China’s 500-Meter FAST Radio Telescope is Now Operational

The world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope is officially open for business according to Xinhua, China’s official state-run media. The FAST Radio Telescope saw fist light in 2016 but has been undergoing testing and commissioning since then. FAST stands for Five-hundred meter Aperture Spherical Telescope.

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Astronomers Are About to Detect the Light from the Very First Stars in the Universe

A team of scientists working with the Murchison Widefield Array (WMA) radio telescope are trying to find the signal from the Universe’s first stars. Those first stars formed after the Universe’s Dark Ages. To find their first light, the researchers are looking for the signal from neutral hydrogen, the gas that dominated the Universe after the Dark Ages.

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China’s FAST Telescope, the World’s Largest Single Radio Dish Telescope, is Now Fully Operational

After years of construction, China’s new radio telescope is in action. The telescope, called FAST (Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope) has double the collecting power of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, which has a 305 meter dish. Until now, Arecibo was the world’s largest radio dish of its type.

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Dead Planets Around White Dwarfs Could Emit Radio Waves We Can Detect, Sending Out Signals for Billions of Years

When a star reaches the end of its life cycle, it will blow off its outer layers in a fiery explosion known as a supernova. Where less massive stars are concerned, a white dwarf is what will be left behind. Similarly, any planets that once orbited the star will also have their outer layers blown off by the violent burst, leaving behind the cores behind.

For decades, scientists have been able to detect these planetary remnants by looking for the radio waves that are generated through their interactions with the white dwarf’s magnetic field. According to new research by a pair of researchers, these “radio-loud” planetary cores will continue to broadcast radio signals for up to a billion years after their stars have died, making them detectable from Earth.

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Want to Find Aliens? The Largest Dataset in the History of SETI has Been Released to the Public

In 2016, Russian-Israeli billionaire Yuri Milner launched Breakthrough Initiatives, a massive non-profit organization dedicated to the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI). A key part of their efforts to find evidence of intelligent life is Breakthrough Listen, a $100 million program that is currently conducting a survey of one million of the nearest stars and the 100 nearest galaxies.

In keeping with their commitment to making the results of their surveys available to the public, the Listen team recently submitted two papers to leading astrophysical journals. These papers describe the analysis of Listen’s first three years of radio observations which resulted in a petabyte of radio and optical data, the single largest release of SETI data in the history of the field.

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Astronomers are Using NASA’s Deep Space Network to Hunt for Magnetars

Right, magnetars. Perhaps one of the most ferocious beasts to inhabit the cosmos. Loud, unruly, and temperamental, they blast their host galaxies with wave after wave of electromagnetic radiation, running the gamut from soft radio waves to hard X-rays. They are rare and poorly understood.

Some of these magnetars spit out a lot of radio waves, and frequently. The perfect way to observe them would be to have a network of high-quality radio dishes across the world, all continuously observing to capture every bleep and bloop. Some sort of network of deep-space dishes.

Like NASA’s Deep Space Network.  

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Australian astronomers have been able to double the number of mysterious fast radio bursts discovered so far

Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) have become a major focus of research in the past decade. In radio astronomy, this phenomenon refers to transient radio pulses coming from distant cosmological sources, which typically last only a few milliseconds on average. Since the first event was detected in 2007 (the “Lorimer Burst”), thirty four FRBs have been observed, but scientists are still not sure what causes them.

With theories ranging from exploding stars and black holes to pulsars and magnetars – and even messages coming from extra-terrestrial intelligences (ETIs) – astronomers have been determined to learn more about these strange signals. And thanks to a new study by a team of Australian researchers, who used the Australia Square Kilometer Array Pathfinder (ASKAP), the number of known sources of FRBs has almost doubled.

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New Canadian Radio Telescope is Detecting Fast Radio Bursts

Since they were first detected in 2007, Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) have been a source of mystery to astronomers. In radio astronomy, this phenomenon refers to transient radio pulses coming from distant sources that typically last a few milliseconds on average. Despite the detection of dozens of events since 2007, scientists are still not sure what causes them – though theories range from exploding stars, black holes, and magnetars to alien civilizations!

