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2012: Preview of the Review

The hype is beginning to invade the cultural landscape like bio-engineered kudzu: the end of the world is a mere three years away.

In late December, 2012, thanks to an unusual celestial alignment – or maybe just the expiration date of the Mayan calendar – our planet will be wracked and ruined. Look on the bright side: you can blow off your estimated tax payments for that year.

Hollywood producers – never ones to miss a silver lining – are hoping to make some hay with Earth’s imminent quietus. A soon-to-be-released film, bearing the inventive title “2012”, will let you see just how visually stunning doomsday can be.

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Your Chance to Voyage the Universe
galaxy by Adrian Brown, Principle Investigator, SETI Institute
Oct. 15, 2009


We all have time for only a fleeting apprehension of Our Universe.

Living for a finite time within our human bodies, we all perceive our surrounding Universe differently. Rene Decartes famously declared he could trust nothing more than the fact that he was a thinking, observing being. The very basis of experiencing life is our ability to observe.

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Asteroid 2008 TC3 Revealed
asteroid 2008 TC3 revealed

The asteroid that crashed in northern Sudan last year was shaped like a loaf of walnut-raisin bread, according to astronomer Peter Scheirich and colleagues at Ondrejov Observatory and Charles University in the Czech Republic. Scheirich reported his findings at the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society meeting in Puerto Rico on October 5, 2009 in a special session dedicated to this asteroid one year after the fall. The small asteroid, designated "2008 TC3"[377 kb video], was the first to have been spotted in space before hitting Earth.

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Messages of Kepler

Although the main payload onboard the Kepler spacecraft consists of instruments to detect other worlds, a second package reminds anyone who may intercept the craft millennia from now of the hopes of the generation that launched it. Over a six-month period, tens of thousands of people submitted messages explaining why they thought the Kepler mission is important. These were gathered onto a DVD and attached to the spacecraft.

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Weird SETI

by Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer
Sept. 23, 2009

Despite the accusations of my correspondents, I try to keep an open mind about our search for ET.

That’s not entirely trivial. Scientists, whose job description is to learn something wonderfully new, are just as human as the next haberdashed hominid. After pursuing an exploratory experiment for years or decades, they inevitably build up both a psychological and monetary investment in their strategy. They can easily become thoroughly marinated in their current approach, and dismiss other ideas with a sneer and a wave.

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On Top of the World with the SETI Institute
mauna key

Each year, Mail Archive colleagues Jeff Breidenbach and Jeff Marshall take time from their busy schedules to seek out a few causes worthy of support. Throughout the years, the team has followed the business practice pioneered by Ben & Jerry’s, which includes donating a fixed percentage of pre-tax income to a good cause. Given the uncertain economy, it’s laudable that small business owners would choose to support a charitable organization.Read complete story.

Celebrating IYA: 400 years after Galileo
book image

In early 2009, astronomers inaugurated the celebration of the International Year of Astronomy (IYA), The IYA vision is to “help the citizens of the world rediscover their place in the Universe through the day and night time sky, and thereby engage a personal sense of wonder and discovery.” The United Nations, several astronomical organizations and many countries declared 2009 as the year for this scientific and cultural celebration. Read Complete Story.

Bee Celestial Navigation and Non-Human Types of Intelligence
bee in lavendar

Millions of years ago a group of wasps “decided to” become vegetarians and so today we have the bee. Some of their cousins “decided to” quit flying and so became the ants, but that is another story. Although only about 20% of bees are social, honey bees are very social indeed. It has been stated by several biologists that, if it were not for the honey bee pollinating plants, humans would only last 3 or 4 years as our food supply would disappear. Read Complete Story

Quantum Astronomy Revisited: Information in the Universe
Having written about four dozen articles now for Space.com and I can say that none have given me as much feedback as the series on quantum astronomy. I think people intuit that quantum physics is still redefining how we think of science and what we think the fundamental nature of reality may be, and thus enjoy participating in this amazing modern adventure.  Read complete story
Meet the Neighbors in "District 9"
district 9 movie poster

It had to happen: invading aliens are now the good guys.

Hollywood loves to turn the tables on its own hackneyed formulae. For decades, Native Americans were on an endless warpath in the movies, getting up in the morning with only one item on their "to do" list: namely, mount yet another attack on gnarly ranchers and the occasional wagon train. But these days, the Indians in the popcorn palaces are laid back; sage and sympathetic. [Read Complete Story]

Listening for SETI a Research Adventure

A flash.

