Communion Of Dreams


Huh.

This is not a drill:

An international team of scientists from the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is investigating mysterious signal spikes emitting from a 6.3-billion-year-old star in the constellation Hercules—95 light years away from Earth. The implications are extraordinary and point to the possibility of a civilization far more advanced than our own.

The unusual signal was originally detected on May 15, 2015, by the Russian Academy of Science-operated RATAN-600 radio telescope in Zelenchukskaya, Russia, but was kept secret from the international community. Interstellar space reporter Paul Gilster broke the story after the researchers quietly circulated a paper announcing the detection of “a strong signal in the direction of HD164595.”

Huh.

Even if it is a signal directly beamed at us, it would require a Kardashev Type I civilization (about 200 years beyond where Earth is currently). If it is just beaming off in all directions, it’s another whole magnitude of power — about a Kardashev Type II.

Huh.

Yeah, I’d say it warrants paying attention to.

 

Jim Downey



All alone in the dark of night?

Perhaps:

Earth could be unique among 700 quintillion planets in the Universe, study finds

So much of humanity’s astronomical research is based around the notion of finding something like us out there – whether that’s looking for environments that could sustain life, ranking planets in terms of their potential habitability, or comparing distant worlds to our own.

But what if – statistically speaking – the odds are stacked against us finding another planet even remotely like Earth? That’s the thinking behind a new study by an international team of researchers, which has taken what we know about the exoplanets that lie outside our Solar System and fed the data into a computer model.

Their resulting calculations, designed to simulate how galaxies and planets have formed over some 13.8 billion years, produces a “cosmic inventory” of terrestrial planets – and one in which Earth very much looks to be unique.

 

Perhaps not:

Jon nodded. “Thanks. So what’s the meeting about? What happened?”

“Dr. Jakobs tried to contact you this morning. After hearing her message, I bounced it up to Director Magurshak. They found something on Titan. An artifact.” Seth paused, looked down at his hands, “a nonhuman artifact.”

Jon sat there for a moment, trying to digest what Seth said. According to what pretty much everyone thought, it wasn’t possible. SETI, OSETI, META and BETA had pretty much settled that question for most scientists decades ago, and twenty years of settlement efforts throughout the solar system hadn’t changed anyone’s mind. Even with the Advanced Survey Array out at Titan Prime searching nearby systems for good settlement prospects, there had never been an indication that there was an intelligent, technologically advanced race anywhere within earshot. Seth knew Jon well, didn’t let the silence wait. He looked back up, eyes level and unblinking, “It isn’t a hoax. The artifact is definitely nonhuman, or at least non-contemporary human. Mr. Sidwell found it out near his base. Dr. Bradsen will have as much a report on it as is available, which isn’t much.”

 

Jim Downey



“You’re oversharing again, Earth.”

Seth Shostak, on the topic of how to introduce ourselves to our neighbors:

A better approach is to note that the nearest intelligent extraterrestrials are likely to be at least dozens of light-years away. Even assuming that active SETI provokes a reply, it won’t be breezy conversation. Simple back-and-forth exchanges would take decades. This suggests that we should abandon the “greeting card” format of previous signaling schemes, and offer the aliens Big Data.

For example, we could transmit the contents of the Internet. Such a large corpus — with its text, pictures, videos and sounds — would allow clever extraterrestrials to decipher much about our society, and even formulate questions that could be answered with the material in hand.

 

While I still agree with Stephen Hawking on the idea of ‘active SETI’, I think that there’s merit in the idea of exposing other nearby civilizations to what we’re really like, warts and all. Because as soon as they decoded our transmissions well enough to understand the comments section of pretty much any major site on the web, they’d either completely wall off our solar system* and post warnings around it or just trigger our sun to go supernova. Either way, we’d never know what happened, and the rest of the galaxy would be safe …

 

Jim Downey
*gee, that’d make an interesting premise for a SF novel, doncha think?



Location, location, location.

It really does seem to be a pretty universal law:

On the role of GRBs on life extinction in the Universe

As a copious source of gamma-rays, a nearby Galactic Gamma-Ray Burst (GRB) can be a threat to life. Using recent determinations of the rate of GRBs, their luminosity function and properties of their host galaxies, we estimate the probability that a life-threatening (lethal) GRB would take place. Amongst the different kinds of GRBs, long ones are most dangerous. There is a very good chance (but no certainty) that at least one lethal GRB took place during the past 5 Gyr close enough to Earth as to significantly damage life. There is a 50% chance that such a lethal GRB took place during the last 500 Myr causing one of the major mass extinction events. Assuming that a similar level of radiation would be lethal to life on other exoplanets hosting life, we explore the potential effects of GRBs to life elsewhere in the Galaxy and the Universe.

 

What that means is summed up in this article. Here’s the conclusion:

Astronomers have long known that the Earth occupies a unique position in the solar system that allows life to flourish. This idea of a habitable zone now allows them to focus search for exoplanets that might also have conditions that are right for life. Now they can take this further by excluding inhospitable regions of the galaxy, and searching only those stars and galaxies that exist in the universe’s habitable zones.

 

Of course, that’s just for life as we know it

 

Jim Downey

 



A crack?

Interesting news item on NPR this morning:

Close Encounters Of The Radio Kind? Mystery Bursts Baffle Astronomers

Astronomers have a mystery on their hands. Two large radio telescopes, on opposite sides of the planet, have detected very brief, very powerful bursts of radio waves.

