Tag Archives: aliens

The James Webb telescope could detect aliens by looking for signs of pollution

The James Webb Space Telescope isn’t even fully operational yet, but researchers are getting more and more excited about what it can do. In a recent study, researchers claim we may be on the cusp of being able to discover other civilizations based on specific types of pollution in their planets’ atmosphere.

A total ozone map of the Earth. Image credits: NASA.

The alien ozone hole

Human society has changed a lot over the centuries, but the shifts in the past 200 years have been truly mind-bending. The Industrial Revolution changed how many things work, fueling, well, a revolution in our society. If you were a patient alien scouting the Earth from close by (or from farther away, but with a good enough telescope) you may have seen the signs of this industrial revolution happening through the emissions we produced by burning fossil fuels.

But they could see other forms of pollution even better.

Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are a type of chemical notorious for causing the ozone hole in the 1980s (until regulations entered into force to address the problem). They’re produced industrially as refrigerants and cleaning agents — and if an alien civilization would resemble ours, it would likely also start producing them at some point. CFCs are also very unlikely to appear naturally so if you see them in a planet’s atmosphere, someone is producing them artificially. Furthermore, even if a civilization stops producing them or reduces their production (like we did), they still have a long life in the atmosphere, meaning they could be detected long after they’ve been produced.

This brings us to an interesting point: our most clear sign of civilization may also be one of our worst impacts on the planet — pollution. We don’t really know whether this would also be the case for an alien civilization but there’s a decent chance it is. Now, we could also have a way to detect this, thanks to the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

Looking for pollution on alien planets isn’t the main objective of the JWST, and its capability in this regard is limited. For instance, if a planet is too bright, it could drown out the CFC signal. So the new study focused on M-class stars — a type of dim, long-lived red dwarf. Researchers believe M-class stars make out the majority of stars in the universe.

A team of researchers led by Jacob Haqq-Misra, an astrobiologist at the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, analyzed the JWST’s ability to detect CFC around a TRAPPIST-1, a typical red dwarf relatively close to Earth (40 light-years away). TRAPPIST-1 also has several Earth-sized planets within the habitable zone, so it would be a good place to start looking for alien civilizations (although M-stars, in general, aren’t considered to be conducive to life).

According to the study, there’s a good chance that the JWST could be able to detect CFC in this type of scenario.

“With the launch of JWST, humanity may be very close to an important milestone in SETI [the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence]: one where we are capable of detecting from nearby stars not just powerful, deliberate, transient, and highly directional transmissions like our own (such as the Arecibo Message), but consistent, passive technosignatures of the same strength as our own,” the researchers write in the study.

Funny enough, this detection isn’t necessarily reciprocal: just because we can detect potential CFCs around a planet doesn’t necessarily mean aliens could do the same for us. Remember when we said in order for the method to work, the planet needs to not be too bright? Well, the Sun is pretty bright, and it sends out enough light that it would obstruct much of the useful signal. So if an alien civilization were to exist closeby, there’s a chance we could be able to spot them without them being able to do the same thing to us. Of course, this is all speculation at this point, but it’s something that astronomers are looking into as JWST will soon become operational.

The telescope is currently in its calibration stage. James Webb is expected to offer researchers an unprecedented view of the universe, focusing on four main objectives:

  • light coming from the very first stars and galaxies that formed after the Big Bang;
  • galaxy formation and evolution;
  • star formation and planet formation;
  • planetary systems and the origins of life.

The study was published in arXiv and has not been peer-reviewed yet.

We probably aren’t the first civilization in the Milky Way. It’s just that the others are dead

Are there other intelligent lifeforms in the universe besides humans capable of founding a civilization? That’s the million-dollar question that people of all walks of life have, to their best of their ability, attempt to answer. There are many theories that attempt to explain the utter lack of, well, alien signals. For instance, one new study concludes that intelligent life may have appeared several times in the Milky Way, however, the vast majority of these civilizations have wiped themselves out already.

Ever since people first realized we are all living on a giant rock orbiting one of many stars, a heartbreaking thought must have crept the mind: we’re not that special after all. But since there are countless stars in the Milky Way, and countless galaxies in the universe, there must be other civilizations out there. This thought comes as a consolation, so we might not be the only ones drifting through the frightening darkness of outer space.

But if it’s true that we’re not that special after all, where is everybody else? Enrico Fermi, the creator of the world’s first nuclear reactor, thought about this long and hard, and his correspondence with fellow scientists on the subject has remained known in history as the ‘Fermi Paradox’ — the notion that there is a virtually limitless number of stars, but nevertheless you don’t see any life floating around besides us. Where is everybody?

The question is a valid one when considering:

  • There’s nothing special about our sun – it’s young, medium-sized and similar to billions of other stars in our galaxy.
  • It’s believed there are between 100 and 400 billion planets in the Milky Way. Considering intelligent life appeared on one, it’s reasonable to consider there should be at least some other kind of intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy.
  • Millions of years of technological progress mean that an intelligent species should have the capability to travel to distant stars and even other galaxies. Just look at how our world has changed in the past 100 years alone.
  • According to mathematicians Duncan Forgan and Arwen Nicholson from Edinburgh University, self-replicating spacecraft traveling at one-tenth of the speed of light — admittedly a quick speed — could traverse the entire Milky Way in a mere 10 million years. This means that civilization could potentially colonize the whole galaxy in a mere couple of millions of years. Except it didn’t happen.

Then there’s the Drake equation, first proposed in 1961 by American astronomer and astrophysicist Frank Drake, which describes the variables involved in fostering intelligent life. This equation estimates the number “N” of civilizations in the Milky Way based on variables such as the rate of star formation, the number of planets in solar systems that may support life, or the necessary technological prowess to signal a civilization’s existence.

Drake’s equation was made famous by the late Carl Sagan, who featured it during an episode of his timeless series Cosmos. But since Sagan first talked about Drake’s equation, much has changed. Thanks to observations by the Kepler telescope, we now have a much firmer grasp of how many Earth-like worlds may be out there.

In a new study, researchers affiliated with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Caltech, as well as a high school student, have updated Drake’s equation with all the new things scientists have learned in the past decades, including the prevalence of sun-like stars harboring Earth-like planets or the frequency of supernovas that are unfriendly to life.

When they modeled the evolution of the Milky Way, the researchers found that life was most likely to emerge around 13,000 light-years from the galactic centers, where there is the greatest density of sun-like stars. The optimal time frame for the development of alien civilizations was also estimated at 8 billion years after the formation of the galaxy. For comparison, Earth is about 25,000 light-years from the galactic core and complex intelligent life evolved around 13.5 billion years after the Milky Way formed.

Earth is actually located outside the Milky Way’s hotspot of words likely to foster civilizations. Credit: Cai et al./arXiv.

In other words, this study suggests that there are other regions of the Milky way where life is more likely to appear than in our corner of the galaxy. What’s more, other civilizations might have had a five billion-year headstart. The problem is they may have had a headstart for their self-annihilation.

According to the researchers, most civilizations that have appeared before us have likely self-annihilated. Other civilizations that are still active in the galaxy are likely young, due to the propensity of intelligent life to eradicate itself. Over a long-enough timeframe, the probability of self-annihilation borders on certainty.

“As we cannot assume a low probability of annihilation, it is possible that intelligent life elsewhere in the Galaxy is still too young to be observed by us. Therefore, our findings can imply that intelligent life may be common in the Galaxy but is still young, supporting the optimistic aspect for the practice of SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence),” the authors wrote in their study that appeared in the pre-print server arXiv.

“Our results also suggest that our location on Earth is not within the region where most intelligent life is settled, and SETI practices need to be closer to the inner Galaxy, preferably at the annulus 4 kpc (kiloparsec) from the Galactic Center.”

The search for alien life is nowhere settled, though. The study’s biggest limitation is its sample size of confirmed civilizations: just one. Humans are biased to think that other civilizations might behave just like us. As such, these inherent biases may cloud our judgment, believing that other civilizations might also nuke themselves out of existence.

