Will We Find Alien Life Within 20 Years? You Can Bet On It.

During a hearing last week before the U.S. House Science and Technology Committee SETI scientists Seth Shostak and Dan Werthimer asserted that solid evidence for extraterrestrial life in our galaxy — or, at the very least, solid evidence for a definitive lack of it — will come within the next two decades. It’s a bold claim for scientists to make on public record, but one that Shostak has made many times before (and he’s not particularly off-schedule either.) And with SETI’s Allen Telescope Array (ATA) continually scanning the sky for any signals that appear intentional, exoplanets being discovered en masse, and new technology on deck that can further investigate a select few of their (hopefully) Earth-like atmospheres, the chances that alien life — if it’s out there — will be found are getting better and better each year.

Would you put your bet on E.T. being out there? Actually, you can.

Thanks to the internet and the apparently incorrigible human need to compete you can actually place a wager on when alien life will be discovered, via an Irish online betting site.

Illustration of Kepler-186f, a recently-discovered, possibly Earthlike exoplanet that could be a host to life. (NASA Ames, SETI Institute, JPL-Caltech, T. Pyle)
Illustration of Kepler-186f, a recently-discovered, possibly Earthlike exoplanet that could be a host to life. (NASA Ames, SETI Institute, JPL-Caltech, T. Pyle)

Typically focused on the results of international sporting matches, PaddyPower.com has also included the announcement of extraterrestrial life in its novelty bet section, hinging on “the sitting President of the USA making a statement confirming without doubt the existence of alternative life beings from another planet.” The odds of such an announcement being made in the years 2015-2018 are currently listed at 100 to one. After that they drop significantly… probably because by then the JWST will be in operation and we will “have the technology.”

Of course, whether you personally would place a wager on such things is purely personal preference, and neither I nor Universe Today condones or supports gambling, for aliens or otherwise. (And the legalities of doing so and any and all results thereof are the sole responsibility of the reader.) But it is interesting that we now live in a time when wagering on the discovery of alien life sits just a click away from the results of the Kentucky Derby, French Open, or World Cup.

Now if you really want to support the science that will make such a discovery possible — maybe even within our own Solar System — you can “stand up for space” and write your representatives to tell them you want NASA’s planetary science budget to be funded, and rather than gamble your money you can make a donation to support SETI’s ongoing mission here (or even help out yourself via [email protected].)

And even if all else fails, you could end up with a free coffee courtesy of Dr. Shostak…

Learn more about SETI and how the ATA works here, and read Dan Werthimer’s May 21 statement to the House Committee here.

Source/ht: FloridaToday Space and The Independent

“Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”

– Arthur C. Clarke

 

Kepler Can Still Hunt For Earth-Sized Exoplanets, Researchers Suggest

Illustration of the Kepler spacecraft. Kepler's mission is over, but all of the exoplanets it found still need to be confirmed in follow-up observations. (NASA/Kepler mission/Wendy Stenzel)

Kepler may not be hanging up its planet-hunting hat just yet. Even though two of its four reaction wheels — which are crucial to long-duration observations of distant stars —  are no longer operating, it could still be able to seek out potentially-habitable exoplanets around smaller stars. In fact, in its new 2-wheel mode, Kepler might actually open up a whole new territory of exoplanet exploration looking for Earth-sized worlds orbiting white dwarfs.

An international team of scientists, led by Mukremin Kilic of the University of Oklahoma’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, are suggesting that NASA’s Kepler spacecraft should turn its gaze toward dim white dwarfs, rather than the brighter main-sequence stars it was previously observing.

“A large fraction of white dwarfs (WDs) may host planets in their habitable zones. These planets may provide our best chance to detect bio-markers on a transiting ex- oplanet, thanks to the diminished contrast ratio between the Earth-sized WD and its Earth-sized planets. The James Webb Space Telescope is capable of obtaining the first spectroscopic measurements of such planets, yet there are no known planets around WDs. Here we propose to take advantage of the unique capability of the Kepler space- craft in the 2-Wheels mode to perform a transit survey that is capable of identifying the first planets in the habitable zone of a WD.”

