News from SETI: We’re Going to Find Aliens This Century

aliens“We are going to find life in space in this century.” This was the bold prediction made by Dr. Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer at the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI) at this year’s European Commission Innovation Convention. As part of the European Union’s strategy to create an innovation-friendly environment, the ECIC brings together the best scientific minds from around the world to discuss what the future holds and how we can make it happen.

And this year, Dr. Shostak and other representatives from SETI were quite emphatic about what they saw as humanity’s greatest discovery, and when it would be taking place. Sometime this century, they claim, the people of Earth will finally find the answer to the question “Are we alone in the universe?” Like many eminent scientists from around the world, Dr. Shostak believes its not a question of if, but when.

ECIC_2014As he went on to explain, given the sheer size of the universe and the statistical probabilities, the odds that humanity is far more unlikely than the reverse:

There are 150 billion galaxies other than our own, each with a few tens of billions of earth-like planets. If this is the only place in the universe where anything interesting happening then this is a miracle. And 500 years of astronomy has taught us that whenever you believe in a miracle, you’re probably wrong.

As for how we’ll find that life, Dr Shostak sees it as a ‘three-horse race’ which will probably be won over the next 25 years. Either we will find it nearby, in microbial form, on Mars or one of the moons of Jupiter; or we’ll find evidence for gases produced by living processes (for example photosynthesis) in the atmospheres of planets around other stars; or Dr Shostak and his team at SETI will pick up signals from intelligent life via huge antennas.

exoplanet_searchDr. Suzanne Aigrain – a lecturer in Astrophysics at Oxford University and who studies exoplanets – represents horse number two in the race. Dr. Aigrain and her research group have been using electromagnetic radiation (i.e. light) as their primary tool to look for planets around other stars. The life ‘biomarkers’ that she and her colleagues look for are trace gases in the atmospheres of the exoplanets that they think can only be there if they are being produced by a biological source like photosynthesis.

Speaking at the Convention, Dr Aigrain noted that, based on her studies, she would also bet that we are not alone:

We are very close to being able to say with a good degree of certainty that planets like the Earth, what we call habitable planets, are quite common [in the universe] … That’s why when asked if I believe there’s life on other planets, I raise my hand and I do so as a scientist because the balance of probability is overwhelmingly high.

fractal_dyson_sphere_by_eburacum45-d2yum16Dr. Shostak and SETI, meanwhile, seek evidence of life in the universe by looking for some signature of its technology. If his team does discover radio transmissions from space, Dr. Shostak is quite certain that they will be coming from a civilization more advanced than our own. This is part and parcel of searching for life that is capable of sending out transmissions, and assures that they will have a level of technology that is at least comparable to our own.

At the same time, it is entirely possible that an advanced species will have existed longer than our own. As the Kardashev Scale shows, the level of a race’s technical development can be measured in terms of the energy they utilize. Beginning with Type 0’s, which draw their energy, information, raw-materials from crude organic-based sources, the scale goes on to include levels of development that draw energy of fusion and anti-matter to our host star, or even stellar clusters and even galaxies.

halosphereConsidering that size of the universe, the realm of possibility – and the fact humanity itself is still making the transitions from Type 0 to Type I – the odds of us meeting an extra-terrestrial that is more advanced than us are quite good. As Shostak put it:

Why do I insist that if we find ET, he/she/it will be more advanced than we are? The answer is that you’re not going to hear the Neanderthals. The Neanderthal Klingons are not building radio transmitters that will allow you to get in touch.

“Neanderthal Klingons”… now that’s something I’d like to see! Of course, scientists have there reasons for making such bold predictions, namely that they have a vested interest in seeing their theories proven correct. But not surprisingly, they are hardly alone in holding up the numbers and insisting that its a numbers game, and that the numbers are stacked. Another such person is William Shatner, who in a recent interview with the Daily Mail offered his thoughts on the possibility of alien life.

william_shatnerAs he explained it, it all comes down to numbers, and the sheer amount of discoveries made in such a short space of time:

I don’t think there is any doubt there is life in the universe, yes. I don’t think there is any question. The mathematics involved — what have they just discovered, 730,000 new planets the other day? — mathematically it has to be.