Over 1 million people join Facebook event to ‘storm area 51’ and ‘see them aliens’

‘They can’t stop us all’ is the motto. Already, some 2 million people have shown interest in the event.

The internet sometimes gets pretty weird — especially when it comes to conspiracy theories. Although we’ve seen a myriad of them over the years (some crazier than others), the ‘Area 51’ conspiracy theory is always a classic. The decades-long theories all revolve around aliens, be it some type of alien technology or alien individuals themselves.

Well, the people have had enough: a Facebook event named Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop All of Us calls for the people to storm Area 51 because “they can’t stop all of us”. Thankfully, this is just a joke. The initiative isn’t real, although the memes and jokes are very much real.

“We will all meet up at the Area 51 Alien Center tourist attraction and coordinate our entry. If we naruto run, we can move faster than their bullets. Lets see them aliens.”

The infamous ‘Naruto run’, referencing a classic anime.

Surely enough, Facebook, Reddit, and the other social media channels were all over it.

https://twitter.com/ImBarbaraPool/status/1149698451694919680

However, the US Air Force (responsible for Area 51) took the raid very seriously, with a spokesperson issuing a statement strongly discouraging the would-be raiders from coming into the area. In the statement, Laura McAndrews gave a stern warning:

“[Area 51] is an open training range for the US Air Force, and we would discourage anyone from trying to come into the area where we train American armed forces,” she said.

“The US Air Force always stands ready to protect America and its assets”.

“The US Air Force always stands ready to protect America and its assets”.

The US Air Force doesn’t play around — which of course, spurred even more memes.

https://twitter.com/BryanRomine_/status/1149804164542881792

The Facebook event is currently scheduled to take place on Sept. 20, with 1 million people ‘attending’ and another million ‘interested’ (the numbers are still growing). Hopefully, though, no one actually tries to storm the facility. It’s a joke, people. Please don’t go too close to Area 51.

Nope, octopuses probably didn’t come from outer space

This guy is probably not an alien.

If you’ve been following the science news, you’re probably aware of the new study claiming octopuses come from outer space. “Octopuses are from space, scientists say” was one of the catchy headlines published in Australia, while The Express wrote that “Octopuses came to Earth from space as frozen eggs millions of years ago”. These aren’t two cherry-picked instances, the internet was abuzz with variations on the same theme. Unfortunately, however, this is almost certainly not the case. Let’s see what really happened.

What the study says

The new study, penned by over 30 researchers, essentially rehashes the theory of panspermia — the idea that life on Earth emerged in outer space, hitching a ride on meteorites or other objects that crashed into Earth at one point, something often referred to as the Hoyle-Wickramasinghe (H-W) thesis of cosmic biology.

The research starts from the Cambrian Explosion an event approximately 541 million years ago, during an age called the Cambrian period. The Cambrian Explosion was an age of extreme diversification of life, during which most major animal phyla started to emerge. The study’s authors question whether that happened naturally, with just the elements existing on Earth.

“One particular focus are the recent studies which date the emergence of the complex retroviruses of vertebrate lines at or just before the Cambrian Explosion of ∼500 Ma. Such viruses are known to be plausibly associated with major evolutionary genomic processes. We believe this coincidence is not fortuitous but is consistent with a key prediction of H-W theory whereby major extinction-diversification evolutionary boundaries coincide with virus-bearing cometary-bolide bombardment events,” the study reads.

Cartoonish depiction of life in the Cambrian. Alien-like? Sure! Alien? Probably not. Image credits: Rice University.

In other words, what they’re saying is that life didn’t just emerge on its own, it was “seeded” from life-bearing comets that pummeled our planet at various times throughout history. These comets could have brought a myriad of novel life-forms from other planets, including viruses. This is one of the main assumptions of the H-W thesis — that small bodies such as asteroids and comets can protect the “seeds of life”, including DNA and RNA. So far, so good; this is a plausible idea, that has been investigated since the 1970s and continues to be analyzed by various groups. There’s not much evidence to say that it did happen, but with what we know so far, it might have happened.

Then, the authors make a big leap: if you’re not convinced by the panspermia theory, you need not look farther than the octopus. Octopuses have very complex nervous systems and big, specialized eyes — two unprecedented features.

“A second focus is the remarkable evolution of intelligent complexity (Cephalopods) culminating in the emergence of the Octopus,” the study continues.

This is where it starts to get thorny. Cephalopods, the group in which octopuses belong, did emerge in the Cambrian — the fossil records clearly suggest so. But the early cephalopods were Nautiloids, a very diverse group of creatures which exist to this day. But Nautiloids look completely different to octopuses, and they don’t share many of their impressive features. In fact, octopuses didn’t emerge until the Devonian, 323 million years ago. This means that there’s a window of over 200 million years from the Cambrian explosion to when the first true octopuses emerged, which is plenty of time to selectively develop specialized features (there are studies which say octopuses developed a bit earlier, but not significantly in this context).

Artistic depiction of Orthoceras — an early nautiloid. Image credits: Nobu Tamura.

Furthermore, when the octopus genome was mapped in 2015, it was shown that the nervous system genes split from the squid’s only around 135 million years ago — again, long after the Cambrian explosion. In all practicality, the evolution of the octopus was never really regarded as a mystery requiring additional explanation. This is an ancient group with some remarkable features, but these features didn’t appear in the earliest creatures, developing gradually over the course of hundreds of millions of years.

Occam’s Razor

Instead, what the new study suggests is that fertilized octopus eggs hitcher a ride aboard an icy comet and crashed into the sea at the onset of the Cambrian explosion. Alternatively, researchers write, an extraterrestrial virus infected a population of early squid, causing them to evolve in this unusual way. The genes responsible for the octopus evolution, they say, don’t appear to have come from their ancestors.

“The transformative genes leading from the consensus ancestral nautilus to the common cuttlefish to squid to the common octopus are not easily to be found in any pre-existing life form,” the study, published in Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology, claims.

“It is plausible then to suggest they seem to be borrowed from a far distant ‘future’ in terms of terrestrial evolution, or more realistically from the cosmos at large.”

Again, this is technically possible. It might have happened. But that doesn’t mean it did. Occam’s razor suggests that the simpler explanation is usually the better, and this is probably the case here — there’s no reason to go and speculate about extraterrestrial origins.

It’s noteworthy that in his review of the paper, medical researcher Keith Baverstock from the University of Eastern Finland, concedes that there’s a lot of evidence that plausibly aligns with the H-W thesis, such as the curious timeline of the appearance of viruses — and yet, herein lies the problem: plausibility does not mean probability. Basically, just because something can happen doesn’t mean it did. The new paper goes to great lengths to prove that it could happen, and to open some interesting discussions. Make no mistake, this is not an amateurish study published in a predatory journal. However, the scope of the paper is oversold, and as Ken Stedman, a virologist and professor of biology at Portland State University, told Live Science, the authors didn’t carefully review existing literature, and they make extremely speculative claims.

Of course, mainstream media was all over this. The idea that life on Earth came from outer space is terribly appealing — particularly when we’re talking bizarre creatures like octopuses, and everyone gasped at the idea of an alien octopus. Unfortunately, that’s probably not the case. Octopuses are fascinating creatures, and I hope we can cherish them even if they’re not aliens.

Journal Reference: Steele et al. “Cause of Cambrian Explosion – Terrestrial or Cosmic?”, Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pbiomolbio.2018.03.004

Why Stephen Hawking Was Afraid of Aliens

Young Stephen Hawking.

Professor Stephen Hawking, the theoretical physicist hailed as one of the most brilliant scientists of the modern age, had genuine anxieties. Thus, intelligence does not necessarily reject fear. Hawking had one fear in particular which deserves noting, namely humanity’s encounter with advanced alien life.