– Kilic et al.

Any bio-markers — such as molecular oxygen, O2 — could later be identified around such Earth-sized exoplanets by the JWST, they propose.

Will Kepler be able to find the first Earth-sized exoplanet orbiting a white dwarf? (Illustration of Kepler 22b. Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech)
Will Kepler be able to find the first Earth-sized exoplanet — or even an exomoon — orbiting a white dwarf? (Illustration of Kepler 22b. Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech)

Because Kepler’s precision has been greatly reduced by the failure of a second reaction wheel earlier this year, it cannot accurately aim at large stars for the long periods of time required to identify the minute dips in brightness caused by the silhouetted specks of passing planets. But since white dwarfs — the dim remains of stars like our Sun — are much smaller, any eclipsing exoplanets would make a much more pronounced effect on their apparent luminosity.

In effect, exoplanets ranging from Earth- to Jupiter-size orbiting white dwarfs as close as .03 AU — well within their habitable zones — would significantly block their light, making Kepler’s diminished aim not so much of an issue.

“Given the eclipse signature of Earth-size and larger planets around WDs, the systematic errors due to the pointing problems is not the limiting factor for WDHZ observations,” the team assures in their paper “Habitable Planets Around White Dwarfs: an Alternate Mission for the Kepler Spacecraft.”

Even smaller orbiting objects could potentially be spotted in this fashion, they add… perhaps even as small as the Moon.

The team is proposing a 200-day-long survey of 10,000 known white dwarfs within the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) area, and expects to find up to 100 exoplanet candidates as well as other “eclipsing short period stellar and sub-stellar companions.”

“If the history of exoplanet science has taught us anything, it is that planets are ubiquitous and they exist in the most unusual places, including very close to their host stars and even around pulsars… Currently there are no known planets around WDs, but we have never looked at a sufficient number of WDs at high cadence to find them through transit observations.”

– Kilic et al.

Read the team’s full report here, and learn more about the Kepler mission here.

NASA’s Ames Research Center made an open call for proposals regarding Kepler’s future operations on August 2. Today is the due date for submissions, which will undergo a review process until Nov. 1, 2013.

Added 9/4: For another take on this, check out Paul Gilster’s write-up on Centauri Dreams.

Canada Unveils its Contributions to the JWST

Today Canada’s Minister of Industry Christian Paradis unveiled the technologies that comprise Canada’s contribution to the James Webb Space Telescope, a next-generation infrared observatory that’s seen as the successor to Hubble.


CSA will provide JWST with a two-in-one instrument: a Fine Guidance Sensor (FGS) Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS). Both were designed, built and tested by COM DEV International in Ottawa and Cambridge, Ontario, with technical contributions from the Université de Montréal and the National Research Council Canada.

Read: Watch the James Webb Being Built via “Webb-Cam”

“Canada has a proud legacy in space and we are once again pushing the frontier of what is possible. These two outstanding technologies are perfect examples of how Canada has secured its world-class reputation. Our Government is committed to ensuring the long-term competitiveness and prosperity of such a vital economic sector.”
– The Honourable Christian Paradis

The FGS consists of two identical cameras that are critical to Webb’s ability to “see.” Their images will allow the telescope to determine its position, locate its celestial targets, and remain pointed to collect high-quality data. The FGS will guide the telescope with incredible precision, with an accuracy of one millionth of a degree.

The NIRISS will have unique capabilities for finding the earliest and most distant objects in the Universe’s history. It will also peer through the glare of nearby young stars to unveil new Jupiter-like exoplanets. It will have the capability of detecting the thin atmosphere of small, habitable, earth-like planets and determine its chemical composition to seek water vapour, carbon dioxide and other potential biomarkers such as methane and oxygen.

