In the search for life and intelligence beyond Earth, astronomers look for telltale “signatures.” These include the chemical elements that we associate with life as we know it and its biological functions (“biosignatures), and indications of technological activity (“technosignatures”) as we would recognize it. At present, the search for signatures is limited by two factors: the limits of our instrumentation, and the limits of our frame of reference.
A few months ago, my boss at Universe Today encouraged me to take on a new writing project. For months now, I’ve been writing a series about the Fermi Paradox. For those who are not familiar, this paradox takes its name from Enrico Fermi, the Italian-American physicist who was instrumental in the development of the atomic bomb and the first nuclear reactor.Continue reading “The Fermi Series Will Be Released as a Book!”
In what could be called a case of serious repurposing – beating swords into plowshares and so forth – or something out of science-fiction, a crowdfunded project has sought to turn a Cold War era dish into a deep-space communications array. This array will send messages to that’s relatively near to us, and potentially inhabited. And assuming anything sufficiently advanced lives there, we could be talking to them soon enough.
The project is known as Lone Signal, a crowdfunded effort to send a continuous stream of messages to the folks at Gliese 526, a red dwarf star 17.6 light-years away in the constellation of Bootes (aka Wolf 498). And the dish with which they intend to do this is known as the Jamesburg Earth Station, a nuke-proof satellite relay station in California that dates from the 1960s and even helped broadcast images of Neil Armstrong on the moon.
Long Signal, it should be noted, is the brainchild of The Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, non-profit virtual research institute that networks scientists from across the globe and multiple disciplines for the purpose of expanding the boundaries of knowledge, science and astronomy and promoting an open dialogue on the subject of exploration and settlement.Towards this end, they arranged for a 30-year lease on the Cold War-era dish (for a cool $3 million) and set up a project that will allow participants who contribute money to send a personalized message into space.
Ultimately, they plan to direct two beams at Gliese 526: a continuous wave with fundamental physics laws and basic information about Earth, and another consisting of crowdsourced greetings. The project is open to anyone and a series of initial short message (the equivalent of a 144-character tweet) will be available free of charge. Subsequent messages, images, and longer greetings, however, will cost money (about $1 for four texts) that will help the project fund itself.
The project’s website also lets participants track their messages and share them via social media, dedicate messages to others, and view signal stats. In an interview with Universe Today, Lone Signal co-founder Pierre Fabre, told people:
Our scientific goals are to discover sentient beings outside of our solar system. But an important part of this project is to get people to look beyond themselves and their differences by thinking about what they would say to a different civilization. Lone Signal will allow people to do that.
Indeed. Nothing like the prospect of facing another life form, a potential space invader even, to make people forget about all their petty bickering!
As our knowledge of the universe expands, we are becoming aware of the existence of more and more exoplanets. Many of these exist within the Habitable Zones of their parent star, which means two things. On the one hand, they may be candidates for potential settlement in the future. On the other, they may already be home to sentient life. If said life is sufficiently advanced, its entirely possible they could be looking back at us.
For some time, the human race has been contemplating First Contact with potential extra-terrestrial life, which was the very purpose behind the creation of NASA’s SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) program in 1961. The Pioneer space probes were another attempt at making contact, both of which carried small metal plaques identifying their time and place of origin for the benefit of any other spacefarers that might find them in the distant future.
Following in that tradition, Voyager 1 and 2 space probes contained even more ambitious messages, otherwise known as the Golden Record. These phonograph records – two 12-inch gold-plated copper disks – contained both sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth that would give any civilization that found them a good idea of what the people of Earth were capable of.
The contents of the records were selected for NASA by a committee chaired by Carl Sagan of Cornell University, and consisted of 115 images and a variety of natural sounds – surf, wind, thunder, birds, whales, and other animals. To this they added musical selections from different cultures and eras, and spoken greetings from Earth-people in fifty-five languages, and printed messages from then-President Carter and U.N. Secretary General Waldheim.
In this respect, Lone Signal represents the latest step in promoting contact and communication with other life forms. And in keeping with the trend of modern space exploration, it is being opened to the public via crowdfunding and personalized messages. But unlike SETI, which lost its government funding in 1995 and had to turn to private supporters, crowdfunded space exploration is something directly accessible by all citizens, not just corporate financiers.