Several of the late physicist’s theories have been shown to be quite accurate and are widely accepted in the scientific community. When he spoke (through his speech synthesizer) people gave ear and were attentive. Like any man, he too had his faults both public and personal. But simply because the man has passed away, does not mean we should disregard what he did and said during his time on Earth.

He made numerous predictions about the present and future problems that the human race faces, involving issues such as overpopulation and artificial intelligence. Perhaps one of his most intriguing and logically-stated beliefs was a concern for detrimental interaction between human beings and extraterrestrial beings.

Unlike astrophysicist Carl Sagan, who was rather optimistic about extraterrestrial contact, Hawking worried about the effects such contact might have on our race, even though the Professor assisted in founding projects to seek intelligent alien organisms. Some may fear aliens as they are depicted in sci-fi and horror stories: ugly creatures capable of taking over human beings and using them as their hosts.

The physical appearance of hypothetical aliens is not what alarmed Stephen Hawking. It was something a bit more sinister. In short, he apparently was cautious of entertaining alien contact because of the possibility that intelligent alien civilizations may want to dominate our race. They might do this either by enslaving people or slaughtering them, or both.

He has related these concerns publicly as early as 2010. In 2016, he speculated that if Earth received a signal of alien origins “we should be wary of answering back.” He further argued this point by employing historical references. “Meeting an advanced civilization could be like Native Americans encountering Columbus,” he said. “That didn’t turn out so well.” Sometime in the future, if we’re not cautious in the search for alien life, humans might rue ignoring Stephen Hawking’s worries about extraterrestrials.

The Search for Alien Life: We Have Been Looking in the Wrong Places

SETI Initiative. Source: Traces Online.

Humanity has pondered the existence of alien life for centuries. However, it has been in just the past 100 years or so that modern science has backed some of this thinking. Scientists of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s believed that objects appearing on the surface of Mars were canals constructed by aliens. Particularly, astronomer Percival Lowell believed this concept and promoted it in works such as the book Mars As the Abode of Life (1908).

This belief in the scientific community led to a huge amount of pop culture based around the concept of extraterrestrials. This has resulted in some people even believing in the existence of aliens like the ones in the movies. Who knows? They could be out there. But some wonder how probable their existence is.

With aliens constantly being depicted in entertainment, even after the Martian alien canal hypothesis was busted, scientists considered communicating with otherworldly life forms. The first scientists looking for a close encounter believed the best bet was to use radio waves as the communication medium. The first of such proposed experiments was conducted in 1960 by astronomer Frank Drake.

One of the most eye-opening quotes about extraterrestrial alien life comes from the book Time for the Stars by Alan Lightman. The author states, “Are we alone in the universe? Few questions are more profound… Extraterrestrial contact would forever change the way we view our place in the cosmos” (Lightman 21).

Drake would definitely not be the last scientist to attempt to summon a response from an alien. But this was the first modern example of tests which would now be referred to as part of SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. In 1980, to bring more of a public interest to SETI, the legendary astrophysicist, astronomer, and astrobiologist Carl Sagan and several others formed The Planetary Society. In more recent years, other programs with goals similar to SETI’s have been established such as METI, messaging extraterrestrial intelligence.

Apart from radio waves, humans have tried other ways of communicating with hypothetical aliens. One example is a plaque which was attached to the Pioneer 10 probe in 1972. This plaque would be a unique kind of “message in a bottle,” except the ocean it was doomed to drift in was far more vast than any sea on Earth. It was inquired of Carl Sagan about sending such a message several months before the scheduled departure of the craft. So Sagan went to work, and assisting him with this undertaking was none other than Frank Drake, the man who had conducted the first modern SETI tests in 1960. The fruit of numerous labors and laborers, the Pioneer 10 plaque that was sent into space depicted a man and a woman and several objects. Through the imagery, the scientists were trying to give any aliens who might see this plaque an idea of what humans are like and where Earth is located.

This could be the first big mistaken researchers are making. They are looking to make contact. They are putting their faith in a sci-fi movie concept. What these scientists are attempting to do is call up and have a conversation with an alien or, better yet, a race of aliens. This is not to say that SETI is pointless, but it might not be the most opportune method for seeking alien life.

Perhaps scientists should strive to discover life in its simpler forms. As Lee Billings of Scientific American states in a recent article, if you were able to travel to another planet it is likely “you would find a planet dominated by microbes rather than charismatic megafauna.” Many scientists are now suggesting microscopic organisms could be more plentiful throughout the cosmos than macroscopic creatures.

Microbes Are a Realistic Form of Alien Life. Source: Joi Ito’s PubPub.

A specific search for such minuscule life forms is not a new practice. Bacteria are, of course, microbes. Astrobiologists like Richard Hoover and Dave McKay have examined certain meteorites. Some of the microscopic structures found embedded in or on the space relics resemble bacteria. They have released their findings in past years. They have admitted that even though the fossilized structures appear to be remnants of bacteria there is still some skepticism as to whether those structures are alien in origin. This is because bacteria from Earth could have been attached to the meteorites once they entered our atmosphere.

So how do scientists narrow down the search for alien life even further? Billings’ piece may give us the best idea available at the moment. He informs his readers that one of oxygen’s properties is that it tends to descend from an atmosphere in the form of mineral oxides. It does not remain in its gaseous phase for long. Because of its nature, in an atmosphere such as Earth’s, the oxygen has to be reinstituted on a regular basis.

Astrobiologists have to accept oxygen may be one of the least familiar elements they come upon when studying potential life-supporting bodies. For example, atmospheric chemist David Catling has said the atmosphere of a world dominated by microscopic life could be largely comprised of methane and carbon dioxide gases. Keeping this in mind, this will hopefully narrow down the most likely planet candidates for life.

Virus model.

Space might be teeming with viruses that we’re not looking for, but we should

We need to start looking into the possibility that there are viruses living beyond the confines of our planet, argues Portland State University biology professor Ken Stedman.

Virus model.

Model of a virus.
Image credits Tom Thai / Flickr.

Humanity has been thinking of life outside of the confines of Earth since times immemorial. It started with gods, angels, spirits, demons. Superstition gave way to cold knowledge and hard technology, morphing their image into aliens that were different, but not completely unlike us — à la those portrayed in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. As our scope widened and our reach extended with modern tech, we’re no longer content to just wait for aliens to drop on our doorstep. We’re actively looking, listening, prodding for life outside of the Earth, much farther away and on more channels than anytime before, in a tacit acknowledgment that those we may find could very well be just as planet-locked as we are.

Sill, we don’t have anything to show (as far as alien life goes) for all our efforts. Maybe, then, we should down-grade again and start looking for aliens that have yet to reach our rung on the technological and evolutionary ladder. Maybe its time we started looking for bits of life as seemingly insignificant as viruses living in space and on other planets. At least, that’s what Portland State University biology professor Ken Stedman and his co-authors argue for in a new paper — and they’re willing to kick-start that search.

It’s the little things that count

Stedman and his team say it’s past time that astronomers broaden their search for alien life by combing space for viruses.

“More than a century has passed since the discovery of the first viruses,” said Stedman, “entering the second century of virology, we can finally start focusing beyond our own planet.”

Seeing as there are around 10 to 100 times more viruses on Earth than any other cellular organism, Stedman believes that the same could hold true for other planets or moons out there. Furthermore, he bases his call to action on research which suggests that viruses have played a major role in the creation and evolution of life on Earth — and it’s likely they would play the same role in other places as well.

‘Simple life survives in space,’ granted, is a phrase that sounds far-fetched when you first hear it. Isn’t it, like, super cold out there and all? It is, but life (especially ‘simple’ life) is surprisingly good at finding a way.

Tardigrades, for example, have shown an incredible resilience to the vicissitudes of outer space, shrugging void, cold, and radiation with apparent ease for decades. Bacteria coalescing together in biofilms are surprisingly hardy, being able to brave harsh, Mars-like conditions. In fact, enduring a journey through space (such as on a spaceships’ hull) actually improves their chances of survival by drying this biofilm and making it more resilient. And radiation, even at levels that we’ve assumed deadly to virtually everything and anything alive, doesn’t seem to bother the bacteria too much either.

