In July of 2015, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner announced the creation of Breakthrough Listen, a decade-long project that would conduct the largest survey to date for signs of extra-terrestrial communications (ETI). As part of his non-profit organization, Breakthrough Initiatives, this survey would rely on the latest in instrumentation and software to observe the 1,000,000 closest stars and 100 closest galaxies.
Using the Green Bank Radio Telescope in West Virginia, the Listen science team at UC Berkeley has been observing distant stars for over a year now. And less than a week ago, they observed 15 Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) coming from a dwarf galaxy located three billion light-years away. According to a study that described their findings, this was the first time that repeating FRBs have been seen coming from this source at these frequencies.
To clarify, FRBs are brief, bright pulses of radio waves that are periodically detected coming from distant galaxies. This strange astronomical phenomena was first detected in 2007 by Duncan Lorimer and David Narkovic using the Parkes Telescope in Australia. To honor their discovery, FRBs are sometimes referred to as “Lorimer Bursts”. Many FRB sources have been confirmed since then, some of which were found repeating.
The source known as FRB 121101 was discovered back on November 2nd, 2012, by astronomers using the Arecibo radio telescope. At the time, it was the first FRB to be discovered; and by 2015, it became the first FRB to be seen repeating. This effectively ruled out the possibility that repeating FRBs were caused by catastrophic events, which had previously been theorized.
And in 2016, FRB 121102 was the first FRB to have its location pinpointed to such a degree that its host galaxy could be identified. As such, the Listen science team at UC Berkeley was sure to add FRB 121102 to their list of targets. And in the early hours of Saturday, August 26th, Dr. Vishal Gajjar – a postdoctoral researcher at UC Berkeley – observed FRB 121102 using the Green Bank Radio Telescope (GBRT) in West Virginia.
Using the Digital Backend instrument on the GBRT, Dr. Gajjar and the Listen team observed FRB 121102 for five hours. From this, they accumulating 400 terabytes of data in the entire 4 to 8 GHz frequency band which they then analyzed for signs of short pulses over a broad range of frequencies. What they found was evidence of 15 new pulses coming from FRB 121102, which confirmed that it was in a newly active state.
In addition, their observations revealed that the brightest of these 15 emissions occurred at around 7 GHz. This was higher than any repeating FRBs seen to date, which indicated for the first time that they can occur at frequencies higher than previously thought. Last, but not least, the high-resolution data the Listen team collected is expected to yield valuable insights into FRBs for years to come.
This was made possible thanks to the Digital Backend instrument on the GBRT, which is able to record several GHz of bandwidth simultaneously and split the information into billions of individuals channels. This enables scientists to study the proprieties and the frequency spectrum of FRBs with greater precision, and should lead to new theories about the causes of these radio emissions.
So even if these particular signals should prove to not be an indication of extra-terrestrial intelligence, Listen is still pushing the boundaries of what is possible with radio astronomy. And given that Breakthrough Listen is less than two years into its proposed ten-year survey, we can expect many more sources to be observed and studied in the coming years. If there’s evidence of ETI to be found, we’re sure to find out about it sooner or later!
And be sure to check out this video of the Green Bank Telescope and the surveys it allows for, courtesy of Berkeley SETI:
Decades after Enrico Fermi’s uttered his famous words – “Where is everybody?” – the Paradox that bears his name still haunts us. Despite repeated attempts to locate radio signals coming from space and our ongoing efforts to find visible indications of alien civilizations in distant star systems, the search extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI) has yet to produce anything substantive.
Is there life out there in the Universe? That is a question that has plagued humanity long before we knew just how vast the Universe was – i.e. before the advent of modern astronomy. Within the 20th century – thanks to the development of modern telescopes, radio astronomy, and space observatories – multiple efforts have been made in the hopes of finding extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI).
When you consider that age of the Universe – 13.8 billion years by our most recent counts – and that which is “observable” to us measures about 93 billion light-years in diameter, you begin to wonder why we haven’t found signs of extra-terrestrial intelligence (ETI) beyond our Solar System. To paraphrase Enrico Fermi, the 20th-century physicists who advanced the famous Fermi Paradox – “where the heck are all the aliens?”
