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News Article | February 15, 2017
Site: www.scientificamerican.com

SETI, or the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, is typically thought of as an attempt to detect signals—usually radio or optical waves—from alien civilizations. But in 1974, Frank Drake used the giant Arecibo radio telescope, in Puerto Rico, to send such a signal in the direction of M13, a globular cluster of stars 25,000 light-years away. Drake chose such a distant object in order to minimize the risk that someone potentially hostile might be listening, while demonstrating proof of concept. Now some SETI researchers are doing it again, in an effort they call METI, short for Messages to Extraterrestrial Intelligence—and it’s still risky. Based upon absolutely no evidence whatsoever, METI proponents insist that ET must be benign. If ET is not, we are utterly unprepared for the consequences. In fact, we are unprepared even for what happens if we simply detect a signal. Provided that an extra-terrestrial civilization (ET) exists, its detection in the near future is orders of magnitude more likely than has been the case in even the recent past. Radio searches have attained vast improvements in backend computing power, bandwidth, and detection algorithms, and now we search for lasers as well as radio beacons. The search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI), habitually starved for money, is better funded today than ever, thanks to a $100M 10-year commitment from Yuri Milner’s Breakthrough Foundation. Added to this is the Chinese intention of using their new radio telescope, FAST, in part, for SETI. FAST is now the largest single dish radio telescope in the world, with more than two and a half times the collecting area of Arecibo. Leakage of our television broadcast signals from the 1950’s has by now washed over more than 10,000 stars, and this so called “I Love Lucy” radius increases by one light year per year. Should any of those stars harbor technological life, it might have detected our signals, and may consequently be even now sending its response. These nearby stars may suddenly light up with incoming messages. Added to this, there is a growing belief that ET may be much closer at hand than assumed by most previous searches, which have focused almost exclusively on stars. Breakthrough Listen has recently added asteroids to its target list in recognition that ET may have sent physical probes to our Solar System. Such probes could hold vast amounts of data on the equivalent of a hard drive. It would be much cheaper to launch information-rich probes than to beam an equivalently information-rich message continuously to Earth over potentially eons. Probes eliminate the problem posed by the term “L” in the Drake equation—that is, the average length of time a technological civilization survives—because they might long outlive their progenitor civilizations. Probes might also be much easier to find than interstellar beacons: because of their relative proximity to Earth, their signals might be stronger. If extant, their signals should be more numerous than interstellar beacons simply because they would have only a single target, Earth, rather than slewing among potentially millions or billions of targets—dwelling on Earth only infrequently and for little time. Multiple civilizations might have sent probes; and a single civilization might have sent updated versions at regular or irregular intervals. Even if updates (version 2.0, 3.0, etc.) were sent only once in a million years, probes would pile up over deep time. If they exist, it is possible that these probes have lain dormant for eons, but are being awakened by our EM radiation. They might be broadcasting to us now—or one might simply pick itself up and land on the proverbial White House lawn. Planning for what we will do in advance of making an ET detection is highly preferable to reacting in haste after the fact. There are a host of as yet unaddressed policy decisions to be made. What information should be released to the public? There will be the fact of a detection, the information embedded within its signal, and the coordinates of the detection. Should all of that be released to the general public? Who should decide? After all, release of the coordinates invites an unauthorized response by parties interested in advancing their own parochial message, while Earth as a whole should be allowed to decide whether to respond at all. In the absence of an agreement or treaty, will the Chinese treat an ET detection in the same way as the West, or simply regard even the fact of a detection, much less the content, as a state secret? Who has the right to determine whether to respond and what that response might be? If an ET probe is physically encountered on an asteroid by a mining party, or if it lands on Earth, who owns it, and in whose laboratory should it be studied? If it appears to be an intelligent robot, should a probe be afforded all diplomatic courtesies? These, and a host of other issues, have never been addressed, much less resolved, by a governing body such as the Security Council of the U.N., or by any national government. Underpinning these considerations is the possibility that Earth’s very existence may hang in the balance. We only know two things about the ET we might encounter. First, its technology must be vastly superior to ours. Statistically, the probability that ET also happens to be in its first century of being capable of sending and receiving signals (or probes), is far less than .01, given the age of the universe. Second, ET’s presence is not obvious. Given that alien civilizations are almost certainly vastly superior to ours, then it is an abiding mystery as to why we cannot readily see evidence for their existence—such as huge architectural projects visible from inter-stellar distances; or their presence as colonizers in our Solar System; or the fact that we haven’t yet detected their intra-galactic communications, (even if those messages are not intended for us). Could it be that ET knows something that we do not, namely, that it is life-threateningly dangerous to reveal one’s presence? After all, a civilization with malign intent that is only modestly more advanced than we are might be able to annihilate Earth with ease by means of a small projectile filled with a self-replicating toxin or nano grey goo; a kinetic missile traveling at an appreciable percentage of the speed of light; or weaponry beyond our imagination. This is another argument in favor of probes, which need not reveal their place of origin unless the receiving civilization is deemed benign. The urgency for planning in advance of an ET detection is even greater, thanks to a small but vocal minority of SETI scientists who have begun beaming high-intensity signals to nearby stars in a deliberate effort to attract ET’s attention—and more who intend to do so in the near future. Because these signals are highly focused, they are orders of magnitude more easily detected than the remnants of “I Love Lucy” broadcasts, which radiate feebly in all directions. Lacking any methodology for the receipt of a return message (e.g., if they send a message to a star at a distance of 20 light-years, they will need to have a telescope ready to receive a return message in 40 years—and they have no such plan), they assume that ET will find a way to make itself known to us, perhaps by hijacking YouTube from afar. The blind faith of proponents in the goodness of ET, as well as in ET’s omnipotence and omniscience, makes METI far more akin to a religion than science. Moreover, it is simply not the right of a few lonely radio astronomers to decide the fate of mankind on their own. SETI is the science by which we seek to determine the prevalence and nature of intelligent life in the universe. METI is profound public policy making (Russian roulette, really), which is the proper purview of all mankind as expressed through its representative bodies. Therefore, I offer the following recommendations: 1. A high level study of SETI, METI, and post-detection protocols should be undertaken, bringing together experts in such diverse fields as astronomy, computer science, biology, history, economics, civil emergency planning, security and military planning, ethics, diplomacy, law, and others. This committee—a SETI congress, really—would be tasked with making recommendations of appropriate government funding levels for SETI, post-detection protocols, and the treatment of METI. This congress might best be organized under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences. Alternatively, the study might be initiated by one or more major universities, the Breakthrough Foundation, the Royal Academy, the SETI Institute, or the United Nations, acting alone or in concert. 2. Pursuant to the recommendations of this , regulations would be promulgated at the agency level (e.g., proscribing the use of radio telescopes for the purpose of transmitting unauthorized messages, i.e., METI), laws at the national level, and treaties internationally. 3. A permanent and ecumenical group would remain in place to coordinate post-detection activity such as follow up confirmatory studies, message decoding and construction, communication to the public, and to advise policymakers. Presumably, this standing committee would report to the U N Security Council. The SETI of today is not your grandma’s SETI. Modern searches accomplish more in a single day than they used to in an entire year. The discovery that we are not alone in the universe will affect mankind in incalculable ways. As a society, we should plan with open eyes and forethought for the day when we will take our place as a junior member of the galactic club. ET Probes: Looking Here As Well As There Post-Detection SETI Protocols & METI: The Time Has Come To Regulate Them Both