He was a bit off on the number of planets, but he does have a point. Earlier this month, NASA announced the discovery of 715 new exoplanets thanks to a new statistical technique known as “verification by multiplicity”. By observing hundreds of stars and applying this basic technique, the Kepler space probe was able to discover more planets so far this year than in the past few combined. In fact, this one batch of discovered increased the total number of exoplanet candidates from 1000 to over 1700.

alien-worldAnd while the discovery of only four potentially habitable planets amongst those 715 (a mere 0.0056% of the total) may seem discouraging, each new discovery potentially represents hundreds more. And given how little of our galaxy we have mapped so far, and the fact that we’ve really only begun to explore deep space, we can expect that list to grow by leaps and bounds in the coming years and decades.

Naturally, there are some fundamental questions that arise out of these predictions. For example, if we do find life on other planets or intercept a radio signal, what are the consequences? Finding a microbe that isn’t an earthly microbe will tell us a lot about biology, but there will also be huge philosophical consequences. Even more so if we are to meet a species that has developed advanced technology, space flight, and the means to come find us, rather than us finding them.

In Dr Shostak’s words, ‘It literally changes everything’. But that is the nature of

Sources: dvice.com, news.cnet.com, cordis.europa.eu

Halloween Comets!

No fewer than four bright-ish comets greet skywatchers an hour before the start of dawn. From upper left counterclockwise: C/2013 R1 Lovejoy, 2P/Encke, C/2012 X1 and ISON. Credits: Gerald Rhemann, Damian Peach, Gianluca Masi and Gerald RhemannToday, the early morning was greeted by the arrival of not one, not two, not three, but four comets! And interestingly enough, even astronomers were surprised. For months now, they have known that the comets ISON and 2P/Encke would be gracing the morning sky on October 31st, but no one predicted that they’d be joined by C/2013 R1 (Lovejoy), and C/2012 X1 (LINEAR) as well.

These two comets – the former being discovered by  Australian amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy back in September and the latter being a somewhat obscure character, presented a rare opportunity to stargazers everywhere. The appearance of four comets at the same time in the night sky is a rare phenomenon indeed. The fact that it coincides with Halloween? Well, the word spooky comes to mind…

https://i2.wp.com/d1jqu7g1y74ds1.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Halloween-comets-4_edited-11.jpgThe appearance of C/2012 X1 (LINEAR) was especially surprising given how sudden it was. In the past few days, the otherwise obscure comet has brightened by a factor of more than 200. Almost overnight, a comet found on precious few observing lists became bright enough to see in binoculars. Hence, comet trackers all over the world were sure to get up extra early to see it. But brightest of all was Comet Lovejoy, which reached magnitude 8.

As for Encke and C/2012 X1, astronomers were well prepared for their arrival. Encke’s appearance is predictable, since it treks around the sun every 3.3 years like clockwork and is often well placed for viewing. Because of its short period, dedicated comet watchers meet up with it a half dozen or more times during their lives. And due to its brightness, which tends to fall into the magnitude 7.5-8 range, binoculars are often all one needs to see it.

https://i0.wp.com/d1jqu7g1y74ds1.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/ISON-Damian-Oct.-27-580x403.jpgComet C/2012 X1 is not usually visible in the night sky. But thanks to an eruption of fresh, dust-laden ices from its surface that blasted into space to form a gigantic glowing sphere that vaulted the comet’s magnitude 250 times to a voluminous 7.5, astronomers were expecting it to make an appearance alongside Encke this Autumn.

For those still interested in spotting these shooting stars, Comet Lovejoy will continue to brighten throughout November to the point where it can be seen by the naked eye. Small telescope users will continue to be able to see the comet with ease, as well as the gas tail that it is developing. Encke will also reach its peak magnitude for viewing by Nov. 21st as it chases the into the glare of morning twilight.

All you need is a telescope, a good set of binoculars, or a keen pair of eyes. And while we’re at it, I’d just like to remind people that this sort of conjunction does NOT portend doom! If anything, its a rare privilege, and should be considered a tiding of joy. The fact that it happens to fall on the spookiest of annual events, well that’s just pure coincidence!

Source: universetoday.com

BIG News From Space: Alien Matter Found?

Alien OrganismsIts been an exciting 48 hours for the scientific community. It began when a team of British scientists floated a balloon up into the stratosphere, more than 25 km (16 miles) up, and when it came down they found it was carrying tiny organisms. The scientists claimed that there is no way that such organisms could have come from Earth and found their way into the stratosphere, so they must have come from space.