Then complete darkness.

I swerve wildly on my rickety bike, skidding on a soaked, winding path, squeezing my eyes shut and opening them in an attempt to get my eyesight back.  Just when I regain my bearings (but not quite my eyesight), a sharp crack! throws me off my seat.  I land awkwardly and stumble as the two dogs (Peach and Jasmine) scurry away to avoid me. Read complete story

Sifting for Planets With Kepler's Fine Comb
Here's the challenge.  Take a bare 100 watt light bulb and switch it on.  Now step back about 300 miles. Once you're in position, arrange for a friend to slowly pass a pinhead 30 feet in front of the bulb without notice or warning. Your job?  Detect the decrease in light when the pinhead gets between you and the bulb.
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SOFIA Update - Science Instruments Ready For Upcoming SOFIA Observations

By Nicholas A. Veronico
USRA/SOFIA Science Center

Scientists are busy preparing for Spring 2010’s “First Light” flight of NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy(SOFIA), a highly modified Boeing 747SP with a 2.5 meter (8.2 feet) diameter infrared telescope.

A team of international partners is developing eight instruments that will enable SOFIA to study the universe primarily in the infrared spectral band, but with capabilities extending from wavelengths of 0.3 to 1600 microns, across ultraviolet, visible, infrared, and sub-millimeter ranges.[Read More]

We Came in Peace for All Mankind

Reflections on the 40th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing

by Jeffrey Bennett, Astronomer, Teacher and Writer

Imagine that you could send a single short message through time to anyone who has ever lived, telling them one modern fact that would give them hope for the future of humanity. I don't think you could find anything more powerful than this: Human beings have walked on the Moon, and upon first arrival left a plaque that read "We came in peace for all mankind." [Read More]

What Will Aliens Really Look Like?

By Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer, SETI Institute

According to Genesis 1:27, "God created man in His own image." OK, but what about all the other intelligent, cosmic inhabitants? Well, Hollywood has taken care of that. It has created aliens in man's image.

It's hardly a major revelation to point out that most movie aliens bear a strong likeness to humans. Typically, they have well defined heads, and two of everything else of note: eyes, nostrils, arms and ambulating legs. They're strongly anthropomorphic, and if some of these hairless little louts moved into your neighborhood, you'd probably get around to inviting them to dinner.


The Exoplanet Sleuth Behind NASA's Kepler Mission

By Shari Asplund, Discovery and New Frontiers Program
Education and Public Outreach Manager

keplerSpace scientist William "Bill" Borucki is a soft-spoken, pleasant person who grew up in a small town in Wisconsin where he liked to build and launch rockets. He still does, and he convinced NASA to build and launch Kepler, the first spacecraft capable of finding Earth-size planets orbiting other stars.

Bill displays a number of similarities to another mild-mannered Midwesterner, a guy named Clark Kent. As the force behind what many call "NASA's coolest mission," Bill summoned veritable superpowers to get the innovative Kepler mission off the ground. Knowing what he and his team have accomplished, you get the feeling there might be a giant "S" hiding under that unassuming shirt and tie.

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No More TV for Aliens?

by Seth Shostak

The United States is finally ditching analog television broadcasting, and the rest of the world is doing the same. Unless you’ve got a converter, the government has just morphed your trusty analog boob tube into an inert piece of furniture.

Mind you, this is a good thing. Digital TV (DTV) offers better picture quality. For example, the ghost images caused by signal reflections off that high-rise office building down the block will be a thing of the past.  In addition, you should sleep better knowing that DTV makes improved use of the broadcast spectrum – primarily because modern digital processing can more compactly encode the picture and sound. This will offer you  increased access to other essentials of your neoteric lifestyle, such as high-def, interactive television, as well as wireless internet.  DTV sounds like a winner.

But there may be losers, zillions of viewers who might not have a converter box or a digital-ready TV – namely, the aliens.

That’s right: extraterrestrials who might be picking up our analog broadcasts could miss out.  Ever since the Second World War, television signals (as well as FM radio and radar) have served as Homo sapiens’ emissaries into deep space.  High-frequency, high-power broadcasts have filled an Earth-centered bubble more than 60 light-years in radius with signals.  If there are any aliens nearby, they would have been hard-pressed to find trilobites, dinosaurs, or even the Greeks and Romans.  But, thanks to “I Love Lucy,” they could find you – or at least your parents.

