Finding Aliens May Be Even Easier Than Previously Thought

Finding examples of intelligent life other than our own in the Universe is hard work. Between spending decades listening to space for signs of radio traffic – which is what the good people at the SETI Institute have been doing – and waiting for the day when it is possible to send spacecraft to neighboring star systems, there simply haven’t been a lot of options for finding extra-terrestrials.

But in recent years, efforts have begun to simplify the search for intelligent life. Thanks to the efforts of groups like the Breakthrough Foundation, it may be possible in the coming years to send “nanoscraft” on interstellar voyages using laser-driven propulsion. But just as significant is the fact that developments like these may also make it easier for us to detect extra-terrestrials that are trying to find us.

Not long ago, Breakthrough Initiatives made headlines when they announced that luminaries like Stephen Hawking and Mark Zuckerberg were backing their plan to send a tiny spacecraft to Alpha Centauri. Known as Breakthrough Starshot, this plan involved a refrigerator-sized magnet being towed by a laser sail, which would be pushed by a ground-based laser array to speeds fast enough to reach Alpha Centauri in about 20 years.

In addition to offering a possible interstellar space mission that could reach another star in our lifetime, projects like this have the added benefit of letting us broadcast our presence to the rest of the Universe. Such is the argument put forward by Philip Lubin, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the brains behind Starshot.

In a paper titled “The Search for Directed Intelligence” – which appeared recently in arXiv and will be published soon in REACH – Reviews in Human Space Exploration – Lubin explains how systems that are becoming technologically feasible on Earth could allow us to search for similar technology being used elsewhere. In this case, by alien civilizations. As Lubin shared with Universe Today via email:

“In our SETI paper we examine the implications of a civilization having directed energy systems like we are proposing for both our NASA and Starshot programs. In this sense the NASA (DE-STAR) and Starshot arrays represent what other civilizations may possess. In another way, the receive mode (Phased Array Telescope) may be useful to search and study nearby exoplanets.”

DE-STAR, or the Directed Energy System for Targeting of Asteroids and exploRation, is another project being developed by scientists at UCSB. This proposed system will use lasers to target and deflect asteroids, comets, and other Near-Earth Objects (NEOs). Along with the Directed Energy Propulsion for Interstellar Exploration (DEEP-IN), a NASA-backed UCSB project that is based on Lubin’s directed-energy concept, they represent some of the most ambitious directed-energy concepts currently being pursued.

Project Starshot, an initiative sponsored by the Breakthrough Foundation, is intended to be humanity's first interstellar voyage. Credit: breakthroughinitiatives.org
Project Starshot, an initiative sponsored by the Breakthrough Foundation, is intended to be humanity’s first interstellar voyage. Credit: breakthroughinitiatives.org

Using these as a template, Lubin believes that other species in the Universe could be using this same kind of directed energy (DE) systems for the same purposes – i.e. propulsion, planetary defense, scanning, power beaming, and communications. And by using a rather modest search strategy, he and colleagues propose observing nearby star and planetary systems to see if there are any signs of civilizations that possess this technology.

This could take the form of “spill-over”, where surveys are able to detect errant flashes of energy. Or they could be from an actual beacon, assuming the extra-terrestrials us DE to communicate. As is stated in the paper authored by Lubin and his colleagues:

“There are a number of reasons a civilization would use directed energy systems of the type discussed here. If other civilizations have an environment like we do they might use DE system for applications such as propulsion, planetary defense against “debris” such as asteroids and comets, illumination or scanning systems to survey their local environment, power beaming across large distances among many others. Surveys that are sensitive to these “utilitarian” applications are a natural byproduct of the “spill over” of these uses, though a systematic beacon would be much easier to detect.”

According to Lubin, this represents a major departure from what projects like SETI have been doing during the last few decades. These efforts, which can be classified as “passive” were understandable in the past, owing to our limited means and the challenges in sending out messages ourselves. For one, the distances involved in interstellar communication are incredibly vast.