The FGS/NIRISS instruments can be seen in this development video from CSA:

“Imagine the challenge at hand here: to design and deliver technology capable of unprecedented levels of precision to conduct breakthrough science on board the largest, most complex and most powerful telescope ever built,” said Steve MacLean, President of the CSA. “The Webb telescope will be located 1.5 million kilometers from Earth— too far to be serviced by astronauts like Hubble was. At that distance, the technology simply has to work. This is the outstanding level of excellence Canadians are capable of achieving. It’s something for all of us to be proud of.”

The instruments will be delivered to NASA on July 30.

Read more on the CSA press release here, and learn more about the James Webb here.

Images/video: CSA and NASA

Watch the James Webb Telescope Being Built Via “Webb-cam”

Want to watch the highly anticipated James Webb Space Telescope come together? NASA has set up a webcam – in this case a “Webb-cam” — for anyone to track the progress JWST inside a clean room at Goddard Space Flight Center. Recently, the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) was delivered and it will be integrated into the science instrument payload. Two cameras show the action, although the cameras will show just screen shots that are updated once every minute.

When is the best time to watch? The clean room is generally occupied Monday through Friday from 5 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. PDT (8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. EDT).

Click the image above for access to the Webb-cams, or visit the Webb-cam website.

Of the James Webb Space Telescope’s four science instruments, only MIRI can see light in the mid-infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum. This unique capability will allow the Webb telescope to study physical processes occurring in the cosmos that the other Webb instruments cannot see.

MIRI’s sensitive detectors will allow it to make unique observations of many things, including the light of distant galaxies, newly forming stars within our own Milky Way, and the formation of planets around stars other than our own, as well as planets, comets and the outermost debris disk in our own solar system.

Surprise! NASA Gets Two ‘Free’ Hubble-like Space Telescopes

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NASA will be getting two unused space surveillance satellites from the US’s National Reconnaissance Office, which could possibly be used to search for dark energy. In articles in the Washington Post and the New York Times, NASA and NRO officials revealed the two unused and not-fully-built satellites are available for NASA to use as they see fit. While the satellites don’t have astronomical instruments and are still in a warehouse, they do have 2.4-meter (7.9 feet) mirrors, just like Hubble, with a wider field of view and a maneuverable secondary mirror that makes it possible to obtain better-focused images.

“This is a total game changer,” said David N. Spergel of Princeton, quoted in the New York Times, who is co-chairman of a committee on astronomy and astrophysics for the National Academy of Sciences.

Reportedly, the NRO contacted NASA in 2011 about the two spy satellites. Since taking over as head of the NASA Science Directorate early this year, former Hubble repairman John Grunsfeld has been working with scientists and other NASA officials to quietly study the possibility of using the two satellites as “repurposed telescopes.”

Originally designed to look at Earth for surveillance, the two telescopes could be turned to look at the heavens instead, as the National Reconnaissance Office said they no longer needed them for spy missions. Why two such spy telescopes were under construction and then scrapped is not clear.

Described as not fully built and some parts being in “bits and pieces,” NASA will have to decide on how they should be used, build additional instruments, launch them, and support the operations.

Reportedly, Grunsfeld and his secret team have come up with a plan to turn one of the telescopes to investigate the mysterious dark energy that is speeding up the expansion of the universe.

NASA officials stressed that they do not have a program or a budget to launch even one telescope at the moment, and that at the very earliest, under favorable budgets, it would be 2020 before even one of the two gifted telescopes could be ready for a mission.

The Washington Post asked Grunsfeld whether anyone at NASA was popping champagne, and he answered, “We never pop champagne here; our budgets are too tight.”

In the latest decadal survey the astronomical community had suggested a dark energy telescope as its top priority in astronomy and astrophysics, but the lack of funding – along with huge cost overruns by the James Webb Space Telescope — made it seem like such a telescope would be an impossibility.

The two telescopes could possibly be used for the proposed WFIRST project, which seemingly was not going anywhere with the latest budget proposal or as a ‘scout’ for the JWST.

“It would be a great discovery telescope for where Webb should look in addition to doing the work on dark energy,” Spergel said in the Washington Post.