To shed light on this mysterious phenomena, astronomers are looking to new instruments to help search for and study FRBs. One of these is the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME), a revolutionary new radio telescope located at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory (DRAO) in British Columbia. On July 25th, still in its first year, this telescope made its first-ever detection, an event known as FRB 180725A.

The detection of FRB 180725A was announced online in a “Astronomer’s Telegram” post, which is intended to alert the astronomical community about possible new finds and encourage follow-up observations. The detection of FRB 180725A is very preliminary at this point, and more research is needed before its existence as an FRB can be confirmed.

As they stated in the Astronomers Telegram announcement, the radio was signal was detected on July 25th, at precisely 17:59:43.115 UTC (09:59.43.115 PST), and at a radio frequency of 400 MHz:

“The automated pipeline triggered the recording to disk of ~20 seconds of buffered raw intensity data around the time of the FRB. The event had an approximate width of 2 ms and was found at dispersion measure 716.6 pc/cm^3 with a signal-to-noise ratio S/N ~20.6 in one beam and 19.4 in a neighboring beam. The centers of these, approximately 0.5 deg wide and circular beams, were at RA, Dec = (06:13:54.7, +67:04:00.1; J2000) and RA, Dec = (06:12:53.1, +67:03:59.1; J2000).”

Research into Fast Radio Bursts is still in its infancy, being a little more than a decade old. The first ever to be detected was the famous Lorimer Burst, which was named after it discoverer – Duncan Lorimer, from West Virginia University. This burst lasted a mere five milliseconds and appeared to be coming from a location near the Large Magellanic Cloud, billions of light years away.

So far, the only FRB that has been found to be repeating was the mysterious signal known as FRB 121102, which was detected by the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico in 2012. The nature of this FRB was first noticed by a team of students from McGill University (led by then-PhD Student Paul Scholz), who sifted through the Arecibo data and determined that the initial burst was followed by 10 additional burst consistent with the original signal.

The NSF’s Arecibo Observatory, which is located in Puerto Rico, is the world largest radio telescope. Arecibo detected 11 FRBs over the course of 2 months. Credit: NAIC

In addition to being the first time that this Canadian facility detected a possible FRB coming from space, this is the first time that an FRB has been detected below the 700 MHz range. However, as the CHIME team indicate in their announcement, other signals of equal intensity may have occurred in the past, which were simply not recognized as FRBs at the time.

“Additional FRBs have been found since FRB 180725A and some have flux at frequencies as low as 400 MHz,” they wrote. “These events have occurred during both the day and night and their arrival times are not correlated with known on-site activities or other known sources of terrestrial RFI (Radio Frequency Identification).”

As a result, this most-recent detection (if confirmed) could help astronomers shed some additional light on what causes FRBs, not to mention place some constraints on what frequencies they can occur at. Much like the study of gravitational waves, the field of study is new but rapidly growing, and made possible by the addition of cutting-edge instruments and facilities around the world.

Further Reading: CNET

Language in the Cosmos II: Hello There GJ273b

Ramfjordmoen Facility EISCAT

The ‘Language in the Cosmos’ symposium

Three times in October, 2017 researchers turned a powerful radar telescope near Tromsø, Norway towards an invisibly faint star in the constellation Canis Minor (the small dog) and beamed a coded message into space in an attempt to signal an alien civilization. This new attempt to find other intelligent life in the universe was reported in a presentation at the ‘Language in the Cosmos’ symposium held on May 26 in Los Angeles, California.

METI International sponsored the symposium. This organization was founded to promote messaging to extraterrestrial intelligence (METI) as a new approach to in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). It also supports other aspects of SETI research and astrobiology. The symposium was held as part of the International Space Development Conference sponsored by the National Space Society. It brought together linguists and other scientists for a daylong program of 11 presentations. Dr. Sheri Wells-Jensen, who is a linguist from Bowling Green State University in Ohio, was the organizer.

