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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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Messages beamed to aliens amid debate over perils

Cebreros Station
The European Space Agency’s Cebreros Station in Spain transmitted an 866-second encoded radio message in the direction of Polaris, 434 light-years away. (Credit: ESA)

More than 3,000 messages were beamed toward the North Star today by a powerful radio telescope – and although the exercise was largely symbolic, it serves to revive a debate over whether we should be trying to contact aliens.

Today’s transmission by the European Space Agency’s Cebreros deep-space tracking station in Spain was the culmination of a yearlong effort known as “A Simple Response to an Elemental Message,” spearheaded by Irish-born artist Paul Quast.

With support from ESA and other organizations, Quast and his collaborators solicited 3,775 text-only messages from around the world in response to this question: How will our present environmental interactions shape the future?

The 14-minute digital transmission with all those answers was beamed toward Polaris, the North Star, at 8 p.m. GMT (1 p.m. PT).

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Was SETI signal from aliens? Russians say ‘nyet’

Image: RATAN-600 radio telescope
Detectors for the RATAN-600 telescope form a wide ring in this fisheye view. (Credit: SAO-RAS)

Russian astronomers acknowledge that they picked up an “interesting radio signal” in the course of their search for alien transmissions, but that the signal was most probably a case of terrestrial interference.

“It can be said with confidence that no sought-for signal has been detected yet,” astronomers from the Special Astrophysical Observatory of the Russian Academy of Sciences said in a statement issued Aug. 30.

The signal spike at 11 GHz was detected by the RATAN-600 radio telescope in the southern Russian republic of Karachay-Cherkessia in May 2015, during a campaign that’s part of the worldwide search for extraterrestrial intelligence (a.k.a. SETI).

The detection didn’t come to light until last weekend, but once news started circulating, it touched off parallel observations by the SETI Institute and the Breakthrough Listen Initiative. Those groups focused on the same area of the sky that was the target of the Russian observation: a sunlike star known as HD 164595 in the constellation Hercules.

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Still no aliens: Lessons learned from SETI signal

Image: Green Bank Telescope
The Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia is tracking a faraway sunlike star known as HD 164595 for the Breakthrough Listen Initiative. No alien blips have been received so far. (Credit: NRAO)

Fifteen months after an intriguing radio signal was picked up from a sunlike star in the constellation Hercules, follow-up observations over the past couple of days have so far yielded nothing notable.

That shouldn’t be too surprising. It’s the way things have always turned out so far in the 56-year history of the radio search for extraterrestrial intelligence, known as SETI.

Nevertheless, the focus on a star called HD 164595 has served as a teachable moment for those interested in the search.

“Our follow-up observations of HD 164595 remind us of the importance of developing the organizational infrastructure that will let SETI research groups around the world communicate easily with one another, so interesting signals can get a fast follow-up observation from an independent site,” Doug Vakoch, president of METI International, told GeekWire in an email.

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Signal traced to sunlike star sparks SETI interest

Image: RATAN-600 radio telescope
SETI researchers say a radio spike was detected by the RATAN-600 radio telescope. (Credit: SAO RAS)

SETI researchers are buzzing about a strong spike in radio signals that seemed to come from the direction of a sunlike star in the constellation Hercules, known as HD 164595.

The signal conceivably fits the profile for an intentional transmission from an extraterrestrial source – but it could also be a case of earthly radio interference, or a microlensing event in which the star’s gravitational field focused stray signals coming from much farther away.

In any case, the blip is interesting enough to merit discussion by those who specialize in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI – including Centauri Dreams’ Paul Gilster, who brought the case into the public eye this weekend.

At least two SETI research groups are aiming to track HD 164595 tonight. The SETI Institute is using the Allen Telescope Array in northern California, while METI International is looking to the Boquete Optical SETI Observatory in Panama.

Gilster reports that the signal spike was detected more than a year ago, on May 15, 2015, by the RATAN-600 radio telescope in Zelenchukskaya.

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Have aliens ever existed? Chances are set high

Image: Ellie Arroway in "Contact"
Ellie Arroway (played by Jodie Foster) listens for alien signals in the movie “Contact.” (Credit: Warner Bros.)

Are we alone? Fifty-five years ago, astronomer Frank Drake came up with an equation that weighed the odds for aliens, and now two astronomers have tweaked the formula to come up with a slightly different spin.

