Is there life out there? That's one of the mind-boggling questions that the SETI Institute explores through its scientific research, all the while inspiring our own curiosity and sense of wonder about our place in the universe. SETI stands for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence and the official mission of the organization, founded in 1984, "is to explore, understand and explain the origin and nature of life in the universe and the evolution of intelligence." Support their efforts with these far out new t-shirts from the SETI Institute's Chop Shop Store.
Above, the iconic SETI Logo tee. Below, a graphic expression of SETI pioneer Frank Drake's "Drake Equation" used to estimate the number of technological civilizations that could have developed in our galaxy. And lastly, a design honoring the scientists whose pioneering work underpins the search for extraterrestrial intelligence: Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, Carl Sagan, Frank Drake, and Jill Tarter.
SETI Institute t-shirts (Chop Shop Store)
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With NASA's InSight spacecraft scheduled to land on Mars today, it's fun to watch this vintage ABC News Australia segment from 1962: "Is there life on other planets?"
One of my favorite responses: "I hope not. Because they'd be frozen to death."
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Video evidence of owl-like extraterrestrials found in an attic:
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First discovered a year ago, Oumuamua is the strange cigar-shaped object of interstellar origin that flew through our solar system at 196,000 mph. Since it was first spotted, scientists haven't decisively determined whether it's a mildly active comet or something else. Now, astronomers Shmuel Bialy and Abraham Loeb of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics have released a scientific paper asking if Oumuamua could be a "lightsail of artificial origin," part of a space probe developed by an advanced extraterrestrial civilization. Of course this is not a statement of fact but rather a question, albeit a very very interesting one. From CNN:
"'Oumuamua may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization," they wrote in the paper, which has been submitted to the Astrophysical Journal Letters.
The theory is based on the object's "excess acceleration," or its unexpected boost in speed as it traveled through and ultimately out of our solar system in January 2018.
"Considering an artificial origin, one possibility is that 'Oumuamua is a light sail, floating in interstellar space as a debris from an advanced technological equipment," wrote the paper's authors, suggesting that the object could be propelled by solar radiation.
"COULD SOLAR RADIATION PRESSURE EXPLAIN ‘OUMUAMUA’S PECULIAR ACCELERATION?" (PDF)
(image: artist's impression of Oumuamua, ESO/M. Kornmesser) Read the rest
A feasibility study in the Astrophysical Journal explains how a powerful laser on an Earth mountaintop, focused through a huge telescope, could shine a light of infrared radiation that would be detectable up to 20,000 light years away. While some scientists are concerned about alerting extraterrestrials to our presence, I agree with something said to me by Ann Druyan -- co-writer of Cosmos and many other works with her husband Carl Sagan -- when we were working on the Voyager Golden Record: 40th Anniversary Edition: It's rather cynical, she explained, to think that a extraterrestrial civilization advanced enough to notice us and make the long trip to Earth would be so emotionally stunted as to purposely destroy us upon arrival. From MIT News:
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The findings suggest that if a high-powered 1- to 2-megawatt laser were focused through a massive 30- to 45-meter telescope and aimed out into space, the combination would produce a beam of infrared radiation strong enough to stand out from the sun’s energy.
Such a signal could be detectable by alien astronomers performing a cursory survey of our section of the Milky Way — especially if those astronomers live in nearby systems, such as around Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to Earth, or TRAPPIST-1, a star about 40 light-years away that hosts seven exoplanets, three of which are potentially habitable. If the signal is spotted from either of these nearby systems, the study finds, the same megawatt laser could be used to send a brief message in the form of pulses similar to Morse code.
In 1960, my friend Frank Drake launched Project Ozma, the first modern scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). Frank used the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (image above) in Green Bank, West Virginia to listen for interstellar radio transmissions that might be a signature of ETs. Nearly 60 years and countless scans later, we still haven't heard anything. Why? Space is big. Massive. In a 2010 paper, the SETI Institute's Jill Tarter and her colleagues described their ongoing calculations of a “cosmic haystack" where we're searching for an extraterrestrial needle.
"If you build a mathematical model, the amount of searching that we've done in 50 years (as of 2008) is equivalent to scooping one 8-ounce glass out of the Earth's ocean, looking and seeing if you caught a fish," Tarter told NPR. "No, no fish in that glass? Well, I don't think you're going to conclude that there are no fish in the ocean. You just haven't searched very well yet. That's where we are."
Now, Penn State astronomer Jason Wright and colleagues have refined the "cosmic haystack" model to include additional factors involving likely frequencies and bandwidth along with the latest large SETI searches. Even still, they "conclude that the fraction of it searched to date is also very small: similar to the ratio of the volume of a large hot tub or small swimming pool to that of the Earth's ocean."
From Science News:
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Converting the volume to liters for the sake of analogy, the researchers concluded that SETI has covered the equivalent of 7,700 liters out of 1.335 billion trillion liters of water in Earth’s oceans.
