Confirmed: We Really are ‘Star Stuff’

Scientist Carl Sagan said many times that “we are star stuff,” from the nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, and the iron in our blood.

It is well known that most of the essential elements of life are truly made in the stars. Called the “CHNOPS elements” – carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorous, and sulfur – these are the building blocks of all life on Earth. Astronomers have now measured of all of the CHNOPS elements in 150,000 stars across the Milky Way, the first time such a large number of stars have been analyzed for these elements.

“For the first time, we can now study the distribution of elements across our Galaxy,” says Sten Hasselquist of New Mexico State University. “The elements we measure include the atoms that make up 97% of the mass of the human body.”

Astronomers with the Sloan Digital Sky Survey made their observations with the APOGEE (Apache Point Observatory Galactic Evolution Experiment) spectrograph on the 2.5m Sloan Foundation Telescope at Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico. This instrument looks in the near-infrared to reveal signatures of different elements in the atmospheres of stars.

Quote from Carl Sage. Credit: Pinterest

While the observations were used to create a new catalog that is helping astronomers gain a new understanding of the history and structure of our galaxy, the findings also “demonstrates a clear human connection to the skies,” said the team.

While humans are 65% oxygen by mass, oxygen makes up less than 1% of the mass of all of elements in space. Stars are mostly hydrogen, but small amounts of heavier elements such as oxygen can be detected in the spectra of stars. With these new results, APOGEE has found more of these heavier elements in the inner part of the galaxy. Stars in the inner galaxy are also older, so this means more of the elements of life were synthesized earlier in the inner parts of the galaxy than in the outer parts.

So what does that mean for those of us out on the outer edges of one of the Milky Way’s spiral arms, about 25,000 light-years from the center of the galaxy?

“I think it’s hard to say what the specific implications are for when life could arise,” said team member Jon Holtzman, also from New Mexico State, in an email to Universe Today. “We measure typical abundance of CHNOPS elements at different locations, but it’s not so easy to determine at any given location the time history of the CHNOPS abundances, because it’s hard to measure ages of stars. On top of that, we don’t know what the minimum amount of CHNOPS would need to be for life to arise, especially since we don’t really know how that happens in any detail!”

Holtzman added it is likely that, if there is a minimum required abundance, that minimum was probably reached earlier in the inner parts of the Galaxy than where we are.

The team also said that while it’s fun to speculate how the composition of the inner Milky Way Galaxy might impact how life might arise, the SDSS scientists are much better at understanding the formation of stars in our Galaxy.

“These data will be useful to make progress on understanding Galactic evolution,” said team member Jon Bird of Vanderbilt University, “as more and more detailed simulations of the formation of our galaxy are being made, requiring more complex data for comparison.”

Sloan Foundation 2.5m Telescope at Apache Point Observatory. Credit: SDSS.

“It’s a great human interest story that we are now able to map the abundance of all of the major elements found in the human body across hundreds of thousands of stars in our Milky Way,” said Jennifer Johnson of The Ohio State University. “This allows us to place constraints on when and where in our galaxy life had the required elements to evolve, a sort ‘temporal Galactic habitable zone’”.

The catalog is available at the SDSS website, so take a look for yourself at the chemical abundances in our portion of the galaxy.

Source: SDSS

Mars Has Features That Look Very Similar To Life Bearing Hot Springs On Earth

A type of rock formation found on Mars may be some of the best evidence yet for life on that planet, according to a new study at Nature.com. The formations in question are in the Gusev Crater. When Spirit examined the spectra of the formations, scientists found that they closely match those of formations at El Tatio in Northern Chile.

The significance of that match? The El Tatio formations were produced by a combination of living and non-living processes.

The Gusev Crater geo-located on a map of Mars. Image: Wikimedia Labs
The Gusev Crater geo-located on a map of Mars. Image: Wikimedia Labs

The Gusev Crater is a large crater that formed 3 to 4 billion years ago. It’s an old crater lake bed, with sediments up to 3,000 feet thick. Gusev also has exposed rock formations which show evidence of layering. A system of water channels called Ma’adim Vallis flows into Gusev, which could account for the deep sediments.

When it comes to evidence for the existence of life on Mars, and on early Earth, researchers often focus on hydrothermal spring deposits. These deposits can capture and preserve the biosignatures of early life. You can’t find evidence of ancient life just anywhere because geologic processes erase it. This is why El Tatio has received so much attention.

It’s also why formations at Gusev have received attention. They appear to have a hydrothermal origin as well. Their relation to the rocks around them support their hydrothermal origin.

El Tatio in Chile is a hard-to-find combination of extremely high UV, low rainfall, high annual evaporation rate, and high elevation. This makes it an excellent analog for Mars.

The Mars-like conditions at El Tatio make it rather unique on Earth, and that uniqueness is reflected in the rock deposits and structures that it produces. The most unique ones may be the biomediated silica structures that resemble the structures in Gusev. This resemblance suggest that they have the same causes: hydrothermal vents and biofilms.

Silica structures at the Gusev Crater (left) closely resemble the silica structures at El Tatio (right.) Image: Steven W. Ruff, Jack D. Farmer
Silica structures at the Gusev Crater (left) closely resemble the silica structures at El Tatio (right.) Image: Steven W. Ruff, Jack D. Farmer

Biomediated Structures?

The rock structures at El Tatio are typically covered with very shallow water that supports bio-films and mats comprised of different diatoms and cyanobacteria. The size and shape of the structures varies, probably according to the variable depth, flow velocity, and flow direction of the water. The same variations are present at Gusev on Mars. This begs the question, “Could the structures at Gusev also have a biological cause?”

Microscopic images of structures at El Tatio. B, in the upper right, shows the biofilm community partly responsible for the formation of the structures. The surface biofilm community includes silica-encrusted microbial filaments and sheaths, and spindle-shaped diatoms (white arrows.) Image: Steven W. Ruff, Jack D. Farmer.
Microscopic images of structures at El Tatio. B, in the upper right, shows the biofilm community partly responsible for the formation of the structures. The surface biofilm community includes silica-encrusted microbial filaments and sheaths, and spindle-shaped diatoms (white arrows.) Image: Steven W. Ruff, Jack D. Farmer.

Luckily, we have a rover on Mars that can probe the Gusev formations more deeply. Spirit used its Miniature Thermal Emission Spectrometer (Mini-TES) to obtain spectra of the Gusev formations. These spectra confirmed the similarity to the terrestrial formations at El Tatio.

Spirit was helpful in other ways. The rover has one inoperable wheel, which drags across the Martian surface, disrupting and overturning rock structures. Spirit was intentionally driven across the Gusev formations, in order to overturn and expose fragments. Then, Spirit’s Microscopic Imager was trained on those fragments.

(A) shows the wheel marks left by Spirit. The darker ones on the right are from the inoperable wheel. (B) is a closeup of the box in (A). (C) shows some of the rover tracks and features in Gusev. (D) shows two whitish rocks, intentionally overturned by Spirit's busted wheel. Image: NASA/JPL/Spirit PanCam.
(A) shows the wheel marks left by Spirit. The darker ones on the right are from the inoperable wheel. (B) is a closeup of the box in (A). (C) shows some of the rover tracks and features in Gusev. (D) shows two whitish rocks, intentionally overturned by Spirit’s busted wheel. Image: NASA/JPL/Spirit PanCam.
MM scale close-up images of the Martian rocks, on the left, show many similarities with the El Tatio rocks, right. Images: Steven W. Ruff, Jack D. Farmer, NASA/JPL.
MM scale close-up images of the Martian rocks, on the left, show many similarities with the El Tatio rocks, right. Images: Steven W. Ruff, Jack D. Farmer, NASA/JPL.

Unfortunately, Spirit lacks the instrumentation to look deeply into the internal microscale features of the Martian rocks. If Spirit could do that, we would be much more certain that the Martian rocks were partly biogenic in origin. All of the surrounding factors suggest that they do, but that’s not enough to come to that conclusion.

This study presents more compelling evidence that there was indeed life on Mars at some point. But it’s not conclusive.

The Search Is On For Alien Signals Around Tabby’s Star


There’s a remote chance that inexplicable light variations in a star in the Northern Cross may be caused by the works of an alien civilization.

1,480 light years from Earth twinkles one of the greatest mysteries of recent times.  There in the constellation Cygnus the Swan, you’ll find a dim, ordinary-looking point of light with an innocent sounding name — Tabby’s Star.  Named for Louisiana State University astronomer  Tabetha Boyajian, who was the lead author on a paper about its behavior, this star has so confounded astronomers with its unpredictable ups and downs in its brightness, they’ve gone to war on the object, drilling down on it with everything from the Hubble to the monster 393.7-inch (10-meter) Keck Telescope in Hawaii.

Tabby’s Star was uncovered by the Kepler Space Telescope during its examination of of more than 150,000 stars in the Milky Way. Kepler sought out stars accompanied by planets. By recording tiny, repeating fading of the star’s light as a planet passes in front a star, astronomers could determine the planet’s size, orbit and much more. All told, Kepler nabbed more than 2,300 new planets orbiting a host of stars in the constellations Lyra and Cygnus.

