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SETI scientists hear nothing from interstellar object

Green Bank Telescope
The Breakthrough Listen initiative uses the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia. (NRAO Photo)

The scientists behind the Breakthrough Listen initiative say they haven’t detected any radio signals coming from a strange interstellar object known as ‘Oumuamua, but there are still more observations to be made and analyzed.

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Is weird object a starship? Scientists will check

'Oumuamua
An artist’s conception shows what the interstellar asteroid ‘Oumuamua might look like. (ESO Illustration / M. Kornmesser)

Is that cigar-shaped, fast-moving interstellar object a spaceship? Almost certainly not, but Breakthrough Listen will check just to make sure.

The Breakthrough Listen campaign, which checks celestial targets for radio signals from intelligent civilizations, will turn the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia toward the object, known as ‘Oumuamua, starting Dec. 13.

Scientists will check for emissions across four radio bands from 1 to 12 GHz. The first phase of observations will take up 10 hours, divided into four key time periods based on ‘Oumuamua’s period of rotation.

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Messages and music beamed to alien super-Earth

Beaming signals to GJ273 b
The target of the “Sonar Calling” binary-coded radio transmission is a planet known as GJ273 b. (METI International Illustration / Danielle Futselaar)

Scientists and artists have banded together to beam coded radio transmissions toward a star that has a potentially habitable planet, just 12.4 light-years from Earth.

“Sónar Calling GJ273b” is the latest effort to communicate with aliens, 43 years since the first attempt was made using the 1,000-foot Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico.

The “Sónar Calling” messages were sent on three successive days, Oct. 16-18, from the 32-meter EISCAT radio antenna in Tromsø, Norway, just inside the Arctic Circle. Each transmission was directed at peak power of 2 megawatts toward a red dwarf star known as GJ273, or Luyten’s Star, in the constellation Canis Major.

Astronomers say Luyten’s Star harbors a planet that’s more than twice as massive as Earth, in an orbit where water could conceivably exist in liquid form. “Sónar Calling” aims to communicate with any radio-savvy life forms on that planet, called GJ273 b.

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Billionaire wants to look for life on Enceladus

Oliver Morton and Yuri Milner
Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, at right, chats with The Economist’s Oliver Morton during the “New Space Age” conference at Seattle’s Museum of Flight. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Russian billionaire Yuri Milner today laid out his vision to send the first privately funded interplanetary space mission to look for life at the Saturnian moon Enceladus — but first he had to address less lofty matters.

Milner has been in the news for the past week because newly published confidential documents known as the “Paradise Papers” revealed that two firms controlled by the Russian government backed his early investments in Facebook and Twitter.

So, of course, that was the first topic Milner was asked about during an onstage fireside chat at The Economist’s “New Space Age” conference at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.

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Alien hunters track strange radio bursts

Green Bank Telescope
Intriguing signals have been picked up via West Virginia’s Green Bank Telescope. (NRAO Photo)

Breakthrough Listen, a $100 million initiative aimed at stepping up the search for alien signals, says it’s picked up an intriguing series of 15 fast radio bursts emanating from a dwarf galaxy 3 billion light-years away.

It’s way too early to claim that the signals from the galaxy, which hosts a radio source known as FRB 121102, constitute the kind of evidence sought for decades by researchers specializing in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI.

But Breakthrough Listen’s researchers say that possibility can’t yet be ruled out.

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Scientists know what that ‘weird’ signal was

Weird Signal
The “Weird! Signal” from Ross 128, detected on May 12, is highlighted by the red box in this chart of frequency signal strength over time. (PHL @ UPR Arecibo)

A week ago, astronomers using the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico were intrigued about a radio signal they picked up in May, apparently from the vicinity of the red dwarf star Ross 128. Now they think they know what it was.

Spoiler alert: It’s not aliens.

To gather more evidence about the source of the quasi-periodic signal, astronomers took a closer look at the star on July 16 – not only with the 1,000-foot-wide Arecibo Observatory, but with the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia and the SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array in California.

“We are now confident about the source of the ‘Weird! Signal,’” Abel Mendez, a planetary astrobiologist at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo, said today in an update.

