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SETI deals with new tools and new troubles

PANOSETI telescopes
Two PANOSETI telescopes are installed in the recently renovated Astrograph Dome at the Lick Observatory in California. PANOSETI will use a configuration of many SETI telescopes to allow simultaneous monitoring of the entire observable sky. (© Laurie Hatch Photo via UCSD)

The search for extraterrestrial intelligence, better known as SETI, is taking advantage of a widening array of strategies — ranging from sophisticated laser searches, to a new type of wide-angle optical observatory, to arrangements to conduct the search simultaneously with other scientific efforts.

But new technologies are also bringing new challenges: For example, how will radio astronomers deal with the noise created by a fast-growing number of satellites in low Earth orbit?

The technological pluses and minuses for the SETI quest, and for other strategies aimed at detecting life beyond our solar system, took the spotlight in Seattle last weekend during a session presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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Scientists seek new ways to track technosignatures

Image: Alien megastructure
An artist’s conception shows a crumbling megastructure known as a Dyson sphere orbiting a distant star. Could such structures produce detectable technosignatures? (Danielle Futselaar Illustration)

Could extraterrestrial civilizations leave their fingerprints as chlorofluorocarbons in planetary atmospheres, or the waste heat generated by industrial processes, or artificial bursts of neutrinos or gravitational waves?

That’s what a vanguard of astronomers would like to find out, and they’re hoping to win more support for an approach that widens the nearly 60-year-old search for alien radio signals to include other alien indicators.

Those indicators — which could include anomalous chemicals in exoplanet atmospheres or readings that hint at the presence of alien megastructures — have come to be known collectively as technosignatures. It’s a term that originated with Jill Tarter, one of the pioneers in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI.

“When the astrobiology people started talking about ‘biosignatures,’ it just seemed obvious,” Tarter told GeekWire this week at the American Astronomical Society’s winter meeting in Seattle.

Tarter said the term crystallizes the idea that scientists should look for a variety of technological traces potentially pointing to intelligent life beyond Earth.

“We’re really talking about more than just searching for radio signals or optical signals,” she said. “What is it that technology does to modify its environment in a way that we can detect over interstellar distances, and distinguish from what life does?”

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Arecibo makes plans for new message to aliens

Arecibo Message
A global contest will give the 1974 Arecibo Message a reboot. (Arecibo Observatory Illustration)

The Arecibo Observatory today kicked off a student-focused competition to design a new message to beam to extraterrestrials, 44 years to the day since the first deliberate message was sent out from Arecibo’s 1,000-foot-wide radio telescope.

“Our society and our technology have changed a lot since 1974,” Francisco Cordova, the observatory’s director, said in a news release. “So if we were assembling our message today, what would it say? What would it look like? What one would need to learn to be able to design the right updated message from the earthlings? Those are the questions we are posing to young people around the world through the New Arecibo Message – the global challenge.”

It’s not just about the message, however: Competitors will have to solve brain-teasing puzzles posted on Arecibo’s website in order to qualify, get instructions, register and submit their designs. Along the way, they’ll learn about space science, the scientific method and Arecibo’s story.

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NASA turns to the search for technosignatures

Image: Alien megastructure
An artist’s representation  shows a megastructure known as a Dyson sphere capturing the energy from a distant star. Such a structure could create observable technosignatures pointing to the civilization behind its construction. (Credit: Danielle Futselaar / SETI International)

It’s been a quarter-century since Congress cut off NASA funding for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, but now the space agency is revisiting the topic under another name: technosignatures.

“I’m excited to announce that NASA is taking the 1st steps to explore ways to search for life advanced enough to create technosignatures: signs or signals, which if observed, would let us infer the existence of technological life elsewhere in the universe,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a tweet today.

The search is the focus of a workshop taking place this week at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, with experts on the search for exoplanets, artificial radio signals and other potential pointers in attendance. House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, is due to give a welcome message.

That’s a far cry from 1993, when a congressional effort spearheaded by Sen. Richard Bryan killed off NASA’s 10-year SETI program, which was known as the High Resolution Microwave Survey, or HRMS. “This hopefully will be the end of Martian hunting season at the taxpayer’s expense,” Bryan declared at the time.

Since then, much has changed.

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AI helps SETI sleuths find more radio bursts

AI seeking ET
Researchers used artificial intelligence to search through data from a radio source, capturing many more fast radio bursts than humans could. (Breakthrough Listen Illustration / Danielle Futselaar)

Researchers at Breakthrough Listen, a multimillion-dollar campaign to seek out signals from alien civilizations, still don’t know exactly what’s causing repeated bursts of radio waves from an distant galaxy — but thanks to artificial intelligence, they’re keeping closer tabs on the source, whatever it turns out to be.