This graph shows the big dip in brightness of KIC 8462852 around 800 days (center) followed after 1500 days whole series of dips of varying magnitude up to 22%. The usual drop in light when an exoplanet transits its host star is a fraction of a percent. The star’s normal brightness has been set to “1.00” as a baseline. Credit: Boyajian et. all
This graph shows the big dip in brightness of KIC 8462852 around 800 days (center) followed after 1500 days whole series of dips of varying magnitude up to 22%. The usual drop in light when an exoplanet transits its host star is a fraction of a percent. The star’s normal brightness has been set to “1.00” as a baseline. Credit: Boyajian et. all

Among the stars Kepler viewed in its survey was one KIC 8462852 (Tabby’s Star). Unlike the others, its light dimmed in a completely unpredictable way. Things in orbit produce repeatable patterns, so astronomers began searching for alternative explanations. Might the star be variable? Lots of stars undergo physical changes such as pulsations or even explosions that cause them to vary in brightness. Nope. Based on its type, a stable star similar to the sun, and the fact that most of the time, it remains shining with a steady light, it didn’t fit the pattern.

Tabby's Star shines at magnitude +11.7 in the constellation Cygnus the Swan (Northern Cross) high in the southwestern sky at nightfall in late October. A 6-inch or larger telescope will easily show it. Source: Stellarium
Tabby’s Star shines at magnitude +11.7 in the constellation Cygnus the Swan (Northern Cross) high in the southwestern sky at nightfall in late October. A 6-inch or larger telescope will easily show it. Source: Stellarium

The star dims by as much as 22% for days at a time at irregular intervals. Stars fade and re-brighten, but not in the way this star does according to astronomers. Researchers ruled out many possibilities including instrumental errors, starspots (like sunspots but on other stars), dust rings seen around young, evolving stars (this is an older star) and pulsations that can cloak it with light-absorbing dust clouds. Dust clouds don’t work because they’d warm up in the star’s light and radiate heat that we could detect with infrared telescopes. We see no excess of glowing dust, ruling that possibility out, too.

Casting about for potential answers, Boyajian and team hit on the hypothesis that an enormous cloud of comets might be behind the light fluctuations. Imagine these comets, fragile creatures that they are, breaking up into fragments that cascade into smaller pieces over time, creating a host of irregular and chaotic variations in Tabby’s light.

Artist's impression of an orbiting swarm of dusty comet fragments around Tabby's Star. Could these be responsible for its peculiar dips in brightness or is there a biological reason?  A small red dwarf star (above, left) lies near Tabby's. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s impression of an orbiting swarm of dusty comet fragments around Tabby’s Star. Could these be responsible for its peculiar dips in brightness or is there a biological reason?  A small red dwarf star (above, left) lies near Tabby’s. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

While that may be a reach, there’s even a stranger possibility.  Jason Wright, an assistant professor of astronomy at Penn State, would like us to consider an alien civilization as the cause. Although the possibility is a remote one, he asks us to consider that an alien civilization may be building a megastructure known as a Dyson Sphere around its home star. A Dyson Sphere is a hypothetical sphere constructed around a star. Built of enormous solar panels, it would capture the star’s energy and convert it into electricity to power a technological civilization.

Now imagine if you will, thousands of huge panels in various stages of construction and position orbiting Tabby’s Star, and you just might have an explanation for its mysterious ups and downs. Far-fetched? Of course. But there may be a way to prove it.

The Green Bank Telescope is the world’s largest, fully-steerable telescope. The GBT’s dish is 100-meters by 110-meters in size, covering 2.3 acres of space. The telescope is currently being used in a new SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) attempt to look for possible alien radio signals from Tabby's Star. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF
The Green Bank Telescope is the world’s largest, fully-steerable telescope. The GBT’s dish is 100-meters by 110-meters in size, covering 2.3 acres of space. The telescope is currently being used in a new SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) attempt to look for possible alien radio signals from Tabby’s Star. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF

A technologically advanced civilization would presumably need to communicate over long distances just like humans do. We use radio and TV, both of which transmit at very specific and narrow frequencies. Every time you go up and down the radio dial, each station you hear is beaming powerful radio waves at a specific frequency or vibration rate. Natural processes are more casual with a broader spread of frequencies. If we could detect a powerful signal at a specific frequency coming from Tabby’s Star, it could potentially be an indication of an alien species at work transmitting their own version of Dancing with the Stars.

One possibility for the weird light variations from Tabby's Star might be a Dyson Sphere built by an alien civilization around the star to harness its power. Credit: UC Berkeley
One possibility for the weird light variations from Tabby’s Star might be a Dyson Sphere built by an alien civilization around the star to harness its power. Credit: UC Berkeley

So how do we do this? How can even know what frequencies they’ll be using to transmit? Well, you take the Green Bank Radio Telescope, the largest fully steerable radio telescope on the planet, and hook it up with a new SETI instrument that can look at an enormous swath of bandwidth simultaneously in billions of different radio channels. That’s exactly what happened Wednesday night (Oct. 26) as part of the Breakthrough Listen project, a $100 million initiative by Russian tycoon Yuri Milner to search for intelligent life in the universe.  

University of California Berkeley astronomers devoted eight hours of scope time last night “listening” to Tabby’s Star for potential signs of an extraterrestrial civilization. They’ll spend two more nights in the coming two months at it and then analyze the data, a process that will take more than a month. Perhaps then we’ll finally get an answer. I hope it’s an alien one, but of course that’s a long shot. Stay tuned.

**** My new book, Night Sky with the Naked Eye, will be published on Nov. 8, but you can pre-order right now at these online stores. Just click an icon to go to the site of your choice – Amazon, Barnes & Noble or Indiebound. It’s currently available at the first two outlets for a very nice discount:

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We Land on Mars in Just 2 days!


Watch how Schiaparelli will land on Mars. Touchdown will occur at 10:48 a.m. EDT (14:48 GMT) Wednesday Oct. 19.

Cross your fingers for good weather on the Red Planet on October 19. That’s the day the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli lander pops open its parachute, fires nine, liquid-fueled thrusters and descends to the surface of Mars. Assuming fair weather, the lander should settle down safely on the wide-open plains of Meridiani Planum near the Martian equator northwest of NASA’s Opportunity rover. The region is rich in hematite, an iron-rich mineral associated with hot springs here on Earth.

On 19 October 2016, the ExoMars 2016 entry, descent, and landing demonstrator module, known as Schiaparelli, will land on Mars in a region known as Meridiani Planum. The landing sites of the seven rovers and landers that have reached the surface of Mars and successfully operated there are indicated on this map. The background image is a shaded relief map of Mars, based on data from the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA) instrument, on NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft.
On Wednesday, October 19, the ExoMars 2016 entry, descent and landing demonstrator module, named Schiaparelli, will land on Mars in Meridiani Planum not far from the Opportunity rover. The map shows the seven rovers and landers that have reached the surface of Mars and successfully operated there. The background image is a shaded relief map of Mars created using data from NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft.

The 8-foot-wide probe will be released three days earlier from the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and coast toward Mars before entering its atmosphere at 13,000 mph (21,000 km/hr). During the 6-minute-long descent, Schiaparelli will decelerate gradually using the atmosphere to brake its speed, a technique called aerobraking. Not only is Meridiani Planum flat, it’s low, which means the atmosphere is thick enough to allow Schiaparelli’s heat shield to reduce its speed sufficiently so the chute can be safely deployed. The final firing of its thrusters will ensure a soft and controlled landing.

Artist's impression depicting the separation of the ExoMars 2016 entry, descent and landing demonstrator module, named Schiaparelli, from the Trace Gas Orbiter, and heading for Mars. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab
Artist’s impression showing Schiaparelli separating from the Trace Gas Orbiter and heading for Mars. The lander is named for late 19th century Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, who created a detailed telescopic map of Mars. The orbiter will sniff out potentially biological gases such as methane in Mars’ atmosphere and track its sources and seasonal variations. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

The lander is one-half of the ExoMars 2016 mission, a joint venture between the European Space Agency and Russia’s Roscosmos. The Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) will fire its thrusters to place itself in orbit about the Red Planet the same day Schiparelli lands. Its job is to inventory the atmosphere in search of organic molecules, methane in particular. Plumes of methane, which may be biological or geological (or both) in origin, have recently been detected at several locations on Mars including Syrtis Major, the planet’s most prominent dark marking. The orbiter will hopefully pinpoint the source(s) as well as study seasonal changes in locations and concentrations.

This image, taken by the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on board ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft, shows what appears to be a dust-covered frozen sea near the Martian equator. It shows a flat plain, part of the Elysium Planitia, that is covered with irregular blocky shapes. They look just like the rafts of fragmented sea ice that lie off the coast of Antarctica on Earth. Raised levels of methane were detected here by ESA's Mars Express orbiter. Copyright: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)
This image, taken by ESA’s Express spacecraft, shows what appears to be a dust-covered frozen sea near the Martian equator. Located in Elysium Planitia, the flat plain is covered with irregular blocky shapes. They look just like the rafts of fragmented sea ice that lie off the coast of Antarctica on Earth. Raised levels of methane were detected here by ESA’s Mars Express orbiter. Copyright: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

Methane (CH4) has long been associated with life here on Earth. More than 90% of the colorless, odorless gas is produced by living organisms, primarily bacteria. Sunlight breaks methane down into other gases over a span of about 300 years. Because the gas relatively short-lived, seeing it on Mars implies an active, current source. There may be several:

  • Long-extinct bacteria that released methane that became trapped in ice or minerals in the upper crust. Changing temperature and pressure could stress the ice and release that ancient gas into today’s atmosphere.
  • Bacteria that are actively producing methane to this day.
  • Abiological sources. Iron can combine with oxygen in terrestrial hot springs and volcanoes to create methane. This gas can also become trapped in solid forms of water or ‘cages’ called clathrate hydrates that can preserve it for a long time. Olivine, a common mineral on Earth and Mars, can react with water under the right conditions to form another mineral called serpentine. When altered by heat, water and pressure, such in environments such as hydrothermal springs, serpentine can produce methane.

