News Article | September 12, 2016
The scientific community was abuzz recently when it was widely reported that Russian astronomers, along with an Italian researcher, had recorded a signal that was, as of then, unexplained. After looking into what exactly was detected—something from the solar system HD 164595 some 94 light-years away—the Russian astronomers issued a statement explaining that the signal was most likely not extraterrestrial. But organizations focusing on the search for alien life, such as the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute and the Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) Institute, are continuing to look into the event. Part of the reason is because the signal was received over a year ago, on May 15, 2015, according to a SETI blog post. At the time, though, the discoverers didn’t immediately alert the SETI community, a breach of long-established practice and protocol. How did that breakdown happen? One reason SETI’s protocol likely sputtered is simple. Even though the drafted document has been written and revised for over two decades, the nine rules researchers are supposed to follow when they receive what they think may be an extraterrestrial signal don't necessarily conform to the dynamic nature of the field. Technologies are constantly changing, making it easier to see places we've never seen before, like surface of a comet, for instance. Scientists are still sorting out how best to act on the new data that's coming in all the time. SETI's rules are a set of defensive actions: if x happens, then y next. That makes them similar to the way measures are created in the cybersecurity sector; SETI’s rules exist to protect those involved but are usually carried out during exceptional circumstances. Security professionals generally have plans in place about what to do during an emergency, yet the reality never plays out the same as it did when conceptualized. Perhaps the most glaring example of this was the 2013 Target data breach, which exposed personal and payment information of some 40 million customers. The company had numerous security protocols in place—which, according to Bloomberg Businessweek, may have even detected the hack while it was happening. But when theoretical security planning was pushed into active procedure, several things went awry. While Target was alerted by federal law enforcement about two weeks after the hack, data breaches take an average of 146 days to be discovered, according to a report from Mandiant. The potential receipt of an alien signal likewise needs to be vetted, which can also chew up a considerable amount of time. Franck Marchis, a principal investigator at the Carl Sagan Center of the SETI Institute, explained that it's a way to ensure findings are real. Astronomers must "use the scientific method," he said. "Before making an announcement, you contact your colleagues," he explained. "You ask them to confirm that they also see the signal." Researchers are working around the globe scanning the skies for any sort of abnormality they can detect. Every so often, they find something that defies explanation. The reason SETI has prescribed rules in place is to give a semblance of order to the process of figuring out these unknowns. The scientists I spoke to described the protocol as a safeguard to make sure every signal is properly vetted. But as Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute who was part of the committee that crafted the document, told me, the protocol is just a prescription. "It’s recommended behavior," he said. "There’s no force of law." After years of meetings and reviews, the protocol has become widely accepted in the astronomy community. And according to Shostak, it’s a "valuable document." Both he and Marchis pointed to a signal SETI detected in 1997 that ended up being a false alarm. Though it looked promising, after colleagues weighed in, it became clear that the blip was in fact terrestrial. Still, it's not always a smooth experience. If a promising signal is detected, it creates excitement. A scientist emailing a few friends about the discovery could also notify the press. "It spreads very quickly," Shostak explained. Often a finding that has yet to be completely vetted by the entire astronomy community gets leaked. That is also reassuring, according to Shostak. He said that findings can get overlooked by the entities that matter—namely the government and the military. But the press has a way of garnering widespread interest that can then get the community involved in a healthy, global debate. The downside: "What’s actually going to happen is a very messy media story," Shostak said, "with conflicting reports." Yet methodological fissures still remain in the astronomy world. Earlier this year Fast Company reported on the widening difference of opinions when it comes to studying potentially alien lifeforms. While organizations like SETI focus on passively scanning the open skies for any external sign of life, other organizations like METI—Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence—believe it may be more useful to take a more proactive searching approach. Meanwhile, the protocol itself states: "No response to a signal or other evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence should be sent until appropriate international consultations have taken place." Despite this, the scientists I talked with maintained that nearly every expert in the field is at least aware of the protocol and should know how follow it. But in this case, the team that discovered this faraway blip waited for over a year before making any sort of noise. While this may seem odd, there's at least one possible explanation for the announcement’s timing. Claudio Maccone, the Italian researcher (who is also the chair of the International Academy of Astronautics Permanent SETI Committee) who first saw the signal, is scheduled to show his findings at the 67th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Guadalajara later this month. Still, this doesn’t quite explain why the Russian astronomers already issued a statement saying it was most likely no extraterrestrial. Shostak told me that he asked Maccone why the team didn’t alert others about the finding last year. "He said they were shy," Shostak explained. "I don’t know what that means." Though the protocol has been updated again somewhat recently, it's clear that even the most high-tech scientists can be hampered by rudimentary organizational breakdowns. Do these perceived hiccups actually help push the science forward? Shostak sees the messiness as inevitable; Marchis points to just how important it is that others follow the protocol to truly corroborate findings. Either way, the truth is out there.