Water bear.

Tardigrades, also known as water bears, have been shown to survive in space — they even laid eggs on their trip.
Image credits Eye of Science / Nature.

So could life survive a trip through space without a spaceship to insulate its squishy going-ons? Overwhelmingly likely, yes. In fact, it’s so likely that NASA has cause for concern that our microbes (and these are the soft-core microbes used to living in comfort on Earth) could contaminate other planets. We’ve seen all sorts of bugs hitching a ride (without official approval, the nerve on them) and gouging a permanent home aboard the ISS right under our noses.

“We have had contamination in parts of the station where fungi was seen growing or biomaterial has been pulled out of a clogged waterline, but we have no idea what it is until the sample gets back down to the lab,” said Sarah Wallace, NASA microbiologist and principal investigator for Genes in Space 3 at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Along with the tardigrades and biofilm-protected colonies of bacteria, it’s a good indication of just how pervasively present life tends to be after it first spawns. The crux of the issue, then, isn’t if life could make it through space — it’s whether or not it appeared there in the first place.

We only have indirect evidence. But this suggests that the chemical background necessary for life as we know it is there — we’ve found water in space, we’ve found organic compounds, we’ve found basic biological building blocks such as amino acids, and we’ve found them all together in the same place.

While the ingredients seem to be there, all ready to boil in a primordial life-generating soup, however, what we haven’t found is actual life. Taking the focal point from away the grandest aspects of life like radio signals or Dyson spheres might help us spot anything really small we’ve missed up to now.

Stedman and his team say they hope to “to inspire integration of virus research into astrobiology” by shining the limelight on pressing, unanswered questions in astrovirology — “particularly regarding the detection of virus biosignatures and whether viruses could be spread extraterrestrially”.

The paper “Astrovirology: Viruses at Large in the Universe” has been published in the journal Astrobiology.

The researchers imagine a complex alien called the 'Octomite' which is comprised of a hierarchy of entities, where each lower level collection of entities has aligned evolutionary interests such that conflict is effectively eliminated. Credit: University of Oxford.

Aliens could be more like us than we think, say Oxford scientists

Humans might have more in common with our yet inconspicuous galactic neighbors than we thought. According to scientists at the University of Oxford, natural selection and evolutionary theory seem to favor organisms that behave similarly to those found on Earth.

The researchers imagine a complex alien called the 'Octomite' which is comprised of a hierarchy of entities, where each lower level collection of entities has aligned evolutionary interests such that conflict is effectively eliminated. Credit: University of Oxford.

The researchers imagine a complex alien called the ‘Octomite’ which is comprised of a hierarchy of entities, where each lower level collection of entities has aligned evolutionary interests such that conflict is effectively eliminated. Credit: University of Oxford.

Astrobiologists — scientists concerned with the study of life outside Earth — have their work cut out for them in this day and age. Since no alien organisms have been found yet, their field of study is riddled in uncertainties and speculations. Given the vastness of the cosmos and what we know about potentially habitable planets, the odds of Earth being the only planet in the universe capable of hosting life look very slim. It seems extremely unlikely that life on Earth is unique.

At the same time, making predictions about alien life is challenging, especially when you have one example to work with: life on Earth. Previously, scientists have predicted what alien life might look like by extrapolating what we know about organisms on Earth, as well as the chemistry, geology, and physics on our planet.

But these “past approaches in the field of astrobiology have been largely mechanistic,” says Sam Levin, a scientist at Oxford’s Department of Zoology. He and colleagues have gone a different route that’s more principle driven and less dependent on Earth-centered assumptions.

“In our paper, we offer an alternative approach, which is to use evolutionary theory to make predictions that are independent of Earth’s details. This is a useful approach, because theoretical predictions will apply to aliens that are silicon based, do not have DNA, and breathe nitrogen, for example,” Levin said in a press release. 

The researchers did assume at least one process that’s fundamental to Earthlings governs alien life as well: natural selection. Starting from natural selection as a framework, the researchers built a model of extraterrestrial evolution.

alien evolution

These illustrations represent different levels of adaptive complexity Different levels of adaptive complexity triggered by ‘major transitions’. (a) A simple replicating molecule, with no apparent design. This may or may not undergo natural selection. (b) An incredibly simple, cell-like entity. Even something this simple has sufficient contrivance of parts that it must undergo natural selection. (c) An alien with many intricate parts working together is likely to have undergone major transitions. Credit: University of Oxford

More of the same

Though the origin of life on Earth is still a matter of debate, we know that the very first creatures were simple, single-celled organisms. Over the course of countless generations, some of these single-celled organisms merged, learned to cooperate, and formed multi-cellular organisms. Complexity jumped in steps caused by a handful of events known as ‘major transitions’. The transitions from prokaryotes to eukaryotes or from asexual clones to sexual populations are some prime example. Both evolutionary theory and empirical data suggest that extreme conditions say sudden climate change, are required to drive a major transition.

With this framework in mind, the Oxford scientists made some predictions about what alien life might look like, complete with some illustrations to boot.

Of course, no one can say if aliens walk on two legs or have four eyes. The Oxford team, however, says that there’s a level of predictability to evolution which would cause aliens to look at least a bit like us, they reported in the International Journal of Astrobiology. In other words, they’d look and function more similarly to humans than differently.

“Like humans, we predict that they are made-up of a hierarchy of entities, which all cooperate to produce an alien. At each level of the organism there will be mechanisms in place to eliminate conflict, maintain cooperation, and keep the organism functioning. We can even offer some examples of what these mechanisms will be,” Levin said.

“There are potentially hundreds of thousands of habitable planets in our galaxy alone. We can’t say whether or not we’re alone on Earth, but we have taken a small step forward in answering, if we’re not alone, what our neighbours are like,” he added.

Instruments at the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia identified 15 mysterious high-energy radio signals which are still unattributed.

Intelligent alien life hunters pick up 15 high-energy bursts far across the universe

Instruments at the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia identified 15 mysterious high-energy radio signals which are still unattributed.

Instruments at the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia identified 15 mysterious high-energy radio signals which are still unattributed.

Brief but intense radio pulses have been recorded emanating from FRB 121102, a dwarf galaxy some 3 billion years away. Scientists working at Breakthrough Listen — a $100 million effort to search for alien signals — have identified 15 such high-energy radio bursts. It’s far too early, however, for us to say that these are indeed signs of advanced alien technology.

“Bursts from this source have never been seen at this high a frequency,” said in a statement Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center and of the Breakthrough Listen program.

Is this alien technology?

The radio signals beamed from FRB 121102 might be the most promising kind of evidence in decades, sought after alien-hunting researchers working with the famous SETI. Many of SETI’s leading researchers are also part of Breakthrough Listen, which has access to the world’s most advanced telescopes and ample funding.

[panel style=”panel-danger” title=”The mysterious high energy bursts” footer=””]

The streaks across the colored energy plot are the bursts appearing at different times and different energies because of dispersion caused by 3 billion years of travel through intergalactic space. In the top frequency spectrum, the dispersion has been removed to show the 300 microsecond pulse spike. Credit: Berkeley University.

The streaks across the colored energy plot are the bursts appearing at different times and different energy levels due of dispersion caused by 3 billion years of travel through intergalactic space. In the top frequency spectrum, the dispersion has been removed to show the 300-microsecond pulse spike. Credit: Berkeley University.

The high-energy short burst radio emissions were detected on August 26 by the Green Bank Telescope in west Virginia, USA.

During the first scan, 12 such blips were recorded and another 3 appeared during the second scan. No further emissions could be identified during eight subsequent scans.

The data was reported in The Astronomer’s Telegram.

[/panel]

The project launched in January 2016 and is expected to run for at least ten years. We’re already seeing good progress, though the nature of such an inquiry demands extreme scrutiny and healthy skepticism.