METI International
METI International

This is the second of a two part series about METI International’s symposium. It will focus on a presentation given at the symposium by the president of METI International, Dr. Douglas Vakoch. He spoke about a project that hasn’t previously gotten much attention: the first attempt to send a message to a nearby potentially habitable exoplanet, GJ273b. Vakoch led the team that constructed the tutorial portion of the message.

Douglas Vakoch interstellar message
Dr. Douglas Vakoch, president of METI International. (Credit: Per Bifrost public domain)

Message to the stars

The modern search for extraterrestrial intelligence began in 1960. This is when astronomer Frank Drake used a radio telescope in West Virginia to listen for signals from two nearby stars. Astronomers have sporadically mounted increasingly sophisticated searches, when funding has been available. The largest current project is Breakthrough Listen, funded by billionaire Yuri Milner. Searches have been made for laser as well as radio signals. Researchers have also looked for the megastructures that advanced aliens might create in space near their stars. METI International advocates an entirely new approach in which messages are transmitted to nearby stars in hopes of eliciting a reply.

The project to send a message to GJ273b was a collaboration between artists and scientists. It was initiated by the organizers of the Sónar Music, Creativity, and Technology Festival. The Sónar festival has been held every year since 1994 in Barcelona, Spain. The organizers wanted to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the festival. To implement the project, the festival organizers sought the help of the Catalonia Institute of Space Studies (IEEC), and METI International.

Sónar music festival and interstellar message
The Sónar Music, Creativity, and Technology Festival of Barcelona, Spain was a sponsor of the message to GJ273b.

To transmit the message, the team turned to The European Incoherent Scatter Scientific Association (EISCAT) which operates a network of radio and radar telescopes in Finland, Norway, and Sweden. This network is primarily used to study interactions between the sun and Earth’s ionosphere and magnetic field from a vantage point north of the arctic circle. The message was transmitted from a 32 meter diameter steerable dish at EISCAT’s Ramfjordmoen facility near Tromso, Norway, with a peak power of 2 megawatts. It is the first interstellar message ever to be sent towards a known potentially habitable exoplanet.

The target system

The obscure star known by the catalogue designation GJ273 caught the attention of the Dutch-American astronomer Willem J. Luyten in 1935. Luyten was researching the motions of the star. The star caught his attention because it was moving through Earth’s sky at the surprising rate of 3.7 arc seconds per year. Later study showed that this fast apparent motion is due to the fact that GJ273 is one of the sun’s nearest neighbors, just 12.4 light years away. It is the 24th closest star to the sun. Because of Luyten’s discovery it is sometimes known as Luyten’s star.

Luyten’s star is a faint red dwarf star with only a quarter of the sun’s mass. It caught astronomers’ attention again in March 2017. That’s when an exoplanet, GJ273b, was discovered in it’s habitable zone. The habitable zone is the range of distances where a planet with an atmosphere similar to Earth’s would, theoretically, have a range of temperatures suitable to have liquid water on its surface. The planet is a super Earth, with a mass 2.89 times that of our homeworld. It orbits just 800,000 miles from its faint sun, which it circles every 18 Earth days.

habitable exoplanet interstellar message
Artist’s impression of a habitable exoplanet orbiting a red dwarf star. The habitability of the planets of red dwarf stars is conjectural (Credit ESO/M. Kornmesser public domain)

This exoplanet was chosen because of its proximity to Earth, and because it is visible in the sky from the transmitter’s northerly location. Because GJ273b is relatively nearby, and radio messages travel at the speed of light, a reply from the aliens could come as early as the middle of this century.

The Message

Comparisons with Voyager

The GJ273b transmission is not the first time a message intended for extraterrestrials has been sent into space. Probably the most familiar interstellar message is the one carried on board the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft. NASA launched these interplanetary robots in 1977. They traveled on trajectories that hurtled them into interstellar space after they completed their missions to explore the outer solar system.