News Article | October 19, 2015
George Mueller, NASA associate administrator for manned space flight, as seen at the Apollo 11 launch on July 16, 1969. Mueller died on Monday, Oct. 12, 2015 at age 97. George Mueller, who led NASA's human spaceflight efforts through the first moon landing and was credited as the "father of the space shuttle," died Monday (Oct. 12) after a brief illness. He was 97. NASA and sources close to Mueller's family confirmed his passing on Thursday (Oct. 15). George Mueller, as associate administrator, headed the Office of Manned Space Flight at NASA's Washington headquarters from 1963 through 1969. During that time, Mueller brought together NASA's three human spaceflight centers under a common management system, introduced an approach to testing that made landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade possible, played a key part in the design of the United States' first space station and advocated for a reusable space transportation system that became known as the space shuttle. "The management challenges were certainly as great as the technical challenges," Mueller said of the Apollo moon landings in a 2011 interview with Air & Space magazine. First approached to lead the Manned Spacecraft Center (now Johnson Space Center) in Houston, Mueller insisted that to achieve the Apollo program's goals he would need to be able to lead the activities at Cape Canaveral, Florida and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, as well as in Texas. In doing so, he redefined how space projects were managed at NASA, setting up the program offices for Gemini, Apollo and advanced programs. [NASA's Most Memorable Shuttle Missions] "For Apollo, because it involved all [three] centers in great depth, I set up an organization that started with a program office in Washington and then program offices in each of the three centers, with their own program managers, who reported directly back to the director in Washington," said Mueller in a 1998 NASA interview. "Then each of these program offices, in turn, had these five disciplines which also reported, or just communicated directly with their counterparts in Washington," he added. "So you had five boxes with the three centers, five boxes in Washington, [each] communicating independently of the program office, but part of the program office, but had their own disciplines that they kept track of throughout." These five disciplines — which included flight operations, testing, systems engineering, program control and quality assurance — came to be known as GEM boxes, based on Mueller's initials. And it was his work within one of these boxes — testing — wherein Mueller made one of his greatest contributions to ensuring Apollo achieved its goal before President John F. Kennedy's deadline of the end of the decade. Looking at the 1963 test schedule for the Saturn V launch vehicle, Mueller came to realize that there was no way that the program could land a man on the moon by 1969. "I don't think that anyone really who had been involved in the program disagreed with that," he said. "I don't know [if at] that time they were all that convinced that we they were going to be able to land on the moon in the decade." Mueller's answer was to push for an "all-up" test approach, that would fly full vehicles instead of certifying each stage of the rocket separately, as was called for by Wernher von Braun at Marshall. "We were bringing everything together as rapidly as we could and in a sequence that would get them all together at the same time. So it didn't make much sense to fly the first stage and then fly it with the second stage, or fly the second stage separately, which was also proposed," said Mueller in a 1998 NASA interview. "If you lost a vehicle, you were likely to lose it at any stage so you might as well go as far as you can and find out where the problems are." All-up testing, which von Braun came to acknowledge as risky but the way to go, and Mueller's management of the program played a significant role in Apollo 11 making the first lunar landing in July 1969. Thirty years later however, Mueller explained it was not "getting to the moon on time" that was his greatest success, but what came next. "Actually, probably even a greater thing was putting in place a follow-on program that would begin to exploit what we'd accomplished in Apollo," he told NASA during a 1999 oral history. "The real problem with Apollo was that it was a one-time event, essentially, and it was not built to carry on a lunar exploration program, for example." "But we did put in place the program that exploited what was left of the Apollo thing, Skylab," Mueller said. [Skylab: The First U.S. Space Station in Pictures] Four years before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would leave the first boot prints on the moon, Mueller sketched out his idea for an orbital workshop based on components from the Apollo hardware. That drawing, created during a meeting in August 1966, served as the basis for Skylab, America's first space station. "We set up Skylab really to test long-duration exposure of man to space," Mueller recalled, "and that was about the same time we started the studies on the space shuttle, because in order to get to Mars we needed to have some ways of getting into space more cheaply than we were doing, and with a lot more energy than we had at the time. So we started the two programs almost together in their studies phases." Often credited as the "father of the space shuttle," Mueller advocated for a reusable transportation system that could service space stations and reduce the cost of getting into space. "One of the things that we did was to look at what we needed to do in order to get into space really, and that's what led to the space shuttle," he said. "It became clear that if you're going to really exploit the space environment, you had to have a cheap means, an inexpensive means, of getting into space and out of space." Before and after NASA Mueller didn't stay at NASA though, to see the shuttle be approved in 1972 or see Skylab launch in 1973. Rather, he resigned from the space agency in 1969, four months after the first moon landing. "[It] was a good time then to leave [and] let someone else take over for the next phase," he said. "From a practical point of view I needed to go make some money so I