That’s because there are natural phenomena that can explain the radio signals. For instance, rotating neutron stars with strong magnetic fields could produce the effect, though some astronomers were quick to point out that such objects shouldn’t be able to exist in a dwarf galaxy such as FRB 121102.

“It is surprising that the host would be a dwarf galaxy,” said Shriharsh Tendulkar of McGill University in Montreal, Canada. “One would generally expect most FRBs to come from large galaxies which have the largest numbers of stars and neutron stars. Neutron stars – remnants of massive stars – are among the top candidates to explain FRBs.”

Interstellar sailing

One heart-racing, though speculative explanation, is that the radio beams are evidence of powerful laser beams used by an extraterrestrial civilization to power spacecraft. Though wild, such an idea is rooted in scientific plausibility.

Avi Loeb and Manasvi Lingam from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics published a paper in early 2017 where they explore the technical feasibility of building an alien transmitting device. Their calculations suggest that light hitting an area twice the size of Earth would be sufficient to generate the observed energy in such bright radio pulses.

The aim of such a device could be to signal other life forms of its alien presence. Alternatively, such a set up could be used for interstellar travel in the form of a light sail. We, humans, are already toying with such technology.

The Planetary Society, a non-profit organization founded by Carl Sagan and now coordinated by Bill Nye, is working with a satellite-sized object called the LightSail which is completely propelled by light. The sail is made out of thin Mylar and when stretched out measures 345 square feet.

Though photons have no mass, they do have momentum and energy. Once these reflect of a receiver, which could look something like a very thin sail, some of that energy is transferred, pushing the craft. While this pressure is minute, the catch is that it builds momentum over time.

Breakthrough Listen has an even crazier idea — but crazy enough to work. They plan to send tiny space probes to our nearest star system, Alpha Centauri (4.4-light-years away), and check out its planets. The so-called “Starchips” would be carried on light sails propelled by Earth-based lasers in just 20 years, by traveling at a fifth the speed of light. The video below briefly shows how this might work.

“We envision a beamer that emits the radio waves as a method of launching a light sail,” Loeb told Gizmodo. “In the same way that a sailboat is pushed by wind, a lightsail is pushed by light and can reach up to the speed of light.”

According to NASA scientist Philip Lubin, if we fired laser pulses with the same energy used today to launch rockets into space onto a light sail, we could push a 100kg payload to Mars in three days or one month for a large craft — the kind able to carry humans. “There is no known reason why we could not do this,” said Lubin.

Lubin and colleagues have now received a proof-of-concept grant from NASA to assess whether or not a photonic propulsion system for long distance space applications is viable.

Nevertheless, returning to our very interesting high-energy signal, it’s best to be cautious. No one is saying aliens are definitely involved. It’s just that there’s no water-tight hypothesis that can explain these signals. Furthermore, though I hate to be a buzz killer, it’s quite important to be aware that by the time these signals reached Earth, billions of years have elapsed since they were transmitted. Life on Earth was mostly comprised of single celled organisms when the bursts fired, and it’s possible that while we evolved down here, any aliens beaming the signals went extinct.

Hopefully, more information and insight might appear once the researchers involved are ready to publish in a peer-reviewed journal.

“Whether or not fast radio bursts turn out to be signatures of extraterrestrial technology, Breakthrough Listen is helping to push the frontiers of a new and rapidly growing area of our understanding of the universe around us,” Siemion said.

Observing Alien Armageddon could be our first sign of advanced civilizations in space.

We humans have a lot of reason to be proud.  In the short span of a few million years we have become self-aware and clever, learning to manipulate our world in ways that have greatly enhanced our survival.  The last 100,000 years have seen the evolution of anatomically modern humans, which migrated from our African birthplace to colonize and populate essentially all corners of the globe.  Using sophisticated brains we learned about the world, deciphering patterns in nature, designed and constructed tools, and formed societies and civilizations.  

 

Unfortunately, there has also been much about our success that is less praiseworthy.   At the same time that we have been building ingenious devices to better feed, clothes, shelter, and move ourselves from point A to point B, we have also been in the business of making ever more efficient weapons to destroy one another.  As our technological progress seems to outpace our societal ethics and maturity, we now have it in our power to completely annihilate our entire species.  In the not too distant future it could conceivably be possible to extinguish all life on planet earth, whether through horrible accident or intentional destruction.

 

While we sit on this world powder cake of self destruction, perhaps at times in a little more danger, and at times in a little less, we often wonder if we are alone in the universe.  Not only are we the only example of intelligent life that we know of in the universe, but our little planet is home to the only example of life we know of anywhere.   All evidence seems to indicate that there are a vast number of planetary systems and potential habitable worlds in the universe.  We have detected over 2000 exoplanets, so far, with the first one being discovered only as recently as 1992, and with advancing techniques the numbers have been skyrocketing in recent years.  Yet, there is still no sign of alien life, and even with SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) listening for alien radio transmissions since 1960, we have not detected any confirmed signs of intelligent aliens.  

A few of the exoplanets that the Kepler space telescope has discovered orbiting other stars.

A few of the exoplanets that the Kepler space telescope has discovered orbiting other stars.

 

In the October 23, 2015 issue of The International Journal of Astrobiology, authors Adam Stevens, Duncan Fogan, and Jack O’Malley James, make an interesting case that we may soon have the technology necessary to detect alien civilizations in the act of self-destruction.  In fact, alien armageddon may provide us with our most likely opportunity to detect the presence of intelligent alien life – even if we are only witness to their last moments.  The authors summarize some of the possible ways that an intelligent civilization could go horribly wrong, and how evidence for these tragic events could potentially be detected by our instruments here on earth.

 

The first major scenario would be that of global nuclear war.  There are several characteristics of a world that has been annihilated by an intense exchange of nuclear weapons that might be  detectable from our distant vantage point.  The detonation of the devices would emit high energy gamma radiation that would last for a short period of time – on the order of thousandths of a second.  Even given the high energy involved in the detonation of a world arsenal of nuclear devices, it is not very likely we could detect the energy output from so many light years away.  Naturally occurring gamma ray bursts (GRBs) are some of the most intense energy generating events in the universe, and can be observed at the edges of the visible universe, but they are also around 10 billion billion billion times more energetic than the predicted energy release of all the nuclear weapons on earth combined.  

 

The intense radiation from global nuclear war would, however, ionize the planet’s atmosphere, resulting in an “air glow” due to light emission from energized nitrogen and oxygen.  The atmosphere would have a lovely green glow in the the visible spectrum, is predicted to last several years, and could be observed as an increase in the light intensity at the expected wavelength.  There would also be a depletion of the planet’s ozone layer as reactive chemicals are produced by the explosions.  This too, might be observable as a change in the planet’s atmosphere.  Nuclear war would also generate a great deal of dust and small particles that enter the air, altering the transparency of the atmosphere.  A combination of a gamma ray burst, air glow, drop in ozone concentration, and loss of transparency of the atmosphere would be good evidence for this alien-made disaster.  Any one event on its own might not be enough evidence to be certain of an artificial event.  For example, a change in the atmosphere from transparent to opaque could also be caused by natural events like a large asteroid impact.  

 

Second on the list for a self-induced civilization-stopping calamity would be use of potent biological weapons.  Genetically engineered organisms, like viruses and bacteria, would potentially be much more deadly than any naturally occurring epidemic.  If the infectious agent was designed to attack all animals and plants, the entire biosphere would be jeopardized.  How would such a horror be detected by us?  Well, a rapid demise of the planet’s multicellular life would result in a huge amount of organic material for bacteria to consume.  The result of this massive decay would be the release of certain chemicals such as methane and ethane, that could be observed by spectroscopic analysis of the atmosphere.  

Artistis depiction of an exoplanet surface in a distant solar system.

Artistis depiction of an exoplanet surface in a distant solar system.