Right now, astronomers have no idea what’s causing these bursts or where they’re coming from. And nothing has been ruled out at the moment — not even the kind of outrageous claims you’d expect to see in tabloid headlines.

* * *

As you would imagine, there’s been lots of speculation about what’s behind these mysterious bursts. Some astronomers think they’re caused by blitzars, pulses of energy from a supermassive star collapsing into a black hole. Others think they may be caused by power solar flares coming from stars nearer by.

And Lorimer says he has to mention it: “There’s even been discussions in the literature about signatures from extraterrestrial civilizations.”

 

From Chapter 1 of  Communion of Dreams when news of the discovery of an evidently alien artifact on Titan is being discussed:

The man sitting next to him got up, stepped up to the holo of the artifact still rotating there in the center. Robert Gish was a little unkempt, his beard untrimmed, his dark hair matted. He was out of shape, almost flabby in appearance. His scientific reputation was as unconventional as his looks. More so. He had been responsible for the radical change in long-range sensing which led to the development of the Advanced Survey Array. Nobel Prize stuff. A true genius, not just brilliant but able and willing to make leaps that took others years to understand. Which was why Bradsen had him here: Gish had been saying for decades that there was other intelligent life among the stars. Saying it so loud and so often that he was considered a crank, since he had no proof and couldn’t even really explain why he believed it to be so, at least in a way that others could accept.

Reaching out as though he was going to touch the object, he said quietly “We know what it is. It is a crack in our shell.”

 

Interesting news, indeed.

 

Jim Downey



Of course they do.

From Chapter 1 of Communion of Dreams:

“I’ve had my expert do a preliminary search through the old NASA archives. I recalled that they had protocols for dealing with such possible situations, and I doubt that anyone else has really thought much about it since the turn of the century.

“In addition to Don’s field team, the preliminary search suggests that another component should be theoretical, a mix of disciplines so that we can get as broad a spectrum of experience and mind-set as possible. Probably we should have an expert in computer technology. A cultural anthropologist. Someone with a background in game theory and communication strategy. An artist or two. We’ll see if a more thorough survey of the NASA material has any good suggestions beyond that. I’ll get to work identifying appropriate individuals.”

 

Well, guess what news was announced last week:

During the past few years, NASA has released a series of free ebooks, including NASA Earth As Art and various interactive texts focusing on the Webb and Hubble space telescopes. Last week, they added a new, curious book to the collection, Archaeology, Anthropology, and Interstellar Communication. Edited by Douglas A. Vakoch (the Director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI Institute), the text contemplates how we’ll go about “establishing meaningful communication with an extraterrestrial intelligence.” The scholars contributing to the volume “grappl[e] with some of the enormous challenges that will face humanity if an information-rich signal emanating from another world is detected.” And to make sure that we’re “prepared for contact with an extraterrestrial civilization, should that day ever come,” they draw on “issues at the core of contemporary archaeology and anthropology.” Why archaeology and anthropology? Because, says Vackoch, communication with intelligent life probably won’t be through sound, but through images. We will need to read/understand the civilization we encounter based on what we observe.

 

Heh. I love seeing this stuff happen.

 

Jim Downey



Is there anybody out there?*

From the opening pages of Communion of Dreams:

Jon sat there for a moment, trying to digest what Seth said. According to what pretty much everyone thought, it wasn’t possible. SETI, OSETI, META and BETA had pretty much settled that question for most scientists decades ago, and twenty years of settlement efforts throughout the solar system hadn’t changed anyone’s mind. Even with the Advanced Survey Array out at Titan Prime searching nearby systems for good settlement prospects, there had never been an indication that there was an intelligent, technologically advanced race anywhere within earshot.

It’s one of the very basic questions of space science: are we (sentient beings) unique? Rare? Common? There are a lot of ways to think about it, and here’s a nice piece on NPR discussing some of the relevant parts of the question and what we’re doing about it.  An excerpt:

So, to address the first part of the question we must find out how unique the Earth is. We then should figure out how unique life, and humans, are. Fortunately, thanks to NASA’s Kepler mission, we are making huge progress in the first part of the answer. A key finding is that the majority of stars (around 70 percent) have at least one planet orbiting around them. Based on the data so far (2,740 planet candidates and 115 confirmations), Kepler scientists estimate that some 17 percent of these are Earth-size, meaning with similar mass and rocky composition as the Earth, and possibly close enough to their parent star that water, if present, could be in its liquid state.

More good news arrived on this front earlier this month as NASA authorized the construction of Kepler’s successor, TESS (for Transit Exoplanet Survey Satellite). With launch scheduled for 2017, TESS will survey a much wider area of the sky than Kepler, while focusing mostly on stars that are closer. This way, it will use spectroscopy to resolve at least part of the atmospheric composition of the exoplanets. The goal is to find telling signs of life-related compounds such as ozone, water, carbon dioxide and, if we’re really lucky, even chlorophyll. Successful detection would be very exciting, as it’d point to what optimists expect, a few fairly close Earth-like planets with metabolizing beings.

I hope I live long enough that science is able to make a definitive affirmation of life, then intelligent life, outside our own planet.

Until then, well, there’s science fiction.

 

Jim Downey

*Seemed appropriate.