It is no easy thing to search for signs of intelligent life beyond our Solar System. In addition to the incredible distances involved and the fact that we really only have indirect methods at our disposal, there is also the small problem of not knowing exactly what to look for. If intelligent life does exist beyond our Solar System, would they even communicate as we do, using radio transmitters and similar forms of technology?
First, some clarification should be made as to what SETI and METI are all about it and what sets them apart. The term METI was coined by Russian scientist Alexander Zaitsev, who sought to draw a distinction between SETI and METI. As he explained in a 2006 paper on the subject:
“The science known as SETI deals with searching for messages from aliens. METI science deals with the creation of messages to aliens. Thus, SETI and METI proponents have quite different perspectives. SETI scientists are in a position to address only the local question “does Active SETI make sense?” In other words, would it be reasonable, for SETI success, to transmit with the object of attracting ETI’s attention? In contrast to Active SETI, METI pursues not a local and lucrative impulse, but a more global and unselfish one – to overcome the Great Silence in the Universe, bringing to our extraterrestrial neighbors the long-expected annunciation ‘You are not alone!'”
In short, METI looks for ways in which we might be able to contact aliens instead of waiting to hear from them. However, this does not mean that organizations like METI International are without ideas on how me might better listen to our (potential) alien neighbors. After all, communication goes beyond mere messages, and also requires that a medium exist with which to convey the message.
Such is the recommendation put forth by Dr. Morris Jones, a space analyst and writer who serves on the METI advisory council. In a recent article published on METI International’s website, he addressed the two main challenges when it comes to looking for ETI. On the one hand, you have the need for multiple methodologies to increase the odds of finding something. But as he indicates, there’s also the problem of knowing what to look for:
“We are not really sure of how extraterrestrials would communicate with us. Would they use radio waves, lasers, or something more exotic? Perhaps the universe is awash in extraterrestrial signals that we cannot even receive. SETI and METI practitioners spend a lot of time wondering how a message would be encoded in terms of language and content. It’s also important to consider the medium of transmission.”
In the past, says Jones, SETI searches were based on radio astronomy because that was the only practical means of doing so. Since then, efforts have expanded to include optical telescopes and the search for laser signals. This is due to the fact that in the past few decades, human beings have developed the technology to use laser for the sake of communications.
In a 2016 SETI paper, Dr. Philip Lubin of the University of California, Santa Barbara, explained how the development of directed-energy propulsion could help us search for evidence of aliens. As one of the scientific minds behind Breakthrough Starshot – a laser-driven lightsail that would be fast enough to make the trip to Alpha Centauri in just 20 years – he believes it’s a safe bet that ETI could be using similar technology to travel or communicate.
In addition, Dr. Avi Loeb from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (also one of the minds behind Starshot) has also suggested that fast-radio bursts (FRBs) could be evidence of alien activity. FRBs have been a subject of fascination to scientists since they were first detected in 2007 (the “Lorimer Burst“), and could also be a sign of alien communications or a means of propulsion.
Another means involves searching for artefacts – i.e. looking for evidence of physical infrastructure in other star systems. Case in point, since 2015, astronomers have been seeking to determine what is responsible for the periodic dimming of KIC 8462852 (aka. Tabby’s Star). Whereas most studies have sought to explain this in terms of natural causes, others have suggested it could be evidence of an alien megastructure.
To this array of search methods, Dr. Jones offers a few other possibilities. One way is to look for neutrinos, a type of subatomic particle that is produced by the decay of radioactive elements and interacts with matter very weakly. This allows them to pass through solid matter and also makes them very difficult to detect. Neutrinos are produced in large quantities by our Sun and astronomical sources, but they can also be produced artificially by nuclear reactors.
These, claims Jones, could be used for the sake of communications. The only problem is that looking for them would require some specialized equipment. Currently, all means of detecting neutrinos involve expensive facilities that have to be built either underground or in extremely isolated locations to ensure that they are not subject to any kind of electromagnetic interference.
Another possibility is searching for evidence of communications that rely on gravitational waves. Predicted by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, the first detection of these mysterious waves was first made in February 2016. And in the coming years and decades, it is expected that gravitational wave observatories will be established so the presence of these “ripples” in spacetime can be visualized.