Update: The Lone Signal project is now operational and on 9:00 PM EDT Monday, June 17 at a press event in New York, the team announced the transmission of the first interstellar message. The message was sent by none other than Ray Kurzweil, noted Futurist and science guru. That message was then read during his welcome talk to the Singularity University class of 2013, from the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California:
Greetings to Gliese 526 from Singularity University. As you receive this, our computers have made us smarter, the better to understand you and the wisdom of the universe.
What he means by this is that by the time the message is recieved – roughly 18 years from now, assuming it ever is – humanity is likely to have taken the first steps towards merging our brains with computers via biotech, artificial intelligence, or other means of computer-assisted brain augmentation. At least, that’s what guys like Kurzweil hope for.
Other “alpha beamers” — including Dan Aykroyd, Alicia Keys, and Jason Silva — also sent beams Monday night. And for the time being, anyone can send a “crowdsourced” 144-character beam and pic. Better get on it before they start charging. If texting and phone rates are any indication, the price is likely to go up as the plan improves!
And be sure to enjoy this promotional video from Lone Signal:
And also check out this time-lapse video of the Jamesburg Earth Station in operation:
For roughly a month now, the SETI Institute (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) has been holding an online poll – appropriately named Pluto Rocks! – to help them name Pluto’s smallest moons, officially designated P4 and P5. Discovered in 2011 and 2012 respectively, an online poll ran up until the end of February, at which point researcher and co-discoverer Mark Showalter took the names before the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to finalization.
Although there were several choices for for Pluto’s fourth and fifth moon, it was P4 that became the focus of a great deal of attention. Of all the names for this space rock, two top contenders came out on top: Vulcan and Cerberus. Out of a whopping 450,324 people who took part in the poll overall, 174,062 voted for Vulcan, effectively putting it in the top spot. This was perhaps due to a little Twitter intervention by Mr. William Shatner.
When the contest began back, it seemed that two camps emerged as the forerunners for naming the rock. On the one hand, there were the Trekkies who seemed determined to name P4 after famed-character Spock’s homeworld. On the other, there those who belong to IAU camp, who favored the classical Greek name of the beast that guarded the entrance to the underworld.
After just a few days in, William Shatner, Mr. James T. Kirk himself, proposed the name Vulcan, and not just because of the connection to his show. In Roman mythology, Pluto (aka Hades in the Greek pantheon) was the God of the underworld and Vulcan was one of his sons. Cerberus might have been more appropriate since this beast was Pluto’s/Hades companion, but the connection still works, and provides a nice little tie-in to one of the most popular science fiction shows of all time.
Fans and Trekkies worldwide rallied, and as of Feb. 25th, Vulcan had a comfortable lead over Cerberus and Styx, which were vying for the 2nd place position. SETI has now advised that people be patient, as it will take another months or two for the names of the two moons to be finalized and selected. However, barring any major objections or upheavals, I think it’s fair to say that P4 and P5 will henceforth be named Vulcan and Kerberos.
And I have to say, this is fascinating news in more ways than just one. Not only does it demonstrate that our collective knowledge of the outer Solar System is growing. It also demonstrates how henceforth, astronomical studies and cataloging may become a much more democratic affair. Once considered the province of academics and scholars, space exploration may truly be an open field in the future, subject to mass participation.
Oh, and congrats to Mr. Shatner for his enduring influence, to Mr. Nimoy for the shout-out, and to Trekkies the world over for showing what a committed fandom made up of millions of geeks can do! And may all the people who bullied you for your interests and keen intellectual skills consider what a force you’ve become and cower in fear!
Big news coming in over the wire! Apparently, NASA scientists, using the Spitzer Space Telescope, have spotted light from a planet in a distant solar system. Back in 2004, in a solar system named 55 Cancri A, a planet that is twice the size of Earth and almost 8 times its mass, was first discovered. They named this planet 55 Cancri e, is 41 light years from our solar system, and is often referred to as a “Super Earth”.
Though NASA has known about the planet for some time, it’s only now that they’ve been able to detect infrared light coming from its surface. As part of NASA’s ongoing exploration efforts, Spitzer is part of a long term goal to find habitable planets in our universe, as well as extra-terrestrial life.
Unforuntately, 55 Cancri e is not one such planet. In addition to not being able to support life in its current state, terraforming it would also be useless. It’s mass and density means that it’s gravitational field is far stronger than anything we humans would find tolerable. But hey, maybe it’s got some friends that won’t crush us like bugs the second we set foot on them! And as they say, it’s a big universe. Always a chance we’ll find intelligent life somewhere else…
In the meantime, check out this video on 55 Cancri e from Space.com!