Will it turn out to be burping bacteria or mineral processes? Let’s hope TGO can point the way.

This image illustrates possible ways methane might get into Mars’ atmosphere and also be removed from it: microbes (left) under the surface that release the gas into the atmosphere, weathering of rock (right) and stored methane ice called a clathrate. Ultraviolet light can work on surface materials to produce methane as well as break it apart into other molecules (formaldehyde and methanol) to produce carbon dioxide. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SAM-GSFC/Univ. of Michigan
This image illustrates possible ways methane might get into Mars’ atmosphere and also be removed from it: microbes (left) under the surface that release the gas into the atmosphere, weathering of rock (right) and stored methane ice called a clathrate. Ultraviolet light can work on surface materials to produce methane as well as break it apart into other molecules (formaldehyde and methanol) to produce carbon dioxide. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SAM-GSFC/Univ. of Michigan

The Trace Gas Orbiter will also use the Martian atmosphere to slow its speed and trim its orbital loop into a 248-mile-high (400 km) circle suitable for science observations. But don’t expect much in the way of scientific results right away; aerobraking maneuvers will take about a year, so TGO’s job of teasing out atmospheric ingredients won’t begin until December 2017. The study runs for 5 years.

The orbiter will also examine Martian water vapor, nitrogen oxides and other organics with far greater accuracy than any previous probe as well as monitor seasonal changes in the atmosphere’s composition and temperature. And get this — its instruments can map subsurface hydrogen, a key ingredient in both water and methane, down to a depth of a meter (39.4 inches) with greater resolution compared to previous studies. Who knows? We may discover hidden ice deposits or methane sinks that could influence where future rovers will land. Additional missions to Mars are already on the docket, including ExoMars 2020. More about that in a minute.

Schiaparelli, the
This artist’s view shows Schiaparelli, the entry, descent and landing demonstrator module, using its thrusters to make a soft landing on Mars on October 19 at 10:48 a.m. EDT (14:48 GMT). Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

While TGO’s mission will require years, the lander is expected to survive for only four Martian days (called ‘sols’) by using the excess energy capacity of its batteries. A set of scientific sensors will measure wind speed and direction, humidity, pressure and electric fields on the surface. A descent camera will take pictures of the landing site on the way down; we’ll should see those photos the very next day. Data and imagery from the lander will be transmitted to ESA’s Mars Express and a NASA Relay Orbiter, then relayed to Earth.


This animation shows the paths of the Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli lander on Oct. 19 when they arrive at Mars.

If you’re wondering why the lander’s mission is so brief, it’s because Schiaparelli is essentially a test vehicle. Its primary purpose is to test technologies for landing on Mars including the special materials used for protection against the heat of entry, a parachute system, a Doppler radar device for measuring altitude and liquid-fueled braking thrusters.

Martian dust storms can be cause for concern during any landing attempt. Since it’s now autumn in the planet’s northern hemisphere, a time when storms are common, there’s been some finger-nail biting of late. The good news is that storms of recent weeks have calmed and Mars has entered a welcome quiet spell.

To watch events unfold in real time, check out ESA’s live stream channel, Facebook page and Twitter updates. The announcement of the separation of the lander from the orbiter will be made around 11 a.m. Eastern Time (15:00 GMT) Sunday October 16.  Live coverage of the Trace Gas Orbiter arrival and Schiaparelli landing on Mars runs from 9-11:15 a.m. Eastern (13:00-15:15 GMT) on Wednesday October 19. Photos taken by Schiaparelli’s descent camera will be available starting at 4 a.m. Eastern (8:00 GMT) on October 20. More details here. We’ll also keep you updated on Universe Today.

The ExoMars 2016 mission will pave the way for a rover mission to the Red Planet in 2020. Credit: ESA
The ExoMars 2016 mission will pave the way for a rover mission to the Red Planet in 2020. Credit: ESA

Everything we learn during the current mission will be applied to planning and executing the next —  ExoMars 2020, slated to launch in 2020. That venture will send a rover to the surface to search and chemically test for signs of life, present or past.  It will collect samples with a drill at various depths and analyze the fines for bio-molecules. Getting down deep is important because the planet’s thin atmosphere lets through harsh UV light from the sun, sterilizing the surface.

Are you ready for adventure? See you on Mars (vicariously)!

Going Viral: Why Alien Signals Get Everyone Excited

So, that ‘strong’ signal from aliens everyone was so excited about this week? Turns out, it was probably something from Earth, maybe a satellite passing overhead or another object of “terrestrial origin,” the Russian researchers have concluded.

Yeah. Dang.

“This supports our initial assumption that the signal was made by human intelligence, not extraterrestrial intelligence,” said Doug Vakoch, President of METI International (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence), a group doing follow-up observations of the star system HD 164595, where the signal was thought to maybe, perhaps originate.

When the news broke of the possible alien signal, SETI scientists were quick to temper the excitement with measured skepticism, saying more often than not, these signals end up being “natural radio transients” (stellar flare, active galactic nucleus, microlensing of a background source, etc.) or interference of a terrestrial nature (a passing satellite or a microwave oven, for example.)

But still, people were excited and the news went viral. Crazy viral.

“Being no stranger to how the media can hype SETI stories, I can sympathize with those at the center of the latest dustup,” said astronomer and SETI researcher Jason Wright from Penn State University. “It’s understandable that many content outlets, seeking ‘clickbait’ headlines, would spin this particular story in the most intriguing, exciting way, and once that happens a ‘bidding war’ of hype can make the story spin out of control.”

But is it all about clickbait? Since I’m part of the media (and admittedly was initially very excited about this story,) I’d like to think that the excitement and viral-tendencies of news about possible alien signals say more about humanity’s fervent hope that we aren’t alone in the cosmos, rather than who can get the most pageviews.

And I do know that researchers who dedicate their careers to the search for alien signals and Earth-like planets aren’t doing so just so they can keep telling us to not get excited. They, too, are hoping for that chance, that very remote possibility, that we’ve got company in our big and magnificent Universe.

“You can’t always be cynical,” said SETI senior astronomer Seth Shostak. “If a signal is looking promising, we are going to check it out.”

And that’s the thing, say the researchers. They get signals like this all the time.

“This is the sort of thing SETI researchers do all the time, because by the nature of the search, radio SETI experiments come across strong signals all the time,” Vakoch said via email. “At the end of the day, these need to be confirmed as coming from distant locations in space, and if we can’t, we need to consider them spurious. The unusual feature of HD 164595 is that this process of checking is being followed by the media.”

And while scientists were surprised (and maybe annoyed) at the amount of attention the ‘alien signal’ news got this week, there is an upside.

“The silver living here is that those who read the more responsible stories carefully will learn a lot about how SETI works,” Wright told Universe Today, “that communication SETI researchers see “one-off” signals all the time from both astronomical and terrestrial sources, in addition to perhaps the occasional instrumental glitch. Searches using arrays (like the ATA) have an automatic check against many of these, but in any event no one will be popping the champaign until a signal repeats enough for an independent telescope and instrument to detect it, and its intelligent origin is clear.”

“The public is getting an inside view of the usual process of following up interesting SETI candidates,” said Vakoch. “This helps the public understand the standard process of doing SETI: we find interesting signals, and then we see if we can verify them. If not, we move on.”

Vakoch and Wright said that the confirmation process, however, involves a lot of steps, and it’s not always easy or quick to follow-up. So, most of the time, determining the source of the signal takes time.

“Unlike Hollywood movies, where you get a quick “yes or no” about a possible signal from aliens,” Vakoch explained, “the real SETI confirmation process takes some time. It’s easy to think that all we need to do is get on the phone with an astronomer at another location, and we’re all set. But even when colleagues at other facilities are willing to observe, they may face technical limitations.”

The Allen Telescope Array (ATA).  Credit: Seth Shostak / SETI Institute
The Allen Telescope Array (ATA). Credit: Seth Shostak / SETI Institute

Typical radio SETI searches look for narrowband signals, and most observatories aren’t set up to detect such signals on short notice. And even though radio observatories can make observations even when it’s cloudy, there can be other types of local interference at certain radio frequencies.

“If you need to do a real-time follow-up of a promising SETI signal, you might face significant roadblocks to a ready confirmation – even if the signal is really there,” Vakoch said.

Another upside of the recent media attention is that SETI researchers can let everyone know they aren’t getting much funding for this type of research, and the search could really use a lot more eyes and ears on the Universe, as Jill Tartar tweeted:

“It’s all the more evident that we need to replicate these innovative optical SETI systems over and over,”Vakoch said, “so we can have a global network of modest-sized observatories ready for follow-up of promising SETI signals. Developing such a network is one of METI International’s top priorities as an organization.”

(You can support SETI here and find out more about METI and optical SETI here.)

Wright said while the public interest in SETI is great, sometimes the media (or the tin foil hat crowd or conspiracy theorists) can blow things out of proportion.

“This can make it hard for anyone doing SETI to talk about their work, because any mention of ‘strange’ or ‘candidate’ signals has the potential to enter that echo chamber,” he said.

Which can go viral.

But if anyone is worried that SETI researchers are keeping secrets or not telling the whole story, I can personally vouch that during this week, absolutely every SETI researcher I contacted answered all my questions in an extremely timely manner (and provided even more information than I was expecting) plus, other researchers contacted me, asking to be able to explain the signal and the process of how SETI works.