could keep my family going." George Edwin Mueller was born in St. Louis, Missouri on July 16, 1918, 51 years to the day prior to the launch of the Saturn V that carried the Apollo 11 crew to the moon. He earned his bachelor of science in electrical engineering from the Missouri School of Mines in 1939 and a masters of science from Purdue in Indiana in 1940. Eleven years later, Mueller received his doctorate in physics from Ohio State University, working on the staff at Bell Laboratories in the interim. Before joining NASA, Mueller first experienced managing aerospace programs at Ramo Wooldridge Corp. (later part of TRW), where he led the design review for the guidance systems on the Atlas and Titan ballistic missiles. He was also program manager for Pioneer 1, the first spacecraft to be launched by the then-newly founded NASA on Oct. 11, 1958. "That was the lunar probe. It didn't quite make it, but it did get far enough to get into the record book," Mueller stated. "We built the first digital telemetry systems for it, because we couldn't figure out how to make an analog system work all the way out to the moon and back." After his six years as NASA's associate administrator for manned space flight, Mueller served as General Dynamics senior vice president and as chairman and chief executive officer for System Development Corp. (SDC). Mueller ultimately returned to his desire to develop a low-cost method of accessing space, helming the commercial spaceflight company Kistler Aerospace (later Rocketplane Kistler) from 1995 to 2004. "I'm doing what I set out to do with the space shuttle, and that's building a fully reusable launch vehicle," he stated in 1999. In addition to his professional positions, Mueller served as the president of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) from 1969 to 1982 and the president of the International Academy of Astronautics from 1982 to 1997. Recognized by numerous awards, Mueller was presented the National Medal of Science by President Richard Nixon in 1970, received six honorary degrees and was bestowed the NASA Distinguished Service Medal. He received the National Space Trophy in 2002 and was honored with the National Air and Space Museum Trophy in 2011. Mueller is survived by his second wife Darla Jean, who he married in 1978, and was the father of four children. See more photos of George Mueller, from his career as NASA's associate administrator for manned space flight from 1963 to 1969, at collectSPACE. Follow collectSPACE.com on Facebook and on Twitter at @collectSPACE. Copyright 2015 collectSPACE.com. All rights reserved. Copyright 2015 SPACE.com, a Purch company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
News Article | November 17, 2016
The science fiction movie "Arrival," which opened in theaters last weekend, poses tantalizing questions about how humans might make contact — and eventually communicate — with intelligent aliens. The much-hyped film has renewed people's interest in the search for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. But what would happen if humans really did make contact with an intelligent alien civilization? If E.T. calls, is there a plan? The answer is yes, and no, said astronomer Seth Shostak, who leads efforts to detect radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. "There are some protocols, but I think that's an unfortunate name, and it makes them sound more important than they are," Shostak told Live Science. [Greetings, Earthlings! 8 Ways Aliens Could Contact Us] In the 1990s, Shostak chaired a committee of the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) that prepared a revised version of the "post-detection protocols" for researchers who watch for possible alien transmissions using radio telescopes, a field known as SETI (short for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). The protocols were first drawn up in the 1980s to help scientists in the United States and the Soviet Union share information about any potential SETI signals. But, Shostak explained, the SETI post-detection protocols are guidelines for governments and scientists, rather than a global action plan for dealing with alien contact. "They say, 'If you pick up a signal, check it out ... tell everybody ... and don't broadcast any replies without international consultation,' whatever that means," he said. "But that's all that the protocols say, and they have no force of law. The United Nations took a copy of the early protocols and put them in a file drawer somewhere, and that's as official as they ever got." In the movie "Arrival," spaceships land in several cities around the world, and a linguist (portrayed by actress Amy Adams) and a physicist (played by actor Jeremy Renner) are recruited as part of an international effort to try to communicate with the aliens and find out why they are here. In real life, apart from the protocol dictating that researchers should share news about SETI signals with other astronomers around the world, Shostak said he is not aware of any government-level plans or established procedures in case of an alien contact, whatever form it might take. And it seems there really are no "Men in Black," shadowy government investigators of UFO-lore, depicted in the comedy sci-fi movie series starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. "If [the government] could afford the 'Men in Black,' then they could afford to support SETI," Shostak joked. [7 Huge Misconceptions about Aliens] But the U.S. government has shown no interest in SETI research so far, he said. "It's not a government program, so they have nothing to do with it. I would love to see some interest from them, but I never have," he added. After one early SETI "false alarm," which eventually turned out to be a signal from a European research satellite, the only response was from journalists. "In 1997, we got a signal that looked pretty promising for most of the day. We thought it was possibly the real deal," Shostak said. "I kept waiting for the 'Men in Black' to show up — they didn't. I kept waiting for the Pentagon to call. I kept waiting for the White House to call. They didn't call. But The New York Times called." In a review of the science and speculations about extraterrestrials, published as "Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence and Civilization" in 1979, the