News Article | August 30, 2016
Site: www.chromatographytechniques.com

The astronomers working for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) are currently scanning the skies at a star system 94 light years away, after a promising signal was detected coming from that direction. But don’t pop the champagne yet – this could well be one of many blips that turn out to be a false indication of life out in the universe, according to a SETI astronomer. “We intend to completely cover this big swath of the radio dial in the next day or two,” said Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute. “A detection, of course, would immediately spur the SETI and radio astronomy communities to do more follow-up observations.” The Allen Telescope Array was swung in the direction of HD 164595 on Sunday night. But while they will be searching the section of sky around the target area, a solar system with a star similar to our sun, there are caveats about the signal. The signal was initially detected in May 2015 – but was only mentioned to the scientific community at large this week. The potentially-intelligent transmission was only noticed in one of 39 attempts by a team of Russian astronomers using a non-standard tool, Shostak explains in his blog post on the phenomenon. The RATAN-600 radio telescope at the base of the Caucasus Mountains is of an unusual design and beam shape, the astronomer writes. The observations were made over a wide section of sky – but were using bandwidth a billion times wider than normal SETI tools – and 200 times wider than even terrestrial TV signals. If it is an extraterrestrial transmission from the HD 164595 star system, that life would have to be channeling power much greater than humanity’s wildest dreams. If they were broadcasting in all directions, they would have to using 100 billion, billion watts – hundreds of times more energy than all the sunlight falling on Earth. If the transmission is aimed directly at us, it would have to be powered by about a trillion watts – “comparable to the total energy consumption of all humankind,” Shostak explains. The Allen Telescope Array was swung in the direction of the star system on Aug. 28. Nothing has yet been found – but they are expanding the spectrum of frequencies in an attempt to replicate the detection. Until the signal can be confirmed, he adds, it can only be called “interesting.” “The chance that this is truly a signal from extraterrestrials is not terrible promising, and the discoverers themselves apparently doubt that they’ve found ET,” writes Shostak. “Nonetheless, one should check out all reasonable possibilities, given the important of the subject.” Another SETI signal that remains unexplained is the loud and strong detection on Aug. 15, 1977 at an Ohio State radio telescope, as reported by NPR and many other outlets. Its cause remains undetermined, despite many theories.