A team led by Gerry Zhang, a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, developed a new type of machine-learning algorithm to comb through data collected a year ago during an observing campaign that used the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia.

The campaign focused on a radio source known as FRB 121102, located in a dwarf galaxy sitting 3 billion light-years away in the constellation Auriga. Astronomers have observed plenty of fast radio bursts over the past decade, each lasting only a few milliseconds. Only FRB 121102 has been found to send out repeated bursts, however.

A number of theories have been proposed to explain the bursts, ranging from interactions involving magnetized neutron stars and black holes to deliberate signaling by advanced civilizations.

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Scientists revise scale for weighing E.T. contact

Image: Jill Tarter
SETI pioneer Jill Tarter pays a visit to the Allen Telescope Array in California, one of the prime sites for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. (Credit: SETI Institute)

For almost 60 years, efforts to pick up signs of extraterrestrial civilizations have yielded a big fat zero, but there have been plenty of false alarms to contend with.

To provide a reality check, the International Academy of Astronautics adopted a 1-to-10 rating system for claims of contact, known as the Rio scale, back in the early 2000s. Now a group of astronomers is proposing a “Rio 2.0” scale that brings the reality check up to date.

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How will we get our message across to E.T.?

Beaming signals to GJ273 b
Astronomers and artists sent a binary-coded radio transmission in the direction of an extrasolar planet known as GJ273 b in 2017. (METI International Illustration / Danielle Futselaar)

LOS ANGELES — Last year, scientists sent a binary-coded message telling the aliens what time it was. Next year, it’ll be the periodic table of the elements. And someday, they hope to transmit a universal language that even extraterrestrials might relate to.

“I think we should treat this as a multigenerational, true experiment as opposed to an observational exercise, like archaeology,” said Doug Vakoch, a veteran of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence who is now president of METI International.

Vakoch and other researchers, including linguists, gathered here this weekend at the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference to consider the content for future messages to E.T.

In the process, they considered the meaning of language as well.

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Astrobiologist wins SETI Institute’s Drake Award

Victoria Meadows
University of Washington astrobiologist Victoria Meadows holds up a rock sample. (UW Photo)

University of Washington astrobiologist Victoria Meadows has become the first woman to receive the SETI Institute’s Frank Drake Award, named after a pioneer in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Meadows directs UW’s graduate program in astrobiology and is the principal investigator for the Virtual Planetary Laboratory, which is based at UW and administered by the NASA Astrobiology Institute.

Under Meadows’ guidance, researchers affiliated with the VPL use computer modeling to assess the potential habitability of planets beyond our solar system. About two dozen institutions, including UW and other universities as well as NASA centers, participate in the VPL program.

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Scientists will seek signs of aliens’ bad behavior

HabEx telescope and sunshade
An artist’s conception shows the Habitable Exoplanet Imaging Mission’s space telescope and its starshade. (NASA / JPL Illustration)

Global warming and nuclear blasts may be bad for humanity, but astrobiologists say they could be good indicators of the presence of intelligent life on distant worlds.

Such signatures of risky biological behavior should therefore be included in the list of things for future space telescopes to seek out, researchers say in a white paper prepared for the National Academy of Sciences.

The strategy would add a contemporary twist to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, reflecting the view that Earth is transitioning into a technology-driven geological era some call the Anthropocene.

“Examining the Anthropocene epoch through the lens of astrobiology can help to understand the future evolution of life on our planet and the possible evolution of technological, energy-intensive life elsewhere in the universe,” the researchers write.

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How scientists are expanding the SETI spectrum

Habitable planet map
This map from the University of Puerto Rico’s Planetary Habitability Laboratory shows the known planetary systems within about 100 light-years from Earth, plotted on a logarithmic scale. The systems with potentially habitable exoplanets are highlighted with red circles. (PHL @ UPR Arecibo)

BERKELEY, Calif. — Twenty years after the movie “Contact” brought the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, to the big screen, it’s dawning on astronomers that the real-world plotline might turn out to be totally different 20 years from now.

So far, SETI has been dominated by radio telescope surveys looking for anomalous patterns that may point to alien transmissions. But SETI’s practitioners are realizing that E.T. may make its presence known in other ways.

Over the next 20 years, or 200 years, SETI may come to stand for sensing extraterrestrial irregularities, ranging from unusual atmospheric chemistry to higher-than-expected thermal emissions. The telltale signs of life beyond our solar system may even be associated with phenomena we haven’t yet come across.

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