class planet using a 1-hour spectrum out to a distance of 7 parsecs (roughly 23 light years. In an ASTRO2020 white paper, Mather described a system like this using a different orbit for each target star, with the orbit being a highly eccentric ellipse. Thrust is obviously a key component for adjusting the starshade’s position for operations.

From the white paper:

An orbiting starshade would enable ground-based telescopes to observe reflected light from Earth-like exoplanets around sun-like stars. With visible-band adaptive optics, angular resolution of a few milliarcseconds, and collecting areas far larger than anything currently feasible for space telescopes, this combination has the potential to open new areas of exoplanet science. An exo-Earth at 5 pc would be 50 resolution elements away from its star, making detection unambiguous, even in the presence of very bright exo-zodiacal clouds. Earth-like oxygen and water bands near 700 nm could be recognized despite terrestrial interference…

And what a positioning challenge this is in order to maximize angular resolution, sensitivity and contrast, with the starshade matching position and velocity with the telescope from an orbit with apogee greater than ~ 185,000 km, thus casting a shadow of the star, while leaving the light of its planets to reach the instrument below. In addition to the active propulsion to maintain the alignment, the concept relies on adaptive optics that will in any case be used in these ground instruments to cope with atmospheric distortion. Thus low-resolution spectroscopy becomes capable of analyzing light that is actually reflected from Earth-like planets.

Mather’s team wants to cut the 100-meter starshade mass by a factor of 10 to support about 400 kg of thin membranes making up the shade. Thus the concept of an ultra-lightweight design that would be assembled – or perhaps built entirely – in space. It’s worthwhile to remember that the starshade concept in orbit is a new entry in a field that has seen study at NASA GSFC as well as JPL’s Team X, with suitability considered for various missions including HabEx, WFIRST, JWST, New Worlds Explorer, UMBRAS and THEIA. The Mather plan is to create a larger, more maneuverable starshade, as it will indeed have to be to make possible the alignments with ground observatories contemplated in the study.

It’s an exciting prospect, but as Mather’s NIAC synopsis notes, the starshade is not one we could build today. From the synopsis:

The HOEE depends on two major innovations: a ground-space hybrid observatory, and an extremely large telescope on the ground. The tall pole requiring design and demonstration is the mechanical concept of the starshade itself. It must satisfy conflicting requirements for size and mass, shape accuracy and stability, and rigidity during or after thruster firing. Low mass is essential for observing many different target stars. If it can be assembled or constructed after launch, it need not be built to survive launch. We believe all requirements can be met, given sufficient effort. The HOEE is the most powerful exoplanet observatory yet proposed.

Image: Graphic depiction of Hybrid Observatory for Earth-like Exoplanets (HOEE). Credit: John Mather.

Centauri Dreams readers will know that Ashley Baldwin has covered starshade development extensively in these pages. His WFIRST: The Starshade Option is probably the best place to start for those who want to delve further into the matter, although the archives contain further materials. Also see my Progress on Starshade Alignment, Stability.

For more, see Peretz et al., “Exoplanet imaging performance envelopes for starshade-based missions,” Journal of Astronomical Telescopes, Instruments, and Systems 7(2), 021215 (2021). Abstract. And for an overview: Arenberg et al., “Special Section on Starshades: Overview and a Dialogue,” Journal of Astronomical Telescopes, Instruments, and Systems 7(2), 021201 (2021). Abstract.



Engineering the Oberth Maneuver

As we saw recently with the analogy of salt grains for stars, the scale of things cosmic stuns the imagination. But we don’t have to go to galactic scale. We can stay much closer to home and achieve the same effect. Because at our current technological levels, getting even as far as the outer planets taxes our capabilities. The least explored types of planet in our Solar System are the dwarf worlds, places like Ceres, Pluto and Charon, not to mention the enigmatic Triton. It takes years to reach them.

Beyond these objects we have a wide range of other dwarfs that merit study, at distances that push us ever farther. In a description of their NIAC Phase I study, just announced as a selection for 2022, Jason Benkoski and colleagues at Johns Hopkins University look into a combination heat shield and solar propulsion system that would perform a close Solar pass and use the Sun’s gravity to slingshot outwards at the highest possible velocity. It’s a maneuver familiar to Centauri Dreams readers, and one recently examined by the Interstellar Probe team at JHU’s Applied Physics Laboratory.