The Very Large Telescoping Interferometer firing it's adaptive optics laser. Credit: ESO/G. Hüdepohl
Directed-energy technology, such as the kind behind the Very Large Telescoping Interferometer, could be used by ET for communications. Credit: ESO/G. Hüdepohl

Even using DE, which moves at the speed of light, it would still take a message over 4 years to reach the nearest star, 1000 years to reach the Kepler planets, and 2 million years to the nearest galaxy (Andromeda). So aside from the nearest stars, these time scales are far beyond a human lifetime; and by the time the message arrived, far better means of communication would have evolved.

Second,  there is also the issue of the targets being in motion over the vast timescales involved. All stars have a transverse velocity relative to our line of sight, which means that any star system or planet targeted with a burst of laser communication would have moved by the time the beam arrived. So by adopting a pro-active approach, which involves looking for specific kinds of behavior, we could bolster our efforts to find intelligent life on distant exoplanets.

But of course, there are still many challenges that need to be overcome, not the least of which are technical. But more than that, there is also the fact that what we are looking for may not exist. As Lubin and his colleagues state in one section of the paper: “What is an assumption, of course, is that electromagnetic communications has any relevance on times scales that are millions of years and in particular that electromagnetic communications (which includes beacons) should have anything to do with wavelengths near human vision.”

In other words, assuming that aliens are using technology similar to our own is potentially anthropocentric. However, when it comes to space exploration and finding other intelligent species, we have to work with what we have and what we know. And as it stands, humanity is the only example of a space-faring civilization known to us. As such, we can hardly be faulted for projecting ourselves out there.

Here’s hoping ET is out there, and relies on energy beaming to get things done. And, fingers crossed, here’s hoping they aren’t too shy about being noticed!

Further Reading: arXiv

Is Alpha Centauri The Best Place To Look For Aliens?

For generations, human beings have fantasized about the possibility of finding extra-terrestrial life. And with our ongoing research efforts to discover new and exciting extrasolar planets (aka. exoplanets) in distant star systems, the possibility of actually visiting one of these worlds has received a real shot in the arm. Unfortunately, given the astronomical distances involved, not to mention the cost of mounting an expedition, doing so presents numerous significant challenges.

However, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and the Breakthrough Foundation – an international organization committed to exploration and scientific research –  is determined to mount an interstellar mission to Alpha Centauri, our closest stellar neighbor, in the coming years. With the backing of such big name sponsors as Mark Zuckerberg and Stephen Hawking, his latest initiative (named “Project Starshot“) aims to send a tiny spacecraft to the Alpha Centauri system to search for planets and signs of life.

Continue reading “Is Alpha Centauri The Best Place To Look For Aliens?”

Weekly Space Hangout – June 5, 2015: Stephen Fowler, Creative Director at InfoAge

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)
Special Guest: This week we welcome Stephen Fowler, who is the Creative Director at InfoAge, the organization behind refurbishing the TIROS 1 dish and the Science History Learning Center and Museum at Camp Evans, Wall, NJ.

Guests:
Jolene Creighton (@jolene723 / fromquarkstoquasars.com)
Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @MorganRehnberg )

Continue reading “Weekly Space Hangout – June 5, 2015: Stephen Fowler, Creative Director at InfoAge”

Weekly Space Hangout – May 29, 2015: Dr. Bradley M. Peterson

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)
Special Guest: This week we welcome Dr. Bradley M. Peterson, whose research is directed towards determination of the physical nature of active galactic nuclei.
Guests:
Jolene Creighton (@jolene723 / fromquarkstoquasars.com)
Charles Black (@charlesblack / sen.com/charles-black)
Brian Koberlein (@briankoberlein / briankoberlein.com)
Dave Dickinson (@astroguyz / www.astroguyz.com)
Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @MorganRehnberg )
Alessondra Springmann (@sondy)
Continue reading “Weekly Space Hangout – May 29, 2015: Dr. Bradley M. Peterson”

X-37B Air Force Space Plane Launches on 4th Mystery Military Mission and Solar Sailing Test

Blastoff of the X-37B spaceplane on United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket with the OTV-4 AFSPC-5 satellite for the U.S. Air Force at 11:05 a.m. EDT, May 20, 2015 from Space Launch Complex-41. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Story updated with additional details and photos[/caption]

The X-37B, a reusable Air Force space plane launched today, May 20, from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on its fourth mission steeped in mystery as to its true goals for the U.S . military and was accompanied by ten tiny cubesat experiments for NASA and the NRO, including a solar sailing demonstration test for The Planetary Society.