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Strange signals from space spark interest

Arecibo telescope
The 1,000-foot radio telescope at the Arecibo Observatory played a role in “Contact.” (UPRA Photo)

The 1,000-foot-wide radio telescope at Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory will take a closer look at a red dwarf star known as Ross 128 after picking up what one astronomer said were “some very peculiar signals” during a 10-minute observing session in May.

“The signals consisted of broadband quasi-periodic non-polarized pulses with very strong dispersion-like features,” Abel Mendez, a planetary astrobiologist at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo, said in an online advisory. Mendez is also director of the Planetary Habitability Laboratory.

Mendez said the signal did not appear to be earthly interference, “since they are unique to Ross 128, and observations of other stars immediately before and after did not show anything similar.”

He said the most likely explanations for the signals are that they’re flare-type emissions from the star, or emissions from another object in the field of view, or a radio burst from a satellite in high orbit.

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Pot fans and space fans mix at SETI salon

SETI astronomer Seth Shostak (far left) takes questions from the audience while The Goodship Company’s art director, Greg Lundgren, looks on. GeekWire’s Alan Boyle is the guy with his head down in the front row. (Goodship Photo / Ben Lindbloom)
SETI astronomer Seth Shostak (far left) takes questions from the audience while The Goodship Company’s art director, Greg Lundgren, looks on. GeekWire’s Alan Boyle is the guy with his head down in the front row. (Goodship Photo / Ben Lindbloom)

Is Seattle’s Goodship Higher Education Series about bringing together cannabis users? Or is it about deep subjects like the search for extraterrestrial intelligence? And is it OK to ask fellow attendees if they’re toasted?

The answer, apparently, is yes, yes and yes.

As SETI astronomer Seth Shostak and I were chatting before his Feb. 9 talk at Melrose Market Studios in Seattle’s Capitol Hill district, we wondered how many folks in the standing-room-only crowd had arrived “pre-boarded.”

In The Goodship Company’s parlance, pre-boarding means getting high before sitting in on the event, an activity that’s in line with the Seattle venture’s main business of selling cannabis-laced edibles.

Goodship founder Jody Hall told me she sees the Higher Education Series as “TED talks with pot” – a social alternative to the TV-watching, game-playing, music-listening or chip-eating marathons that are stereotypically associated with stoners.

Shostak and I mused out loud about the etiquette of asking people whether they were under the influence. And just then, Laurel Cleveland, creative director for the Vela Community pot shop in SoDo, stepped up from behind and set us straight: Yes, it’s OK to ask. And yes, she was toasted.

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Scientist will explain alien search to potheads

Seth Shostak
Seth Shostak has been seeking alien signals for more than two decades. (SETI Institute Photo)

You don’t have to be stoned to appreciate SETI scientist Seth Shostak’s perspective on the search for extraterrestrials – but it wouldn’t hurt.

That’s what the Goodship Higher Education Series is counting on when the SETI Institute’s senior astronomer delivers the series’ first lecture of the year in a marijuana-friendly environment at Seattle’s Melrose Market Studios.

Pot consumption isn’t allowed at the venue, but if attendees want to show up under the influence on Feb. 9, that’s fine with the organizers. That’s also fine with Shostak, although he admits that speaking to an unabashedly stoned audience would be something completely different for him.

“I’ve never had the experience before … that I’m aware of,” the 73-year-old researcher told GeekWire.

Musing about life elsewhere in the universe is just the sort of cosmic subject that comes up when folks kick back around the campfire or the living room, with or without intoxicating substances. The Goodship series is designed to create that cosmic feeling by “partnering altered states with big ideas.”

There are few ideas bigger than SETI – an acronym that’s short for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. For more than a half-century, radio astronomers like Shostak have been combing through data, looking for the telltale signature of intentional broadcasts beyond Earth.

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Spectral SETI claims stir up criticism

Automated Planet Finder
The Breakthrough Listen project will use the Automated Planet Finder to observe a controversial sampling of stars. (Credit: Vogt et al. 2014 / UC-Berkeley / Lick Observatory)

Two astronomers have generated a debate by claiming that they may have found the spectral signature of messages from an extraterrestrial civilization – but the debate is mostly over whether the claims are worth publishing.

The claims are contained in a research paper that was written by Ermanno Borra and Eric Trottier of Quebec’s Laval University. The paper is scheduled to appear in the Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

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