author and scientist Robert Freitas described a purported military briefing in Washington, D.C., in 1950 that outlined potential U.S. military responses to alien contact. The supposed military plan, which became known as "Seven Phases to Contact," was first reported in a 1967 book on UFOs by the American broadcaster and UFO researcher Frank Edwards. But Shostak said he has seen no sign of any extraterrestrial action plan for U.S. government agencies or the military. "As far as I know, there's nothing, and I think I would have heard something because of the [SETI] false alarms," he said. While detecting an alien radio signal would be different from encountering spaceships that landed on Earth, Shostak doesn’t think protocols will play a big part in how we respond. "Some people asked me at a conference last week, 'What plan does the military have to deal with aliens should they land?' And I said, 'I don’t know … but to the best of my knowledge, they don't have a plan.'" Shostak noted that any aliens who could travel here in a spacecraft would need to be centuries or thousands of years more technologically advanced than humans are now, so it's almost impossible to imagine the consequences of contact between the species, let alone the thought of developing a plan to deal with them. [13 Ways to Hunt Intelligent Aliens] "It would be like the Neanderthals having a plan in case the U.S. Air Force showed up," he said. Although the aliens in "Arrival"helpfully travel to Earth in faster-than-light spaceships, willing and ready to talk, Shostak said a more likely "first contact" scenario would be the detection of a SETI radio signal, perhaps from a source hundreds or thousands of light-years away. That means it could take centuries for the aliens to receive any reply transmitted from Earth in an effort to communicate with them, he said. As such, there might not be any real hurry to decide what to say. And if E.T. does call, what should humans say in response? Some scientists, including British physicist Stephen Hawking, have expressed concern about "Active SETI" programs designed to transmit messages from Earth to any aliens that might be listening. Hawking warned of the potential threat posed by unknown extraterrestrials and their alien motivations. There's also the difficult matter of making the right first impression in any extraterrestrial chat, Shostak said. "I've been to several conferences where people discuss whether we should tell [aliens] all the bad things about humanity, or just the good things, and that sort of thing," he said. "But I think that is terribly overdrawn. To me, that would be like the indigenous people of Australia seeing Capt. Cook coming over the horizon in his ship, then saying, 'We're going to have a couple of conferences to discuss what we're going to talk to these guys about, and what language we'll use’ — [but] it doesn’t matter." Shostak pointed out that humans have already been broadcasting news into space for decades, in the form of television and radio signals, and so it's probably too late to keep quiet. "Those signals have been going out into space since the Second World War, so we've already told them we're here," he said. 7 Things Most Often Mistaken for UFOs Science Fact or Fiction? The Plausibility of 10 Sci-Fi Concepts Strange and Beautiful: Gallery of Old Sci-Fi Artwork
News Article | August 30, 2016
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) - A curious radio signal picked up by a Russian telescope is probably not a transmission from an extraterrestrial civilization, but astronomers in California are taking a second look anyway, the SETI Institute said on Tuesday. A group of Russian astronomers last year detected what appeared to be a non-naturally occurring radio signal in the general location of a star system 94 light-years from Earth. Their findings emerged after Italian researcher Claudio Maccone, who chairs the International Academy of Astronautics committee on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, told colleagues of a presentation he heard about the signal, said Seth Shostak, a director at the SETI Institute. "I don't think we're taking it terribly seriously," Shostak said. "The Russians looked in this direction 39 times, and as best we can tell they found it once." Most likely, the radio signal was caused by terrestrial interference or a satellite, a common occurrence, Shostak told Reuters. If the Russians thought they had a serious signal from ET, he said, they also likely would have disclosed it sooner. "They didn't say anything about it for more than year. If we had found a signal, we'd check it out and call up other astronomers to check it out as well," Shostak said. Nevertheless, SETI astronomers have spent the last two nights using an array of radio telescopes in California to study the suspect star, HD 164595, which has one known planet in orbit. The planet is about the size of Neptune, but circles its star far closer than Mercury orbits the sun. HD 164595 could have other planets in orbit that are more suitably positioned for water, which is believed to be necessary for life. So far, though, astronomers have not detected any unusual signals from the star, Shostak said. "We have to be very careful not to get cynical about false alarms," he said. "It's easy to say 'Aw man, it's just another case of interference,' but that risks not paying attention when you should."
News Article | August 30, 2016