The military space plan successfully blasted off for low Earth orbit atop a 20 story United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket on the clandestine Air Force Space Command 5 (AFSPC-5) satellite mission for the U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office at 11:05 a.m. EDT (1505 GMT) today, May 20, from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

The weather cooperated for a spectacular liftoff from the Florida space coast, which was webcast live by ULA until five minutes after launch when it went into a communications blackout shortly after announcing the successful ignition of the Centaur upper stage.

The exact launch time was classified until it was released by the Department of Defense this morning. Early this morning the four hour launch window was narrowed down to two small windows of opportunity.

USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle launches atop  United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni
USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle launches atop United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni

Among the experiments for the flight are 10 CubeSats housed in the Aft Bulkhead Carrier (ABC) located below the Centaur upper stage. Together they are part of the National Reconnaissance Office’s (NRO’s) Ultra Lightweight Technology and Research Auxiliary Satellite (ULTRASat). The 10 CubeSats in ULTRASat are managed by the NRO and NASA. They are contained in eight P-Pods from which they will be deployed in the coming days.

Also aboard the X-37B is a NASA materials science experiment called METIS and an advanced Hall thruster experiment. The Hall thruster is a type of electric propulsion device that produces thrust by ionizing and accelerating a noble gas, usually xenon.

Following primary spacecraft separation the Centaur will change altitude and inclination in order to release the CubeSat spacecraft.

They are sponsored by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and NASA and were developed by the U.S. Naval Academy, the Aerospace Corporation, the Air Force Research Laboratory, California Polytechnic State University, and The Planetary Society.

LightSail marks the first controlled, Earth orbit solar sail flight according to the non-profit Planetary Society. Photons from the sun should push on the solar sails.

“The purpose of this LightSail demonstration test is to verify telemetry, return photos return and to test the deployment of the solar sails,” said Bill Nye, the Science Guy), and President of The Planetary Society, during the X-37B launch webcast.

“LightSail is comprised of three CubeSats that measure about 30 cm by 10 cm.”

“It’s smaller than a shoebox, everybody! And the sail that will come out of it is super shiny mylar. We’re very hopeful that the thing will deploy properly, the sunlight will hit it and we’ll get a push.”

United Launch Alliance Atlas V launch of USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle on May 20, 2015. Credit: Julian Leek
United Launch Alliance Atlas V launch of USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle on May 20, 2015. Credit: Julian Leek

The Boeing-built X-37B is an unmanned reusable mini shuttle, also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) and is flying on the OTV-4 mission. It launches vertically like a satellite but lands horizontally like an airplane and functions as a reliable and reusable space test platform for the U.S. Air Force.

“ULA is honored to launch this unique spacecraft for the U.S Air Force. Congratulations to the Air Force and all of our mission partners on today’s successful launch! The seamless integration between the Air Force, Boeing, and the entire mission team culminated in today’s successful launch of the AFSPC-5 mission” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Atlas and Delta Programs.

The two stage Atlas V stands 206 feet tall and weighs 757,000 pounds.

The X-37B was carried to orbit by the Atlas V in its 501 configuration which includes a 5.4-meter-diameter payload fairing and no solid rocket motors. The Atlas first stage booster for this mission was powered by the RD AMROSS RD-180 engine generating some 850,000 pounds of thrust and fired for approximately the first four and a half minutes of flight. The Centaur upper stage was powered by the Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C-1 engine.

The X-37B space plane was to separate from the Centaur about 19 minutes after liftoff. The Centaur continued firing separately with the CubeSat deployment, including the Planetary Society’s LightSail test demoonstration, into a different orbit later.

Overall this was ULA’s sixth launch of the 501 configuration the 54th mission to launch on an Atlas V rocket. This was also ULA’s fifth launch in 2015 and the 96th successful launch since the company was formed in December 2006.

The OTV is somewhat like a miniature version of NASA’s space shuttles.