Their bottom line? There’s an astronomically high chance that other civilizations have arisen elsewhere in the universe at some point in its 13.8 billion-year history.

The University of Washington’s Woody Sullivan and the University of Rochester’s Adam Frank published their assessment in the May issue of Astrobiology, and Frank is following up with an op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times.

“While we do not know if any advanced extraterrestrial civilizations currently exist in our galaxy, we now have enough information that they almost certainly existed at some point in cosmic history,” Frank writes.

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$100 million pledged for Alpha Centauri mission

Image: Light sail propulsion
An artist’s conception shows how a laser beam could propel a light sail outward toward Alpha Centauri. (Credit: Breakthrough Starshot)

Fueled by an initial $100 million from Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, a team laden with big names laid out a multi-decade plan to send flurries of smartphone-sized probes to the Alpha Centauri system, powered by laser-driven light sails.

“For the first time in human history, we can do more than just gaze at the stars,” Milner said today at a New York news conference where the Breakthrough Starshot project was unveiled. “We can actually reach them. It is time to launch the next great leap in human history.”

Eventually, the plan will require billions of dollars more in funding – and much more planning as well. But the Starshot team boasts some top-drawer supporters: In addition to Milner, the board includes British physicist Stephen Hawking and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

During the news briefing, Hawking noted that life on Earth faces risks ranging from asteroid strikes to human-caused catastrophes. “If we are to survive as a species, we must ultimately spread to the stars,” he said.

The project’s executive director is Pete Worden, who previously headed NASA’s Ames Research Center. Today he said he’s already spoken with NASA officials about the plan. “They’re very eager to support us,” he told reporters.

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SETI Institute searches for red-dwarf aliens

Image: Red dwarf planetary system
An artist’s conception shows a planetary system around a red dwarf star. (Credit: ESO)

The SETI Institute is shifting the focus of its search for extraterrestrial intelligence to places that could harbor life that’s not as we know it: 20,000 red-dwarf star systems.

“Red dwarfs – the dim bulbs of the cosmos – have received scant attention by SETI scientists in the past,” SETI Institute engineer Jon Richard said today in a news release announcing the initiative. “That’s because researchers made the seemingly reasonable assumption that other intelligent species would be on planets orbiting stars similar to the sun.”

Red dwarfs are nothing like the sun: The brightest of the breed are a tenth as luminous as the sun, and some are just 0.01 percent as bright. But astronomers say they account for three-quarters of all stars.

The star that’s closest to our sun, Proxima Centauri, is a red dwarf. A variety of observing efforts, including the Pale Red Dot initiative, are looking for planets around Proxima Centauri.

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Look for places where aliens are looking for us

Image: Earth transit
When Earth passes in front of the sun, it blocks a small part of the sun’s light. Potential observers outside our solar system might be able to detect the resulting dimming of the sun and study Earth’s atmosphere. (Credit: Axel Quetz / MPIA / NASA)

The past decade has brought about a revolution in astronomers’ ability to detect potentially habitable planets, and there’s much, much more to come. The problem will be identifying the likeliest places for life to lurk, and two newly published studies address that problem from two dramatically different perspectives.

One study takes an inward-looking perspective: If we were the aliens, how would we know about Earth?

The best planet-detection method that’s currently available to earthly astronomers looks for the telltale dimming of light as a planet crosses the disk of its parent star. But that dimming, known as a planetary transit, can be seen only when the planet and the alien star are lined up with Earth.

That suggests that Earth is most likely to be detected by observers on alien planets in a narrow strip of the sky where our planet can be seen crossing the sun.

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Bad news and good news about the SETI quest

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)

t’s a question that goes back decades: If other civilizations have arisen beyond Earth over the course of billions of years, why haven’t we heard from them? Two kinds of answers have recently come into the spotlight – one kind that’s disheartening, and another kind that’s challenging.

First, the bad news: Researchers from the Australian National University say climate change could have killed off E.T. and his ilk.

In a paper published last month in the journal Astrobiology, Aditya Chopra and Charles Lineweaver suggest that habitable Earthlike planets eventually fall prey either to runaway global warming, as in the case of Venus; or runaway global cooling, as in the case of Mars.

Their model proposes that if life ever does arise on an alien world, it would go extinct in most cases after just 1.5 billion years of the planet’s existence, without getting past the microbial stage.

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