“Nothing would make us more excited than to verify it,” said Bill Diamond, president and CEO of SETI, “But we have to observe it and look at the data.”

Further reading:

Statement from Russian researchers about followup observations revealing the signal to be ‘terrestrial in origin’

TASS news story about signal

“Let’s Be Careful About This SETI Signal” by Franck Marchis

“No, we almost certainly did not detect an alien signal from a nearby star” by Phil Plait

SETI is Hopeful Yet Skeptical that Russians Found Aliens by Dean Takahashi

“That Alien Signal? Observations Are Coming Up Empty” by Nadia Drake

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Asteroid Sampling Probe Assembled at Florida Launch Base for Sep. 8 Blastoff — Cleanroom Photos

NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex asteroid sampling spacecraft inside the Payloads Hazardous Servicing Facility high bay at NASA's Kennedy Space Center  is being processed for Sep. 8, 2016 launch to asteroid Bennu from Cape Canaveral, FL.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sampling spacecraft, return capsule and payload fairings inside the Payloads Hazardous Servicing Facility high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center is being processed for Sep. 8, 2016 launch to asteroid Bennu from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – OSIRIS-Rex, the first American sponsored probe aimed at retrieving “pristine materials” from the surface of an asteroid and returning them to Earth has been fully assembled at its Florida launch base and is ready to blastoff ten days from today on Sep. 8. It’s a groundbreaking mission that could inform us about astrobiology and the ‘Origin of Life.’

“We are interested in that material because it is a time capsule from the earliest stages of solar system formation,” said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx at the University of Arizona, Tucson, in an interview with Universe Today beside the completed spacecraft inside the Payloads Hazardous Servicing Facility, or PHSF, clean room processing facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

With virtually all prelaunch processing complete, leading members of the science, engineering and launch team including Lauretta met with several members of the media, including Universe Today, inside the clean room for a last and exclusive up-close look and briefing with the one-of-its-kind $800 million Asteroid sampling probe last week.

NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security – Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft will launch from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on September 8 at 7:05 p.m. EDT.

OSIRIS-REx goal is to fly on a roundtrip seven-year journey to the near-Earth asteroid target named Bennu and back. 101955 Bennu is a near Earth asteroid and was selected specifically because it is a carbon-rich asteroid.

While orbiting Bennu it will move in close and snatch pristine soil samples containing organic materials from the surface using the TAGSAM collection dish, and bring them back to Earth for study by researchers using all of the most sophisticated science instruments available to humankind.

“The primary objective of the OSIRIS-Rex mission is to bring back pristine material from the surface of the carbonaceous asteroid Bennu, OSIRIS-Rex Principal Investigator Dante Lauretta told Universe Today in the PHSF, as the probe was undergoing final preparation for shipment to the launch pad.

“It records the very first material that formed from the earliest stages of solar system formation. And we are really interested in the evolution of carbon during that phase. Particularly the key prebiotic molecules like amino acids, nucleic acids, phosphates and sugars that build up. These are basically the biomolecules for all of life.”

Overhead view of NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex asteroid sampling spacecraft with small white colored sample return canister atop,  inside the Payloads Hazardous Servicing Facility high bay at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. Launch is slated for Sep. 8, 2016 to asteroid Bennu from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.   Credit:  Julian Leek
Overhead view of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sampling spacecraft with small white colored sample return canister atop, inside the Payloads Hazardous Servicing Facility high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Launch is slated for Sep. 8, 2016 to asteroid Bennu from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. Credit: Julian Leek

OSIRIS-REx will gather rocks and soil and bring at least a 60-gram (2.1-ounce) sample back to Earth in 2023. It has the capacity to scoop up to about 1 kg or more.

The mission will help scientists investigate how planets formed and how life began. It will also improve our understanding of asteroids that could impact Earth by measuring the Yarkovsky effect.

I asked Lauretta to explain in more detail why was Bennu selected as the target to answer fundamental questions related to the origin of life?

“We selected asteroid Bennu as the target for this mission because we feel it has the best chance of containing those pristine organic compounds from the early stage of solar system formation,” Lauretta told me.

“And that information is based on our ground based spectral characterization using telescopes here on Earth. Also, space based assets like the Hubble Space Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescope.”

What is known about the presence of nitrogen containing compounds like amino acids and other elements on Bennu that are the building blocks of life?

“When we look at the compounds that make up these organic materials in these primitive asteroidal materials, we see a lot of carbon,” Lauretta explained.

“But we also see nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, sulfur and phosphorous. We call those the CHONPS. Those are the six elements we really focus on when we look at astrobiology and prebiotic chemistry and how those got into the origin of life.”

View of science instrument suite and TAGSAM robotic sample return arm on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sampling spacecraft inside the Payloads Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center.  Probe is slated for Sep. 8, 2016 launch to asteroid Bennu from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
View of science instrument suite and TAGSAM robotic sample return arm on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sampling spacecraft inside the Payloads Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Probe is slated for Sep. 8, 2016 launch to asteroid Bennu from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft was built for NASA by prime contractor Lockheed Martin at their facility near Denver, Colorado and flown to the Kennedy Space Center on May 20.

For the past three months it has undergone final integration, processing and testing inside the PHSF under extremely strict contamination control protocols to prevent contamination by particle, aerosols and most importantly organic residues like amino acids that could confuse researchers seeking to discover those very materials in the regolith samples gathered for return to Earth.

The PHFS clean room was most recently used to process the Orbital ATK Cygnus space station resupply vehicles. It has also processed NASA interplanetary probes such as the Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory and MAVEN Mars orbiter missions.

Side view of NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex asteroid sampling spacecraft showing the High Gain Antenna at left and solar panel, inside the Payloads Hazardous Servicing Facility high bay at NASA's Kennedy Space Center.  Probe is being processed for Sep. 8, 2016 launch to asteroid Bennu from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Side view of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sampling spacecraft showing the High Gain Antenna at left and solar panel, inside the Payloads Hazardous Servicing Facility high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Probe is being processed for Sep. 8, 2016 launch to asteroid Bennu from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The spacecraft will reach Bennu in 2018. Once within three miles (5 km) of the asteroid, the spacecraft will begin at least six months of comprehensive surface mapping of the carbonaceous asteroid, according to Heather Enos, deputy principal investigator, in an interview with Universe Today.

“We will then move the spacecraft to within about a half kilometer or so to collect further data,” Enos elaborated.

It will map the chemistry and mineralogy of the primitive carbonaceous asteroid. The team will initially select about 10 target areas for further scrutiny as the sampling target. This will be whittled down to two, a primary and backup, Enos told me.

After analyzing the data returned, the science team then will select a site where the spacecraft’s robotic sampling arm will grab a sample of regolith and rocks. The regolith may record the earliest history of our solar system.

Engineers will command the spacecraft to gradually move on closer to the chosen sample site, and then extend the arm to snatch the pristine samples the TAGSAM sample return arm.

PI Lauretta will make the final decision on when and which site to grab the sample from.

“As the Principal Investigator for the mission I have responsibility for all of the key decisions during our operations,” Lauretta replied. “So we will be deciding on where we want to target our high resolution investigations for sample site evaluation. And ultimately what is the one location we want to send the spacecraft down to the surface of the asteroid to and collect that sample.”

“And then we have to decide like if we collected enough sample and are we ready to stow it in the sample return capsule. Or are we going to use one of our 2 contingency bottles of gas to go for a second attempt.”

“The primary objective is one successful sampling event. So when we collect 60 grams or 2 ounces of sample then we are done!”

“In the event that we decide to collect more, it will be intermixed with anything we collected on the first attempt.”

The priceless sample will then be stowed in the on board sample return capsule for the long journey back to Earth.

NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex asteroid sampling spacecraft inside the Payloads Hazardous Servicing Facility high bay at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. Launch is slated for Sep. 8, 2016 to asteroid Bennu from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.   Credit: Lane Hermann
NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex asteroid sampling spacecraft inside the Payloads Hazardous Servicing Facility high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Launch is slated for Sep. 8, 2016 to asteroid Bennu from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. Credit: Lane Hermann

Bennu is an unchanged remnant from the collapse of the solar nebula and birth of our solar system some 4.5 billion years ago, little altered over time.

Bennu is a near-Earth asteroid and was selected for the sample return mission because it could hold clues to the origin of the solar system and host organic molecules that may have seeded life on Earth.

Artist’s conception of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft at Bennu.  Credits: NASA/GSFC
Artist’s conception of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft at Bennu. Credits: NASA/GSFC

OSIRIS-REx will return the largest sample from space since the American and Soviet Union’s moon landing missions of the 1970s.

Watch this USLaunchReport video shot during media visit inside the PHSF on Aug. 20, 2016:

Video caption: Our first introduction to the OSIRIS-REx asteroid bound mission in search of the origins of life, from inside the Payloads Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on Aug. 20, 2016. Credit: USLaunchReport

OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program, following New Horizons to Pluto and Juno to Jupiter, which also launched on Atlas V rockets.

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is responsible for overall mission management.

OSIRIS-REx complements NASA’s Asteroid Initiative – including the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) which is a robotic spacecraft mission aimed at capturing a surface boulder from a different near-Earth asteroid and moving it into a stable lunar orbit for eventual up close sample collection by astronauts launched in NASA’s new Orion spacecraft. Orion will launch atop NASA’s new SLS heavy lift booster concurrently under development.