However, compared to neutrinos, Jones admits that this seems like a long shot. “It’s hard to conceive with our current grasp of physics,” he writes. “They are extremely difficult to generate at a detectable level. You would need abilities similar to those of superheroes, and be able to smash neutron stars and black holes together at will. There are probably easier ways to get a message across the stars.”
Beyond these, there is the even more exotic possibility of “Zeta Rays”, which Dr. Jones is not prepared to rule out. Basically, “Zeta Rays” is a term used by physicists to describe physics that go beyond the Standard Model. As scientists are currently looking for evidence of new particles with the Large Hadron Collider and other particle accelerators, it stands to reason that anything they discover will be the added to the SETI and METI search manifest.
But could such physics entail new forms of communication? Hard to say, but definitely worth considering. After all, the physics that power our current technology certainly existed before we did. Or as Jones put it:,
“Is it possible to transmit with something better than we already have? Until we know a lot more physics, we just won’t know. Humanity in the twenty-first century could be like an isolated tribe in the Amazon jungle a century ago, unaware that the air around them was filled with radio signals. SETI uses the science and technology provided to us by other disciplines. Thus, we must wait until physics itself makes some more major breakthroughs. Only then can we consider such exotic methods of searching. We think a lot about the message. But we should also think about the medium.”
Other projects that are dedicated to METI include Breakthrough Listen, a ten-year initiative launched by Breakthrough Initiatives to conduct the largest survey to date for extraterrestrial communications – encompassing the 1,000,000 closest stars and 100 closest galaxies. Back in April of 2017, the scientists behind this project shared their analysis of the first year of Listen data. No definitive results have been announced yet, but they are just getting started!
Ever since Drake proposed his famous equation, human beings have eagerly sought to find evidence of extra-terrestrial intelligence. Unfortunately, all of our efforts have been haunted by Fermi’s equally-famous paradox! But of course, as space exploration goes, we’ve really only begun to scratch the surface of our Universe. And the only way we can ever expect to find evidence of intelligent life out there is to keep looking.
And with greater knowledge and increasingly sophisticated methods at our disposal, we can be sure that if intelligent life is out there somewhere, we will find it eventually. One can always hope, right? And be sure to check out this video of Dr. Jones 2014 presentation at the SETI Institute, titled “A Journalistic Perspective on SETI-Related Message Composition“:
In September of 2015, scientists announced that the star known as KIC 8462852 (aka. “Tabby’s Star” or “Boyajian’s Star”) was experiencing a strange dip in luminosity. At the time, astronomers indicated that this mysterious behavior could be the result of comets transiting in front of the star, but other (perhaps more hopeful) individuals claimed that it could also be the result of an alien megastructure.
During the 1960s, Freeman Dyson and Nikolai Kardashev captured the imaginations of people everywhere by making some radical proposals. Whereas Dyson proposed that intelligent species could eventually create megastructures to harness the energy of their stars, Kardashev offered a three-tiered classification system for intelligent species based on their ability to harness the energy of their planet, solar system and galaxy, respectively.
Earlier this week, NASA hosted the “Planetary Science Vision 2050 Workshop” at their headquarters in Washington, DC. Running from Monday to Wednesday – February 27th to March 1st – the purpose of this workshop was to present NASA’s plans for the future of space exploration to the international community. In the course of the many presentations, speeches and panel discussions, many interesting proposals were shared.
Among them were two presentations that outlined NASA’s plan for the exploration of Jupiter’s moon Europa and other icy moons. In the coming decades, NASA hopes to send probes to these moons to investigate the oceans that lie beneath theirs surfaces, which many believe could be home to extra-terrestrial life. With missions to the “ocean worlds” of the Solar System, we may finally come to discover life beyond Earth.
This report was drafted by NASA’s Planetary Science Division (PSD) in response to a congressional directive to begin a pre-Phase A study to assess the scientific value and engineering design of a Europa lander mission. These studies, which are known as Science Definition Team (SDT) reports, are routinely conducted long before missions are mounted in order to gain an understanding of the types of challenges it will face, and what the payoffs will be.
In addition to being the co-chair of the Science Definition Team, Hand also served as head of the project science team, which included members from the JPL and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). The report he and his colleagues prepared was finalized and issued to NASA on February 7th, 2017, and outlined several objectives for scientific study.