Specifically, they must have come from a comet, given their particular characteristics, and they could even be evidence that all life on Earth really did originate in the stars. This theory is known as Exogenesis (or Panspermia), and contends that this is how organisms are spread throughout the universe – spawning in certain environments, but flourishing on worlds where they are deposited and conditions are just right.

Alien Organisms1According to Professor Milton Wainwright of the Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at the University of Sheffield, they are “about 95 percent convinced” of that fact, though he admits that it’s hard to be absolutely certainty. But apart from the height of the organisms, which would make it hard to imagine them being from Earth, Wainwright and his team also noted that they bear no physical signs of ever being earthbound.

As Wainwright said in the course of announcing the team’s findings:

There is no known mechanism by which these life forms can achieve that height. As far as we can tell from known physics, they must be incoming. The particles are very clean. They don’t have any dust attached to them, which again suggests they’re not coming to earth. Similarly, cosmic dust isn’t stuck to them, so we think they came from an aquatic environment, and the most obvious aquatic environment in space is a comet.

In addition, the science team ruled out the possibility that the particles were originally from Earth and were blasted into the stratosphere by a volcano, noting that it’s been too long since the last volcanic eruption on Earth for the particles to have maintained such a height. So the tentative conclusion remains, that the organisms were placed in orbit by a passing comet.

DNA-1What’s even more exciting is the prospect that the organisms, though they are all likely dead at this point, are likely to contain alien DNA. If this proves to be true, it could further the idea that life on Earth may have had its beginnings in cosmos. Next month, the team plans to try the balloon test again to see if they can both confirm their results and find new organisms in upcoming meteor shower tied to Halley’s Comet.

Exciting prospects indeed. But almost immediately after the announcement been made, dissenting voices began to come forward to poke holes in the team’s theory. One such person is Phil Plait, an astronomer who upon reading the findings in the Journal of Cosmology, raised a number of concerns and criticisms about the team’s research.

First, Plait notes, one member of the research team, Chandra Wickramasinghe, has claimed numerous times that he’s discovered diatoms – a type of phytoplankton found in meteorites – and this particular paper also includes similar diatom findings. Wickramsinghe also, according to Plait, has a long history of making dubious claims about extraterrestrial life, using less-than-thorough research.

PanspermiaPlait also noted that the Journal of Cosmology, where the paper was published, has a less-than-spotless reputation. In the past, the quality of peer review at the journal has been questioned, and they have also been accused of promoting fringe and speculative viewpoints on astrobiology, astrophysics, and quantum physics. Of particular concern is the journal’s apparent bias that the theory of Panspermia is established fact, which remains a theory.

But as to the scientific findings themselves, there’s the question of whether the diatom really came from space or became attached to the balloon as it transited from the surface into orbit. While the team claims that precautions were taken and the sample was too clean, extended testing may prove this conclusion to be wrong, and possibly premature.

Second, Plait disputes the conclusion that the diatom could not have been put up in the atmosphere by a volcanic eruption. Specifically, he noted that the researchers didn’t seem to take into account things like turbulence in the stratosphere that could have kept objects previously hurled up there by volcanoes floating around for quite some time.

panspermia1Then there’s the claim that evidence points that the organisms came from a comet. The fact that it was “remarkably clean and free of soil or other solid material,” works against this conclusion, according to Plait. If indeed it came embedded in rock, there would surely be samples of soil, dust, ice or minerals attached to it, as these are things commonly found in a comet.

And finally, there’s the theory the researchers developed that these organisms are evidence that life actually began somewhere in space, then came to Earth. While Panspermia is a good theory, Plait claims that the scientists are going about arguing it in a way that is not strictly scientific:

Panspermia is worth investigating, but it’s worth investigating correctly. Outrageous claims on thin evidence with huge conclusion-jumping don’t comprise the best way to do it. Stories like this one are sexy and sure bait for an unskeptical media, of course. But at the very least they don’t help the public understand science and the scientific process, and I know some scientists take an even dimmer view of it.

But of course, the announcement was just made and there’s still plenty of checking to do. In the meantime, we can all certainly speculate, and I would like to hear from the people out there. What do you think? Does this discovery constitute a scientific breakthrough, or is it an elaborate hoax or a case of eager scientists jumping to conclusions?

Mars_Earth_Comparison-580x356And let’s not forget, this announcement comes not long after Professor Steven Benner’s similar announcement that new evidence connects the origin of life on Earth to life on Mars. No reason why Exogenesis and the Martian hypothesis can’t coexist now is there?

Sources: blastr.com, (2)