Benkoski is a materials scientist who has been working with the APL team, envisioning a tight solar pass around the Sun followed by the firing of a thruster to enhance the craft’s acceleration. This will require the probe to move within 1.6 million kilometers of the Sun’s surface, actually four times closer than the Parker Solar Probe plans to reach by 2025. In a 2021 article in Johns Hopkins Magazine, Benkoski explained the concept, which will preserve the heat shield by using channels filled with hydrogen gas that are built into the bulk of the shield itself. As the article puts it:

During the probe’s searing slingshot around the sun, the gas would heat up, expand, and course through the channels that all lead to a single exhaust nozzle. “The idea is to absorb all this heat with hydrogen,” Benkoski says, “and shoot it out the back of the probe.” In this way, the cooling setup also opportunistically doubles as an engine, thus supplying the thrust needed to complete the Oberth maneuver in the first place. “It’s like hitting two birds with one stone,” Benkoski says.

Image: Graphic depiction of combined heat shield and solar thermal propulsion system for an Oberth maneuver. Credit: Jason Benkoski.

The team believes that advances in materials science and engineering make their solar thermal engine concept a workable model for development. The 20 x 20 cm prototype they designed and fabricated is at benchtop scale, using liquid helium as coolant and propellant. The new study will extend this work, taking the concept into the realm of realistic materials and propellants. No small challenge, that, given that the contemplated Oberth maneuver would subject the probe to temperatures of 2500 degrees C, enough to melt even the Parker Solar Probe’s heat shield.

Benkoski points out that neither of our Voyagers was designed for observing the interstellar medium through which it now passes, while of course the Pioneers have long since ceased to function. New Horizons remains thankfully robust but will ultimately succumb to dwindling power levels and lose communications with Earth. The numbers are daunting: The Voyagers managed 3.6 AU per year, while even a full-stack SLS (which will never fly this mission) would push a 1 tonne spacecraft only to 8 AU per year.

The latter would require not just a working SLS but a Jupiter gravity assist, limiting the fly-out direction of our probes. Hence the need for a solar Oberth maneuver, in Benkoski’s thinking, which would be capable of surviving temperatures of 2800 K and use propellants now under study to widen the range of potential mission targets:

We…therefore propose a full trade study of alternate propellants in order to determine the maximum escape velocity for a given total system mass, including spacecraft, heat shield, propellant storage, and attitude control system. The main propellants of interest include H2, LiH, Li, CH4, NH3, and H2O. Methods: First we would determine material compatibility for each propellant with respect to its proposed storage system. We then calculate the efficiency (specific impulse) as a function of temperature for each propellant using Chemical Equilibrium Analysis (CEA).

Benkoski intends to discover how the mass and storage volume of the tank scale with the quantity of propellant to produce a series of realistic tank designs, devising an equation for the heat shield area and maximum propellant fraction that can be achieved given the limitations of existing heavy boosters. We’ll see how this study fares in producing a full-scale heat shield/heat exchanger design with robust long-term cryogenic storage. A tight Oberth maneuver is not going to be easy. See Assessing the Oberth Maneuver for Interstellar Probe for some of the myriad reasons why.



Lowering the Laser Barrier

The continuing release of papers related to or referring to the Breakthrough Starshot sail concept is good news for the entire field. Interstellar studies as an academic discipline has never had this long or sustained a period of activity, and the growing number of speakers at space-related conferences attests to the current vitality of starflight among professionals and the general public alike.

Not all interstellar propulsion concepts involve laser-beaming, of course, and we’ll soon look at what some would consider an ever more exotic concept. But today I’m focusing on a paper from Ho-Ting Tung and Artur Davoyan, both in the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department at UCLA. You could say that these two researchers are filling in some much needed space between the full-bore interstellar effort of Breakthrough Starshot, the Solar System-oriented laser work of Andrew Higgins’ team at McGill, and much smaller, near-term experiments we could run not so far from now.

Of the many potential show-stoppers faced by a mission to another star at our stage of development is the need to develop the colossal laser array envisioned by Starshot. The Higgins array is at a smaller scale, as befits a concept with nearby targets like Mars. What Tung and Davoyan envision are tiny payloads (here they parallel Breakthrough), some no more than a gram in mass, but the authors push the sail with a 100 kW array about a meter in size. Compare this with Breakthrough’s need for a gigantic square-kilometer array of 10 kW lasers with a combined output of up to 100 GW.

Image: In this illustration, a low-power laser (red cone) on Earth could be used to shift the orbit (red lines) of a small probe (grey circle), or propel it at rapid speeds to Neptune and beyond. Credit: Ho-Ting Tung et al.