As was indicated during the course of the presentation, these objectives were threefold. The first would involve searching for biosignatures and signs of life through analyses of Europa’s surface and near-subsurface material. The second would be to conduct in-situ analyses to characterize the composition of non-ice near-subsurface material, and determine the proximity of liquid water and recently-erupted material near the lander’s location.
The third and final goal would be to characterize the surface and subsurface properties and what dynamic processes are responsible for shaping them, in support for future exploration missions. As Hand explained, these objectives are closely intertwined:
“Were biosignatures to be found in the surface material, direct access to, and exploration of, Europa’s ocean and liquid water environments would be a high priority goal for the astrobiological investigation of our Solar System. Europa’s ocean would harbor the potential for the study of an extant ecosystem, likely representing a second, independent origin of life in our own solar system. Subsequent exploration would require robotic vehicles and instrumentation capable of accessing the habitable liquid water regions in Europa to enable the study of the ecosystem and organisms.”
In other words, if the lander mission detected signs of life within Europa’s ice sheet, and from material churned up from beneath by resurfacing events, then future missions – most likely involving robotic submarines – would definitely be mounted. The report also states that any finds that are indicative of life would mean that planetary protections would be a major requirement for any future mission, to avoid the possibility of contamination.
But of course, Hand also admitted that there is a chance the lander will find no signs of life. If so, Hand indicated that future missions would be tasked with gaining “a better understanding of the fundamental geological and geophysical process on Europa, and how they modulate exchange of material with Europa’s ocean.” On the other hand, he claimed that even a null-result (i.e. no signs of life anywhere) would still be a major scientific find.
Ever since the Voyager probes first detected possible signs of an interior ocean on Europa, scientists have dreamed of the day when a mission might be possible to explore the interior of this mysterious moon. To be able to determine that life does not exist there could no less significant that finding life, in that both would help us learn more about life in our Solar System.
As a specialist in UV spectroscopy of planetary surfaces, Dr. Hendrix has collaborated with many NASA missions to explore icy bodies in the Solar System – including the Galileo and Cassini probes and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). Dr. Hurford, meanwhile, specializes in the geology and geophysics of icy satellites, as well as the effects orbital dynamics and tidal stresses have on their interior structures.
Founded in 2016 by NASA’s Outer Planets Assessment Group (OPAG), ROW was tasked with laying the groundwork for a mission that will explore “ocean worlds” in the search for life elsewhere in the Solar System. During the course of the presentation, Hendrix and Hurford laid out the findings from the ROW report, which was completed in January of 2017.
As they state in this report, “we define an ‘ocean world’ as a body with a current liquid ocean (not necessarily global). All bodies in our solar system that plausibly can have or are known to have an ocean will be considered as part of this document. The Earth is a well-studied ocean world that can be used as a reference (“ground truth”) and point of comparison.”
By this definition, bodies like Europa, Ganymede,Callisto, and Enceladus would all be viable targets for exploration. These worlds are all known to have subsurface oceans, and there has been compelling evidence in the past few decades that point towards the presence of organic molecules and prebiotic chemistry there as well. Triton, Pluto,Ceres and Dione are all mentioned as candidate ocean worlds based on what we know of them.
Titan also received special mention in the course of the presentation. In addition to having an interior ocean, it has even been ventured that extremophile methanogenic lifeforms could exist on its surface:
“Although Titan possesses a large subsurface ocean, it also has an abundant supply of a wide range of organic species and surface liquids, which are readily accessible and could harbor more exotic forms of life. Furthermore, Titan may have transient surface liquid water such as impact melt pools and fresh cryovolcanic flows in contact with both solid and liquid surface organics. These environments present unique and important locations for investigating prebiotic chemistry, and potentially, the first steps towards life.”
Ultimately, the ROW’s pursuit of life on “ocean worlds” consists of four main goals. These include identifying ocean worlds in the solar system, which would mean determining which of the worlds and candidate worlds would be well-suited to study. The second is to characterize the nature of these oceans, which would include determining the properties of the ice shell and liquid ocean, and what drives fluid motion in them.
The third sub-goal involves determining if these oceans have the necessary energy and prebiotic chemistry to support life. And the fourth and final goal would be to determine how life might exist in them – i.e. whether it takes the form of extremophile bacteria and tiny organisms, or more complex creatures. Hendrix and Hurford also covered the kind of technological advances that will be needed for such missions to happen.