News Article | February 15, 2017
Site: astrobiology.com

Regulations governing METI are weak or non-existent. Post-detection SETI protocols are non-binding and too general. Vastly increased SETI capabilities, Chinese involvement in the field, and an intensified effort by METI-ists to initiate radio transmissions to the stars are among reasons cited for urgency in addressing the question of appropriate regulations. Recommendations include regulations at the agency level and laws at the national level as well as international treaties and oversight. Comments: 20 pages, 0 figures, Accepted for publication in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society (JBIS) Subjects: Popular Physics (physics.pop-ph); Earth and Planetary Astrophysics (astro-ph.EP) Cite as: arXiv:1701.08422 [physics.pop-ph] (or arXiv:1701.08422v1 [physics.pop-ph] for this version) Submission history From: John Gertz [v1] Sun, 29 Jan 2017 19:49:28 GMT (678kb)


It’s early days of 2017 still, but already it’s become apparent that this year science will play a larger role in public discourse than it has in the past, at least in the US. The scientific community has found itself at odds with the new White House administration in countless ways, and is gearing up for a fight that will take place in labs and hacker spaces, in the halls of civic buildings, and in streets nationwide. The move science is making from the ivory tower to the polis is not limited to the US; labs across the world are already taking in scientists made homeless (in the institutional sense) by Donald Trump’s immigration policies. And since Trump’s policies will inevitably impact global concerns ranging from climate change to the free movement of scientists who rely on cross-border collaborations, we should expect to see science take on a more political flavor all across the world in 2017. Quartz has put together a compendium of the scientific concepts and terms that will be at the heart of these conversations—and will characterize the world of scientific discovery through the rest of the year. “Skepticism,” according to the Skeptic Society, “is the application of reason to any and all ideas—no sacred cows allowed.” Reason in this context is the scientific kind. Skeptics don’t take claims at face value. They demand proof in the form of concrete evidence and replicable results. In that sense, every scientist is a skeptic. In a political era rife with linguistic manipulation, the word has been co-opted to mean its opposite: a person who denies the evidence in front of them, whether on climate change or vaccines. In the Orwellian, fact-fudging world of the US president Donald Trump administration, this trend will only get worse. Skepticism is a willingness to evenly assess the scientific evidence available. It is not and never was denial of the truth. “I’m a skeptic not because I do not want to believe,” one prominent skeptic wrote, “but because I want to know.” At this point, the reality of the US opioid epidemic is widely accepted across the political spectrum. Toward the end of 2016, Congress committed $1 billion to fight a growing public health problem affecting 2 million Americans and causing 33,000 overdose deaths a year as of 2015. But reversing the often-fatal course of addiction will be far more difficult than, say, stopping the spread of Zika, because the opioid problem is not rooted in a microscopic enemy virus that can be isolated and identified. Instead, it frequently starts with compassion. Iatrogenesis, Greek for “brought forth by the healer,” is a useful term to keep in mind when thinking about the opioid epidemic—and when assessing the state of health care more broadly. The phrase refers to any negative health effect on a person resulting from doctors or other health care workers promoting or applying services as beneficial to their health. That’s a mouthful, but it’s the perfect explanation of how the opioid epidemic came to be: A patient in pain they can’t explain comes to an overworked doctor who prescribes the miracle drug that makes everyone’s problems go away, and then another addict is made. It’s not just an opioid problem, either. By some estimates, medical error is the third-leading cause of death in the US—and it has nothing to do with incompetence, laziness, or malevolence. Instead, it’s the result of doctors applying medical practices they think will work, but don’t. So the real health care question of 2017 is this: how do you solve a problem like iatrogenesis? It’s been hailed as the “most important number you’ve not heard of.” Simply put, the social cost of carbon is the measure of economic damage that each ton of carbon dioxide causes to society. The US government puts the price today at $36 per ton. But estimates for it range from as little as $6 to as much as $250 per ton. Another way to think about the social cost of carbon is as an environmental insurance policy. If carbon emitters pony up money for the emissions they put out, high-emission products are priced at the value that they should be based on, i.e. the amount of harm those emissions cause to common resources like air and water that we all use. You’ve already heard this term bandied around by Trump. And he is likely to keep bandying it around for quite some time. Clean coal is not a thing, it’s a process. When coal is burnt, it releases carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the air. Clean-coal technology captures the carbon dioxide and buries it underground or puts it to some use. So far, carbon capture and storage, also called CCS, hasn’t taken off because it’s too expensive for commercial viability. But if the Trump administration is willing to admit climate change is real, and buys into the idea of a carbon tax—which takes into account the social cost of carbon, and which other Republicans are loudly supporting—it could make clean coal a realistic possibility. The field of genetics has come a long way, and very quickly. We discovered the structure of DNA in 1953, and now we can manipulate it to create plants with exquisite properties, pig-human hybrids, and genetically modified babies. Next up: outsmarting evolution through a new technology called gene drives. Normally, an organism has a 50% chance of inheriting any given gene from each of its parents. But certain genes can increase their own chances of being inherited. Scientists are developing techniques to exploit this natural trick and enhance it. If they are successful (and pass stringent ethics tests), we could use gene drives to wipe out whole species of mosquitoes. But as with any powerful technology, it’s also possible to use gene drives to do ill. The human genome has 3 billion letters, and they’re 10 million times smaller than a human hair. To change only a handful of the letters