 

The next deadly scenario is the so called, “grey goo” event.  This involves the engineering of self-replicating nanomachines – tiny machines that use some building material as substrate and convert it into more tiny nanomachines.  The authors of the paper point out that this could be the result of either “goodbots” or “badbots”.  In the goodbot case the self-replicating nanomachines were never intended for destruction, but due to poor system controls, got out of hand leading to world destruction.  Badbots, on the other hand, were designed to cause complete and total destruction – the ultimate doomsday machine!   These replicators would take all carbon containing material on the planet’s surface, (ie. living organisms), and convert them into a growing mass of more replicators that do the same.  K. Eric Drexler – who coined the term nanotechology- pointed out in his ‘Engines of Creation’:  “Replicators can be more potent than nuclear weapons: to devastate Earth with bombs would require masses of exotic hardware and rare isotopes, but to destroy all life with replicators would require only a single speck made of ordinary elements.”

 

It might take as little as a few weeks to convert the worlds living biomass into a lifeless desert of tiny replicators – grey goo!  Pretty scary!!  From earth we might be able to detect this as a large increase in atmospheric dust (the masses of nanomachines).  The nanomachines would form giant sand dunes (bot dunes in this case) and would change the apparent brightness of the planet as we observe it.  There would be visual effects of shadowing, as the planet orbits its star due to the changing angle that light hits the grains of nanomachines in the bot dunes.  This is similar to the effect we see as light passes through the small particles in Saturn’s rings at different angles.  Over a period of thousands of years the nanomachines would be recycled through the planet’s interior, as the planet’s normal geological processes continue to operate.

 

Another apocalyptic possibility would be intentional pollution of the planet’s star.  To dispose of harmful radioactive waste, a civilization might launch such materials into its parent star.  Detecting uncommon radioactive elements in the star’s atmosphere would be evidence for this unnatural process.  Carl Sagan, called this “salting” the star.   We would know that this was an artificial process by the fact that elements present would be produced only in such high amounts by nuclear processes that don’t occur naturally.  Models have shown that if this was carried out to extremes, it would affect the star’s internal balance of forces and cause it’s size to increase, while dropping the surface temperature.  This change in the star’s characteristics could change the location of the habitable zone around the star, making life difficult or impossible on the alien planet that did the salting.  The authors suggest that, “compiling a sample of stars that are bright, cool, and slightly larger than expected as an initial step to search for this particular death channel.”

 

Finding evidence for intelligent life in the cosmos would radically change our view of ourselves, and our place in the universe.  If aliens have a similar psychology to ourselves (a big if to be sure), they could be prone towards potentially fatal flaws that could escalate to total catastrophe.  Their demise at their own hands (or equivalent body structures) might also be the signal that informs us that they were ever there at all.  Finding one or more civilizations that self-destructed might also give us a way to prognose the long-term health of the human race.  Do civilizations reach a point where their technological power is too great for their wisdom?  Could Homo sapiens one day end up as a signal to the stars that we were here for a brief time, an intelligent species, but just not quite intelligent enough to solve the problem of surviving peacefully with one another?  
Journal Reference:  

Observational signatures of self-destructive civilizations.”  Oct. 23, 2015,  The International Journal of Astrobiology.   Adam Stevens, Duncan Forgan and Jack O’Malley James.

 

 

 

Pleasant thought of the Day: the galaxy may be a graveyard full of dead aliens

As astrobiologists continue to find that the basic building blocks of life are littered throughout space, and how easy it seems for complex organic molecules, like amino acids and nucleic acids, to assemble given conditions thought to be prevalent on many worlds throughout the cosmos, the question as to why we haven’t detected life outside of the earth becomes more and more curious. Where are all the aliens? Why haven’t we seen or heard their signals from space? Could we really have been the only planet where life evolved?

Artistic representation of a superhabitable planet.

Artistic representation of a superhabitable planet.

A team of astrobiologists, lead by Dr. Aditya Chopra from The Australian National University (ANU) thinks there may be an answer to these difficult questions, and you may want to take a seat before I give you the news. I’m sorry to have to break it to you like this, but the aliens, well, they didn’t make it.

According to an article published by the team at ANU in the January 2016 issue of Astrobiology, life probably does arise very frequently on planets throughout the galaxy. Life is tough, in the sense that it is easy to get started in environments all over the place, but ironically it is also very brittle, in the sense that to hang on and evolve, its environment has to be very supportive. Dr. Chopra says, “Early life is fragile, so we believe it rarely evolves quickly enough to survive.”

If true, then most life that has arisen in the cosmos is dead! We’re not talking advanced civilizations that destroyed themselves with nuclear war or unleashed the robot apocalypse, we’re talking about the earliest development of life, simple cells, or possibly even porto-cells, that seemed to just be getting started then, wham, environmental catastrophe shuts them down while they’re still vulnerable, inefficient replicators, without much time to have evolved more robust survival features. If the most primitive life forms emerge often, but survive infrequently, then the evolution of very complex and intelligent life will also be very infrequent. The very low probability for survival beyond these most primitive stages is known as the Gaian Bottleneck.

The Gaian Bottleneck may be a type of filter that weeds out a lot of hopeful little worlds creating an essentially barren universe. Somehow earth made it through the Gaian Bottleneck. Earth must have had conditions not only for jump-starting life, but for providing a more stable environment that allowed further evolution of that life. If given the chance, the ANU team believes that life then begins to form feedback loops with the planet that help stabilize it, making it even more habitable for the long haul. Dr. Charley Lineweaver, also of the ANU team commented that, “Early microbial life on Venus and Mars, if there was any, failed to stabilize the rapidly changing environment. Life on Earth probably played a leading role in stabilizing the planet’s climate.”

So the next time life seems to be treating you unfair, look up at the stars and think of all the little aliens that never even had a real shot in this great big cold universe, and maybe it will help to know that you come from a long line of tough survivors.

Alien megastructure turns out to be passing comets — SETI confirms

If you’re an alien buff or just really, really bored with knowing just one species that can hold a decent conversation, this might come as a bummer. SETI has confirmed that KIC 8462852, the 1,500 light-years away star that’s been all over the news as potentially having signs of an advanced alien megastructure built around it is just a regular, run of the mill, alien-free ball of atomic fire.

Image via universetoday

“The hypothesis of an alien megastructure around KIC 8462852 is rapidly crumbling apart,” said Douglas Vakoch, President of SETI International and an author of the paper published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, available on Arxiv, in a statement. “We found no evidence of an advanced civilization beaming intentional laser signals toward Earth.”

The story sprung up in the media after The Atlantic picked up Pennsylvania State University astrophysicist Jason Wright’s suggestion that the huge dip in brightness seen from the star — some 20% of its total brightness — could be due to an artificial structure. People started excitedly discussing Dyson spheres, orbiting space stations, but most importantly — advanced alien intelligence.

Last month however, a separate research effort came to the conclusion that the dip in brightness was most likely caused by a swarm of comets passing in front of the star. Since then, SETI had all eyes and ears pointed at the star to catch any signal that the presumed aliens might be broadcasting to us. The latest one to join the search was the Boquete Optical SETI Observatory in Panama which, from October 29 trough to November 28 used its incredibly powerful single photometer to look for pulses that repeat in a regular manner.

But after all this time spent listening in, scientists have come up empty-handed. I admit, I’m a bit sad and actually a little bit disappointed that we didn’t find any aliens. It’s not all bad though — the methods we employed to study KIC 8462852 are now tried and tested and in case an actual detection is made, SETI will be fully prepared to receive “hello.”

 

“If some day we really detect a signal from an extraterrestrial civilization, we need to be ready to follow up at observatories around the world, as quickly as possible,” added Vakoch in the statement.

 

Your smartphone can help Stephen Hawking discover alien life

This week space fanatics were teeming with excitement after it was announced that Stephen Hawking had teamed up with Russian billionaire Yuri Milner in a quest to find extraterrestrial life.

The alien hunting duo is back and they need your help! No long hours at the office or sleepless nights lost over the telescope, all you have to do is download an app.