Watch for Ken’s continuing OSIRIS-REx mission and launch reporting from on site at the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Ait Force Station, FL.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Dr Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx at the University of Arizona, Tucson, and Dr. Ken Kremer, Universe Today point to NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex asteroid sampling spacecraft inside the Payloads Hazardous Servicing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center on Aug. 20, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Dr Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx at the University of Arizona, Tucson, and Dr. Ken Kremer, Universe Today point to NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex asteroid sampling spacecraft inside the Payloads Hazardous Servicing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center on Aug. 20, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The University of Arizona’s camera suite, OCAMS, sits on a test bench that mimics its arrangement on the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. The three cameras that compose the instrument – MapCam (left), PolyCam and SamCam – are the eyes of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission. They will map the asteroid Bennu, help choose a sample site, and ensure that the sample is correctly stowed on the spacecraft.  Credits: University of Arizona/Symeon Platts
The University of Arizona’s camera suite, OCAMS, sits on a test bench that mimics its arrangement on the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. The three cameras that compose the instrument – MapCam (left), PolyCam and SamCam – are the eyes of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission. They will map the asteroid Bennu, help choose a sample site, and ensure that the sample is correctly stowed on the spacecraft. Credits: University of Arizona/Symeon Platts

Aliens? “Strong” Signal Detected From Sun-Like Star Being Verified By SETI

We’re not saying its aliens, but this could be the most enticing SETI-related signal from space since the famous “Wow! Signal” in 1977.

Over the weekend, interstellar expert Paul Gilster broke the news that “a strong signal” was detected by Russian radio astronomers from the region around the star HD 164595. This signal has attracted enough attention that two prominent SETI observatories are quickly making follow-up observations. Alan Boyle reports in Geekwire that the Allen Telescope Array in California has already been observing the star system and the Boquete Optical SETI Observatory in Panama will make an attempt this evening, if the weather is clear.

Doug Vakoch, the President of METI International (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence) told Universe Today via email that the Allen Telescope Array has already completed its initial reconnaissance of HD 164595, “with no indications of alien technologies at radio frequencies.”

“The first step in following up a putative SETI signal is to look at the same frequency where it was first detected,” Vakoch said, and with the nil detection from the ATA, “now it’s time to search other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum.”

Vakoch said METI International will be observing HD 164595 for brief laser pulses from the Boquete Optical SETI Observatory in Panama as soon as weather permits.

“It looks like the Boquete Observatory will be hit by heavy thundershowers late this afternoon and into this evening,” he said, “so we’ll likely need to wait to observe until another night. Once the evening sky is clear in Boquete, we’ll have about an hour to observe in the direction of the constellation Hercules shortly after sunset.”

The signal from HD 164595 was originally detected on May 15, 2015, by the Russian Academy of Science-operated RATAN-600 radio telescope in Zelenchukskaya, Russia. It is located about 95 light years from Earth in the constellation Hercules. The signal had a wavelength of 2.7 cm, with an estimated amplitude of 750 mJy.

Gilster wrote on his Centauri Dreams website that the researchers have worked out the strength of the signal and that if “it came from an isotropic beacon, it would be of a power possible only for a Kardashev Type II civilization,” which means a civilization capable of harnessing the energy of the entire star, and developing something like a Dyson sphere surrounding the star, and transfer all the energy to the planet.

Freeman Dyson theorized that eventually, a civilization would be able to build a megastructure around its star to capture all its energy. Credit: SentientDevelopments.com
Freeman Dyson theorized that eventually, a civilization would be able to build a megastructure around its star to capture all its energy. Credit: SentientDevelopments.com

If the beam was narrow and sent directly to our Solar System, the researchers say it would be of a power available to a Kardashev Type I civilization, a type of civilization more advanced than us that is able to harness the full amount of solar power it receives from its star.

Of course, like any other signal, such as the recent study of the dimming light curve of KIC 8462852 (Tabby’s Star) that is still being researched, it is possible the signal comes from other “natural” events such microlensing of a background source or even comets as been proposed for both Tabby’s Star or the “Wow! Signal.”

The SETI website explains that narrow-band signals – ones that are only a few Hertz wide or less – are the mark of a purposely built transmitter. “Natural cosmic noisemakers, such as pulsars, quasars, and the turbulent, thin interstellar gas of our own Milky Way, do not make radio signals that are this narrow. The static from these objects is spread all across the dial.”

And so Gilster said “the signal is provocative enough that the RATAN-600 researchers are calling for permanent monitoring of this target.” You can see a graph of the signal on Centauri Dreams.

Update: A member of the [email protected] team posted a note online that they were “unimpressed” with the paper from the Russian radio astronomers. “Because the receivers used were making broad band measurements, there’s really nothing about this “signal” that would distinguish it from a natural radio transient (stellar flare, active galactic nucleus, microlensing of a background source, etc.) There’s also nothing that could distinguish it from a satellite passing through the telescope field of view. All in all, it’s relatively uninteresting from a SETI standpoint.”

So, this detection might not be as exciting as originally reported. Also SETI senior astronomer Seth Shostak has now weighed in on the topic, also with measured skepticism on the excitement, with a post about this event on the SETI website.

What has probably fueled interest in this signal is the striking similarities between the star and our Sun. HD 164595 is a star just a tad smaller than our Sun (0.99 solar masses), with the exact same metallicity. The age of the star has been estimated at 6.3 billion years it is already known to have at least one planet, HD 164595 b, a Neptune-sized world that orbits the star every 40 days. And as we’ve seen with data from the Kepler spacecraft, with the detection of one planet comes the very high probability that more planets could orbit this star.

The signal has been traveling for 95 years, so it “occurred” (or was sent) in 1920 on Earth calendars. (There is a good discussion of this in the comment section on Gilster’s article.)

Why the Russian team has only made this detection public now is unclear and it may have only come out now because the team wrote a paper to be discussed at an upcoming SETI committee meeting during the 67th International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, on Tuesday, September 27.

As Gilster wrote, “No one is claiming that this is the work of an extraterrestrial civilization, but it is certainly worth further study.”

Sources: Centauri Dreams, Alan Boyle on Geekwire, SETI

Why Haven’t We Found Any Aliens Yet?

Many years ago, Carl Sagan predicted there could be as many as 10,000 advanced extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy.

After nearly 60 years of searching without success, a growing list of scientists believe life on Earth only came about because of a lucky series of evolutionary accidents, a long list of improbable events that just happened to come together at the right time and will never be repeated.

Is it possible they are right and we are all there is?

Highly unlikely.

Earth is a typical rocky planet, in an average solar system, nestled in the spiral arm of an ordinary galaxy. All the events and elements that came together to build our world could happen almost everywhere throughout the galaxy and there should be nothing unusual about the evolution of life on this planet or any others.

In a galaxy of hundreds of billions of stars, the law of averages dictates that intelligent life must exist somewhere.

So, why haven’t we found it yet?

There could be many reasons.

Planets everywhere. So where are the aliens? Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
Planets everywhere. So where are the aliens? Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Looking for a radio signal in a galaxy of over 400 billion worlds across 100,000 light years and billions of radio frequencies makes the proverbial needle in a haystack sound easy. Imagine you are driving home, your spouse in one car and you in the other. There’s a thick fog making visual confirmation impossible and no cell phone reception. Luckily, a week ago you had a 250 channel CB installed in both cars. Unfortunately, you forgot to agree on a broadcast channel. To chat, the two CBs would have to be on at the same time and you’d need to independently search every channel, listen, broadcast, then move to the next, hoping to get lucky enough to land on the same channel.

What are the odds that would happen? Not very good. Multiply this scenario one hundred billion times and you have some idea of the challenges facing SETI. To add to that, advanced civilizations probably only stay radio active for a relatively short time in their development as they develop more sophisticated technology. Searching the radio spectrum would require looking at one frequency 24/7 for years to be sure you weren’t missing something and telescope time is far too expensive for that. While you were sitting on that single frequency, 20 extraterrestrial signals could have come in on other channels and you’d never know it.

The Fermi Paradox is used by many skeptics as the holy grail when trying to prove there is nobody out there. Fermi theorized that a galaxy with so much potential for life must be full of extraterrestrials. He noted that since the majority of stars are considerably older than our sun, extraterrestrials could be millions of years more advanced than us. Fermi calculated that even at sub light speed one of those civilizations should have colonized the galaxy by now and we would have seen evidence of it.

There is however a problem with that logic.

In 50,000 years, humans will probably look a little different than people do now. In 10 million years, considerably different. Imagine a civilization completely different from us from the start and 10 million years more advanced. We might not even be able to recognize them as life forms, let alone see any evidence of their existence.

Arthur C. Clarke once said advanced extraterrestrials would probably be indistinguishable to us from magic. Their communications would be like listening for an answer to drumbeats and getting only silence while the ether around you is filled with more information in a second than one could utter in a lifetime. There could be the alien equivalent of the super bowl going on a few light years away and we would probably not even have a clue.

The distances in our galaxy are incredibly vast. Current spacecraft travel about 20 times faster than the speed of a bullet. While that sounds fast, at that speed it would take a spacecraft 75,000 years to travel to our nearest star only 4 light years away. Light years are a measure of distance so if we could speed that ship up to 186,000 miles per second (300,000 km/second), it would take 4 years to reach that same star.

The Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico was the site of NASA's High Resolution Microwave Survey, a search for extraterrestrial radio messages.  Credit: Unites States National Science Foundation
The Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico was the site of NASA’s High Resolution Microwave Survey, a search for extraterrestrial radio messages. Credit: Unites States National Science Foundation

Looking at a star 1,000 light years away is like being in a time machine. You are not seeing it as it is now, but one thousand years ago. Our galaxy is about 100,000 light years across with over 200 billion stars. Current theory suggests there may be as many as one billion earth-like planets in our galaxy. If just one tenth of those had some kind of life, that would leave us with about 100 million worlds harboring one celled creatures or better.