The UCLA work takes us to a consideration of operations with spacecraft in Earth orbit as well as payloads sent on interplanetary trajectories. Thus we are in the realm of the kind of missions that today would demand chemical or electric propulsion, and we are looking at a system that might be used, for example, for orbital adjustment of Earth satellites after launch, or in the case of chip-class payloads, interplanetary missions with surprising velocities, up to 5 times that of New Horizons. As noted, the needed laser aperture is, by the standards of the missions we’ve discussed earlier, small:

…a sail with w = 1 m would require a laser with an aperture D ≃ 26 m (compare with the 30 m diameter primary mirror of the Thirty Meter Telescope under construction). However, we stress that most practical scenarios are limited to low and medium Earth orbits that require a much shorter operation range (z ≤ 1000km), and therefore a significantly smaller laser array.

Indeed, an array a meter in size could be efficient, maneuvering small satellites in Earth orbit, or being used to bring small chip-craft up to Solar System escape velocity. Thus we have the potential to create laser propulsion experiments and missions with array powers of ≥ 100 kW and array sizes that do not require kilometers of desert for their construction. Payloads can range from 1 to 100 grams depending on the mission, though the focus here is wafer-scale, on the order of 10 centimeters.

As to sail materials, the authors calculate that for maximum reflectivity coupled with rapid cooling, silicon nitride and boron nitride are the materials of choice:

Broadband spectral emissivity of silicon nitride…results in a better heat rejection (i.e., lower temperature) as compared [to] narrow band BN thermal emitters. However, boron nitride being lighter than silicon nitride allows design of very light-weight light-sails, which eventually translates onto higher velocity gain, Δv.

The paper offers possible ways to create these structures, including using metamaterials formed into nanostructured architectures with nanometer-scale ‘sandwich’ panels between material layers, or using ‘micro pillars’ within the photonic structure.

The broader picture is that we’re mapping out how to experiment with lasers and materials that may begin moving up the ladder of mission complexity. There are innumerable issues to be overcome, but the early theoretical work is crucial to making what may become an interplanetary infrastructure a reality. These examinations should also feed into the ambitious work on projects that aim at interstellar missions.

The paper is Ho-Ting Tung et al, Low-Power Laser Sailing for Fast-Transit Space Flight, Nano Letter,” Nano Letters 22, 3 (31 January 2022), 1108–1114 (abstract).



Delving into the Interstellar Sail

One of the benefits of a project like Breakthrough Starshot is that it moves the ball forward in terms of the academic research that underpins advances in technologies. I seriously doubt that Starshot will result in an Alpha Centauri probe reaching these stars within the next 50 years, given among other things the conundrum of data retrieval from a fleet of chip-sized micro-craft. But we all gain from the fact that scientists are tackling these issues in a well-funded and coordinated way. The research library grows.

As a field, interstellar studies has always been resource-starved, not to mention winning scant attention among the larger community of scientists and engineers at conferences and in publications. But it has drawn on a consistent thread of interest that now gains new energies. That benefits the entire effort. And let’s not forget the power of looking far into the future to get a conception of what we can do with scaled-down projects in the near term, as for example Andrew Higgins’ laser-fed fast missions to Mars.

Starshot, of course, takes the laser concept into the interstellar realm, using a massive ground-based array that would likely be based in Chile’s Atacama Desert. The laser array is used to push meter-scale sails, making Starshot’s committee on sail design a major component of the effort. The infusion of funding into sail technologies is welcome, as it leads to new insights into a sail’s shape, its size and its materials.

Image: An artist’s conception of the Starshot Lightsail spacecraft during acceleration by a ground-based laser array. Previous conceptions of lightsails have imagined them being passively pushed by light from the sun, but Starshot’s laser-based approach requires rethinking the sail’s shape and composition so it won’t melt or tear during acceleration. Credit: Masumi Shibata, courtesy of Breakthrough Initiatives.

Thus the significance of Igor Bargatin’s work. An associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics, Bargatin and colleagues at the university as well as at UCLA have just published two papers going through fundamental sail issues and specifications. Remember that the projected sails, perhaps three-meters wide and a thousand times thinner than a sheet of paper, are to be subjected to a light intensity millions of times that of the Sun.

The team sees these sails as being made of ultrathin sheets of aluminum oxide and molybdenum disulfide, constructed in a parachute shape rather than a flat surface. The structure would be about as deep as it is wide, allowing the greatest ability under these calculations of withstanding the strain of the sudden acceleration, which is expected to reach tens of thousands of g’s. A ‘billowing’ sail should hold up to the strain better than a tight, flat one, providing a surface that is more resistant to tears.