Astronomers will be discussing the possibilities at a meeting at the National Academy of Sciences held on today in Washington, D.C. and how they could turn the two gifted telescopes into official missions.

Read more in the Washington Post and the New York Times.

Meet MIRI, Infrared Camera for Webb Telescope

Our friend Will Gater from the BBC’s Sky At Night Magazine had the chance to get a behind-the-scenes tour of the facility that is building the Mid-Infrared Instrument on the long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope. You’ll meet MIRI inside clean room at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the UK, before it’s packaged up and sent over to NASA Goddard in the US and hear from some of the scientists involved in the project. MIRI is expected to make important contributions to all four of the primary science themes for JWST: 1.) discovery of the “first light”; 2.) assembly of galaxies: history of star formation, growth of black holes, production of heavy elements; 3.) how stars and planetary systems form; and 4.) evolution of planetary systems and conditions for life.

James Webb Mirrors Pass Deep-Freeze Exams

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The last of the 21 mirrors for the James Webb Space Telescope have come out of deep freeze – literally! – and are now approved for space operations, a major milestone in the development of the next generation telescope that’s being hailed as the “successor to Hubble.”

“The mirror completion means we can build a large, deployable telescope for space,” said Scott Willoughby, vice president and Webb program manager at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. “We have proven real hardware will perform to the requirements of the mission.”

The all-important mirrors for the Webb telescope had to be cryogenically tested to make sure they could withstand the rigors and extreme low temperatures necessary for operating in space. To achieve this, they were cooled to temperatures of -387F (-233C) at the X-ray and Cryogenic Test Facility at Marshall Space Flight Center.

When in actual use, the mirrors will be kept at such low temperatures so as not to interfere with deep-space infrared observations with their own heat signatures.

JWST engineers anticipate that, with such drastic cooling, the mirrors will change shape. The testing proved that the mirrors would achieve the shapes needed to still perform exactly as expected.

“This testing ensures the mirrors will focus crisply in space, which will allow us to see new wonders in our universe,” said Helen Cole, project manager for Webb Telescope mirror activities.

Planned for launch in 2018, the JWST will be the premier observatory of the next decade, serving thousands of astronomers worldwide. It will study every phase in the history of the Universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang to the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on Earthlike planets.

Learn more about the James Webb Space Telescope here.

Senate Approves Bill Funding JWST

This afternoon the U.S. Senate approved H.R. 2112, a FY 2012 bill from Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski that would fund the James Webb Space Telescope to launch in 2018. This is another step forward for the next-generation space telescope, which many have called the successor to Hubble… all that now remains is for the House to reconcile.

“We are creating the building blocks that we need for a smarter America. Our nation is in an amazing race – the race for discovery and new knowledge, the race to remain competitive,” Chairwoman Mikulski said. “This bill includes full funding of the James Webb Telescope to achieve a 2018 launch. The Webb Telescope supports 1,200 jobs and will lead to the kind of innovation and discovery that have made America great. It will inspire America’s next generation of scientists and innovators that will have the new ideas that lead to new products and new jobs.”

Full scale model of the JWST at the EADS Astrium in Munich. Credit: EADS Astrium

The bill was approved by a vote of 69 to 30.

Thanks to everyone who contacted their representatives in support of the JWST and to all the websites out there that helped make it simple to do so… and of course to all the state representatives who listened and stood behind the JWST!

In addition to continued funding for the telescope the 2012 bill also allots the National Aeronautics and Space Administration $17.9 billion (still a reduction of $509 million or 2.8 percent from the 2011 enacted level) and preserves NASA’s portfolio balanced among science, aeronautics, technology and human space flight investments, including the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle, the heavy lift Space Launch System, and commercial crew development.

It also supports funding for the NOAA.

“We are creating the building blocks that we need for a smarter America. Our nation is in an amazing race – the race for discovery and new knowledge, the race to remain competitive.”

– U.S. Senator Barbara A. Mikulski

Of course, we must remember that spending and allocation of funds is not necessarily creating funds. As with everything, money has to come from somewhere and it remains to be seen how this will affect other programs within NASA. Not everyone is in agreement that this is the best course of action for the Administration at this point, not with the overall reduction of budget being what it is.