THE ALIEN E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL UNIVERSAL 01/05/1982 CTF17878

“ET app home”

The Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing app (listed under the adorable BOINC acronym in store) is in essence a crowdsourcing platform. It gives scientists the ability to use the spare processing power of personal devices around the world to analyze the huge amounts of data provided from two of the world’s most advanced telescopes scanning the universe for signs of alien life.

The project will record thousands of hours of data, to which the usual 36 recorded hours annually pale in comparison, and processing all of it will require a lot of computing power. President of CompTIA Todd Thibodeaux said the project will need all the extra muscle we can provide:

“In searches such as this, the more eyes you can get on the prize the better,” he told Forbes.

“Harnessing the personal interests of possibly hundreds of thousands of people makes sense and couldn’t be accomplished cost effectively any other way,” he added.

If you’re worried the app will burn through your personal data, rest easy – it only works when the device is connected via Wi-Fi. It will also only function if your smartphone is plugged in or fully charged, so as not to chew up your battery life.

However, Apple users won’t be joining in the hunt just now. Currently, the app only works on Android devices.

Aliens like candy but not fruit, presumably.

 

SETI's Alien Telescope Array (ATA) listens day and night for a signal from space (SETI) Read more: http://www.universetoday.com/95409/aliens-dont-want-to-eat-us-says-former-seti-director/#ixzz32ouVKYsE

Astrobiologists testify before Congress that alien life will be encountered by 2034

SETI's Alien Telescope Array (ATA) listens day and night for a signal from space (SETI)  Read more: http://www.universetoday.com/95409/aliens-dont-want-to-eat-us-says-former-seti-director/#ixzz32ouVKYsE

SETI’s Alien Telescope Array (ATA) listens day and night for a signal from space (SETI)

This past week, a few scientists took the bench and gave the U.S. Congress a relative date by which they expect we’ll have discovered signs of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. According to their estimates, by 2034 we should make first contact or 30 years ahead of Star Trek’s first contact. Whether this was just a stunt, a ploy meant to convince Congress to up SETI’s budget, or a genuine estimate is difficult to tell.

Aliens: we’ll find them soon enough

The claim was made during a hearing of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. Astronomers shuffled in front of the US officials and assured them that aliens would be found in the near future.

“At least a half-dozen other worlds besides Earth that might have life are in our solar system. The chances of finding it, I think, are good, and if that happens, it’ll happen in the next 20 years, depending on the financing,” said Seth Shostak, a renowned astrobiologist.

Depending on the financing, indeed. Shostak is a Senior Astronomer at the SETI Institute, an agency tasked with finding out about the existence of intelligent life anywhere in the universe by discovering radio signals which have artificial origin from outer space. The project was first launched in 1984 with great enthusiasm, following popular interest for extraterrestrial entities after movies like E.T. and Alien swept the globe. Today, SETI has a budget of only $1 million and was nearly shut down and would have been were it not for the support of thousands who donated to keep SETI alive.

[ALSO READ] Most promising Earth-like planets found by Kepler

With this in mind, I have to admit I was astonished to read Shostak’s statement, but how far off is he really? What Shostak and his colleagues at SETI are actually trying to point out is that given our current rate of technological advancement, it will only be a matter of time until we manage to pick up extraterrestrial signals. The next generation of supercomputers and telescopes will definitely aid in attaining this objective, and recent discoveries by the now famous Kepler telescope have been more than encouraging. Thanks to Kepler we now have a much better and broader understanding of the Universe. We know for instance that there are innumerable Earth-like planets that orbit stars in a habitable zone.

“Recent analyses of Kepler data suggest that as many as one star in five will have a habitable, Earth-size planet in orbit around it,” Shostak told the lawmakers. “This number could be too large by perhaps a factor of two or three, but even so it implies that the Milky Way is home to 10 to 80 billion cousins of Earth.”

SETI certainly is currently equipped for the job, with its deployment of Arecibo’s 305-meter telescope, the largest in the world, and throughout the entire year Arecibo’s 305-meter telescope scans the cosmos for signals from alien civilization. With only 1$ million funding a year, however, one can only wonder how the staff manages to survive, let alone have time and energy to search for aliens. Shostak hopes that by investing in SETI now, we will be able to take advantage of our dramatically increased computing power to tune into a very distant talk show or whatever it is that aliens might have broadcast at one point.

“It’s unproven whether there is any life beyond Earth…I think that situation is going to change within everyone’s lifetime in this room,” Shostak said.

The great blue marble. Does is it have a sister planet? A question astronomers seek to answer.

How many Earth-like planets are there in the Milky Way? Billions, according to astronomers

One of the most outstanding dreams astronomers and other scientists hope to accomplish is to someday encounter proof that extraterestrial life exists. Intelligent life might be extremely far off, however microbiological life should without a doubt be present elsewhere other than our planet or solar system. For life to blossom, however, the right conditions have to be met, and one of the major prerequisites for life supporting conditions is liquid water. Along the years, scientists have come up with what’s called the habitable zone, an area around a star’s orbit where favorable conditions for harboring life may exist. Now, after hundreds of potential Earth-life planets have been found, scientists have enough data at their disposal to elaborate a statistical hypothesis – there are billions of planets similar to Earth that might potentially support life in our galaxy alone!

The great blue marble. Does is it have a sister planet? A question astronomers seek to answer.

The great blue marble. Does is it have a sister planet? A question astronomers seek to answer.

Astronomers using the European Southern Observatory’s HARPS, a high precision instrument fitted to the 3.6m telescope at the Silla Observatory in Chile, studied 102 red dwarf stars neighbouring the sun over a period of six years. Red dwarfs are smaller and cooler than the sun, however it’s been found that 40% of red dwarf stars may have Earth-sized planets orbiting them that have the right conditions for life.

“Our new observations with Harps mean that about 40% of all red dwarf stars have a super-Earth orbiting in the habitable zone where liquid water can exist on the surface of the planet,” said team leader Xavier Bonfils from the Observatoire des Sciences de l’Univers de Grenoble, France.

“Because red dwarfs are so common – there are about 160 billion of them in the Milky Way – this leads us to the astonishing result that there are tens of billions of these planets in our galaxy alone.”

During their survey, the group of astronomers found a total of nine super-Earths, planets with a rocky structure that have a mass up to ten times that of Earth, while two such planets are orbiting inside their stars’ habitable zones. Extrapolating with data gathered from non-dwarf stars were super-Earths have also been found, the scientists were able to produce an estimate for how common different sorts of planets are around red dwarf.

Huge planets, the size of Jupiter for instance, have been found to orbit in less than 12% of red dwarfs, suggesting their much rarer than small rocky words, like the Earth. Alright, but why should we care if there’s another potential Earth out there if its thousands of light years away? Well, the scientists found that there could be at least 100 super-Earths’ orbiting in the habitable zones of their stars, located in a radius 30 light years away from our own sun. That’s not that far at all, in the astronomical scale.

The group’s findings were reported in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.

[image source]

The science behind crop circles

Crop circles have always been an important weapon in any conspiracy theorist’s arsenal, certain to be mentioned alongside UFOs, green aliens or reptilians. Since 1970, tens of thousands of crop circles have been reported around the world, most amateur hoaxes, while some are so intricately built that they even baffle scientists.

In this month’s edition of Physics World, Richard Taylor, director of the Materials Science Institute at the University of Oregon, takes a new look at the mysterious crop circle phenomenon, detailing a bit in his piece how science applies to them. He notes how physics and the arts are coming together to produce more impressive and spectacular crop-circle patterns that still manage to maintain their mystery.

“Crop-circle artists are not going to give up their secrets easily,” Taylor wrote.

“This summer, unknown artists will venture into the countryside close to your homes and carry out their craft, safe in the knowledge that they are continuing the legacy of the most science-oriented art movement in history.”

While it’s unanimously recognized that crop circles are man-made objects, and not UFO formations, some are so incredibly complex and precise, all cut out in an extremely short time, that they still baffle scientists as to how the artists actually managed them. Some of today’s designs are so complex, with some featuring up to 2000 different shapes, that there has to be more going into their production than just boards.