Matthew Campbell is a postdoctoral researcher in Bargatin’s group and lead author of the paper covering the sail’s shape:

“Laser photons will fill the sail much like air inflates a beach ball. And we know that lightweight, pressurized containers should be spherical or cylindrical to avoid tears and cracks. Think of propane tanks or even fuel tanks on rockets.”

Image: Campbell et al. show that the diameter and radius of curvature of a circular light sail should be comparable in magnitude, both on the order of a few meters, in optimal designs for gram-scale payloads. Credit: Campbell et al.

The second paper, led by UCLA engineer Aaswath Raman, examines sail materials, offering insights into how heat will be dissipated under the powerful laser beam. Here the idea is to use nano-scale patterning within the material to manage the heat. Says Raman:

“If the sails absorb even a tiny fraction of the incident laser light, they’ll heat up to very high temperatures. To make sure they don’t just disintegrate, we need to maximize their ability to radiate their heat away, which is the only mode of heat transfer available in space.”

While earlier research maximized heat dissipation through a photonic crystal design that deployed regularly spaced holes in the sail material, the new work suggests adding a grid-like pattern for the ‘fabric,’ with the spacing of the holes matching the wavelength of light, and the swatches of sail material forming the grid spaced to match the wavelength of the thermal emission. The result is a stronger sail, one that could endure a higher initial thrust and therefore need less time under the beam.

The mathematics involved here is of a complexity far above my pay grade. I’ll have to send you to the paper for the details. But I think we can visualize the sail internals as a kind of ‘scaffolding’ that is apparent in the image below. The reference to ‘Mie resonant features’ in the caption to this image points to the work of Gustav Mie, who described what we now call ‘Mie scattering,’ showing the behavior of light of various wavelengths as it strikes particular kinds of structures. Mie resolved the intricate mathematics of these interactions.

Image: This is Figure S4 from the paper. Caption: Continuous Mie structure design. The black outlines serve to highlight the positions of the Mie resonant features against the continuous reflective green layer, but would not exist in the actual design. Credit: Brewer et al.

UCLA’s Deep Jariwala, who was involved with both papers, comments:

“A few years ago, even thinking or doing theoretical work on this type of concept was considered far-fetched. Now, we not only have a design, but the design is grounded in real materials available in our labs. Our plan for the future would be to make such structures at small scales and test them with high-power lasers.”

Thus the theoretical work continues. Exactly when it pays off in hardware and actual missions is something we cannot know.

The papers are Campbell et al., “Relativistic Light Sails Need to Billow,” Nano Letters 22, 1 (2022), 90-96 (abstract); and Brewer et al., “Multiscale Photonic Emissivity Engineering for Relativistic Lightsail Thermal Regulation,” Nano Letters 22, 2 (2022), 594-601 (abstract).



Galaxies Like Grains of Salt

I’m riffing on a Brian Aldiss title this morning, the reference being the author’s 1959 collection Galaxies Like Grians of Sand, which is a sequence of short stories spanning millions of years of Earth’s future (originally published as The Canopy of Time). But sand is appropriate for the exercise before us today, one suggested by memories of the day my youngest son told me he had to construct a model of an atom and we went hunting all over town for styrofoam balls. It turns out atoms are easy.

Suppose your child comes home with a project involving the creation of a scale model of the galaxy. Pondering the matter, you announce that grains of salt can stand in for stars. Sand might work as well, but salt is easier because you can buy boxes of salt at the grocery. So while your child goes outside to do other things, you and your calculator get caught up in the question of modeling the Milky Way. Just how much salt will you need?

Most models of the galaxy these days come in at a higher number than the once canonical 100 billion stars. In fact, 200 billion may be too low. But let’s economize by sticking with the lower number. So you need 100 billion grains of salt to make your scale model accurate. A little research reveals that the average box of Morton salt weighs in with about five million grains. Back to the calculator. You will need 20,000 boxes of salt to make this work. The local grocery doesn’t keep this much in stock, so you turn to good old Amazon, and pretty soon a semi has pulled up in front of your house with 20,000 blue boxes of salt.

But how to model this thing? I wouldn’t know where to begin, but fortunately JPL’s Rich Terrile thought the matter through some time back and he knows the answer. If we want to reflect the actual separation of stars just in the part of the galaxy we live in, we have to separate each grain of salt by eleven kilometers from any of its neighbors. Things get closer as we move in toward the bulge. Maybe your child has lots of friends to help spread the salt? Let’s hope so. And plenty of room to work with for the model.

I mention all this because I was talking recently with Nate Simpson, lead developer of Kerbal Space Program 2, and colleague Jon Cioletti. This is the next iteration of the remarkable spaceflight simulation game that offers highly realistic launch and orbital physics capabilities. We were talking deep space, and the salt box comparison came naturally, because these guys are also in the business of reaching a broader audience with extraordinary scales of time and space.