The message carried aboard each Voyager spacecraft was encoded digitally on a phonographic record. It was largely pictorial, and attempted to give a comprehensive overview of humans and Earth. It also included a selection of music from various Earthly cultures. These spacecraft will take tens of thousands of years to reach the stars. So, no reply can be expected on a timescale relevant to our society.

In some ways the GJ273b message is very different from the Voyager message. Unlike the Voyager record, it isn’t pictorial and doesn’t attempt to give a comprehensive overview of humans and Earth. This is perhaps because, unlike the Voyager message, it is intended to initiate a dialog on a timescale of decades. It resembles the Voyager message in that it contains music from Earth, namely, music from the artists that performed at the Sónar music festival.

Saying hello

For the human reader, understanding the message is a bit more of a challenge than looking at the pictures encoded on the Voyager record. You can try your hand at decoding the message yourself, because the organizers posted the whole thing on their website. Be forewarned that if you continue reading here, there are spoilers (or helpful clues, depending on how you look at it).

The message consists of a string of binary digits—ones and zeros. These are represented in the signal by a shift between two slightly different radio frequencies. The ‘hello’ section is designed to catch the attention of alien listeners. It consists of a string of prime numbers (numbers divisible only by themselves and one). They are represented with binary digits like this:

01001100011100000111110000000000011111111111

The message continues the sequence up to 193. A signal like this almost certainly can’t be produced by natural processes, and can only be the designed handiwork of beings who know math.

The tutorial

After the ‘hello’ section comes the tutorial. This, and all the rest of the message, uses eight bit blocks of binary digits as the basis for its symbols. The tutorial begins by introducing number symbols by counting. It uses base two numbers like this:

10000000 (0) 10000001 (1) 10000010 (2) 10000011 (3)
10000100 (4) 10000101 (5) 10000110 (6) 10000111 (7)
10001000 (8) 10001001 (9) 10001010 (10)

The leading ‘1’ allows numbers to be distinguished from other 8 bit symbols that don’t represent numbers.

After counting, the tutorial introduces symbols for the operations of arithmetic by showing sample problems. Here’s a sampling of some of the symbols for math operations:

00000110 (+) 00000111 (-) 00001000 (×) 00001001 (÷)
00111100 (=)

The tutorial then proceeds to geometry using combinations of numbers and symbols to illustrate the Pythagorean theorem. It eventually progresses to sine waves, thereby describing the radio wave carrying the signal itself. Finally the tutorial describes the physics of sound waves and the relationships between musical notes.

Besides the numbers, the tutorial introduces 55 8-bit symbols in all. It provides the instructions that aliens would need to properly reproduce a series of digitally encoded musical selections from the Sónar Festival.

During its journey of 70 trillion miles, the message is sure to become corrupted with noise. To compensate, the tutorial was transmitted three times during each transmission, requiring a total of 33 minutes to transmit. The entire transmission was repeated on three separate days, October 16, 17, and 18, 2017. A second block of three transmissions was made on May 14, 15, and 16, 2018.

The music

Each transmission included a different selection of music, with the works of 38 different musicians included in all. You can hear recordings of all this music at the Sónar Calling GJ273b website.

The rationale behind the message

Current and past SETI projects conducted by astronomers here on Earth assume that advanced aliens would make things easy for newly emerging civilizations by establishing powerful beacons that would broadcast in all directions at all times. Thus, SETI searchers generally use the same sort of highly directional dish antennae often used for other research in radio astronomy. They listen to any one star for only a few minutes, searching each one in turn for the beacon.

Unlike the always-on beacons imagined as the objects of Earth’ SETI searches, the Sónar message was only transmitted for 33 minutes on each of three days, and on only two occasions. Vakoch admits that “our message would likely be undetected by a civilization on GJ273b using the same strategy” favored by beacon searching SETI researchers on Earth.