to manipulate DNA requires extraordinary precision. That’s where CRISPR comes in. The term stands for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” and it’s the most precise cut-and-paste genetic tool ever developed. The reason it works so well is that it’s based on a naturally developed tool that bacteria have been using to fight off viruses for billions of years. That means evolution has had its sweet time to hone it into a near-perfect biological mechanism. Ever since CRISPR was first published in scientific literature, geneticists around the world have flocked to use it. In 2016, researchers announced a precision-gene-editing alternative to CRISPR, called NgAgo, that appeared to be even more precise. But so far, attempts to replicate the process have failed. Nature Biotechnology, which published the initial findings, said it would give the research team the opportunity to investigate and respond to criticisms by January 2017. However, on Jan. 19, the journal said it would postpone any final announcement. Meanwhile, a large Danish biotech firm announced it would be backing the Chinese university lab that had reportedly used NgAgo successfully. When scrolling through Twitter, do you reflexively retweet things affirming what you already know? When thinking back on a relationship turned sour, is it easy to see in hindsight the comments and slights revealing the other person’s true character? If so, you’re guilty of confirmation bias. But don’t feel bad. We all are. Faced with a bombardment of environmental data, our brains make constant unconscious judgments about what’s worth our attention. Confirmation bias is the flaw in our reasoning that impels us to seek information that supports our beliefs and discount or ignore that which doesn’t. It’s a constant presence in our politics, media, and personal relationships. When it comes to science, confirmation bias can lead to flawed research and disastrous results. It’s the reason doctors are prone to overlook symptoms that undermine their diagnoses, or researchers dismiss as errors results that don’t support their hypotheses. Each time you click on an HTTP link, your browser has to establish a connection with the physical servers where that website stores its information, wherever they are in the world. That’s costly, slow, and ultimately very fragile—if a single link between your computer and a far-away server breaks, the information transfer fails. It also makes both censorship and inadvertent erasure very easy; take down the HTTP link, or simply stop paying for your server space, and suddenly that information drops out of the web and becomes inaccessible. The InterPlanetary File System (IPFS) is a relatively new idea to radically remake the internet into a peer-to-peer distributed web. Instead of relying on an origin server to house and transfer data, IPFS would make it possible to permanently store a copy of that data—effectively turning your computer into another host server. When you click on a link, the data within it would be stored permanently, resulting in copies of data on many computers that can be retrieved easily. Pages would be labeled with a fingerprint-like “cryptographic hash,” or a long string of numbers and letters, that would make it easily identifiable as a legitimate copy of the original data. If anything changes on the page, so does the hash. Right now, programmers and archivists are scrambling to download government data for fear that the Trump administration might alter it, or take it offline. But even in “rescuing” that data, the most the programmers can do is upload the data back onto one (or at best, a few) origin servers. But IPFS would change that; just as hundreds of libraries may have a copy of the same book, many servers could have a legitimate copy of the file containing a data set—so there would be thousands of servers hosting that information in a legitimate form, not just one. And that information could be retrieved easily from the nearest source by anyone looking for it. During the contentious Senate confirmation hearing for Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick to lead the US Environmental Protection Agency, careful observers might have heard the acronym “PFOA” name-checked by a Republican senator from West Virginia. Perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, an ingredient in Teflon, and its sister compound, perfluorooctane sulfonic acid or PFOS, a widely used flame retardant, have been in the spotlight lately. That’s because the cancer-causing toxins keep turning up in drinking water supplies of US towns and cities. As with roughly 80,000 other chemicals approved for use in the US, PFOA is not currently regulated by the EPA—so state or local governments aren’t required to test for them. But after years of debate and a major scientific report connecting PFOA to two cancers and several other serious diseases, the EPA was rumored to want to start regulating the toxin this year—but that was before Trump became president. Now his promises to gut the EPA leave that and all other public health regulation up in the air. When introduced in the early 1990s, this class of pesticides was hailed as a godsend. Neonicotinoids were just as effective at protecting crops as then-popular organophosphate and carbamate insecticides, but with none of the toxic impact that the latter had on birds and mammals, including humans. Then we started to realize they had been harming us all along—just in a way hidden from view. Neonicotinoids, it turned out, were culpable in the bee colony collapse disorder that became a global trend. The crisis isn’t bad just for the insects; bees and other pollinating insects are key cogs in the planetary food chain. Honeybees alone pollinate one-third of US crop species. Over the past few years, the EPA has been reviewing the scientific literature on all approved neonicotinoids.; both the EPA and the EU’s environmental regulator were expected to make final decisions in 2017 about whether or not the substances should be banned. But under an industry-friendly Trump administration, the EPA’s recent work to regulate these chemicals could be scuttled. The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) began with the dawn of the space age, but the effort has long remained on the fringes of science. That’s changing, though, because many years of investment in astronomy and imaging technology are finally paying off. “It’s like we’ve gone from looking down a drinking straw while using older generations of telescope to using a full-picture IMAX camera with the newer telescopes,” says Steve Croft, a radio astronomer at the Berkeley SETI Research Center. That means, as early as this year, a lot of new phenomena will be found that will need explaining by scientists.