Read the bill summary here.

You can show your continued support for the JWST by liking the Save the James Webb Space Telescope Facebook page and – even more importantly – by contacting your congressperson and letting them know you care!

What is Vision? (A Save The James Webb Support Video)

Do you love astronomy? Do you appreciate science? Do you have a curiosity about the nature of our Universe, how it came to be and what our place is within it? If you are even reading this I assume your answers to all of those questions is a resounding “yes!” and so I present to you an excellent video created by Brad Goodspeed in support of the James Webb Space Telescope:

“I made Vision because I thought the argument for science could benefit from a passionate delivery,” Brad told Universe Today. “Deep down we’re all moved by the stars, and that passion needs to be expressed by methods outside of science’s typical toolbox.”

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Funding for this next-generation telescope is currently on the line in Washington. While a markup bill was passed last month by the House of Representatives that allows for continued funding of the JWST through to launch, it has not yet been ratified by Congress. It’s still very important to maintain support for the JWST by contacting your state representatives and letting them know that the future of space exploration is of concern to you.

A petition against the defunding of the JWST is currently active on Change.org and needs your signature (if you haven’t signed it already.) Signing ends at midnight tonight so be sure to click here to sign and pass it along as well! (You can share this shortened link on Twitter, Facebook, etc.: http://chn.ge/oy4ibI)

You can also show your support and follow the JWST progress by following Save the James Webb Space Telescope on Facebook and on saveJWST.com.

The JWST will be the premier observatory of the next decade, serving thousands of astronomers worldwide. It will study every phase in the history of our Universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our own Solar System. It is currently aiming for a 2018 launch date.

“We don’t get to the future by yielding to our most current fears… by being shortsighted.”

Video courtesy of Brad Goodspeed.

Senate Saves the James Webb Space Telescope!

The 2012 fiscal year appropriation bill, marked up today by the Senate, allows for continued funding of the James Webb Space Telescope and support up to a launch in 2018! Yes, it looks like this bird is going to fly.

JWST's mirror segments are prepped for testing at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. NASA/Chris Gunn.

The James Webb Space Telescope will be the premier observatory of the next decade, serving thousands of astronomers worldwide. It will study every phase in the history of our Universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our own Solar System. JWST will be a large infrared telescope with a 6.5-meter primary mirror.

Thanks to everyone who contacted their representatives and expressed their support of the JWST, to all the websites out there that made it particularly simple to do so, and of course to all the state representatives who stood behind the program and didn’t allow it to get mothballed. The space science community thanks you and the current and future generations of astronomers, physicists, cosmologists and explorers thank you.

“In a spending bill that has less to spend, we naturally focus on the cuts and the things we can’t do. But I’d like to focus on what we can do. The bill invests more than $12 billion in scientific research and high impact research and technology development, to create new products and new jobs for the future.”

– CJS Subcommittee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski

In addition to continued funding for the telescope the 2012 bill also allots the National Aeronautics and Space Administration $17.9 billion (a reduction of $509 million or 2.8 percent from the 2011 enacted level) and preserves NASA’s portfolio balanced among science, aeronautics, technology and human space flight investments, including the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle, the heavy lift Space Launch System, and commercial crew development.

In this tighter economy, all of the agencies funded under the bill are also called on to be better stewards of taxpayers’ dollars, and waste and overspending will be much more closely monitored.

Read the bill summary here.

Go JWST!

NOTE: While the JWST program has been specifically included in today’s markup, the bill itself still needs to be approved by the full appropriations committee and then go to the Senate floor for a vote. It then must be reconciled with the House version before receiving final appropriation. Still, this is definitely one step closer to getting the JWST off the ground! Read more on ScienceInsider here.

You can show your continued support for the JWST by liking the Save the James Webb Space Telescope Facebook page and – even more importantly – by contacting your congressperson and letting them know you care!