News Article | May 29, 2008
I wrote several months ago about a device called MagicJack. It's a VoIP adaptor for those looking to use their own home phones as a VoIP phone. I got a lot of emails from people stating that they were looking for a more portable and mobile solution. One they could use with a laptop from their car, in the field with a wireless card, from a convention floor or from a hotel room. And it had to be small, portable and low cost. I think I found a perfect solution for you. Philips makes a USB Phone for Skype, the VOIP0801 B/37. The cost is $30.00. It comes fully ready to use within 2 or 3 minutes after unpacking. No batteries or complicated set up required. Just a free USB port, an Internet connection and a Skype account are all that is needed to get your started. Insert the CD ROM that loads the phone and Skype software onto your PC. Then plug the USB cable from the phone into the PC. They wizard runs to configure the connection, the connection LCD lights green, and your ready to go. If you have a Skype account, then just pick up the phone and dial. You have remote control over Skype and your Skype address book (pulled directly from Outlook) from the phone directly. Select a contact or dial right from the phone or from Skype. The sound quality is excellent. No one I called knew that I was not on my land line. Skype offers a calling plan for less than $3 per month or $23 for 1 yr of prepaid service. This is for unlimited Skype calling to land lines or cell phones anywhere in the US and Canada. Other low cost plans to South America, Asia and Europe are available as well. Also, dedicated numbers and voicemail are a available for a small additional charge The phone itself only weighs a few ounces. The USB cable completely wraps around the phone and then slips neatly into a carrying case included with the phone. A desk holder comes with the phone as well. There are other versions with color LCD screens and other features, but this version meets the perfect cost vs use ratio I am always seeking with a device that will not be used everyday but has it's place in my business travel toolbox. The phone works with Windows 2000, XP and Vista. No support for Mac users at this time. The phone is available from the online Skype store as well as many other VoIP phone online retailers.
Artist's illustration of cometary material crossing the face of a star — one possible explanation for the strange dimming exhibited by "Tabby's star." Nearly a year after first making headlines around the world, "Tabby's star" is still guarding its secrets. In September 2015, a team led by Yale University astronomer Tabetha Boyajian announced that a star about 1,500 light-years from Earth called KIC 8462852 had dimmed oddly and dramatically several times over the past few years. These dimming events, which were detected by NASA's planet-hunting Kepler space telescope, were far too substantial to be caused by an orbiting planet, scientists said. (In one case, 22 percent of the star's light was blocked. For comparison, when huge Jupiter crosses the sun's face, the result is a dimming of just 1 percent or so.) [13 Ways to Hunt Intelligent Alien Life] Boyajian and her colleagues suggested that a cloud of fragmented comets or planetary building blocks might be responsible, but other researchers noted that the signal was also consistent with a possible "alien megastructure" — perhaps a giant swarm of energy-collecting solar panels known as a Dyson sphere. Astronomers around the world soon began studying Tabby's star with a variety of instruments, and reanalyzing old observations of the object, in an attempt to figure out what, exactly, is going on. But they have yet to solve the puzzle. "I'd say we have no good explanation right now for what's going on with Tabby's star," Jason Wright, an astronomer at Pennsylvania State University, said earlier this month during a talk at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute in Mountain View, California. "For now, it's still a mystery." In fact, that mystery may have deepened over the past 12 months. For example, in January, Bradley Schaefer, a professor of physics and astronomy at Louisiana State University, determined that, in addition to the weird short-term dimming events, the brightness of Tabby's star had dropped by about 20 percent overall between 1890 and 1989. That pattern is very difficult for known natural phenomena to explain, he said. Schaefer came to this conclusion after poring over old photographic plates of the night sky that captured Tabby's star. Other researchers suggested that the trend Schaefer saw could have been caused by changes in the instruments used to take those photos over the century-long timespan. However, a new study bolsters Schaefer's interpretation. In the new work, Benjamin Montet (of the California Institute of Technology and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) and Joshua Simon (of the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution of Washington) reanalyzed Kepler observations of Tabby's star from 2009 through 2013. They found that the object dimmed by 3 percent over that span, with a rapid 2-percent brightness dip over one 200-day period. "Of a sample of 193 nearby comparison stars and 355 stars with similar stellar parameters, 0.6 percent change brightness at a rate as fast as 0.341 percent [per year], and none exhibit either the rapid decline by > 2 percent or the cumulative fading by 3 percent of KIC 8462852," Montet and Simon wrote in the new study, which they uploaded to the online preprint site ArXiv on Aug. 5. "No known or proposed stellar phenomena can fully explain all aspects of the observed light curve." Schaefer's results, combined with those of Montet and Simon, make the comet hypothesis look less and less likely, Wright said in his SETI talk. "Why would comets, over a century, make the star dimmer?" he said. "What's going on?" [5 Bold Claims of Alien Life] The sustained dimming of Tabby's star is still consistent with at least some variants of the "alien megastructure" hypothesis, Wright said. "Some people have sort of facetiously offered that perhaps this is a Dyson sphere under construction: You're seeing lots of material getting built," he said. "In just 100 years, they've blotted out 20 percent of the starlight. That seems kind of fast to me — but, you know, aliens, right?" It's also possible that the alien megastructure — if it exists — is fully constructed, and some parts are just denser than others, Wright added. "That would naturally make the star get brighter and dimmer, as dense parts of the swarm came around," he said. "So if I had to invoke megastructures to explain it, that seems consistent. You've got lots of panels of different shapes, different sizes, and the big ones make big dips and the little ones make little dips, and the whole swarm is sort of like a translucent screen that makes the whole thing dimmer." But Wright and others have