News Article | August 30, 2016
Site: motherboard.vice.com

An unusual radio signal from a Sunlike star has prompted alien hunters to take a closer look at the system, located just 94 light years away. The 11 gigahertz radio burst, lasting two seconds, was picked up on May 15, 2015 by the RATAN-600 radio telescope in Zelenchukskaya, Russia, and was kept under wraps for well over a year. Until now. Over the weekend, interstellar spaceflight expert Paul Gilster broke the news that a team led by astronomer Nicolai Bursov of the Special Astrophysical Observatory—and including famed Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) astronomer Claudio Maccone—has been analyzing the signal, and will be presenting findings at the 67th International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, on September 27. “No one is claiming that this is the work of an extraterrestrial civilization,” Gilster cautioned, “but it is certainly worth further study.” To that end, SETI has trained both its Allen Telescope Array in California and the Boquete Optical SETI Observatory in Panama toward the star, named HD 164595, which is within 100 light years of Earth, in the constellation Hercules—a cosmic stone’s throw away. Adding to the excitement is the star’s status as a veritable “solar twin” to our own Sun, differing in mass by only one percent, and “almost identical” in metallicity, according to Gilster. We also know it hosts at least one planet, a hot Neptune-sized world about 16 times more massive than Earth, with a year of 40 days. Sunlike star with at least one confirmed planet? Check. Near enough to Earth for two-way communication to theoretically take place, albeit over several generations? Check. Strong radio signal at a frequency that is unusual for a natural astronomical source? Triple check. Even the fact that researchers who first recorded the signal kept it a secret smacks of some grand alien-related conspiracy. Maybe it is. But probably not. False positives are a well-known occupational hazard for alien hunters, as SETI director Seth Shostak eloquently demonstrated in a recent Air & Space article about a “dry run” in 1997. The enormous RATAN-600 facility that detected the signal in May 2015. Image: александр с кавказа “The incident demonstrated that any promising signal will become public knowledge immediately, even though it will be days or weeks before it’s rigorously confirmed,” Shostak pointed out. “While that fact should quiet those who think that any detection of alien intelligence would be kept under wraps to avoid panic among the populace, the corollary is that in the future, you should expect to hear about some signals that look good but, after a few days of checking, don’t pan out.” “As soon as an interesting signal tickles a radio telescope, scientists will start tweeting and blogging,” he added. “You can bet on it.” This is a prophetic observation in light of the traction that the HD 164595 signal is already gaining around the world. Though the RATAN-600 researchers neglected to communicate their findings to the wider scientific community for several months—a lag time that has some scientists miffed—the cat is now out of the bag. Naturally, stories about how this unbagged cat is definitely an alien from a Kardashev Type II civilization are rife across the internet. But though the signal is absolutely worthy of further investigation, odds are it has a completely natural explanation. For instance, Jean Schneider, an astronomer based at the Paris Observatory, has proposed that HD 164595 may be intensifying a background radio source via a process called gravitational microlensing, in which powerful gravity fields magnify phenomena behind them from Earth’s perspective. Interference from our own radio communication devices has also not been ruled out as a possible source for the signal. There’s nothing wrong with getting excited over weird feedback from outer space. But the frenzy does recall a timeless lesson that Carl Sagan doled out in the fourth episode of Cosmos: A Personal Journey. "I can't see a thing on the surface of Venus,” Sagan said, channeling over-eager planetary scientists. “Why not? Because it's covered with a dense layer of clouds. Well, what are clouds made of? Water, of course. Therefore, Venus must have an awful lot of water on it. Therefore, the surface must be wet. Well, if the surface is wet, it's probably a swamp. If there's a swamp, there's ferns. If there's ferns, maybe there's even dinosaurs." “Observation: You couldn’t see a thing,” he sums up. “Conclusion: Dinosaurs.” I’m not one to put down any theories about extraterrestrial dinosaurs, but Sagan’s point remains relevant to this day. Our tendency to put the cart light years beyond the horse when it comes to anything alien says much more about the human yearning for connection with other intelligent lifeforms than it does about those speculative civilizations.