Unfortunately, the switch to digital might leave the aliens with nothing but snow on their wall-size plasmas.

Now, a lot of people believe there’s no way extraterrestrials could pick up our television, either analog or digital.  They argue that these broadcasts would fade to black long before they bridged the distance to even the nearest star – that they would be hopelessly buried in the natural static of the cosmos.

That may seem reasonable.  After all, it’s a fact universally acknowledged that radio signals become weaker with distance.  Consider how your local easy-listening station comes in like gangbusters when you’re cruising the neighborhood in your car.  But head out of town, and you’ll lose that station within an hour or three.

Those who remember high school physics will recognize this diminution with distance as the inverse-square law, and it applies even to focused radio or light waves (radars and lasers, for example).  Every doubling of distance causes a four-fold reduction in intensity.

Your favorite TV station might be pumping 50 thousand watts into your ‘hood, and yet it has a reach of less than a hundred miles.  So is there any chance that aliens – who might be tens (or more) light-years away could pick up our television?  After all, that’s a trillion times farther, which (according to the inverse-square law) means the signal intensity would drop by trillions of trillions!

That sounds weaker than a bee’s knees.

But radio technology is incredibly sensitive, and – given sufficiently large antennas – we can detect faint radio static from the distant corners of the universe.  That’s what radio astronomers do, after all.  You can always pick a signal out of the cosmic background static with a large enough antenna.

So how feasible would it be for ET to tune in our sitcoms?  If you look at the spectrum of one of our (now antiquated) analog television signals, you’ll note that it is very spiky.  In particular, in that part of the band where the so-called luminance carrier is located, a lot of energy is concentrated in a small range of frequencies.  Roughly 10 or 20 percent of the total transmitter power for a given broadcast might be huddled in a 100 kilohertz band centered on that carrier.  If the aliens could only find this emission spike, they wouldn’t have TV’s picture and sound, but they’d know we were on the air.

OK, this is rapidly becoming a stultifying technical discussion, but I’ll cut to the chase.  At 50 light-years distance, a nosy alien could find that signal peak in a hundred-hour search using an antenna the size of Texas. Note that the antenna needn’t be a giant, expensive parabolic dish like the one at Arecibo, Puerto Rico, or even thousands of small backyard dishes.  It can just be acres and acres of cheap rabbit ears or rooftop yagis.  

Of course this outsized collector is much larger than any we’ve built, but note that a new radio telescope being planned for completion in two decade’s time will have an area of more than 250 acres.  The first radio telescope, constructed in the 1930s, had a dish the size of your backyard patio.  That’s a mammoth improvement in less than a century.  Imagine what a society a few thousand years beyond ours could build.

Lamentably, alien audiences may be frustrated by the switch to digital television. That’s because the transmitter power for DTV is fairly evenly spread across the spectrum.  The spikiness is gone, and from afar, the attention-grabbing squeals of analog television’s carriers have been replaced by DTV’s smooth, low hiss.  The mountains peaks are no more, supplanted by hard-to-find, endless mesas.  It’s not impossible to pick up our DTV broadcasts from your favorite M-class planet, but I reckon it would require antennas at least five times larger than demanded for good, old analog TV. ET may balk at the additional cost.

Of course, this tale becomes more woeful in a few decades, when high-powered TV broadcasting is replaced entirely – when your favorite reality show enters the living room via cable, optical fiber, or pipsqueak-power wi-fi.

However, while extraterrestrial audiences may be destined to miss out on our quality network programming, that isn’t to say they won’t pick up anything from Earth. The strongest signals leaking off our planet are radar transmissions, not television or radio.  The most powerful radars, such as the one mounted on the Arecibo telescope (used to study the ionosphere and map asteroids) could be detected with a similarly sized antenna at a distance of nearly 1,000 light-years.

Television is ephemeral, a fact that some will find reassuring.  But earthlings will continue to pump the kilowatts into the ether. And eventually, when those signals have washed over a few hundred thousand star systems, someone may notice.