I strongly recommend Kerbal, by the way, because I suspect Kerbal Space Program has already turned the future career path of more than a few young players in the direction of aerospace, just as, say, science fiction novels or Star Trek inspired an earlier generation in that direction. Watching what develops as Kerbal goes into version 2 will be fascinating.

Unexpected Interstellar Targets

But I was also thinking about the salt box analogy because it can be so difficult to get interstellar distances across to the average person, who may know on some level that a galaxy is a very big place, but probably doesn’t have that deep awe that a real acquaintance with the numbers delivers. I think about craft trying to navigate these immensities, and also about objects like ‘Oumuamua and 2I/Borisov, the first two known interstellar objects we have detected. What vast oceans of interstellar space such tiny objects have drifted through! Clearly, as our ability to observe them grows, we’ll find many more such objects, and one of these days we’ll get a mission off to study one up close (probably designed by Andreas Hein and team).

Image: This Hubble Space Telescope image of 2I/Borisov shows the first observed rogue comet, a comet from interstellar space that is not gravitationally bound to a star. It was discovered in 2019 and is the second identified interstellar interloper, after ‘Oumuamua. 2I/Borisov looks a lot like the traditional comets found inside our solar system, which sublimate ices, and cast off dust as they are warmed by the Sun. The wandering comet provided invaluable clues to the chemical composition, structure, and dust characteristics of planetary building blocks presumably forged in an alien star system. It’s rapidly moving away from our Sun and will eventually head back into interstellar space, never to return. Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Jewitt (UCLA).

I was heartened to learn over the weekend that the James Webb Space Telescope will likely have a role to play in further detection efforts. Indeed, there is now a Webb Target of Opportunity program that homes in on just such discoveries. Here is how a Target of Opportunity is defined on the JWST website:

A target for JWST observation is deemed a Target of Opportunity (ToO) if it is associated with an event that may occur at an unknown time, and in this way ToOs are distinct from time constrained observations.

Sounds made to order for interstellar interlopers. But we can add this:

ToO targets include objects that can be identified in advance, but which undergo unpredictable changes (e.g., some dwarf novae), as well as objects that can only be identified in advance by class (e.g., novae, supernovae, gamma ray bursts, newly discovered comets, etc.). ToOs are generally not suitable for observations of periodic phenomena (e.g., eclipsing binary stars, transiting planets, etc.). ToO proposals must provide a clear definition of the trigger criteria and present a detailed plan for the observations to be performed in the technical justification of the PDF submission if the triggering event occurs. A ToO activation may consist of a single observation or of a set of observations executed with a pre-specified cadence.

Martin Cordiner (NASA GSFC/Catholic University of America) is principal investigator of the Webb Target of Opportunity program to study the composition of an interstellar object:

“The supreme sensitivity and power of Webb now present us with an unprecedented opportunity to investigate the chemical composition of these interstellar objects and find out so much more about their nature: where they come from, how they were made, and what they can tell us about the conditions present in their home systems, The ability to study one of these and find out its composition — to really see material from around another planetary system close up — is truly an amazing thing.”

Image: This artist’s illustration shows one take on the first identified interstellar visitor, 1I/’Oumuamua, discovered in 2017. The wayward object swung within 38 million kilometers of the Sun before racing out of the solar system. 1I/’Oumuamua still defies any simple categorization. It did not behave like a comet, and it had a variety of unusual characteristics. As the complex rotation of the object made it difficult to determine the exact shape, there are many models of what it could look like. Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Olmsted and F. Summers (STScI).

When astronomers detect another interstellar interloper, they’ll first need to confirm that it’s on a hyperbolic orbit, and if JWST is to come into play, that its trajectory intersects with the telescope’s viewing field. If that’s the case, Cordiner’s team will use JWST’s Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) to examine gasses released by the object due to the Sun’s heat. The spectral resolution available here should allow the detection of molecules ranging from water, methanol, formaldehyde and carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide and methane. The Mid-infrared instrument (MIRI) will track any dust or solid particles produced by the object.

The near- and mid-infrared wavelength ranges will be used to examine interstellar interlopers for the first time with this program, making this fertile ground for new discoveries. The assumption being that such objects exist in vast numbers, the Webb Target of Opportunity program should find material to work with, and likely soon, especially given JWST’s ability to detect incoming objects at extremely faint magnitudes. Are most such discoveries likely to be comet-like, or do we have the possibility of finding other objects as apparently anomalous as ‘Oumuamua?