always stressed that the "E.T. did it" scenario is very unlikely, and that a more prosaic explanation will probably rise to the top eventually. And indeed, other recent observations throw some cold water on the alien-megastructure idea — and any other hypothesis that invokes some object or phenomenon near Tabby's star. Any structure surrounding the star, be it alien-made or naturally occurring, would heat up and give off infrared radiation, Wright said. But he and his colleagues saw no signatures of such "waste heat" in data gathered by NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer spacecraft. And another research team — which analyzed observations by the Submillimeter Array telescope and the Submillimeter Common-User Bolometer Array-2 instrument, both of which are in Hawaii — also came up empty. Whatever is blocking the starlight from Tabby's star is "not surrounding the whole star — it must be along our line of sight," Wright said. "So you can do that if it's in a disk of some kind. And that hopefully will help constrain what the heck is going on." Wright has a hunch that the answer lies far away from Tabby's star, out in the dark depths of space. "I think I've all but abandoned circumstellar explanations, and I think now we're going to have to talk about [some] bizarre structure in the interstellar medium, and stuff like that," he said. Still, Wright hasn't given up on the alien-megastructure hypothesis. While the lack of waste heat is "almost a fatal blow" for the idea, he said, it's still viable if the purported aliens are doing something with the waste heat — turning it into matter, for example, or converting the heat into radio waves for communication purposes. Astronomers have already searched for such signals coming from Tabby's star using the Allen Telescope Array, a network of radio dishes in northern California operated by the SETI Institute. They found nothing. But Wright and his colleagues plan to conduct another search beginning in October; they've secured time on West Virginia's huge Green Bank Telescope for this purpose. "This is a 1-in-300,000 object," Wright said. "People have gone looking for more, and it's the only one. So that also says you're allowed to invoke one really rare thing, because it is a rare phenomenon." SETI: All About the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (Infographic) Copyright 2016 SPACE.com, a Purch company. All rights reserved. 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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
"A blip of energy picked up by a Russian radio telescope might have been nothing more than a satellite passing overhead — or even a software glitch". "Based on breathless news reports from many prominent media outlets that should know better, this week’s biggest non-story in science is the discovery of a possible radio signal from talkative aliens elsewhere in the Milky Way. I’m here to tell you, alas, that anyone hoping for this to be the moment of First Contact with another galactic civilization is very likely to be disappointed. It all started innocently enough, with a carefully worded blog post this past Saturday from the respected science journalist Paul Gilster. Gilster wrote about a message he had received from some SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) researchers who reported a curiously powerful 3-second burst of radio waves from a star less than 100 light-years away. The researchers, led by Nikolai Bursov of the Russian Academy of Sciences, couldn't rule out the possibility that the signal was artificial, and were intrigued enough that they called for “permanent monitoring” of the star. Gilster’s post ignited a firestorm of sensationalistic and credulous news coverage that is still blazing as I write this, burning through newspapers and websites to astound most everyone who encounters it. Soon, I predict, it will burn out—as these sorts of stories (almost) always do." "Not a Drill: SETI Is Investigating a Possible Extraterrestrial Signal From Deep Space" (Observer) "Astronomers Don’t Think That So-Called SETI Signal Is Aliens—and Neither Should You" (Wired) "Hear Me Now? 'Strong Signal' From Sun-Like Star Sparks Alien Speculation" (CNN) "So You’ve Heard a Potential Alien Signal. How Do You Tell the World?" (Air & Space Smithsonian) "SETI Has Observed A “Strong” Signal That May Originate From A Sun-Like Star" (Ars Technica) "Still No Aliens In The SETI Quest: Lessons Learned From That Strange Radio Signal" (GeekWire)
News Article | April 1, 2016
Red dwarfs are known for being small, cool, dim stars, but some astronomers believe planets around these stellar bodies may also be the best place to find alien life. Researchers are studying 20,000 of these diminutive stellar bodies in an effort to find extraterrestrials. The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) Institute is undertaking a massive study of the dim stars, which are plentiful through the galaxy. Astronomers typically study stars much like our sun in an effort to detect alien civilizations. The traditional thought is that life is most likely to form in planetary families similar to that in our own solar system. This new study is seeking evidence of life on planets orbiting dim red dwarf stars, which were previously ignored up to this time. Stars of this type are the most common variety in the galaxy, meaning life around one of these stars is likely to be closer than a civilization discovered around a sun-like star. "Significantly, three-fourths of all stars are red dwarfs. That means that if you observe a finite set of them – say the nearest twenty thousand – then on average they will be at only half the distance of the nearest twenty thousand sun-like stars" said Seth Shostak, an astronomer at the SETI Institute. Life is most likely to form on planets within the so-called "habitable zone" around their parent stars, where temperatures are able to sustain liquid water. Because red dwarfs are significantly cooler than our sun, the habitable zones around their bodies are much thinner, and closer to the star, than seen in our own solar system. Because planets would need to be so close to red dwarf to prevent water from freezing, they would likely be in gravitational lock with their stars, with one side always facing toward the stellar body. This would likely result in a situation where one hemisphere of such a planet would experience perpetual scorching heat, while the dark side remains in a deep freeze. Many astronomers believe such conditions make these planets unlikely to support life. However, oceans and atmospheres on these worlds may mitigate temperature extremes, causing much of the planet to be habitable. The total lifetime of stars is determined solely by their mass, and red dwarfs live far longer than stars like our sun. This means planets around red dwarfs may have far more time for life to form, making these targets even more attractive for SETI researchers.