News Article | February 27, 2017
Site: www.csmonitor.com

An artist drew the possible surface of TRAPPIST-1f, on one of seven newly discovered exoplanets in the TRAPPIST-1 system. The star was originally observed with the TRAnsiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST), an instrument at the La Silla Observatory in Chile that gave the star its nickname – the official scientific name is 2MASS J23062928-0502285. —If the sun never set, could life evolve? Last week, astronomers announced that they had found a miniature solar system with seven Earth-sized planets in tiny, fast orbits around the super-cool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. Some, and perhaps all, of the seven planets are "tidally locked" to their dwarf star, say the researchers, which means the same side of each planet always faces the star. One side is always in daylight, and one side is always dark. That's not a deal-breaker for life, the team said during an "Ask Me Anything" question and answer session on Reddit. "We think as long as there is an atmosphere (even a thin atmosphere like that on Mars), heat will circulate around the planet." Of course, "we don't yet know what kind of atmospheres, if any, are present on those planets," cautions Angela Zalucha, a principal investigator at SETI in Boulder, Colo., who was not involved in the discovery. Any data about an atmosphere will probably require observations from the long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope, due to launch in October 2018. So far, scientists have no unambiguous evidence of an atmosphere on a rocky planet outside our solar system, despite tantalizing hints from lava planet 55 Cancri e and waterworld Gliese 1214 b. But astronomers do know how atmospheres work on large tidally locked planets, Dr. Zalucha explains in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. "From studies of larger planets – Neptune- or Jupiter-sized planets – we've found that if there's a significant atmosphere, [it] can transport all that heat that the sunlit side is getting over to the dark side of the planet, so it's not just really, really hot on one side and really, really cold on the other side," she says. "There's a way to mitigate that huge temperature gradient." Just like Earth's atmosphere moves heat from the sun-drenched tropics all the way to the poles, she says, an atmosphere on a TRAPPIST-1 planet could moderate the temperatures between the day and night sides. The details depend entirely on how thick the atmosphere is and what it's made of. "Look at the conditions between Mars, Earth, and Venus, and Saturn's moon Titan," Zalucha says. "They all have completely different atmospheres and completely different conditions." As scientists begin to acquire data about atmospheres on any or all of these seven planets, "that's going to change what we think the temperature is at the surface, and whether or not there could be liquid water and, therefore, life," she says. At least three of the seven known TRAPPIST-1 planets are in the "Goldilocks zone," known to scientists as the circumstellar habitable zone, where conditions are neither too cold nor too hot for liquid water – that is, where oceans will neither boil off nor freeze solid, but stay warm and inviting places where life could, theoretically, arise. But everything we know about life comes from our warm planet, where we experience 365 days – and nights – every year. Without that, it's hard to imagine what life would look like. "Crops and everything would develop differently without the diurnal cycle," says Jessie Christiansen, an astronomer at the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute at the California Institute of Technology. "From an anthropocentric point of view, we tend to imagine life near the terminators," she tells the Monitor. (The "terminator" is the boundary between day and night, which in these tidally locked planets would be an unmoving zone existing in a constant state of twilight.) But we may have parallels on Earth, Dr. Christiansen notes. "If you think about life in the deep ocean, it has evolved without a true diurnal cycle." Exobiologists, the scientists who theorize about life on other planets, have investigated Earth's sea floors, icy islands, deep caves, hot springs, and other extreme settings in hopes of broadening their understanding of what organisms need to live. "We continue to be surprised by life on Earth," says SETI's Zalucha, "bacteria that survives in 130-degree caves, or things at the bottom of the ocean where there's no light." She adds, "It's not a hopeless case as to where life could be on these planets."