However, some researchers have called traditional SETI assumptions and strategy into question, and studies of alternative search technologies have already been conducted. Vakoch notes that “we humans already have the technological capacity, and need only the funding, to conduct an all-sky survey that would detect intermittent transmission like ours”.

A larger problem is that the message was directed at just one planet. Although GJ273b orbits within its star’s habitable zone, we really know little what that means for whether the planet is actually habitable, or whether it has life or intelligence. Earth itself has been habitable for billions of years. But it has only had a civilization capable of radio transmissions for a century.

Vakoch conceded that “The only way we will get a reply back from GJ273b is if the galaxy is chock full of intelligent life, and it is out there just waiting for us to take the initiative. More realistically, we may need to replicate this process with hundreds, thousands, or even millions of stars before we reach one with an advanced civilization that can detect our signal”. METI International aims to conduct a design study for such a large scale METI project in hopes that funding will materialize from governmental or other sources.

References and further reading:

Sónar Calling GJ273b

Cain F. (2013) How could we find aliens, Universe today.

Patton, P. E. (2018) Language in the Cosmos I: Is universal grammar really universal?, Universe Today.

Patton P. E. (2016) Alien Minds, I. Are extraterrestrial civilizations likely to evolve, II. Do aliens think big brains are sexy too?, III. The octopus’s garden and the country of the blind, Universe Today

Patton, P. E. (2015) Who speaks for Earth? The controversy over interstellar messaging, Universe Today.

Patton P. E. (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.

Vakoch D. A. (2017) New keys to help extraterrestrials unlock our messages, Scientific American, Observations.

Vakoch D. A. (2011) Responsibility, capability and Active SETI: Policy, law, ethics, and communication with extraterrestrial intelligence, Acta Astronautica, 68:512-519

Vakoch D. A. (2010) An iconic approach to communicating musical concepts in interstellar messages, Acta Astronautica, 67:1406-1409

If We Receive a Message From Aliens, Should We Delete it Without Reading it?

Roughly half a century ago, Cornell astronomer Frank Drake conducted Project Ozma, the first systematic SETI survey at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia. Since that time, scientists have conducted multiple surveys in the hopes of find indications of “technosignatures” – i.e. evidence of technologically-advanced life (such as radio communications).

To put it plainly, if humanity were to receive a message from an extra-terrestrial civilization right now, it would be the single-greatest event in the history of civilization. But according to a new study, such a message could also pose a serious risk to humanity. Drawing on multiple possibilities that have been explored in detail, they consider how humanity could shield itself from malicious spam and viruses.

The study, titled “Interstellar communication. IX. Message decontamination is impossible“, recently appeared online. The study was conducted by Michael Hippke, a independent scientist from the Sonneberg Observatory in Germany; and John G. Learned, a professor with the High Energy Physics Group at the University of Hawaii. Together, they examine some of the foregone conclusions about SETI and what is more likely to be the case.

Frank Drake writing his famous equation on a white board. Credit: SETI.org

To be fair, the notion that an extra-terrestrial civilization could pose a threat to humanity is not just a well-worn science fiction trope. For decades, scientists have treated it as a distinct possibility and considered whether or not the risks outweigh the possible benefits. As a result, some theorists have suggested that humans should not engage in SETI at all, or that we should take measures to hide our planet.

As Professor Learned told Universe Today via email, there has never been a consensus among SETI researchers about whether or not ETI would be benevolent:

“There is no compelling reason at all to assume benevolence (for example that ETI are wise and kind due to their ancient civilization’s experience). I find much more compelling the analogy to what we know from our history… Is there any society anywhere which has had a good experience after meeting up with a technologically advanced invader? Of course it would go either way, but I think often of the movie Alien… a credible notion it seems to me.”

In addition, assuming that an alien message could pose a threat to humanity makes practical sense. Given the sheer size of the Universe and the limitations imposed by Special Relativity (i.e. no known means of FTL), it would always be cheaper and easier to send a malicious message to eradicate a civilization compared to an invasion fleet. As a result, Hippke and Learned advise that SETI signals be vetted and/or “decontaminated” beforehand.

The Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico was the site of NASA’s High Resolution Microwave Survey, a search for extraterrestrial radio messages. Credit: US NSF

In terms of how a SETI signal could constitute a threat, the researchers outline a number of possibilities. Beyond the likelihood that a message could convey misinformation designed to cause a panic or self-destructive behavior, there is also the possibility that it could contain viruses or other embedded technical issues (i.e. the format could cause our computers to crash).

They also note that, when it comes to SETI, a major complication arises from the fact that no message is likely to received in only one place (thus making containment possible). This is unlikely because of the “Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence”, which was adopted by the International Academy of Astronautics in 1989 (and revised in 2010).

Article 6 of this declaration states the following:

“The discovery should be confirmed and monitored and any data bearing on the evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence should be recorded and stored permanently to the greatest extent feasible and practicable, in a form that will make it available for further analysis and interpretation. These recordings should be made available to the international institutions listed above and to members of the scientific community for further objective analysis and interpretation.”

Voyager included a golden record with images and sounds of Earthly life recorded on it… just in case. Credit: NASA

As such, a message that is confirmed to have originated from an ETI would most likely be made available to the entire scientific community before it could be deemed to be threatening in nature. Even if there was only one recipient, and they attempted to keep the message under strict lock and key, it’s a safe bet that other parties would find a way to access it before long.

The question naturally arises then, what can be done? One possibility that Hippke and Learned suggest is to take a analog approach to interpreting these messages, which they illustrate using the 2017 SETI Decrypt Challenge as an example. This challenge, which was issued by René Heller of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, consisted of a sequence of about two million binary digits and related information being posted to social media.

In addition to being a fascinating exercise that gave the public a taste of what SETI research means, the challenge also sough to address some central questions when it came to communicating with an ETI. Foremost among these was whether or not humanity would be bale to understand a message from an alien civilization, and how we might be able to make a message comprehensible (if we sent one first). As they state:

“As an example, the message from the “SETI Decrypt Challenge” (Heller 2017) was a stream of 1,902,341 bits, which is the product of prime numbers. Like the Arecibo message (Staff At The National Astronomy Ionosphere Center 1975) and Evpatoria’s “Cosmic Calls” (Shuch 2011), the bits represent the X/Y black/white pixel map of an image. When this is understood, further analysis could be done off-line by printing on paper. Any harm would then come from the meaning of the message, and not from embedded viruses or other technical issues.”

The Wow! signal represented as “6EQUJ5”. Credit: Big Ear Radio Observatory/NAAPO

However, where messages are made up of complex codes or even a self-contained AI, the need for sophisticated computers may be unavoidable. In this case, the authors explore another popular recommendation, which is the use on quarantined machines to conduct the analysis – i.e. a message prison. Unfortunately, they also acknowledge that no prison would be 100% effective and containment could eventually fail.

“This scenario resembles the Oracle-AI, or AI box, of an isolated computer system where a possibly dangerous AI is ‘imprisoned’ with only minimalist communication channels,” they write. “Current research indicates that even well-designed boxes are useless, and a sufficiently intelligent AI will be able to persuade or trick its human keepers into releasing it.”

In the end, it appears that the only real solution is to maintain a vigilant attitude and ensure that any messages we send are as benign as possible. As Hippke summarized: “I think it’s overwhelmingly likely that a message will be positive, but you can not be sure. Would you take a 1% chance of death for a 99% chance of a cure for all diseases? One learning from our paper is how to design own message, in case we decide to send any: Keep it simple, don’t send computer code.”

Basically, when it comes to the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, the rules of internet safety may apply. If we begin to receive messages, we shouldn’t trust those that come with big attachments and send any suspicious looking ones to our spam folder. Oh, and if a sender is promising the cure for all known diseases, or claims to be the deposed monarch of Andromeda in need of some cash, we should just hit delete!

Further Reading: arXiv