Review: Space Exploration for Dummies

By Edna DeVore
Director of Education & Outreach, SETI Institute

You've always been a space cadet at heart? So have I. My Dad took me out to see Sputnik glint in the night sky, and the rest is history. I still have my 5th grade report that stated I planned to work for NASA when I grew up. Well, that childhood dream has been largely fulfilled through the work on NASA programs like Kepler, Astrobiology and SOFIA. For me, it all started with the space race.

Early on, every space launch made the front page of the newspaper and the evening news. We watched Russia and the US launch dogs, monkeys, insects, chimps and, ultimately, men up into space. The Russians were not only the first to space, but the first to send a woman into space. This was tremendously exciting. Today, I regret that people have become accustomed to humans going into space, and that the launches are relegated to the inside pages of the newspaper.  The repair of "the people's telescope," which restored and improved Hubble, did make the news, and excited many folks around the world. But, like many people, I don't remember each and every piece of space history and lore. And, I'm delighted to have a new book in my personal library that brings together a brief history of space exploration under one cover.

"Space Exploration for Dummies" is the latest addition to the yellow-covered "Dummies" series. Researched and penned by Dr. Cynthia Phillips, planetary geologist at the SETI Institute, and her partner, Shana Priwer, professional writer, this book captures the essential facts and accomplishments of the real space cadets.

The book invites browsing. While organized into logical chapters, readers are urged to jump straight to the topic of greatest interest. In case you're a novice astronomer, there's a quick light-hearted primer on basic astronomy. Then, it's on to rocket science. Phillips and Priwer have a light touch, and write for the non-rocket scientist. This is rocketry that your grandparents could understand. Rockets carry up payloads, and often astronauts. So you want to be an astronaut? Turn to chapter 4 to learn about your ride. But, all you would-be astronauts, go on to read chapter 5 about space tragedies before consulting your life insurance agent. Like 15th century exploration of the Earth, space exploration is dangerous. People do die trying, and the history of the tragedies is both thoughtful and sobering. It honors the people who made the ultimate sacrifice in our journey to the stars.

Back to 1957: Sputnik was the first human-made satellite to orbit Earth. It was amazing to me, and still is. Over several chapters, "Space Exploration" breezes through the early days of the space race and on to Apollo, Soyuz, Mir and the Space Station. It's useful to have all of this brought together succinctly: many missions and many astronauts at my fingertips. I especially appreciated the inclusion of the 13 women who worked to become astronauts in 1960, but were excluded by NASA for lack of Air Force pilot training (something they, as women, could not obtain at the time, p. 99.) Sally Ride was the first U.S. female astronaut in space 23 years later. Times do change.

Robots and remotely operated space telescopes are essential human tools for space exploration. The authors devote chapters to robotic exploration of the Moon, the first grand tours of the solar system in the 70's and 80's, and the newer explorers of our universe including space telescopes like Hubble. We're in the midst of this exciting journey, and Phillips and Priwer scan forward to the missions in planning and missions in dream stages. Finally for all the SETI fans, there a chapter on looking for life beyond Earth in our solar system and around distant stars. "Dummies" are known for humor, and this book closes with "tens," a nice homage to David Letterman: 10 places to look for life, 10 ways that space travel isn't like the movies, and 10 everyday things brought to you by NASA (not Tang!). So, space cadets, teachers, kids and interested people, you'll find "Space Exploration for Dummies" a fun read and handy reference.

For an autographed copy of "Space Exploration for Dummies," consider joining TeamSETI or upgrading your membership.

Race to the Bottom
by Seth Shostak

Planets are like insurance premiums: smaller is usually better. But better worlds are in short supply.

As I write this, a total of 347 exoplanets – worlds orbiting other stars – have been reported in the scientific literature.  This roster is expanding at roughly one planet a week, and it’s a decidedly beefy crowd.  Many exoplanets are comparable in mass to Jupiter, and the biggest is nearly eight thousand times as hefty as Earth. Such bulky orbs are likely to be wrapped in thick, malodorous atmospheres: hardly the type of place that ET would be pleased to call home.

But what about those smaller, better worlds, at the bottom of the heap?  Are there any lightweights among the exoplanet crowd? 

Well, there’s Gliese 581e, which weighs in at a mere 1.9 times the tonnage of Earth, and is the least massive exoplanet known to circle an ordinary star.  If the density of this planet is similar to that of terra firma, then its diameter is a mere 24% greater than the world under your feet.