Boeing has built two OTV vehicles. But it is not known which of the two vehicles was launched today.

Altogether the two X-37B vehicles have spent a cumulative total of 1367 days in space during the first three OTV missions and successfully checked out the vehicles reusable flight, reentry and landing technologies.

The 11,000 pound (4990 kg) state-of -the art reusable OTV space plane was built by Boeing and is about a quarter the size of a NASA space shuttle. It was originally developed by NASA but was transferred to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 2004.

USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle poised for launch atop  United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni
USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle poised for launch atop United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni

All three OTV missions to date have launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida and landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Future missions could potentially land at the shuttle landing facility at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

The first OTV mission launched on April 22, 2010, and concluded on Dec. 3, 2010, after 224 days in orbit.

The following flights were progressively longer in duration. The second OTV mission began March 5, 2011, and concluded on June 16, 2012, after 468 days on orbit. The third OTV mission launched on Dec. 11, 2012 and landed on Oct. 17, 2014 after 674 days in orbit.

The vehicle measures 29 ft 3 in (8.9 m) in length with a wingspan of 14 ft 11 in (4.5 m). The payload bay measures 7 ft × 4 ft (2.1 m × 1.2 m). The space plane is powered by Gallium Arsenide Solar Cells with Lithium-Ion batteries.

Among the primary mission goals of the first three flights were check outs of the vehicles capabilities and reentry systems and testing the ability to send experiments to space and return them safely. OTV-4 will shift somewhat more to conducting research.

“We are excited about our fourth X-37B mission,” Randy Walden, director of the USAF’s Rapid Capabilities Office, said in a statement. “With the demonstrated success of the first three missions, we’re able to shift our focus from initial checkouts of the vehicle to testing of experimental payloads.”

US Air Force X-37B OTV-4 mini space shuttle is encapsulated in 5 meter payload fairing and bolted atop an Atlas 5 rocket at Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida prior to planned 20 May 2015 launch.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
US Air Force X-37B OTV-4 mini space shuttle is encapsulated in 5 meter payload fairing and bolted atop an Atlas 5 rocket at Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida prior to planned 20 May 2015 launch. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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

Ken Kremer

Launch of the X-37B spaceplane on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket with the AFSPC-5 satellite for the U.S. Air Force at 11:05 a.m. EDT, May 20, 2015 from Space Launch Complex-41. Credit: ULA
Launch of the X-37B spaceplane on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket with the AFSPC-5 satellite for the U.S. Air Force at 11:05 a.m. EDT, May 20, 2015 from Space Launch Complex-41. Credit: ULA
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket successfully launched the AFSPC-5 satellite for the U.S. Air Force at 11:05 a.m. EDT today, Wednesday, May 20, 2015 from Space Launch Complex-41. Credit: ULA
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket successfully launched the AFSPC-5 satellite for the U.S. Air Force at 11:05 a.m. EDT today, Wednesday, May 20, 2015 from Space Launch Complex-41. Credit: ULA

Hunting LightSail in Orbit

The hunt is on in the satellite tracking community, as the U.S. Air Force’s super-secret X-37B space plane rocketed into orbit today atop an Atlas V rocket out of Cape Canaveral.  This marks the start of OTV-4, the X-37B’s fourth trip into low Earth orbit. And though NORAD won’t be publishing the orbital elements for the mission, it is sure to provide an interesting hunt for backyard satellite sleuths on the ground.

Previous OTV missions were placed in a 40 to 43.5 degree inclination orbit, and the current NOTAMs cite a 61 degree azimuth angle for today’s launch out of the Cape which suggests a slightly shallower 39 degree orbit. Such variability speaks to the versatile nature of the second stage Centaur motor.

Image credit:
A capture of the X-37B in orbit. Image credit and copyright: Luke (Catching up)

There’s also been word afoot that future X-37B missions may return to Earth at the Kennedy Space Center, just like the Space Shuttle. To date, the X-37B has only landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

But there’s also another high interest payload being released along with a flock of CubeSats aboard AFPSC-5: The Planetary Society’s Lightsail-1.