Researchers from extraterrestrial research initiative Breakthrough Listen, the SETI Institute, and UC Berkeley used machine learning to detect mysterious repeating radio bursts from a galaxy 3 billion light years from Earth. As of now, the source of the fast radio bursts (FRBs) is unknown and, yes, the bursts "could be the signatures of technology developed by extraterrestrial intelligent life," according to the scientists. From the SETI Institute:
In August of 2017, the Listen science team at the University of California, Berkeley SETI Research Center observed FRB 121102 for five hours, using digital instrumentation at the GBT. Combing through 400 TB of data, they reported (in a paper [pdf] led by Berkeley SETI postdoctoral researcher Vishal Gajjar, recently accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal) a total of 21 bursts. All were seen within one hour, suggesting that the source alternates between periods of quiescence and frenzied activity.
Now, (UC Berkeley doctoral student Gerry) Zhang and collaborators have developed a new machine learning algorithm, and reanalyzed the 2017 GBT dataset, finding an additional 72 bursts that were not detected originally...
Additional FRB research may provide clues about whether or not they are signatures of extraterrestrial technology.
More at UC Berkeley news: "AI helps track down mysterious cosmic radio bursts" Read the rest
From the early days of the Russian Revolution through the space race and Cold War, a small but dedicated collection of communist UFOlogists believed in and sought out signs of extraterrestrial life, believing that discovery aligned with their goals of raising up the worker. Read the rest
Remember the fantastic attention experiment in which you have to count the times the basketball is passed? (If you don't know it, watch the video before reading the rest of this post.)
In a recent paper in the scientific journal Acta Astronautica, University of Cadiz psychologists suggest that like the gorilla experiment, "selective attention" based on our preconceptions about possible extraterrestrials and how they may communicate may cause us to overlook evidence of their existence. Over at the SETI Institute blog, BB pal and astronomer Seth Shostak likens their argument to the gorilla experiment and counters that right now, the best thing to do is what we know how to do. And that's scanning the skies with antennae listening for signals:
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It would be heavy-duty hubris to claim that we have considered every possibility in our efforts to find aliens. We’ve certainly been myopic in the past. During the nineteenth century, European physicists suggested we could establish contact with Martians by turning gas lanterns in the direction of the Red Planet. The plan was hopeless, but not because the scientists were ignoring other possibilities. They simply didn’t know about radio or much about Mars, and proposed a reasonable experiment given the science understanding of the time.
Sure, our preconceived notions of what would be good evidence of aliens — including radio signals, flashing lasers, or megastructures — might be blinding us to clues that, like nitrogen in the air, are all around us and yet overlooked. But to quote Dirty Harry, “a man’s got to know his limitations.” The men and women searching for extraterrestrials can do no better than to go with what they know.
This is Ata, a bizarre, tiny mummified skeleton found in a deserted mining town in Chile's Atacama Desert in 2003.
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Why would the discovery of extraterrestrial life be horrible for life on earth? Read the rest
In 2017, the big mainstream stories of "near-hits" (aka "near-misses") in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence included episodic dimming of a star caused by possible "alien megastructures," a large object tearing through our solar system, and video captured by a fighter jet of a weird object capable of incredible maneuvers in the sky (video below).
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If you’ve ever looked around and wondered, where are all the aliens, hit Play, below. No, you won’t find an alien. But you’ll hear a luxuriously unhurried interview with British astronomer Stephen Webb. He has probably given this question more careful thought than any living person, and many (but by no means all) of his reflections can be found in his brilliant book, Where Is Everybody.
This is the eighth episode of my podcast series (co-hosted by Tom Merritt), which launched here on Boing Boing last month. The series goes deep into the science, tech, and sociological issues explored in my novel After On – but no familiarity with the novel is necessary to listen to it.
Today’s interviewee is a world-leading expert on the subject of Fermi’s paradox – which is encapsulated in his book’s title. And the paradox’s roots are quite literally as old as Earth itself.
Life arose here – presumably from dead matter – almost as soon as the collisions and volcanism of planetary formation calmed enough to permit its existence. If that’s a normal pattern, billions of planets out there should harbor some form of life. Because some of those planets are billions of years older than ours, their brainier occupants could have far surpassed today’s technology when our forerunners still had fins. Yet we see no evidence of this. And it’s not for a lack of seeking it, as there are scientists who have done little else for decades.
There isn’t just one possible solution to Fermi’s paradox. Read the rest
FRB 121102, a fast radio burst signal first picked up in 2012, was just observed emitting many new bursts of energy. Scientists from SETI and Breakthrough Listen were both very excited by the new findings. Read the rest
According to astronomer Seth Shostak, the alien intelligences we'll likely encounter someday won't be "little grey guys with big eyeballs but machines." As senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, Seth has dedicated his scientific career to seeking out evidence of ET transmissions and using that research to educate the public about our place in the universe. Mark Frauenfelder and I interviewed Seth about hunting for aliens in this episode of For Future Reference, a new podcast from Institute for the Future:
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Researchers at UT Austin have analyzed a deep depression on Mars that differs from a typical crater. The Hellas depression may in fact be an ancient ice cauldron, where a glacier forms over an active volcano, creating a chemical-rich environment that could support life forms. Read the rest