If just the tiniest fraction of them, (one one hundred thousandth) managed to spawn an advanced race of beings, there could be as many as 1,000 extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy. Regardless of whether you consider that a lot or a little, that would mean one technically advanced alien society exists for every hundred million stars. Our nearest extraterrestrial neighbor might be very, very far away. In the movies, the speculative fiction of warp speed, hyper drive and worm holes enable spaceships to travel faster than the speed of light and breach those distances fairly easily. But if the physics of this turn out to be impossible, then even the nearest alien civilizations may find interstellar travel very difficult and quite undesirable.

Another reason extraterrestrials may have made themselves scarce could be that the galaxy is jam packed with all sorts of weird beings and wondrous destinations. In this scenario why would advanced forms of life want to come here? There are probably so many more interesting places to visit. It would be like hunting for an exotic bird and not even giving the ant hill below your feet a second look.

Stephen Hawking has said, “I believe extraterrestrial life is quite common in the universe, although intelligent life less so. Some say it has yet to appear on Earth.”

Many think once a civilization achieves radio, it has a short window of but a few hundred years before it starts to integrate artificial intelligence into its own biology. Machines do everything so much easier, with far less risk and are immortal. It is entirely possible any aliens we hear from will have morphed into something more machine like than biological.

The Allen Telescope Array (ATA) is a “Large Number of Small Dishes” (LNSD) array designed to be highly effective for simultaneous surveys undertaken for SETI projects (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) at centimeter wavelengths. Credit: Seth Shostak / SETI Institute
The Allen Telescope Array (ATA) is a “Large Number of Small Dishes” (LNSD) array designed to be highly effective for simultaneous surveys undertaken for SETI projects (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) at centimeter wavelengths. Credit: Seth Shostak / SETI Institute

There has been a push lately for SETI to expand its operations from just passively listening, to actively broadcasting messages into the cosmos. One of the smartest men on the planet, Stephen Hawking, doesn’t think that’s a good idea. He believes that our messages might attract unwanted attention from unsavory creatures looking to blast us back into the stone age. He uses what happened to the Native Americans when they first encountered Columbus as an example. Alien races may have had to endure the same aggressive survival of the fittest culture. If they are at least as smart as Stephen Hawking, then everyone out there could be listening and nobody is broadcasting for fear of attracting the equivalent of Darth Vader and the Evil Empire to their shores.

Or, maybe there is a signal on its way right now, having traveled thousand of years, arriving next week, month or year.
Many scientists like Paul Davies, think SETI needs to start thinking more out of the box in its search methods. He advocates analyzing places in our own solar system like the moon, planets, asteroids and the Earth for evidence that aliens have passed this way. We should also be open to the possibility that we have already received a message from the stars and don’t recognize it because it arrived by something other than radio. Physist Vladimir Charbak thinks that life may have been spread throughout the galaxy by intelligent design and there may actually be evidence of this within our own DNA just waiting to be discovered.

Another reason we have yet to detect alien life could be there is nothing out there to find. Or to put it another way, we are the only game in town. To best answer that question, ask yourself, does this seem logical? There is a very good chance that one or more worlds just in our own solar system harbor some form of life. In a galaxy with as many as one billion or more potentially habitable planets, one could almost guarantee many of them will host life. There may potentially be hundreds of millions of worlds with living things on them. Does it make sense that in all that habitable real estate we are the only race to evolve into an intelligent species?

Extraterrestrials in the 1979 movie "Close Encounters of the Third King." Credit: Columbia Pictures / Alien Wiki
Extraterrestrials in the 1979 movie “Close Encounters of the Third King.” Credit: Columbia Pictures / Alien Wiki

We humans tend to think of things with a distinctly anthropomorphic spin. Notions like, life needs water, oxygen and is based on carbon. Or, an advanced alien race would use radio and their signals should repeat. In popular culture, extraterrestrials portrayed in movies look remotely like us. This is done so we can recognize emotions and that fills movie theaters. I can remember aliens portrayed in the classic science fiction television show, “The Outer Limits” as energy balls, dust motes and tumbleweeds. They weren’t the most popular episodes, but the reality is that those portrayals are probably closer to the truth than ET and his heart lamp. Extraterrestrials will probably be as different from us as we are from a blade of grass and their motivations a complete mystery. It is very possible that the reason we haven’t found them yet is one that completely eludes our understanding at this point.

So where does that leave us?

Time and patience.

If you compare the 4.5 billion year old earth to a 24 hour clock, mankind doesn’t appear until a little over a minute before midnight. Take the almost sixty years we have been looking for extraterrestrials and project that on the same clock, it probably represents only about 20 or 30 seconds worth of searching for intelligent beings who may have been around millions and perhaps billions of years longer than we have. Our passage through time is just a tiny almost imperceptible blip when compared to the evolution of our galaxy.

Lasers like this one, at the VLT in Paranal, help counteract the blurring effect of the atmosphere. Powerful arrays of much larger lasers could hide our presence from aliens. (ESO/Y. Beletsky)
Lasers like this one, at the VLT in Paranal, help counteract the blurring effect of the atmosphere. Powerful arrays of much larger lasers could hide our presence from aliens. (ESO/Y. Beletsky)

New, very powerful listening devices will be coming into operation soon as well as sophisticated instruments that will be able to analyze exoplanets atmospheres to look for hints of life. SETI will expand into new areas and scientists will be able to devote a lot more telescope time to the search as the newly funded (100MM) Project Breakthough Listen kicks into high gear. It will cover 10 times more of the sky and the entire 1-10GHz radio spectrum. There will be more powerful optical and infrared searches and it is estimated the project will generate in a day as much data as SETI produced in an entire year. Recently, Project Breakthrough Starshot was announced as well. Seeded by another 100MM by Russian Billionaire, Yuri Milner, this ambitious project seeks to send a tiny light propelled robotic spacecraft to our nearest star system, Alpha Centauri. Stephen Hawking thinks this can be accomplished within the next generation and that new technology would allow a journey of only 20 years.

SETI scientist Nathalie Cabrol thinks its also time for a new approach to SETI’s search, a reboot if you will. She feels that “SETI’s vision has been constrained by whether ET has technology that resembles or thinks like us. She feels that the search, so far, has in essence been a search for ourselves. Electromagnetic fingerprints of radio transmitions carry a strong like us assumption”. She proposes involving a lot more disciplines in a redesign of the search. Astrobiology, life sciences, geoscience, cognitive science and mathematics among others. Her plan is to invite the research community to help craft a new scientific roadmap for SETI that very well may redefine the meaning of life and the cosmic search for new forms of it.

Some experts say we won’t see evidence of extraterrestrials for another 1500 years. That’s the time it will take for our TV and radio signals to have reached enough stars and have the best chance to be discovered.

In my opinion, I think highly advanced extraterrestrial societies already know we’re here and in about 10-15 years we’ll start getting some of the answers we’ve been looking for.

Viking: Remembering Humanity’s First Successful Mission On Mars Surface

Taken by the Viking 1 lander shortly after it touched down on Mars, this image is the first photograph ever taken from the surface of Mars. It was taken on July 20, 1976. The primary objectives of the Viking mission, which was composed of two spacecraft, were to obtain high-resolution images of the Martian surface, characterize the structure and composition of the atmosphere and surface and search for evidence of life on Mars. Credit: NASA
Taken by the Viking 1 lander shortly after it touched down on Mars, this image is the first photograph ever taken from the surface of Mars. The primary objectives of the Viking mission was to obtain high-resolution images of the Martian surface, characterize the structure and composition of the atmosphere and surface and search for evidence of life on Mars. Credit: NASA

July 20. Sound like a familiar date? If you guessed that’s when we first set foot on the Moon 47 years ago, way to go! But it’s also the 40th anniversary of Viking 1 lander, the first American probe to successfully land on Mars.

The Russians got there first on December 2, 1971 when their Mars 3 probe touched down in the Mare Sirenum region. But transmissions stopped just 14.5 seconds later, only enough time for the crippled lander to send a partial and garbled photo that unfortunately showed no identifiable features.

The late, great Carl Sagan stands next to a model of the Viking lander. Credit: NASA
The late, great Carl Sagan stands next to a model of the Viking lander. Credit: NASA

Viking 1 touched down on July 20, 1976 in Chryse Planitia, a smooth, circular plain in Mars’ northern equatorial region and operated for six years, far beyond the original 90 day mission. Its twin, Viking 2, landed about 4,000 miles (6,400 km) away in the vast northern plain called Utopia Planitia several weeks later on September 3. Both were packaged inside orbiters that took pictures of the landing sites before dispatching the probes.

The first color photo taken of the Martian surface by the Viking 1 lander on July 21, 1976. The rock strewn landscape is a familiar one seen in photos taken by many landers since. Credit: NASA
The first color photo taken of the Martian surface by the Viking 1 lander on July 21, 1976. The rock strewn landscape is a familiar one seen in photos taken by many landers since. Credit: NASA

Viking 1 was originally slated to land on July 4th to commemorate the 200th year of the founding of the United States. Some of you may remember the bicentennial celebrations underway at the time. Earlier photos taken by Mariner 9 helped mission controllers pick what they thought was a safe landing site, but when the Viking 1 orbiter arrived and took a closer look, NASA deemed it too bouldery for a safe landing, so they delayed the the probe’s arrival until a safer site could be chosen. Hence the July 20th touchdown date.