News Article | February 27, 2017
Site: www.csmonitor.com

An artist drew the possible surface of TRAPPIST-1f, on one of seven newly discovered exoplanets in the TRAPPIST-1 system. The star was originally observed with the TRAnsiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST), an instrument at the La Silla Observatory in Chile that gave the star its nickname – the official scientific name is 2MASS J23062928-0502285. —If the sun never set, could life evolve? Last week, astronomers announced that they had found a miniature solar system with seven Earth-sized planets in tiny, fast orbits around the super-cool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. Some, and perhaps all, of the seven planets are "tidally locked" to their dwarf star, say the researchers, which means the same side of each planet always faces the star. One side is always in daylight, and one side is always dark. That's not a deal-breaker for life, the team said during an "Ask Me Anything" question and answer session on Reddit. "We think as long as there is an atmosphere (even a thin atmosphere like that on Mars), heat will circulate around the planet." Of course, "we don't yet know what kind of atmospheres, if any, are present on those planets," cautions Angela Zalucha, a principal investigator at SETI in Boulder, Colo., who was not involved in the discovery. Any data about an atmosphere will probably require observations from the long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope, due to launch in October 2018. So far, scientists have no unambiguous evidence of an atmosphere on a rocky planet outside our solar system, despite tantalizing hints from lava planet 55 Cancri e and waterworld Gliese 1214 b. But astronomers do know how atmospheres work on large tidally locked planets, Dr. Zalucha explains in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. "From studies of larger planets – Neptune- or Jupiter-sized planets – we've found that if there's a significant atmosphere, [it] can transport all that heat that the sunlit side is getting over to the dark side of the planet, so it's not just really, really hot on one side and really, really cold on the other side," she says. "There's a way to mitigate that huge temperature gradient." Just like Earth's atmosphere moves heat from the sun-drenched tropics all the way to the poles, she says, an atmosphere on a TRAPPIST-1 planet could moderate the temperatures between the day and night sides. The details depend entirely on how thick the atmosphere is and what it's made of. "Look at the conditions between Mars, Earth, and Venus, and Saturn's moon Titan," Zalucha says. "They all have completely different atmospheres and completely different conditions." As scientists begin to acquire data about atmospheres on any or all of these seven planets, "that's going to change what we think the temperature is at the surface, and whether or not there could be liquid water and, therefore, life," she says. At least three of the seven known TRAPPIST-1 planets are in the "Goldilocks zone," known to scientists as the circumstellar habitable zone, where conditions are neither too cold nor too hot for liquid water – that is, where oceans will neither boil off nor freeze solid, but stay warm and inviting places where life could, theoretically, arise. But everything we know about life comes from our warm planet, where we experience 365 days – and nights – every year. Without that, it's hard to imagine what life would look like. "Crops and everything would develop differently without the diurnal cycle," says Jessie Christiansen, an astronomer at the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute at the California Institute of Technology. "From an anthropocentric point of view, we tend to imagine life near the terminators," she tells the Monitor. (The "terminator" is the boundary between day and night, which in these tidally locked planets would be an unmoving zone existing in a constant state of twilight.) But we may have parallels on Earth, Dr. Christiansen notes. "If you think about life in the deep ocean, it has evolved without a true diurnal cycle." Exobiologists, the scientists who theorize about life on other planets, have investigated Earth's sea floors, icy islands, deep caves, hot springs, and other extreme settings in hopes of broadening their understanding of what organisms need to live. "We continue to be surprised by life on Earth," says SETI's Zalucha, "bacteria that survives in 130-degree caves, or things at the bottom of the ocean where there's no light." She adds, "It's not a hopeless case as to where life could be on these planets."


News Article | November 21, 2016
Site: phys.org

But if we hear something, should we answer? In the absence of any signal from them, should we try to make our presence known? One of those asking these questions is Stephen Hawking, the British cosmologist with many deep thoughts and a good sense of humour. Unlike many celebrity scientists, Hawking's provocative, news-grabbing statements almost always have some content worth pondering. Looking for ET Hawking is part of a Breakthrough Listen project to develop more sensitive radio receivers and listen in on the alien civilisations of the cosmos. There is another project called Breakthrough Message to design a digital message that could be transmitted from Earth to an extraterrestrial civilisation. The message should be "representative of humanity and planet Earth". […] not to transmit any message until there has been a global debate at high levels of science and politics on the risks and rewards of contacting advanced civilisations. But Hawking wants us to listen, and not to talk – use our ears, not our mouth. He wants us to eavesdrop but not join the conversation. He wants us to keep our head low. That sounds like a reasonable idea. Better safe than sorry. But in the spectrum between, paranoia and unjustifiable fear on one side, and reasonable caution on the other, where does keeping your head low fit in? What kind of ET could we find? Hawking's comments are motivated by a fear of what the aliens would do to us if they find us. In his mind, the aliens are the Spanish Conquistador Cortez and we are the Aztecs he made contact with in central America. Tribal warfare, genocide and ethnic cleansing have been part of our history for thousands of years. Hawking's fear is a fear of what we have done to ourselves. Would advanced alien civilisations be as barbaric as we are? Are our genocidal tendencies at all representative of advanced alien civilisations? Maybe. Hawking says he worries that any aliens "will be vastly more powerful and may not see us as any more valuable than we see bacteria". But Stephen, bacteria ARE valuable. Our bacterial biomes keep us alive and healthy. They have been here for about 4 billion years. They invented the ability to harvest sunlight for energy. They produced the oxygen we breathe, and as mitochondria, they do our breathing. Life on Earth would do fine without people, but without bacteria no other life forms would exist. So Hawking is over-estimating our importance and under-estimating our insignificance to aliens. We will be much less valuable to aliens, than bacteria are to us. The age distribution of Earth-like planets in the universe tells us that the average Earth-like planet is about 2 billion years older than our Earth. If life has formed on these other Earths, it has had, on average, 2 billion years longer to evolve than we have had. This is the fact that has Hawking worried. If you imagine that the pace of biological and technological evolution on these other Earths is about the same as it has been on our Earth, then alien civilisations are on average two billion years more advanced than we are. To put that time frame into perspective, two billion years ago, our ancestors on Earth were amoebas or parameciums – single-celled eukaryotes of some kind. I agree with Hawking that we should keep our heads low. But we have already opened our mouths and started coughing – betraying our existence to any big-eared aliens. Via television broadcasts we have already sent the 1936 Berlin Olympics and the I Love Lucy show to the stars. Currently our strongest emissions into the cosmos – emissions that are making our presence known to the aliens – are the emissions that we think are protecting us from terrestrial aliens. Those emissions are military radar. The unintended consequence of this protective radar is that it is simultaneously shouting out to the aliens "here we are". So the biggest threat to humanity is humanity – our nuclear weapons, our guns, our big brains and our powerful radar systems. While discussing the value of searching for extraterrestrial intelligence SETI, a colleague told me that it was dangerous to even listen to aliens. He thought the message would be like a Trojan horse. If we let the message into our minds, it would kill us. It would be like sticking a virus-contaminated USB stick into your computer. The militaristic generals in the movie Contact should come to mind here: "Ellie Arroway! Don't build that machine!" Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once said that any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic. But futurist Karl Schroeder thinks that any sufficiently advanced technology will be indistinguishable from nature. I don't know. Maybe Schroeder's right and advanced aliens have made their peace with the universe. But even if there aren't any advanced alien civilisations elsewhere in the universe, keeping your head down is probably a good exercise in humility. Explore further: Laser cloaking device could help us hide from aliens