In the past, crop circle enthusiasts would use ropes, boards and even bar stools to form the deceiving patterns, however with the advancement in technology along the year the tools of trade have greatly diversified. Modern crop circle are now precisely drawn to the most complex shape using GPS plotting, lasers and microwaves.

Taylor suggests that microwaves could be used to make crop stalks fall over and cool in a horizontal position – a technique that could explain the speed and efficiency of the artists and the incredible detail in the patterns. In previous experiments, researchers were able to exactly replicate some of the complex crop-circles from around the world using a simple handheld magnetron, readily available from microwave ovens, and using a 12-volt battery.

Matin Durrani, Editor of Physics World, says, “It may seem odd for a physicist such as Taylor to be studying crop circles, but then he is merely trying to act like any good scientist – examining the evidence for the design and construction of crop circles without getting carried away by the side-show of UFOs, hoaxes and aliens

FBI releases memo about Roswell aliens

In a surprising move that didn’t get quite a lot of attention, the FBI released an online document archive they’re calling the Vault, in which they openly address, among other things, the alleged aliens and flying saucers found at Roswell. Yes, it’s about little green men, like the ones who are usually portrayed in movies. The memo at the core of this documents, named ‘Flying saucers’, was written by an FBI agent named Guy Hottel, and if the actions and pictures depicted within are for real, then I have no idea why this isn’t all over the news. If they’re not for real, I have no idea why the FBI would release them; either way, there’s something strange about this.

The decades old memo states that “three so-called flying saucers had been recovered in New Mexico’, citing an Air Force investigator. There is also a short description of the flying saucers: “They were described as being circular in shape with raised centers, approximately 50 feet in diameter.” “Each one was occupied by three bodies of human shape but only 3 feet tall.”. What’s weird is that after the alleged UFO crash, the newspapers from all over America, and the world, were screaming about the incident/accident. The army issued that press release, but less than a day after that, changed its mind, claiming that in fact they were dealing with nothing more than a few weather balloons that crashed. Of course, nobody was satisfied with this explanation.

The memo not only states that they were in fact flying saucers, but goes even further, and states that there were three bodies only three feet tall inside them. He also describes their clothing ! An FBI memo explains that they thought they were dealing with flying saucers, and there were humanoid bodies inside them ! Something everybody has been trying to be silent about suddently just got very loud with this memo, and it’s absolutely strange, to say the least. Even though this memo doesn’t represent FBI’s opinion, it does represent that of an agent who was at the spot, and in the center of events, so this is absolutely huge; and I’m not talking about comics, sci fi movies and all that, I’m talking about figuring out the truth.

Another thing that’s extremely interesting is that there are some differences between the 1947 Roswell document and the 1950 FBI memo. While Hottel describes the three alleged spaceships as ‘circular in shape with raised centers’, the 1947 document speaks about one flying disk, hexagonal in shape. So what does this mean ? It seems extremely unlikely that two different official documents of the same incident would differ this much, so does this mean that we’re talking about two different incidents in 1947 and 1950 ? I have no idea. Hopefully, now that the eye of the public opinion has been turned towards this event again, we will get some more details.

NASA slams alien life claims

Two days ago, the whole world was teeming with excitement, after some NASA researchers reported finding traces of alien life in meteorites; now, even their employer distances itself from them, and the whole scientific world seems to frown upon this work. However, in what is a very unusual move, NASA has denied any involvement with the paper, and even the Journal of Astrobiology refused to published the paper.

However, lead author Richard Hoover, engineer at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama did publish his research in the online Journal of Cosmology, a publication which supports the idea that life came from outer space. Of course Fox News, in their usual and disturbing way, made big (and biased) news from this report, which led to NASA condemning the study; and it didn’t take long until other scientists followed too.

Paul Hertz, chief scientist of NASA’s science mission directorate issued a statement which left little to interpretation, stating that:

“NASA cannot stand behind or support a scientific claim unless it has been peer-reviewed or thoroughly examined by other qualified experts…. NASA was unaware of the recent submission of the paper to the Journal of Cosmology or of the paper’s subsequent publication.”

Now, the Journal of Cosmology is not your average publication; the 2 year publication claims to be peer reviewed, but this time, they published the report BEFORE having other peers review it, which is highly unprofessional and unethical. The journal was reported to be closed on Monday, being “killed by thieves and crooks” at the journal Science and other subscription-based periodicals. I’m not really sure at all what the situation is, but in this particular case, they messed up – if you want to ensure the accuracy of a publication, you have to peer review it before publishing it.

Biologists from all over the world have dashed and bashed the paper, claiming that other structures similar to those of the bacteria can easily be found in nature, and contamination cannot be ruled out either.

“Move along folks. There’s nothing to see here,” wrote Rosie Redfield, a microbiologist at the University of British Columbia,

Mister Hoover was unavailable for comments.

Picture source

Meet the Earth’s ambassador to extraterrestrials

In case you didn’t know the United Nations has appointed an ambassador for our little planet, in case aliens somehow contact us in the near future. Who was chosen for this position that could be crucial in the highly unlikely event of a discussion with aliens ? Mazlan Othman, head of the Office for Outer Space Affairs.

The Malaysian astrophysicist will discuss her duties and requirements in Buckinghamshire, England next week. Here’s what she had to say during a speech she gave to fellow scientists:

“The continued search for extraterrestrial communication, by several entities, sustains the hope that some day humankind will receive signals from extraterrestrials. When we do, we should have in place a coordinated response that takes into account all the sensitivities related to the subject. The UN is a ready-made mechanism for such coordination.”

Well congratulations to her ! She could after all, represent the entire human race in case aliens decide to have a little chit chat with us – no pressure at all. However, if we were to be contacted by aliens, it would probably be via radio or something, it’s really doubtful that they will just park here and come out for a talk.

Strange sky spiral freaks out Norway

500x__gs4aevysbsnm18hqgzl-azf6tifeycrc0f-jzs90zpa

It was Thursday night when locals from Norway started to notice a strange, rotating light that just baffled them. It was visible long enough to be seen, photographed and recorded by half of country. The blue light seemed to appear from behind the top of a mountain; it rose, began to spin, then began to circulate.

500x__j_yjqpd4fnzd0dw6dz96aco1xqab95x0xaexjmidr5a

Naturally, as it became more and more visible, the questions became more and more pressing. Witnesses recorded it seemed to be computer generated, and nothing like auroras or some other natural phenomenon.

500x_kqptbrckp7wdakjqucw80arm_g_tjlcean1cuzgdgbtg

500x_sofalv6pjvs5mtuzhhm85w9-40xvu4luidl54xx_iewg

“We are used to seeing lots of auroras here in Arctic Norway, but on my way to work this morning I saw something completely unexpected. Between 7:50 and 8:00 a.m. local time, there was a strange light in the sky. It consisted initially of a green beam of light similar in color to the aurora with a mysterious rotating spiral at one end. This spiral then got bigger and bigger until it turned into a huge halo in the sky with the green beam extending down to the earth.”, said a witness.

500x_w4jhvxzjplefcintnq1_swm7qfshmrg2totmndm7jkmg

Because it was visible to so many, it’s obvious that it took place at a really high altitude, which was confirmed by astronauts from all over the world. However… they weren’t able to explain what it is.

article-1234430-0787e503000005dc-600_634x286

“My first thought was that it was a fireball meteor, but it has lasted far too long. It may have been a missile in Russia, but I can not guarantee that it is the answer.”, astronomer Knut Jorgen Roed Odegaard

article-1234430-07887b10000005dc-48_634x4211

However, the Russian government strongly denied this possibility (big surprise, huh?), and no firm evidence was found to support this theory. Of course there were claims that it was an UFO (I can only imagine what people would have said if this happened in the US). So, until this is sorted out, I hope they come in peace (whether it’s the aliens or the Russians).