My recollection at the time was that that particular date was picked to coincide with the first lunar landing.

I’ll never forget the first photo transmitted from the surface. I had started working at the News Gazette in Champaign, Ill. earlier that year in the photo department. On July 20 I joined the wire editor, a kindly. older gent named Raleigh, at the AP Photofax machine and watched the black and white image creep line-by-line from the machine. Still damp with ink, I lifted the sodden sheet into my hands, totally absorbed. Two things stood out: how incredibly sharp the picture was and ALL THOSE ROCKS!  Mars looked so different from the Moon.

The Viking 1 Lander sampling arm created a number of deep trenches as part of the surface composition and biology experiments on Mars. The digging tool on the sampling arm (at lower center) could scoop up samples of material and deposit them into the appropriate experiment. Some holes were dug deeper to study soil which was not affected by solar radiation and weathering. The trenches in this ESE looking image are in the "Sandy Flats" area of the landing site at Chryse Planitia. Credit: NASA
The Viking 1 Lander sampling arm created a number of deep trenches as part of the surface composition and biology experiments on Mars. The digging tool on the sampling arm (at lower center) could scoop up samples of material and deposit them into the appropriate experiment. Some holes were dug deeper to study soil which was not affected by solar radiation and weathering. Credit: NASA

One day later, Viking 1 returned the first color photo from the surface and continued to operate, taking photos and doing science for 2,307 days until November 11, 1982, a record not broken until May 2010 by NASA’s Opportunity rover. It would have continued humming along for who knows how much longer were it not for a faulty command sent by mission control that resulted in a permanent loss of contact.

The first Mars panorama taken in Chryse Plantia by Viking 1. Credit: NASA
The first Mars panorama taken in Chryse Plantia by Viking 1. Click to supersize. Credit: NASA

Viking 2 soldiered on until its batteries failed on April 11, 1980. Both landers characterized the Martian weather and radiation environment, scooped up soil samples and measured their elemental composition and send back lots of photos including the first Martian panoramas.

Each lander carried three instruments designed to look for chemical or biological signs of living or once-living organisms. Soil samples scooped up by the landers’ sample arms were delivered to three experiments in hopes of detecting organic compounds and gases either consumed or released by potential microbes when they were treated with nutrient solutions. The results from both landers were similar: neither suite of experiments found any organic (carbon-containing) compounds nor any definitive signs of Mars bugs.

The first color picture taken by Viking 2 on the Martian surface shows a rocky reddish surface much like that seen by Viking 1 more than 4000 miles away. Credit: NASA
The first color picture taken by Viking 2 on the Martian surface shows a rocky reddish surface much like that seen by Viking 1 more than 4,000 miles away. Credit: NASA

Not that there wasn’t some excitement. The Labeled Release experiment (LC) actually did give positive results. A nutrient solution was added to a sample of Martian soil. If it contained microbes, they would take in the nutrients and release gases. Great gobs of gas were quickly released! As if the putative Martian microbes only needed a jigger of  NASA’s chicken soup to find their strength. But the complete absence of organics in the soil made scientists doubtful that life was the cause.  Instead it was thought that some inorganic chemical reaction must be behind the release. Negative results from the other two experiments reinforced their pessimism.

Frost on Utopia Planitia photographed by Viking 2. Credit NASA
Frost on Utopia Planitia photographed by Viking 2. Click to visit NASA’s Viking image archive (not to miss!) Credit NASA

Fast forward to 2008 when the Phoenix lander detected strongly oxidizing perchlorates originating from the interaction of strong ultraviolet light from the Sun with soils on the planet’s surface. Since Mars lacks an ozone layer, perchlorates may not only be common but also responsible for destroying much of Mars’ erstwhile organic bounty. Other scientists have reexamined the Viking LC data in recent years and concluded just the opposite, that the gas release points to life.


A fun, “period” movie about the Viking Mission to Mars

Seems to me it’s high time we should send a new suite of experiments designed to find life. Then again, maybe we won’t have to. The Mars 202o Mission will cache Martian rocks for later pickup, so we can bring pieces of Mars back to Earth and perform experiments to our heart’s content.

Alien Minds Part III: The Octopus’s Garden and the Country of the Blind

METI logo

In our galaxy, there may be, at least, tens of billions of habitable planets, with conditions suitable for liquid water on their surfaces. There may be habitable moons as well. On an unknown number of those worlds, life may have arisen. On an unknown fraction of life-bearing worlds, life may have evolved into complex multicellular, sexually reproducing forms.

During its habitable period, a world with complex life might produce hundreds of millions of evolutionary lineages. One or a few of them might fortuitously encounter special circumstances that triggered runaway growth of their intelligence. These favored few, if they exist, might have built technological civilizations capable of signaling their presence across interstellar distances, or detecting and deciphering a message we send their way. What might such alien minds be like? What senses might they use? How might we communicate with them?

METI International
METI International

The purposes of the newly created METI (Messaging to ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) International include fostering multidisciplinary research in the design and transmission of interstellar messages, and building a global community of scholars from the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, and arts concerned with the origin, distribution, and future of life in the universe.

On May 18 the organization sponsored a workshop which included presentations by biologists, psychologists, cognitive scientists, and linguists. This is the third and final installment of a series of articles about the workshop.

In previous installments, we’ve discussed some ideas about the evolution of intelligence that were featured at the workshop. Here we’ll see whether our Earthly experience can provide us with any clues about how we might communicate with aliens.

Many of the animals that we are most familiar with from daily life, like humans, cats, dogs, birds, fishes, and frogs are vertebrates, or animals with backbones. They are all descended from a common ancestor and share a nervous system organized according to the same basic plan.

Molluscs are another major group of animals that have been evolving separately from vertebrates for more than 600 million years. Although most molluscs, like slugs, snails, and shellfish, have fairly simple nervous systems, one group; the cephalopods, have evolved a much more sophisticated one.

the common octopus
The common octopus, Octopus vulgaris, Is a cephalopod mollusc, has evolved sophisticated cognition and perception along a very different evolutionary path than have human beings and our relatives. The brain is located between the eyes. The large bulbous structure below the eyes is the mantle, a muscular organ involved in swimming. Public domain.

Cephalopods include octopuses, squids, and cuttlefishes. They show cognitive and perceptual abilities rivaling those of our close vertebrate kin. Since this nervous system has a different evolutionary history than of the vertebrates, it is organized in a way completely different from our own. It can give us a glimpse of the similarities and differences we might expect between aliens and ourselves.

David Gire, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington, and researcher Dominic Sivitilli gave a presentation on cephalopods at the Puerto Rico workshop. Although these animals have a sophisticated brain, their nervous systems are much more decentralized than that of familiar animals. In the octopus, sensing and moving are controlled locally in the arms, which together contain as many nerve cells, or neurons, as the brain.

David Gire
Dr. David Gire is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Washington and a behavioral neuroscientist. He presented at the Puerto Rico workshop on cephalopod intelligence.

The animal’s eight arms are extraordinarily sensitive. Each containing hundreds of suckers, with thousands of sensory receptors on each one. By comparison, the human finger has only 241 sensory receptors per square centimeter. Many of these receptors sense chemicals, corresponding roughly to our senses of taste and smell. Much of this sensory information is processed locally in the arms. When an arm is severed from an octopus’s body, it continues to show simple behaviors on its own, and can even avoid threats. The octopus’s brain simply acts to coordinate the behaviors of its arms.

Cephalopods have acute vision. Although their eyes evolved separately from those of vertebrates, they nonetheless bear an eerie resemblance. They have a unique ability to change the pattern and color of their skin using pigment cells that are under direct control of their nervous systems. This provides them with the most sophisticated camouflage system of any animal on Earth, and is also used for social signaling.

Despite the sophisticated cognitive abilities it exhibits in the lab, the octopus is largely solitary.
Cephalopod groups exchange useful information by observing one another, but otherwise exhibit only limited social cooperation. Many current theories of the evolution of sophisticated intelligence, like Miller’s sapiosexual hypothesis, which was featured in the second installment, assume that social cooperation and competition play a central role in the evolution of complicated brains. Since cephalopods have evolved much more impressive cognitive abilities than other molluscs, their limited social behavior is surprising.

Dominic Sivitilli
Dominic Sivitilli is a post-baccalaureate researcher in the laboratory of David Gire, studying responses to chemical signals by the octopus. He is the co-presenter of a talk on cephalopod cogntition at the METI International Puerto Rico conference. METI International used with permission.

Maybe the limited social behavior of cephalopods really does set limits on their intelligence. However, Gire and Sivitilli speculate that perhaps “an intelligence capable of technological development could exist with minimum social acuity”, and the cephalopod ability to socially share information is enough. The individuals of such an alien collective, they suppose, might possess no sense of self or other.

Besides Gire and Sivitilli, Anna Dornhaus, whose ideas were featured in the first installment, also thinks that alien creatures might function together as a collective mind. Social insects, in some respects, actually do. She doubts, though, that such an entities could evolve human-like technological intelligence without something like Miller’s sapiosexuality to trigger a runaway explosion of intelligence.

But if non-sapiosexual alien technological civilizations do exist, we might find them impossible to comprehend. Given this possible gulf of incomprehension about social structure, Gire and Stivitilli suppose that the most we might aspire to accomplish in terms of interstellar communication is an exchange of mutually useful and comprehensible astronomical information.