A radio signal detected last year has sparked speculation that an advanced alien civilization is broadcasting from a relatively nearby planet. But recent scans have turned up nothing, suggesting the blip was a false alarm and nothing more than earthly interference. In May 2015, astronomers detected a blast of radio waves coming from the direction of HD 164595, a sunlike star about 94 light-years away in the constellation Hercules. The signal, reported online August 27 on the blog Centauri Dreams, lasted just a few seconds and reached a peak power of about 750 millijansky — fairly strong by radio astronomy standards (1 jansky equals 10-26 watts per square meter per hertz). The researchers aren’t claiming that they found E.T., but they are asking other astronomers to monitor the star — home to a planet at least 16 times as massive as Earth — in case the signal repeats. So far, all is quiet. Scientists with the SETI Institute, whose mission is to seek out signs of extraterrestrial intelligence, turned the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia toward HD 164595 on August 28 to scan for signals. “There was nothing there,” says Dan Werthimer, a SETI astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley. The original claim, however, “is consistent with someone pushing the button on a CB radio for a couple of seconds.” Radio telescopes have to contend with interference from the civilization on this planet before picking out transmissions from our galactic neighbors. Earth-based satellites, power lines and cellphones all emit radio waves that can overwhelm cosmic signals. One type of radio chirp whose origin had eluded astronomers for years recently turned out to be coming from microwave ovens, a fact discovered when researchers at the Parkes observatory in Australia who were tracking the signal prematurely opened an oven door without waiting for the ding signal (SN: 5/16/15, p. 5). “We see strong signals like this all the time,” says Werthimer. With enough information, such as frequency and location, researchers can usually figure out the cause of an incoming signal. But this latest finding, recorded at the RATAN-600 radio observatory near the Caucasus Mountains in Russia, is missing a lot of details that could help astronomers assess its origin. Without precise frequency measurements or statistics on how often the observatory detects comparable events, says Werthimer, it’s hard to tell how unusual this signal is. The signal was detected around a frequency of 11 gigahertz. That suggests interference from telecommunication devices, says Italian astronomer Claudio Maccone, who was part of the discovery team. “This is precisely why many countries have to watch the star with different technologies,” he says. “By comparing results, we may be able to find the answer.” The long delay in sharing the results, he says, comes from a reluctance among his Russian colleagues to interact with Western researchers. “They are a closed community,” he says. “It’s an unfortunate circumstance.” The team will present the findings September 27 at a meeting of the International Academy of Astronautics in Guadalajara, Mexico. If the signal didn’t originate on Earth, there are also plenty of natural cosmic sources. Jean Schneider, an astrophysicist at the Paris Observatory in Meudon, France, contends that a gravitational microlens might be responsible. Gravity from an object, such as a star or planet, can temporarily amplify light — including radio waves — received on Earth from other more distant bodies that the interloper passes in front of. Testing that idea would require meticulously tracking the movement of stars that lie in the direction of the radio signal, says Schneider, and seeing if anything could have lined up on the day of the detection. The discovery is reminiscent of an infamous — and still unexplained — detection known as the “Wow!” signal, named after what astronomer Jerry Ehman wrote on a printout of the signal. Detected in 1977 at the Big Ear radio telescope in Delaware, Ohio, the Wow! signal was at least 70 times as powerful as the one at RATAN-600, lasted for about 72 seconds and appeared to originate in the constellation Sagittarius. Many ideas have been put forth about the signal’s origin, including comets in our solar system, Earth-orbiting space debris and, of course, extraterrestrials. If aliens do reside around HD 164595, and they are trying to get our attention, they could do so with precisely aimed transmitters no more powerful than anything on Earth, Werthimer says. But if we eavesdropped on a signal that was blasting in all directions into space, then our neighbors are far more advanced than us; such a device would require tapping into the entire power output of their sun.
News Article | October 3, 2016
Founded in 1950 by the International Academy of Astronautics and the International Astronautical Federation, each year the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) brings together the biggest players in the space world for a week of discussions bearing on humanity's future in the final frontier. The 67th IAC wrapped up on Friday in Guadalajara, Mexico and saw attendance from the heads of all the major national space agencies, industry titans like SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and Lockheed Martin Space Systems VP Wanda Sigur, space celebrities like Buzz Aldrin and Bill Nye, as well as hundreds of space enthusiasts and journalists from around the world. The theme of this year's IAC was "Making space accessible and affordable to all countries," which was fitting considering that the host country only launched its own space agency in 2010. The question, of course, is how to make space accessible to all when of the 70 national space agencies in existence, only 13 have launch capabilities and only three are able to put humans into space. It's a lofty goal, but then again, space programs have never been known for thinking small. Walking around the floor of the main IAC exhibition however, it was hard to shake the feeling that the congress was more focused on selling space access to non-spacefaring nations than simply making it accessible. As with anything under late capitalism, you can do whatever you want, as long as you have the cash. This feeling was reinforced during many of the larger presentations, particularly Elon Musk's keynote speech and Lockheed Martin's presentation on Mars Base Camp, both of which felt like a big sales pitch to NASA. The notable exception to this trend was the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs' announcement of its partnership with Sierra Nevada Corporation to launch the first UN space mission in 2021. This mission will place priority on placing experiments in orbit which were developed by countries which can't afford their own national space programs. These experiments will be funded in part by the countries themselves and public-private partnerships with national space agencies and corporate space actors. Thankfully, not all of the IAC was focused on selling space to those who aren't already there. The real value of the IAC is found in the hundreds of technical presentations given by scientists and space policy experts from around the globe. These technical presentations