Image credit:
The UltraSat P-POD CubeSat dispenser. Image credit: United Launch Alliance

About the size of a loaf of bread and the result of a successful Kickstarter campaign, LightSail is set to demonstrate key technologies in low Earth orbit before the Planetary Society’s main solar sail demonstrator takes to space in 2016.

The idea of using solar wind pressure for space travel is an enticing one. A big plus is the fact that unlike chemical propulsion, a solar sail does not need to contend with hauling the mass of its own fuel. The idea of using a solar sail plus a focused laser to propel an interstellar spacecraft has long been a staple of science fiction. But light-sailing technology has had a troubled history—the Planetary Society lost its Cosmos-1 mission launched from a Russian submarine in 2001. JAXA has fared better with its Venus-bound IKAROS, also equipped with a solar sail. To date, the IKAROS solar sail is the largest that has been deployed, at 20-metres on the diagonal.

Another use for space sail technology is the commanded reentry of spacecraft at the end of their mission life, as demonstrated by NanoSail-D2 in 2011.

Prospects of seeing LightSail may well be similar to what we had hunting for NanoSail-D2. Unfolded, LightSail will be 32 square meters in size, or about 5.6 meters on a side. NanoSail-D2 measured 3.1 meters on a side, and the reflective panels on the Iridium satellites which produce brilliant Iridium flares exceeding Venus in brightness measure about the size of a large rectangular door at 1 x 3 meters. Even the Hubble Space Telescope can flare on occasion as seen from the ground if one of its massive solar arrays catches the Sun just right.

Image credit:
Hubble can flare too! Image credit: David Dickinson

The 39 degree orbital inclination angle will also limit visible passes to from about 45 degrees north to 45 degrees south latitude.

Hunting down X-37B and LightSail will push ground observing skills to the max. Like NanoSail-D2, LightSail probably won’t be visible to the naked eye until it flares. What we like to do is note when a faint satellite is set to pass by a bright star, then sit back with our trusty 15x 45 image-stabilized binoculars and watch. We caught sight of the ‘tool bag’ lost during an ISS EVA in 2009 in this fashion. There it was, drifting past Spica as a +7th magnitude ‘star’. The key to this method is an accurate prediction—Heavens-Above now overlays orbital satellite passes on all-sky charts—and an accurate time source. We prefer to have WWV radio running in the background, as it’ll call out the time signal so we don’t have to take our eyes off the sky.

Image credit:
The orbital trace of OTV-3. Image credit: Orbitron

Veteran satellite watcher Ted Molczan recently discussed the prospects for spotting LightSail once it’s deployed.  “By then, the orbit will be visible from the northern hemisphere during the middle of the night. The southern hemisphere may have marginal evening passes. Note that the high area to mass ratio with the sail deployed, combined with the low perigee height, is expected to result in decay as soon as a couple days after deployment.”

Read a further discussion concerning OTV-4 and associated payloads by Mr. Molczan on the See-Sat message board here.

The Planetary Society’s Jason Davis confirmed for Universe Today that LightSail will deploy 28 days after launch. But we may only have a slim two day observation window for LightSail between deployment and reentry.

A deployment of LightSail 28 days after launch would put it in the June 16th timeframe.

“That’s the nominal mission time, yes,” Davis told Universe Today. “Our orbital models predict 2-10 days. For our 2016 flight, the mission will last at least four months.”

The Planetary Society plans to have a live ‘mission control center’ to track LightSail after P-POD deployment, complete with a Google Map showing pass predictions.

Satellite spotting can be a fun and addictive pastime, where part of the fun is sleuthing out what you’re seeing. Hey, some relics of space history such as the early Vanguards, Telstars, and Canada’s first satellite Alouette-1 are still up there! Nabbing these photographically are as simple as plopping your DSLR on a tripod, setting the focus and doing a time exposure as the satellite passes by.

Image credit:
The X-37B undergoing encapsulation in preparation for launch. Image credit: USAF

Here’s to smooth solar sailing and clear skies as we embark on our quest to track down the X-37B and LightSail-1 in orbit.

-Follow us as @Astroguyz on Twitter, as we’ll be providing further info on orbits and visibility passes as they are made public.