As far as interesting problems go, few can really compete with the perennial question: “Are we alone?” The need to know if there are other forms of intelligent life out there in the galaxy is deeply rooted, and knowing for sure either way would have massive implications.
But it’s a big galaxy, and knowing where to look for signals that might mean we’re not alone is a tough task. Devoting limited and expensive resources to randomly listen to chunks of the sky in the hopes of hearing something that’s obviously made by a technical civilization is unlikely to bear fruit. Much better would be to have something to base sensible observations on — some kind of target that has a better chance of paying off.
Luckily, a chance observation nearly 50 years ago has provided just that. The so-called Wow! Signal, much discussed but only occasionally and somewhat informally studied, has provided a guidepost in the sky, thanks in part to a citizen scientist with a passion for finding exoplanets.
When Frank Drake began his astronomy career in the late 1950s, this was an incredibly exciting time for the field. Humanity was beginning to unlock the secrets of the Universe using ever more powerful radio frequency and optical telescopes, including the tantalizing prospect of space-based telescopes. Amidst the ramping up Space Race between the US and USSR, there was an ever-growing excitement about humankind’s future among the stars.
As concrete plans for landings and colonies on the Moon, Venus and Mars were proposed and put into action, it also brought to the forefront many existing and new questions about humanity’s place in the Universe. During Frank Drake’s 92 years on planet Earth – until his passing on September 2nd of this year – he was one of the driving forces behind the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), along with other legends like Carl Sagan.
Although to the average person the acronym SETI is most likely to bring to mind popcorn movies about little grey – or green – men, Drake’s Project Ozma, as well as the SETI Institution and the ongoing Breakthrough Listen project are just some of the attempts made by Drake and his colleagues over the decades to answer that one question that may affect the very course of humankind’s future: are we alone in the Universe?
Continue reading “Frank Drake’s Legacy, Or: Are We All Alone In The Universe?”
The James Webb Space Telescope has had a long and sometimes painful journey from its earliest conception to its ultimate arrival at Lagrange point L2 and subsequent commissioning. Except for the buttery-smooth launch and deployment sequence, things rarely went well for the telescope, which suffered just about every imaginable bureaucratic, scientific, and engineering indignity during its development. But now it’s time to see what this thing can do — almost. NASA has announced that July 12 will be “Image Release Day,” which will serve as Webb’s public debut. The relative radio silence from NASA on Webb since the mirror alignment was completed — apart from the recent micrometeoroid collision, of course — suggests the space agency has been busy with “first light” projects. So there’s good reason to hope that the first released images from Webb will be pretty spectacular. The images will drop at 10:30 AM EDT, so mark your calendars and prepare to be wowed. Hopefully.
Continue reading “Hackaday Links: June 19, 2022”
A few years ago we talked about the chance that the first known extrasolar visitor — Oumuamua — might be a derelict solar sail. That notion has been picking up steam in the popular press lately, and it made us think again about the chances that the supposed rock was really a solar sail discarded or maybe even a probe flying with a solar sail. At the same time, Mars is as close as it ever gets so there is a gaggle of our probes searching the red planet, some of them looking for signs of past life.
All this makes us think: if we did find life or even artifacts of intelligent life, would we realize it? Sure, we can usually figure out what’s alive here on Earth. But to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, “We know it when we see it.” Defining life turns out to be surprisingly tricky, recognizing alien technology would be even harder.
Continue reading “Ask Hackaday: If Aliens Came By, Would We Even Notice?”
An Australian radio telescope picked up unusual signals back in 2019 and thinks they originated from Proxima Centauri, a scant 4.3 light years from our blue marble. Researchers caution that it almost certainly is a signal of human or natural origin and that more analysis will probably show it didn’t come from Proxima Centauri. But they can’t yet explain it.
The research is from the Breakthrough Listen project, a decade-long SETI project. The 980 MHz BLC-1 signal, as it’s called, meets the tests that identify the signal as interesting. It has a narrow bandwidth, it drifts in frequency consistent with a signal moving away or towards the Earth, and it disappears when the radio telescope points elsewhere.
Continue reading “Did ET Finally Call Us?”
On a balmy August evening in 1977, an enormous radio telescope in a field in the middle of Ohio sat silently listening to the radio universe. Shortly after 10:00 PM, the Earth’s rotation slewed the telescope through a powerful radio signal whose passage was noted only by the slight change in tone in the song sung every twelve seconds by the line printer recording that evening’s data.
When the data was analyzed later, an astronomer’s marginal exclamation of the extraordinarily powerful but vanishingly brief blip would give the signal its forever name: the Wow! Signal. How we came to hear this signal, what it could possibly mean, and where it might have come from are all interesting details of an event that left a mystery in its wake, one that citizen scientists are now looking into with a fresh perspective. If it was sent from a region of space with habitable planets, it’s at least worth a listen.
Continue reading “The Wow! Signal And The Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence”
Remember DSRC? If the initialism doesn’t ring a bell, don’t worry — Dedicated Short-Range Communications, a radio service intended to let cars in traffic talk to each other, never really caught on. Back in 1999, when the Federal Communications Commission set aside 75 MHz of spectrum in the 5.9-GHz band, it probably seemed like a good idea — after all, the flying cars of the future would surely need a way to communicate with each other. Only about 15,000 vehicles in the US have DSRC, and so the FCC decided to snatch back the whole 75-MHz slice and reallocate it. The lower 45 MHz will be tacked onto the existing unlicensed 5.8-GHz band where WiFi now lives, providing interesting opportunities in wireless networking. Fans of chatty cars need not fret, though — the upper 30 MHz block is being reallocated to a different Intelligent Transportation System Service called C-V2X, for Cellular Vehicle to Everything, which by its name alone is far cooler and therefore more likely to succeed.
NASA keeps dropping cool teasers of the Mars 2020 mission as the package containing the Perseverance rover hurtles across space on its way to a February rendezvous with the Red Planet. The latest: you can listen to the faint sounds the rover is making as it gets ready for its date with destiny. While we’ve heard sounds from Mars before — the InSight lander used its seismometer to record the Martian wind — Perseverance is the first Mars rover equipped with actual microphones. It’s pretty neat to hear the faint whirring of the rover’s thermal management system pump doing its thing in interplanetary space, and even cooler to think that we’ll soon hear what it sounds like to land on Mars.
Speaking of space, back at the beginning of 2020 — you know, a couple of million years ago — we kicked off the Hack Chat series by talking with Alberto Caballero about his “Habitable Exoplanets” project, a crowd-sourced search for “Earth 2.0”. We found it fascinating that amateur astronomers using off-the-shelf gear could detect the subtle signs of planets orbiting stars half a galaxy away. We’ve kept in touch with Alberto since then, and he recently tipped us off to his new SETI Project. Following the citizen-science model of the Habitable Exoplanets project, Alberto is looking to recruit amateur radio astronomers willing to turn their antennas in the direction of stars similar to the Sun, where it just might be possible for intelligent life to have formed. Check out the PDF summary of the project which includes the modest technical requirements for getting in on the SETI action.
Continue reading “Hackaday Links: November 22, 2020”