occur in a handful of small rooms tucked away from the main IAC events and usually don't attract more than 30 people to any one session. Here, cutting edge space science and policy is discussed in an open and accessible manner. Based on what was discussed during these sessions, here are some major trends to watch out for in the future of space exploration—without the sales pitch: One of the biggest tricks in colonizing space is figuring out how to get the resources necessary for this venture into orbit. Right now, the cost of launching stuff into space is about $10,000 per pound. Although both NASA and SpaceX are looking at ways to lower this cost to something more reasonable (like $1000 per pound or even $100 per pound), others are looking at ways to get material resources in space itself. This will likely begin with harvesting water from asteroids and Mars, which will be used for sustaining crewed missions as well as powering interplanetary spacecraft. Peter Swan of the International Space Elevator Consortium went so far as to label water as the likely default currency in space, at least until more robust economies are developed in orbit. Yet as Alyssa Picard of the Science and Technology Institute pointed out, most of the space mining efforts around today are being developed by private companies and will require the development of a robust legal framework for commercial activities in space led by national and international stakeholders. Aside from the national space agencies booths at the IAC, the exhibition floor was dominated by commercial CubeSat companies from around the world. Although CubeSats were first formally defined in 1999 as small satellites weighing no more than 1.33 kilograms, it wasn't until recent years that they've really began taking the space industry by storm. These CubeSats can be deployed for a number of purposes, such as scientific missions or Earth observation, although CubeSats are increasingly being explored as potential vehicles for deep space exploration. This year at the IAC, the focus was on how to make CubeSats more affordable, which included proposals for dedicated CubeSat launch vehicles. One of the most pressing challenges for the future of CubeSats in space will be figuring out how to get them back from orbit once their mission is over to prevent further cluttering Low Earth Orbit, which is quickly beginning to resemble a garbage dump. As mentioned above, Low Earth Orbit is quickly becoming a dangerous place. With over 500,000 pieces of known and tracked orbital debris—even the smallest of which can destroy a satellite or put crewed missions in danger—figuring out how to remove this debris and ensure a sustainable orbital future is paramount for the space sector. A number of methods of removing space debris were discussed at the conference, although one of the most novel was a detumbler—this method would deploy CubeSats that would attach to tumbling space debris, reduce the tumbling motion before sending the space junk to a disposal orbit at about 50 kilometers up. Other methods included using tether nets to catch and dispose of debris, as well as using concentrated sunlight to push space debris out of orbit. As more commercial and national actors make their debut in space, we're quickly generating far more data than we can handle. This brings up a number of pressing questions regarding how this data is generated, how to create standards that make sure this data can be used by multiple actors, who has ownership over this data, and what, exactly, we should do with all this data. As the orbital environment becomes increasingly crowded, taking advantage of this massive amount of data will become paramount, to ensure that we are not only deriving the maximum benefit from space missions, but also to ensure the safe deployment of these missions. Although many of these questions still lack anything close to a satisfactory answer, the space sector is definitely taking notice, and some, like the ESA, have begun to arrange conferences dedicated to the challenge of Big Data in Space. Although Elon Musk's plans to turn humans into an interplanetary species and Lockheed Martin's plans to develop a crewed Martian space station stole the show at this year's IAC, there are a number of other plans in the work to make sure humans continue to have a presence in space. With the ISS set to be decommissioned in 2024 and most Mars plans slated for sometime around 2030, this would seem to leave a substantial gap in human orbital presence. Luckily, China will be launching humans to their own national space station, the Tiangong-2, later this month and the country is expected to continue to keep a human presence in space for the foreseeable future. Indeed, China held a special session on how it plans to open its crewed space programs up to international cooperation in the future. Aside from China's space ambitions, there will be other opportunities for crewed exploration in the coming decades. One of the most exciting plans is for an international lunar village, a program pioneered by the European Space Agency. Yet before this can happen a number of technical details need to be worked out, namely communications infrastructure and where the lunar village will actually be located. In addition to lunar villages, space tourism was another hot topic of discussion at IAC this year. Virgin Galactic outlined their revamped research on SpaceShipTwo and made affordable space tourism feel closer than ever. And what would space exploration be without aliens? Unfortunately, the SETI technical sessions were the smallest of the conference, but this didn't mean they were lacking in big projects. One of the most exciting was the Breakthrough StarShot, the plan to send a small chip about the size of an SD card to another star by bombarding it with a huge array of lasers. The SETI group also discussed how social media has changed post-detection protocols. Currently, the IAA has a procedure about what to do in the event that we are contacted by aliens, but this protocol was designed far before the advent of social media. Now that much SETI research is crowd-sourced through projects like SETI@Home and a tweet can be read around the world within seconds, would SETI researchers be able to stave off global hysteria after contact long enough to verify the legitimacy of the signal?
