Exploring and listening to the universe


Bad science fiction—typically of the variety where grotesque and powerful aliens attack and nearly destroy our planet—is plentiful.

Good science fiction, on the other hand, is more subtle and thought-provoking. While it may present us with terrifying scenarios, better science fiction stories also explore deeply philosophical questions, such as what is our place in the universe, what are our moral and ethical obligations to other civilizations, and do our belief systems still make sense in light of new facts.

In the next 10 years, we are likely to know, definitively, if we are sharing our universe with other complex life forms. The alternative—that we are alone in the cosmos—seems more and more unlikely, especially as deep space probes, such as NASA’s Kepler mission, are discovering thousands of Earth-like planets in our Milky Way and other galaxies.

Hobbyist approach

Despite the fact that the SETI (search for extra-terrestrial intelligence) mission has been ongoing in earnest since the 1960s, no definitive proof has emerged that there is intelligent life outside our orbit. (Indeed, it’s sometimes difficult to find intelligent life on our own planet. But I digress.)

SET-logoTurns out, SETI was akin to a hobbyist project—passionate, yes, but underfunded and sporadic. According to Frank Drake, astrophysicist and SETI founder, the team conducted searches with borrowed instruments and had minimal time for observation at each instance. In addition, in 55 years of SETI efforts, the team was able to look at only a few percent of the radio frequencies that are thought to be promising.

Although NASA was involved in the mission for some years in the 1970s, Congress withdrew funding in 1981, and NASA left the project. SETI carried on somewhat opportunistically, through the auspices of Cornell University, and Carl Sagan’s Planetary Society, but funding issues continued to hamper the mission.

Getting serious

We are about to get serious. A $100 million grant from Russian billionaire Yuri Milner will provide ample resources for Drake and other scientists to devote their full-time efforts to watching our universe and listening for communications from other civilizations, should they be out there.

The project has been dubbed Breakthrough Listen, and over the next 10 years, scientists will have the funding and equipment to apply all that is known and can be theorized about extra-terrestrial exploration.

GreenBankTeleThe Breakthrough Listen project will focus on extensive observation and scanning of the most promising radio frequencies, as we search for communications (visible and auditory) from other beings.

The project will log thousands of hours each year on two major radio telescopes, the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia and the Parkes Observatory in Australia. Previously, the SETI mission was able to use only about 24 to 36 hours of telescope time per year in its search for alien life.

Because of the time limits, scientists at SETI would focus telescopes at various stars for an hour, listening for a limited set of radio frequencies, and move on to the next one. This approach was akin to betting on the lottery. The timing had to be just right should any signal eminate from a particular locale.

With Breakthrough Listen, observers will be able to focus telescopes at stars and galaxies for months, and monitor 10,000 million radio frequencies at a time. It’s thought that this approach will have a much better chance at yielding some discoveries, should they exist.

The Kepler mission

In tandem with Breakthrough Listen, there’s much in the news these days about the discovery of an Earth-like planet—Kepler-452b.Kepler

The planet is a discovery of the Kepler mission, a NASA exploratory mission to find planets in the habitable zone of stars like the Sun. The mission will last for at least 3.5 years, and could be extended to six years. The longer Kepler goes, the better it will be able to detect smaller, and more distant planets as well as a larger number of Earth-like planets.

The Kepler instrument, launched into space in 2009, is a specially designed 0.95-meter diameter telescope called a photometer. It has a very large field of view for an astronomical telescope: 105 square degrees. By comparison, most telescopic fields of view are less than one square degree.

The large field of view enables the Kepler craft to observe a large number of stars. It will continuously monitor more than 100,000 stars for the length of the mission.

As of January 2015, the mission has found 1,013 confirmed exoplanets in about 440 stellar systems, and a further 3,199 unconfirmed Earth-like planet candidates.

Kepler 456b is said to be the most Earth-like planet found so far. Scientists theorize that the planet has orbited within the habitable zone of a Sun-like star for six billion years. This is certainly plenty of time for complex life forms to evolve, assuming all the conditions are present.

Promising results and awesome implications

So, knowing that there is Kepler 456b and many other Earth-like planets out there, and focusing for the next 10 years on exploring and listening to them from our planet, the results could be very promising.

alienWhile we are seeing increasing numbers of science deniers and a divided and polarized political climate in the U.S., it’s heartening—at least for me—to see humankind continuing to forge ahead with pure science for its own sake.

And, really, with Breakthrough Listen and Kepler, we are just at the beginning of the journey.

Like good science fiction, these missions are mind-bending in their own right. They make us consider a whole host of philosophical questions. For example, will extra-terrestrials be like us. Better? Worse? Will they look like us? Will they pray to gods like ours? Will their existence change our views of our own gods?

Will their civilizations be facing similar dire problems like our own? Or will they have solved those problems? Will they wish to conquer us or be our friends? Will we manage to screw up whatever relationships with them we might have had? Will we deny their existence even in the face of, you know, real science?

It’s too early to know the answers. But the questions are nonetheless fascinating.

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