I grew up watching Star Trek which taught me that life was about finding a crew to explore the Universe and to do good in that Universe where you can. I love the intersection of astronomy and society - how the exploration of the Universe reminds us to cherish life on our own world. I make decent pasta sauce. @BeWonder_Full
Turns out we were hearing ourselves! Earth can be a noisy place when listening to stars.
Late last year, a story was leaked indicating that the Murriyang radio telescope in Australia had detected a “signal-of-interest”. Dubbed “blc1” (Breakthrough Listen Candidate 1), the signal appeared to originate from the direction of Proxima Centauri, the closest neighbouring star to the Sun. The signal had yet to be fully analyzed when the story was leaked. Now that the analysis is complete, research shows blc1 is in fact “RFI” – radio frequency interference – and not an interstellar signal.
But while it’s not aliens – or “Proxima Centaurians” as lead author on the signal analysis Dr. Sofia Sheikh whimsically refers to them – new methodologies for conducting radio-based SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) have been developed by analyzing blc1; further honing our ability to distinguish future potential ET signals from our own planet.
E.T. managed to call home with a Speak and Spell, buzzsaw blade, and an umbrella. The reality of interstellar communication is a bit more complicated. Space is really, really big. The power needed to transmit a signal across the void is huge. However, rather than using super high power transmitters, recent research by Stephen Kerby and Jason T. Wright shows that we could make use of a natural signal gain boost built into solar systems – the gravitational lensing of a solar system’s star. Networking a series of stars as nodes could get signals across vast tracts of the Milky Way. And we may be able to detect if our Sun is already part of an alien galactic communication network.
I’d never seen galaxy images like this before. Nobody had! These images highlight star forming regions in nearby(ish) galaxies. There are still a number of unanswered questions surrounding how star formation actually occurs. To answer those questions, we are observing galaxies that are actively forming stars within giant clouds of gas. Until recently, we didn’t have the resolution needed to clearly image the individual gas clouds themselves. But images released by a project called PHANGS (Physics at High Angular resolution in Nearby GalaxieS) in a collaboration between the European Southern Observatory Very Large Telescope and the Atacama Large millimeter/submillmeter Array (ALMA) have provided never before seen detail of star forming clouds in other galaxies.
The Milky Way is 13 BILLION years old. Some of our Galaxy’s oldest stars were born near the beginning of the Universe itself. During all these eons of time, we know at least one technological civilization has been born – US!
But if the Galaxy is so ancient, and we know it can create life, why haven’t we heard from anybody else? If another civilization was just 0.1% of the Galaxy’s age older than we are, they would be millions of years further along than us and presumably more advanced. If we are already on the cusp of sending life to other worlds, shouldn’t the Milky Way be teeming with alien ships and colonies by now?
Maybe. But it’s also possible that we’ve been looking in the wrong place. Recent computer simulations by Jason T. Wright et al suggest that the best place to look for ancient space-faring civilizations might be the core of the Galaxy, a relatively unexplored target in the search for extra terrestrial intelligence.
Is there an alien civilization next door? It’s…possible(ish). In late 2020, we discovered a signal from the direction of Proxima Centauri (not necessarily from Proxima Centauri), our closest neighbour star. Named BLC- 1 by project Break Through Listen, the signal is still being analyzed to ensure it isn’t simply an echo of our own civilization – typically what they turn out to be. But why not just directly look at planets in Proxima Centauri and see if a civilization is there?
From space, the most obvious sign somebody lives on Earth is the glow from the nightside of our planet. Our cities emit light that’s shed into the Cosmos. Problem is that our current generation of telescopes are not powerful enough to see lights on distant worlds. But several researchers are testing the capabilities of the next generation of telescopes already on the drawing board. The finding? Yes! if advanced enough…or glowy enough…we would be able to see if another civilization has the lights on at Proxima Centauri.
Blasting out of Mos Eisley Space Port, the Millennium Falcon carries our adventurers off Tatooine bringing Luke Skywalker across the threshold into space. With Imperial Star Destroyers closing, Luke bemoans Han Solo’s delay in jumping to Hyperspace. It takes time to make these calculations through the Falcon’s “Navicomputer.” Han explains that otherwise they could “fly right through a star” or “bounce too close to a supernova.” (probably the same effect of each – also are supernovas bouncy?)
