How long does it take a team of rocket scientists to remove two screws? When the screws they’re working on are keeping a priceless sample of asteroid safe, it’s about three months. That’s how long NASA has been working on the OSIRIS-REx sample return canister, which came back to Earth from asteroid Bennu back in September. The container was crammed full of asteroid bits, thanks in part to an overly energetic impact between the sample-collecting boom and Bennu. There was so much stuff that planetary scientists were able to recover about 70 grams of material that was covering the outside of the sealed container; this must have been a boon to the engineers, who got to figure out how to open the jammed cover of the container without anyone breathing down their necks for samples to study. The problem was a pair of stuck fasteners out of the 35 holding the lid on the container; the solution was far more complicated than a spritz of WD-40 and a little bit of heating with an oxy-acetylene torch. Engineers had to design two “clamp-like tools” and test them on a mock-up to make sure they wouldn’t contaminate the sample. We’d love to know more about these tools; trust us, we’ll be looking into this closely. If we find anything, a full article will be forthcoming.
Last month, thousands of people in New Hampshire took to social media to report an explosion in the sky that was strong enough to rattle windows. Naturally aliens were blamed by some, while cooler heads theorized it may have been a sonic boom from a military aircraft. But without any evidence, who could say?
Luckily for concerned residents, this was precisely the sort of event Harvard’s Galileo Project was designed to investigate. Officially described as a way to search for “technological signatures of Extraterrestrial Technological Civilizations (ETCs)”, the project keeps a constant watch on the sky with a collection of cameras and microphones. With their gear, the team was able to back up the anecdotal reports with with hard data.
Most of us will have at some point have bought a long power cable to charge the bike on the deck, but [Slava G. Turyshev] has a slightly more ambitious idea. In this recent paper, he outlines how an advanced civilization could use a star or two to transmit power or send signals over an interstellar distance. And his idea is also simple enough that we could do it right now, with existing technology, or detect if someone else is doing it.
A report released this week suggests that 50 flights into its five-flight schedule, the Mars helicopter might be starting to show its age. The report details a protracted communications outage Ingenuity’s flight controllers struggled with for six sols after flight 49 back in April. At first attributed to a “communications shadow” caused by the helicopter’s robotic buddy, Perseverance, moving behind a rocky outcrop and denying line of sight, things got a little dicey once the rover repositioned and there was still no joy. Since the helicopter has now graduated from “technology demonstration” to a full-fledged member of the team tasked with scouting locations for the rover while respecting the no-fly zone around it, it was essential to get it flying again. Several attempts to upload a flight plan failed with nothing but an acknowledgment signal from the helicopter, but a final attempt got the program uploaded and flight 50 was a complete if belated success. So that’s good, but the worrying news is that since Sol 685, the helicopter has been switching in and out of nighttime survival mode. What that portends is unclear, but no matter how amazing the engineering is, there’s only so much that can be asked on Ingenuity before something finally gives.
In science fiction movies, communicating with aliens is easy. In real life, though, we think it will be tough. Today, you’ll get your chance to see how tough when a SETI project uses the European Space Agency’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter to send a simulated alien message to the Earth. The transmission is scheduled to happen at 1900 UTC and, of course, the signal will take about 16 minutes to arrive here on planet Earth. You can see a video about the project, A Sign in Space, below.
You don’t need to receive the message yourself. That will be the job of observatories at the SETI Institute, the Green Bank Observatory, and the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics. They’ll make the signal available to everyone, and you can join others on Discord or work solo and submit your interpretation of the message.
There are a host of issues involved in alien communication. What communication medium will they use? How will they encode their message? Will the message even make sense? Imagine an engineer from 1910 trying to find, decode, and understand an ad on FM radio station 107.9. First, they’d have to find the signal. Then figure out FM modulation. Then they’d probably wonder what the phrase “smartphone” could possibly mean.
When [Frank Drake] created a test message to send to aliens via the Arecibo dish, almost no one could decode it unless they already knew how it worked. But even looking at the message in the accompanying image, you probably can only puzzle out some of it. Don’t forget; this message was created by another human.
If you want a foreshadowing of how hard this is, you can try decoding the bitstream yourself. Of course, that page assumes you already figured out that the stream of bits is, in fact, a stream of bits and that it should be set in an image pattern. You also have the advantage of knowing what the right answer looks like. It could easily become an extraterrestrial Rorschach test where you find patterns and meaning in every permutation of bits.
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?