News Article | August 30, 2016
HD 164595, a solar system a few billion years older than the Sun but centered on a star of comparable size and brightness, is the purported source of a signal found with the RATAN-600 radio telescope in Zelenchukskaya, at the northern foot of the Caucasus Mountains. This system is known to have one planet, a Neptune-sized world in such a very tight orbit, making it unattractive for life. However, there could be other planets in this system that are still undiscovered. The signal seems to have been discussed in a presentation given by several Russian astronomers as well as Italian researcher, Claudio Maccone, the chair of the International Academy of Astronautics Permanent SETI Committee. Maccone has recently sent an email to SETI scientists in which he describes this presentation, including the signal ascribed to star system HD 164595. Could it be a transmission from a technically proficient society? At this point, we can only consider what is known so far. This is a technical story, of course. First, is the detected signal really coming from the direction of HD 164595? The RATAN-600 is of an unusual design (a ring on the ground of diameter 577 meters), and has an unusual "beam shape" (the patch of sky to which it is sensitive). At the wavelength of the reported signal, 2.7 cm – which is equivalent to a frequency of 11 GHz – the beam is about 20 arcsec by 2 arcmin. In other words, it's a patch that's highly elongated in the north-south direction. The patch from which the signal seems to be coming agrees in the east-west direction (the narrow part of the beam) with HD 165695's sky coordinates, so that's the basis of the assumption by the discoverers that this is likely to be coming from that star system. But of course, that's not necessarily the case. Second is the question of the characteristics of the signal itself. The observations were made with a receiver having a bandwidth of 1 GHz. That's a billion times wider than the bandwidths traditionally used for SETI, and is 200 times wider than a television signal. The strength of the signal was 0.75 Janskys, or in common parlance, "weak." But was it weak only because of the distance of HD 164595? Perhaps it was weak because of "dilution" of the signal by the very wide bandwidth of the Russian receiver? Just as a pot pie, incorporating lots of ingredients, can make guessing the individual foodstuffs more difficult, a wide-bandwidth receiver can dilute the strength of relatively strong narrow-band signals. Now note that we can work backwards from the strength of the received signal to calculate how powerful an alien transmitter anywhere near HD 164595 would have to be. There are two interesting cases: (1) They decide to broadcast in all directions. Then the required power is 1020 watts, or 100 billion billion watts. That's hundreds of times more energy than all the sunlight falling on Earth, and would obviously require power sources far beyond any we have. (2) They aim their transmission at us. This will reduce the power requirement, but even if they are using an antenna the size of the 1000-foot Arecibo instrument, they would still need to wield more than a trillion watts, which is comparable to the total energy consumption of all humankind. Both scenarios require an effort far, far beyond what we ourselves could do, and it's hard to understand why anyone would want to target our solar system with a strong signal. This star system is so far away they won't have yet picked up any TV or radar that would tell them that we're here. The chance that this is truly a signal from extraterrestrials is not terribly promising, and the discoverers themselves apparently doubt that they've found ET. Nonetheless, one should check out all reasonable possibilities, given the importance of the subject. Consequently, the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) was swung in the direction of HD 164595 beginning on the evening of August 28. According to our scientists Jon Richards and Gerry Harp, it has so far not found any signal anywhere in the very large patch of sky covered by the ATA. However, we have not yet covered the full range of frequencies in which the signal could be located, if it's of far narrower bandwidth than the Russian 1 GHz receiver. We intend to completely cover this big swath of the radio dial in the next day or two. A detection, of course, would immediately spur the SETI and radio astronomy communities to do more follow-up observations. We will continue to monitor this star system with the array. One particularly noteworthy thing about this discovery is the fact that the signal was apparently observed in May, 2015 (it seems that this was the only time in 39 tries that they saw this signal). The discoverers didn't alert the SETI community to this find until now, which is not as expected. According to both practice and protocol, if a signal seems to be of deliberate and extraterrestrial origin, one of the first things to do is to get others to attempt confirming observations. That was not done in this case. So what's the bottom line? Could it be another society sending a signal our way? Of course, that's possible. However, there are many other plausible explanations for this claimed transmission – including terrestrial interference. Without a confirmation of this signal, we can only say that it's "interesting." Explore further: Analysis of the First Kepler SETI Observations
News Article | February 19, 2017
In 1990, the International Academy of Astronautics published a special issue of their journal , Acta Astronautica, dedicated to the problem of what to do in the event that the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) detected an alien signal. These "post-detection protocols" as outlined in the IAA's Declaration of Principles in 1989 were inspired by increasingly rapid technological advances in the SETI field that made the likelihood of detecting a signal more likely than at any other point in the search's 30 year history. But the one technological development that its collaborators couldn't have anticipated was the rise of social media, which could seriously complicate the ability of government and private research institutions to control the social consequences resulting from the detection of an extraterrestrial message. "The IAA declaration of principles was based on using traditional forms of media, print, radio, TV, " Les Tennen, a space lawyer from Phoenix and member of the IAA's SETI Committee, told me. "Now we've got instantaneous communication where your phone will notify you of something important is happening, you don't even have to go looking for it. Millions, if not billions of people could be informed [of a potential ET signal] almost instantaneously." As detailed in the text of the original 1990 post-detection protocol, in the aftermath of the detection of a possible alien signal, the institution or individual responsible for the discovery should seek to verify that the signal is indeed artificial and extraterrestrial in origin before making any sort of public announcement. Moreover, before informing the public about the signal, the institution that discovered the signal should first inform other relevant institutions and government actors about the signal so that its veracity can be independently verified. If it turns out that the signal is indeed from aliens, the discovery can be made public via the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams (a news service run by the