Workshop presenter Alfred Kracher, a retired staff scientist at the Ames Laboratory of the University of Iowa, supposes that “the mental giants of the Milky Way are probably artificially intelligent machines… It would be interesting to find evidence of them, if they exist”, he writes, “but then what?” Kracher supposes that if they have emancipated themselves and evolved away from their makers, “they will have nothing in common with organic life forms, human or extraterrestrial. There is no chance of mutual understanding”. We will be able to understand aliens, he maintains, only if “it turns out that the evolution of extraterrestrial life forms is highly convergent with our own”.

Peter Todd, a professor of psychology from Indiana University, holds out hope that such convergence may actually occur. Earthly animals must solve a variety of basic problems that are presented by the physical and biological world that they inhabit.

They must effectively navigate through a world of surfaces, barriers and objects, finding food and shelter, and avoiding predators, parasites, toxins. Extraterrestrial organisms, if they evolve in an Earth-like environment, would face a generally similar set of problems. They may well arrive at similar solutions, just as the octopus evolved eyes similar to ours.

In evolution here on Earth, Todd notes, brain systems originally evolved to solve these basic physical and biological problems appear to have been re-purposed to solve new and more difficult problems, as some animals evolved to solve the problems of living and finding mates as members of societies, and then as one particular ape species went on to evolve conceptual reasoning and language. For example, disgust at bad food, useful for avoiding disease, may have been become the foundation for sexual disgust to avoid bad mates, moral disgust to avoid bad clan mates, and intellectual disgust to avoid dubious ideas.

If alien brains evolved solutions similar to the ones our brains did for negotiating the physical and biological world, they they might also have been re-purposed in similar ways. Alien minds might not be wholly different from ours, and thus hope exists for a degree of mutual understanding.

In the early 1970’s the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft were launched on the first exploratory missions to the planet Jupiter and beyond. When their missions were completed, these two probes became the first objects made by humans to escape the sun’s gravitational pull and hurtle into interstellar space.

Because of the remote possibility that the spacecraft might someday be found by extraterrestrials, a team of scientists and scholars lead by Carl Sagan emplaced a message on the vehicle, etched on a metal plaque. The message consisted, in part, of a line drawing of a man and a woman. Later, the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft carried a message that consisted, in part, of a series of 116 digital images encoded on a phonographic record.

Use of images in interstellar messages
The use of images in interstellar communication. In 1977, NASA launched the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft on a mission to explore the outer solar system. Destined to wander interstellar space forever following the completion of their mission, each spacecraft carried an interstellar message encoded on a phonographic record. The message, designed by SETI pioneers Carl Sagan and Frank Drake and their collaborators, included 116 digital images. This image is intended to show extraterrestrials how human beings eat and drink. Will extraterrestrials understand such images? The limited quality of the image reflects the state of digital imaging technology in the 70’s National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, public domain.

The assumption that aliens would see and understand images seems reasonable, since the octopus evolved an eye so similar to our own. And that’s not all. The evolutionary biologists Luitfried Von Salvini-Plawen and Ernst Mayr showed that eyes, of various sorts, have evolved forty separate times on Earth, and vision is typically a dominant sense for large, land dwelling animals. Still, there are animals that function without it, and our earliest mammalian ancestors were nocturnal. Could it be that there are aliens that lack vision, and could not understand a message based on images?

In his short story, The Country of the Blind, the great science fiction writer H. G. Wells imagined an isolated mountain village whose inhabitants had been blind for fifteen generations after a disease destroyed their vision.

A lost mountain climber, finding the village, imagines that with his power of vision, he can easily become their king. But the villagers have adapted thoroughly to a life based on touch, hearing, and smell. Instead of being impressed by their visitor’s claim that he can ‘see’, they find it incomprehensible. They begin to believe he is insane. And when they seek to ‘cure’ him by removing two strange globular growths from the front of his head, he flees.

Mexican blind cavefish
The Mexican blind cavefish (Astyanax mexicanus) has lived in the total darkness of a cave system in central Mexico for more than a million years, and has evolved the loss of its eyes. Astyanax possess a sense that land dwelling animals lack. The lateral line sense, which is present in all fishes, allows these animals to sense their near surroundings based on pressure differences in fields of water flow around their bodies. They also have an acute sense of taste, with taste receptors on their bodies as well as in their mouths. The evolution of cave dwelling intelligent life is probably unlikely, since large brains are metabolically expensive, and food is scarce in caves. On the surface, plants capture energy from sunlight and form the base of the food chain. State Museum of Natural History, Karlsruhe.

Could their really be an alien country of the blind whose inhabitants function without vision? Workshop presenter Dr. Sheri Wells-Jensen, an associate professor of Linguistics at Bowling Green State University, doesn’t need to imagine the country of the blind, because, in a sense, she lives there. She is blind, and believes that creatures without vision could achieve a level of technology sufficient to send interstellar messages. “Sighted people”, she writes, “tend to overestimate the amount and quality of information gathered by vision alone”.
Sheri Wells Jensen
Dr. Sheri Wells-Jensen is an associate professor of linguistics at Bowling Green State University. She presented at talk at the Puerto Rico workshop on alternative perceptual systems and interstellar communications. METI International, used with permission.

Bats and dolphins image their dimly lit environments with a kind of naturally occurring sonar called echolocation. Blind human beings can also learn to echolocate, using tongue clicks or claps as emitted signals and analyzing the returning echoes by hearing. Some can do so well enough to ride a bicycle at a moderate pace through an unfamiliar neighborhood. A human can develop the touch sensitivity needed to read braille in four months. A blind marine biologist can proficiently distinguish the species of mollusc shells by touch.

Wells-Jensen posits a hypothetical civilization which she calls the Krikkits, who lack vision but possess sensory abilities otherwise similar to those of human beings. Could such beings build a technological society? Drawing on her knowledge of the blind community and a series of experiments, she thinks they could.

Finding food would present few special difficulties, since blind naturalists can identify many plant species by touch. Agriculture could be conducted as modern blind gardeners do it, by marking crops using stakes and piles of rock, and harvesting by feel. The combination of a stick used as a cane to probe the path ahead and echolocation make traveling by foot effective and safe. A loadstone compass would further aid navigational abilities. The Krikkits might use snares rather than spears or arrows to trap animals, making tools by touch.

Mathematics is vital to building a technological society. For most human beings, with our limited memory, a paper and pencil or a blackboard are essential for doing math. Krikkits would need to find other such aids, such as tactual symbols on clay tablets, abacus-like devices, or patterns sewn on hides or fabric.

Successful blind mathematicians often have prodigious memories, and can perform complex calculations in their heads. One of history’s greatest mathematicians, Leonard Euler, was blind for the last 17 years of his life, but remained mathematically productive through the use of his memory.

The obstacles to a blind society developing technology may not be insurmountable. Blind people are capable of handling fire and even working with molten glass. Krikkits might therefore use fire for cooking, warmth, to bake clay vessels, and smelt metal ores. Initially there only astronomical knowledge would be of the sun as a source of heat. Experiments with loadstones and metals would lead to a knowledge of electricity.

Eventually, the Krikkits might imitate their sonar with radio waves, inventing radar. If their planet possessed a moon or moons, radar reflections from them might provide their first knowledge of astronomical objects other than their sun. Radar would also enable them to learn for the first time that their planet is round.

The Krikkits might learn to detect other forms of radiation like X-rays and ‘light’. The ability to detect this second mysterious form of radiation might allow them to discover the existence of the stars and develop an interest in interstellar communication.

What sorts of messages might they send or understand? Well-Jensen believes that line drawings, like the drawing of the man and the woman on the Pioneer plaque, and other such pictorial representations might be an impenetrable mystery to them. On the other hand, she speculates that Krikkits might represent large data sets through sound, and that their counterpart to charts and graphs might be equally incomprehensible to us.

Images might pose a challenge for the Krikkits, but perhaps, Wells-Jensen concedes, not an impossible one. There is evidence that bats image their world using echolocation. Kikkits might be likely to evolve similar abilities, though Wells-Jensen believes they would not be essential for making tools or handling objects.

Perhaps humans and Krikkits could find common ground by transmitting instructions for three dimensional printed objects that could be explored tactually. Wells-Jensen thinks they might also understand mathematical or logical languages proposed for interstellar communication.

The diversity of cognition and perception that we find here on Earth teaches us that if extraterrestrial intelligence exists, it is likely to be much more alien than much of science fiction has prepared us to expect. In our attempt to communicate with aliens, the gulf of mutual incomprehension may yawn as wide as the gulf of interstellar space. Yet this is a gulf we must somehow cross, if we wish ever to become citizens of the galaxy.

For further reading:

Cain, F. (2008) Is Our Universe Ruled by Artificial Intelligence, Universe Today.

Kaufmann G. (2005) Spineless smarts, NOVA

Land, M. F., and Nilsson, D-E. (2002) Animal Eyes, Oxford University Press.

Mather, J. A. (2008) Cephalopod consciousness: Behavioral evidence, Cognition and Consciousness 17(1): 37-48.

Patton, P. E. (2016) Alien Minds I: Are Extraterrestrial Civilizations Likely to Evolve? Universe Today.

Patton, P. E. (2016) Alien Minds II: Do Aliens Think Big Brains are Sexy Too? Universe Today.

P. Patton (2014) Communicating across the cosmos, Part 1: Shouting into the darkness, Part 2: Petabytes from the Stars, Part 3: Bridging the Vast Gulf, Part 4: Quest for a Rosetta Stone, Universe Today.

Wells, H. G. (1904) The Country of the Blind, The literature network.