Naturally, any such mission would require the development of power sources and energy storage systems that would be suitable for cryogenic environments. Autonomous systems for pinpoint landing and technologies for aerial or landed mobility would also be needed. Planetary protection technologies would be necessary to prevent contamination, and electronic/mechanical systems that can survive in an ocean world environment too,
While these presentations are merely proposals of what could happen in the coming decades, they are still exciting to hear about. If nothing else, they show how NASA and other space agencies are actively collaborating with scientific institutions around the world to push the boundaries of knowledge and exploration. And in the coming decades, they hope to make some substantial leaps.
If all goes well, and exploration missions to Europa and other icy moons are allowed to go forward, the benefits could be immeasurable. In addition to the possibility of finding life beyond Earth, we will come to learn a great deal about our Solar System, and no doubt learn something more about humanity’s place in the cosmos.
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has been poking around Ceres since it first established orbit in March of 2015. In that time, the mission has sent back a steam of images of the minor planet, and with a level of resolution that was previously impossible. Because of this, a lot of interesting revelations have been made about Ceres’ composition and surface features (like its many “bright spots“).
In what is sure to be the most surprising find yet, the Dawn spacecraft has revealed that Ceres may actually possess the ingredients for life. Using data from the Dawn spacecraft’s Visible and InfraRed Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS), an international team of scientists has confirmed the existence of organic molecules on Ceres – a find which could indicate that it has conditions favorable to life.
These findings – which were detailed in a study titled “Localized aliphatic organic material on the surface of Ceres” – appeared in the Feb. 17th, 2017, issue of Science. For the sake of their study, the international team of researchers – which was led by Maria Cristina de Sanctis from the National Institute of Astrophysics in Rome, Italy – showed how Dawn sensor data pointed towards the presence of aliphatic compounds on the surface.
Aliphatics are a type of organic compound where carbon atoms form open chains that are commonly bound with oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur and chlorine. The least complex aliphatic is methane, which has been detected in many locations across the Solar System – including in the Martian atmosphere and in both liquid and gaseous form on Saturn’s moon Titan.
From their study, Dr. de Sanctis and her colleagues determined that spectral data obtained by the VIMS instrument corresponded to the presence of these hydrocarbons in a region outside of the Ernutet crater. This crater, which is located in the northern hemisphere of Ceres, measures about 52 km (32 mi) in diameter. The aliphatic compounds which were detected were localized in a roughly 1000 square kilometers region around it.
The team ruled out the possibility that these organic molecules were deposited from an external source – such as a comet or carbonaceous chondrite asteroid. While both have been shown to contain organic molecules in their interior in the past, the largest concentrations on Ceres were distributed discontinuously across the southwest floor and rim of the Ernutet crater and onto an older, highly degraded crater.
In addition, other organic-rich areas were spotted being are scattered to the northwest of the crater. As Dr. Maria Cristina De Sanctis told Universe Today via email:
“The composition that we see on Ceres is similar to some meteorites that has organics and thus we searched for this material. We considered both endogenous and exogenous origin, but the last one seems less likely due to several reasons including the larger abundance observed on Ceres with respect the meteorites.”
Instead, they considered the possibility that they organic molecules were endogenous in origin. In the past, surveys have shown evidence of hydrothermal activity on Ceres, which included signs of surface renewal and fluid mobility. Combined with other surveys that have detected ammonia-bearing hydrated minerals, water ice, carbonates, and salts, this all points towards Ceres having an environment that can support prebiotic chemistry.
“The overall composition of Ceres can favor the pre-biotic chemistry,” said De Sanctis. “Ceres has water ice and minerals (carbonates and phyllosilicates) derived from pervasive aqueous alteration of rocks. It has also material that we think is formed in hydrothermal environments. All these information indicate condition not hostel to biotic molecules.”
These findings are certainly significant in helping to determine if life could exist on Ceres – in a way that is similar to Europa and Enceladus, locked away beneath its icy mantle. But given that Ceres is believed to have originated 4.5 billion years ago (when the Solar System was still in the process of formation), this study is also significant in that it can shed light on the origin, evolution, and distribution of organic life in our the Solar System.
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. Continue reading “The Search Is On For Alien Signals Around Tabby’s Star”