International Astronomical Union) and the discoverer should inform the Secretary General of the United Nations. Indeed, the legal strength of the post-detection protocol rests on the authority of Article XI of the UN Treaty on governing the exploration and use of outer space, which requires that countries "inform the secretary general of the United Nations as well as the public and the international scientific community…of the nature, conduct, locations and results" of the results of space science. Read More: An Astrolinguist Explains How to Talk to Aliens Ultimately, these protocols were designed as a sort of damage control, both to limit the spread of false positives as well as public hysteria. As detailed in the report from a workshop conducted by NASA following the launch of the High Resolution Microwave Survey in 1993 (the most powerful SETI search ever conducted at that point), "reactions to a detection can range from indifference…through millennial enthusiasm or catastrophist anxiety, to full scale paranoia…a few reactions would probably be irrationally extreme or even violent." NASA identified education as the most prominent factor in limiting the negative impacts of detecting an alien signal. In the days before the World Wide Web had risen to prominence, and long before the advent of social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter, limiting false information (which could trigger public panic) was far simpler. All news would be channeled through a handful of official agencies, and only after rigorous peer review and analysis. Yet in the age of social media, rampant fake news, and Wikileaks, it's hard to imagine that news as big as the detection of the first message from an extraterrestrial civilization would be kept under wraps for long. This is problematic for a number of reasons. Not only could it spark public hysteria, but it could also lead toward government infighting like seen in Arrival or attempts to send a reply to aliens without a global consensus on what to say, or whether a message should be sent at all. The IAA post-detection protocol prohibits sending a response to ET without global consensus on the content of the message, and for that matter, SETI scientists are fiercely divided on whether sending a message to aliens is a smart move. For now, Tennen is focused on developing ideas that would update the IAA post-detection protocol for our connected world. Some of his suggestions include updating the declaration so that it enables a strict confidentiality among researchers involved in verifying that a received signal is extraterrestrial in origin, as well as establishing a central organization that would be responsible for managing all communications to the public related to the detection of a signal. Interestingly, some form of these protocols were included in the original 1989 Declaration of Principles, but were omitted from the 2010 revision. For example, the 1989 declaration said that the world should be informed of the signal through the International Astronaomical Union's Central Bureau of Astronomical Telegrams. On the other hand, the 2010 revision also established a Post-Detection Task Group under the IAA SETI committee, which would be responsible for dealing with "matters that may arise in the event of a confirmed signal." At last year's International Astronautical Congress in Mexico, Tennnen gave a presentation on the problems social media poses to the post-detection protocol and some of his proposed solutions. Tennen said he got a positive response from the members of the IAA SETI committee in the audience, who agreed that it was time to start seriously considering how to update the post-detection protocols. "The danger if this isn't updated is [in the event of a signal detection] the declaration will be disregarded because it will be obsolete," said Tennen. "There is not going to be time to have the kind of discussions and deliberations that the original protocols were envisioning." Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter .
MacCone C.,International Academy of Astronautics
Acta Astronautica | Year: 2010
The KLT (acronym for Karhunen-Loève Transform) is a mathematical algorithm superior to the classical FFT in many regards:The KLT can filter signals out of the background noise over both wide and narrow bands. This is in sharp contrast to the FFT that rigorously applies to narrow-band signals only. The KLT can be applied to random functions that are non-stationary in time, i.e. whose autocorrelation is a function of the two independent variables t 1 and t2 separately. Again, this is a sheer advantage of the KLT over the FFT, inasmuch as the FFT rigorously applies to stationary processes only, i.e. processes whose autocorrelation is a function of the absolute value of the difference of t1 and t2 only. The KLT can detect signals embedded in noise to unbelievably small values of the Signal-to-Noise Ratio (SNR), like 10-3 or so. This particular feature of the KLT is studied in detail in this paper. An excellent filtering algorithm like the KLT, however, comes with a cost that one must be ready to pay for especially in SETI: its computational burden is much higher than for the FFT. In fact, it can be shown that no fast KLT transform can possibly exist and, for an autocorrelation matrix of size N, the calculations must be of the order of N2, rather than N log(N). Nevertheless, for moderate values of N (in the hundreds), the KLT dominates over the FFT, as shown by the numerical simulations. Finally, an important and recent (20072008) development in the KLT theory, called the "Bordered Autocorrelation Method" (BAM), is presented. This BAM-KLT method gets around the difficulty of the N2 brunt calculations and ends up in the following unexpected theorem: the KLT of a feeble sinusoidal carrier embedded into a lot of white stationary noise is given by the Fourier transform of the derivative of the largest KLT eigenvalue with respect to the bordering index. This basic result is fully proved analytically in the final sections of this paper by virtue of a new theorem discovered by this author in May 2007 and called "The Final Variance Theorem". © 2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
MacCone C.,International Academy of Astronautics
Acta Astronautica | Year: 2013
In this paper we study how to create a radio bridge between the Sun and any other star made up by both the gravitational lenses of the Sun and that star. The alignment for this radio bridge to work is very strict, but the power-saving is enormous, due to the huge contributions of the two stars' lenses to the overall antenna gain of the system. In particular, we study in detail:The Sun-Alpha Centauri A radio bridge.The Sun-Barnard's star radio bridge.The Sun-Sirius A radio bridge.The radio bridge between the Sun and any Sun-like star located in the Galactic Bulge.The radio bridge between the Sun and a similar Sun-like star located inside the Andromeda galaxy (M31). Finally, we find the information channel capacity for each of the above radio bridges, putting thus a physical constraint to the maximum information transfer that will be enabled even by exploiting the stars as gravitational lenses. The conclusion is that a Galactic Internet is indeed physically possible. May be the Galactic Internet already is in existence, and was created long ago by civilizations more advanced than ours. But the potential for creating such a system has only recently been realized by Humans. © 2012 Elsevier Ltd.