Celestial calculations are needed to figure out where you’re going. In Star Wars these are done by ship computers, or later by trusty astromech droids like R2-D2. But, for the first time, simulations have been conducted of an uncrewed ship’s ability to autonavigate through interstellar space. While not at Hyperspace speeds, the simulations do account for velocities at up to half the speed of light. Created by Coryn A.L. Bailer-Jones of the Max Plank Institute for Astronomy, these simulations may be our first step to creating our own “Navicomputers” (or R2-D2s if they have a personality).
In absence of (yet) being able to step foot on Mars, we have robotic vicarious experiences through our rovers including Perseverance which landed this past February 18th. In addition to photos we’ve collected from the surface over the decades, our ever-improving data connection to Mars made it possible to see video from Perseverance’s landing. That dramatic unfurl of the parachute and dust spray of the landing thrusters – astonishing! I’m not ashamed to admit I cried. Through Perseverance we’re also experiencing Mars exploration with another sense – SOUND! Sound from another planet!! Using Perseverance’s Entry, Descent, and Landing Microphone (EDL Mic) we recently recorded audio of Perseverance’s wheels rolling across the Martian regolith (broken rocks and dust or “soil”). The audio segment below is an edited portion of sound highlights from a longer 16 minute raw audio file.
Our sky is missing supernovas. Stars live for millions or billions of years. But given the sheer number of stars in the Milky Way, we should still expect these cataclysmic stellar deaths every 30-50 years. Few of those explosions will be within naked-eye-range of Earth. Nova is from the Latin meaning “new”. Over the last 2000 years, humans have seen about seven “new” stars appear in the sky – some bright enough to be seen during the day – until they faded after the initial explosion. While we haven’t seen a new star appear in the sky for over 400 years, we can see the aftermath with telescopes – supernova remnants (SNRs) – the hot expanding gases of stellar explosions. SNRs are visible up to a 150,000 years before fading into the Galaxy. So, doing the math, there should be about 1200 visible SNRs in our sky but we’ve only managed to find about 300. That was until “Hoinga” was recently discovered. Named after the hometown of first author Scientist Werner Becker, whose research team found the SNR using the eROSITA All-Sky X-ray survey, Hoinga is one of the largest SNRs ever seen.
I have stood under Orion The Hunter on clear evenings willing its star Betelgeuse to explode. “C’mon, blow up!” In late 2019, Betelgeuse experienced an unprecedented dimming event dropping 1.6 magnitude to 1/3 its max brightness. Astronomers wondered – was this dimming precursor to supernova? How cosmically wonderful it would be to witness the moment Betelgeuse explodes. The star ripping apart in a blaze of light scattering the seeds of planets, moons, and possibly life throughout the Universe. Creative cataclysm.
Only about ten supernova have been seen with the naked eye in all recorded history. Now we can revisit ancient astronomical records with telescopes to discover supernova remnants like the brilliant SN 1006 (witnessed in 1006AD) whose explosion created one of the brightest objects ever seen in the sky. Unfortunately, latest research suggests we all might be waiting another 100,000 years for Betelgeuse to pop. However, studying this recent dimming event gleaned new information about Betelgeuse which may help us better understand stars in a pre-supernova state.
I just finished the most recent season of The Expanse – my current favourite Sci-Fi series. Unlike most of my other go-to Sci-Fi, The Expanse’s narrative is (thus far) mainly contained to our own Solar System. In Star Trek, ships fly about the galaxy at Faster-Than-Light speeds giving mention to the many light years (or parsecs *cough* Star Wars) travelled to say nothing of sublight journeys within solar systems themselves. The distances between stars is huge. But, for current-day Earthling technology, our Solar System itself is still overwhelmingly enormous. It takes years to get anywhere.
In The Expanse, ships use a fictional sublight propulsion called The Epstein Drive to travel quickly through the Solar System at significant fractions of light speed. We’re not nearly there yet, but we are getting closer with the announcement of a new theoretical sublight propulsion. It won’t be an Epstein drive, but it may come to be known as the Ebrahimi Drive – an engine inspired by fusion reactors and the incredible power of solar Coronal Mass Ejections.