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

News From Space: IAU Revises Stance on Naming Planets

alien-worldGood news everyone! According to the International Astronomic Union, the public can now participate in the naming of new exoplanets. What’s more, they can be popular names like kinds found in science fiction, assuming they are appropriate and the public is behind it. This represents a big change in terms of IAU policy, which previously reserved the right to give names to newly discovered bodies outside of our Solar System.

As recently as late March, 2013, the IAU’s official word on naming exoplanets was, “the IAU sees no need and has no plan to assign names to these objects at the present stage of our knowledge.” Their rationale was since there is seemingly going to be so many exoplanets, it will be difficult to name them all.

IAU_exosBut then, on March 24th, the IAU added on their website:

…the IAU greatly appreciates and wishes to acknowledge the increasing interest from the general public in being more closely involved in the discovery and understanding of our Universe. As a result in 2013 the IAU Commission 53 Extrasolar Planets and other IAU members will be consulted on the topic of having popular names for exoplanets, and the results will be made public on the IAU website.

This new decision follows from an event earlier this year where the SETI Institute and the space company Uwingu organized their own campaigns for creating popular names of objects in space. Both events were wildly popular with the general public, but generated some controversy. For one, the IAU issued a statement regarding the contests saying that while they welcomed the public’s interest, the IAU has the last word.

Pluto-System_720-580x344For example, the SETI institute’s contest, “Space Rocks”, was intended to name two newly discovered moons around Pluto. Though the name “Vulcan” was the top contender for one of them, and even got a nod from William Shatner, the IAU overruled their decision and went with the name “Styx” instead. Additionally, the IAU took issue with the “selling” of names, referring to the fact that Uwingu charged a fee to take part in their contest.

However, given public interest in the process and the fact that other bodies might begin privatizing the process, the IAU has altered its position on these matters and opened up the naming process to the public. The new rules, which were passed this summer, now allow individuals to suggest names of exoplanets and planetary satellites (moons) via email to the IAU.

gliese-581.jpgThose looking to make a contribution to naming newly discovered planets and moons are asked to abide by the following criteria:

  1. Prior to any public naming initiative the IAU should be contacted from the start by Letter of Intent sent to the IAU General Secretary
  2. The process should be submitted in the form of a proposal to the IAU by an organization
  3. The organization should list its legal or official representatives and its goals, and explain the reasons for initiating the process for naming a particular object or set of objects
  4. The process cannot request nor make reference to any revenues, for whatever purpose
  5. The process must guarantee a wide international participation
  6. The public names proposed (whether by individuals or in a naming campaign) should follow the naming rules and restrictions adopted for Minor Bodies of the Solar System, by the IAU and by the Minor Planet Center.

Among other rules cited in their new policy are that proposed names should be 16 characters or less in length, pronounceable in as many languages as possible, non-offensive in any language or culture, and that names of individuals, places or events principally known for political or military activities are unsuitable. Also, the names must have the formal agreement of the discoverers.

KeplerThis about face has its share of supporters and critics alike. Whereas people who support it generally see it as a sign that we are entering into an era of open and democratic space exploration. the critics tend to stress the contradictions and ambiguities in the new policy. Whereas the IAU previously claimed it had the final word on the naming process, their new stance appears to indicate that this is no longer the case.

In addition, companies like Uwingu are now free to participate in the naming of planetary bodies, which means that their contest to name Pluto’s moon “Vulcan” would now be legitimate under the new framework. Many people, such as astronomer and Uwingu CEO Alan Stern, are wondering if the new rules will apply retroactively since they were previously forbidden from having any input.

kepler22b.jpgAs for me, this puts me in mind of my own attempts to name real or fictitious exoplanets. Sadly, since it this was done for the sake of writing fiction, they would have no legal standing, but the process was still fun and got me thinking… If we are to begin exploring and colonizing planets outside of our Solar System, how will we go about naming them?

Now it seems there is a process in place for just such a thing, one which will assign actual names instead of bland designations. And it appears that this process will be a trade off between scientific organizations and public input, either through campaigns or contests. And I imagine once we start breaking ground on new worlds, settlers and shareholders will have a thing or two to say as well!

Planet Microsoft… Planet Starbucks… Planet Walmart… I shudder to think!

Sources: universetoday.com, uwingu.com. phl.upr.edu

Pluto’s New Moon to be Named Vulcan

pluto1For 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.

Pluto_moon_orbitsWhen 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.

Pluto-and-VulcanFans 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!

Captain Kirk Hails the ISS

ISSIn a move that was sure to give Trekies a collective fangasm, William Shatner made contact with the International Space Station this week. This past Thursday, thanks to the marvels of 21st century communications technology, the man who portrayed Captain Kirk was able to speak to Chris Hadfield, an astronaut on board the International Space Station.

Captain-KirkThe conversation began when Shatner – ahem! – opened hailing frequencies and contacted the ISS. Hadfield replied and, using some Star Trek sound effects as background, the two had a live, streaming video conversation. The entire conversation was recorded and uploaded to Youtube for the benefit of fans and amateur astronomers everywhere.

Needless to say, when science fiction and reality collide like this, it is an epic day in nerdom! Check out the video below…


Source:
universetoday.com

Shatner’s “Get A Life” Explores Star Trek Fandom

In 1986, William Shatner hosted Saturday Night Live and performed the sketch where he told a convention of Trekkers to “Get a life!” A hilarious moment in television history, or an instance of carefully scripted sincerity? Who knows? Either way, anyone who has not checked seen the sketch should do so immediately. I’ll wait, don’t worry…

Wasn’t that hilarious?

Anyway, it just so happens that Shatner is back at it, trying to find out what it is that defines Trekkies and contributes to the phenomena known as Star Trek fandom. Appropriately, he has named this movie “Get A Life” in honor of the satirical remarks he made on SNL. Again, this may or may not be sincere advice. The point is, even after decades of being the big name is Star Trek, he still wonders why the hell grown men and some grown women have spent their entire lives dedicated to this franchise.

Following in the same vein as Trekkies, this documentary goes beyond taking a look at Star Trek conventions and fandom over the years and  delves into the deeper questions of what makes Star Trek so enduringly popular. Much like Star Wars, it’s a science fiction franchise that has become inextricably embedded in our collective consciousness, to the point that even Captain Kirk himself is astounded and left wondering what the hell is going on…

Snippets from the documentary suggest that it was Roddenberry’s optimism that won fans over. His positive view of a future where all our current ills are solved and the worst didn’t happen is certainly one of the a selling points of the franchise. With so many dystopian and misanthropic visions permeating the pop culture sphere, people enjoy hearing a more positive appraisal of humanity and its prospects.

More echoes of Star Wars there, another franchise which captured fans imagination with its upbeat message and tempo. One has to wonder if the timing of these two franchises wasn’t just the slightest coincidental…

Anyhoo, here is the documentary’s official trailer. Enjoy!