News Article | January 6, 2016
Site: motherboard.vice.com

Densely packed stellar balls, known as globular clusters, could be the best places to search for alien life, according to research presented today at the 227th annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society. Globular clusters pack nearly one million stars into an area only 100 light-years across, and are nearly as old as the Milky Way itself. Approximately 150 of these ancient stellar relics lurk on the outskirts of our galaxy. “Globular clusters could be the first place in which intelligent life is found in our galaxy. This research shows they could be great places to look for other intelligent civilizations,” Rosanne DiStefano, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), said during the meeting. Globular clusters are estimated to have formed over 10 billion years ago, and as a result the stars within the cluster contain fewer of the ingredients needed to form planets. However if habitable planets do form within the cluster, they will likely be around for a lot longer than planets that form around massive stars, giving life more time to evolve. Habitable zones—the area around a star that can support liquid water—vary greatly depending on the size of the star. The ones surrounding more massive stars will be further away, while these zones around smaller, dimmer stars will be much closer. This is good news in the crowded, stellar neighborhood of a globular cluster. It means any potential habitable planets would huddle close to their host star and be safe from the gravitational tug of other stars. The majority of stars residing within these clusters are called “red dwarfs.” These types of stars are usually smaller than our Sun, and so they have longer lives and can support planets for billions of years, providing any potential life forms ample time to evolve beyond microbes into intelligent beings. “Once a planet has formed, it can survive for long periods of time, even billions of years,” DiStefano explained. But don’t get too excited yet, so far only one planet has been detected in a globular cluster. Most astronomers think these stellar populations are too crowded for planets to form, and are concerned about the lack of planet-forming ingredients like silicon and iron. DiStefano and her colleagues remain optimistic and think we shouldn’t rule out clusters completely. DiStefano explained that exoplanets have been detected around metal-poor stars, and while massive Jupiter-sized planets seems to prefer metal-rich stars, smaller Earth-sized planets seem to have no preference and can form around a variety of stars. Good news for alien hunters. Life on a planet within one of these clusters would be vastly different than what we experience here on Earth. The closest star to our Solar System is four light-years or 24 trillion miles away. However, within a cluster stellar neighbors are only about one trillion miles away, helping facilitate interstellar communication and exploration. DiStefano refers to this as “the globular cluster opportunity” and believes the close proximity would help support any potential life, making interstellar outposts easier to establish. Travel time within the cluster would take less time, and if there was a civilization at our technological level, sending probes between outposts would definitely be possible, according to DiStefano. So, how do we make contact? The first step is identifying more planets within clusters. Since clusters are densely packed and contain dim stars, detecting planets within the crowded cores of clusters are very difficult to identify, and DiStefano believes that it could be easier to detect planets on the outskirts. Another, more intriguing method might be to partner up with SETI to look for signs of radio communications from the cluster, something DiStefano would like to get more involved with. DiStefano is confident many more planets within these clusters will be discovered; it’s just a matter of time. “In my mind there is no doubt,” she said. “More planets within these clusters are waiting to be found.”


News Article | February 19, 2017
Site: motherboard.vice.com

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 .

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