Last month’s discovery of Gliese 581e was a big deal.  News stories lead with the titillating tidbit that, based on its size, this planet could be a sibling of Earth, hinting that it might be suitable for life.  Buried about five paragraphs into the text was the less cheering fact that Gliese 581e orbits only 3 million miles from its home star. Admittedly, that sun is far fainter than our own, but given this planet’s proximity Gliese 581e will be baked in starlight as strong as that which shines on Venus. It’s not Shangri La.

Gliese 581e is no cousin of Earth.  But there’s a race underway to find such cousins, and a winner may cross the finish line in the next thousand days.

If that happens, kudos should go to new instruments – for example, HARPS.  That sounds like a music club for angels, but the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher is in fact a spectrograph mounted on the 3.6 m telescope at the European Southern Observatory in Chile.  HARPS is able to sense stellar wobbles with stunning accuracy, and is the device that uncovered Gliese 581e.  Back in 1995, when astronomers grabbed headlines with the discovery of a planet around the star 51 Pegasi, they were able to measure a star’s back-and-forth shaking to within 5 meters per second, or roughly the speed of a bicycle. Today, HARPS can easily perceive shakes as small as 1 meter per second, and is approaching an accuracy of one-third that speed.  Eventually, it might reach 10 cm per second, or the pace of an ant.  For comparison, the Sun’s wobble due to Earth is about 3 cm per second.

While wobble-watching experiments are already out of the gate and down the track, the favorite in the exoplanet horse race is NASA’s Kepler mission, which just began its four-year reconnaissance for small worlds. Kepler’s designers expect the telescope to eventually find dozens of Earth’s doppelgangers – planets that are not merely the same size as our own, but in orbits that would grace them with salubrious temperatures: in other words, worlds that could boast of thick atmospheres and watery oceans.

The bottom line is that the discovery of a true analog to Earth is so close; researchers already feel its hot breath.  But if such a planet is found, will the public care? 

Gauging from the enthusiasm that greeted the discovery of Gliese 581e, the answer is emphatically yes.  My in-box will be flooded with emails urging that our SETI experiments target the new world, and of course we’ll do that.  But keep this in mind: a single Earth-like planet (or even several dozen) is like a single kiss – it’s not enough.  Terra firma has been around for 4.6 billion years, but life clever enough to transmit signals into space has been walking Earth’s surface for less than a century.  If you’re sanguine enough to believe that we’ll continue to be technologically proficient for another 10 thousand years, then the fraction of our planet’s lifetime during which someone was “on the air” on Earth will have been no more than two parts in a million.

If this estimate is even roughly typical of other worlds, then we’ll need to aim our radio antennas in the directions of 500 thousand Earth-like planets to have a decent chance of hearing anyone.  That may sound daunting, but new instruments – such as the Allen Telescope Array – can pull that off in two decades’ time, if Earth-like worlds are common.

The data that will tell us whether that latter assumption is true – and thereby answer a question as old as upright hominids – are rushing our way.

Shostak is author of “Confessions of an Alien Hunter”

Earth Speaks: New Project Collects Messages to the Cosmos

by Douglas Vakoch

For nearly fifty years, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has used radio telescopes to scan the heavens for signs of alien technology. But scientists still do not agree about whether we should reply to an extraterrestrial signal, and if we do, what we should say. To help answer these questions, the SETI Institute has launched Earth Speaks, a research project to collect messages online from people around the world.

Earth Speaks invites people to ponder the question, ‘What would you say to an extraterrestrial civilization?’” said Thomas Pierson, Chief Executive Officer of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. “By submitting text messages, pictures, and sounds from across the globe, people from all walks of life will contribute to a dialogue about what humanity might say to intelligent beings on other worlds,” he explained.

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Detecting Earthquakes Before They Strike
By Friedemann Freund, Principal Investigator
Carl Sagan Center, SETI Institute
posted: 23 April 2009 07:25 am ET

Earthquakes are feared because they seem to strike without prior warning. Seismologists are good at estimating the probability of large earthquakes within timescales of years or decades: "There is a 62.4% probability that one or more earthquakes of magnitude 6.7 or larger will hit the San Francisco Bay Area before 2032", says a US Geological Survey website. Clearly, we should be able to do better.  In fact, we probably can.

To develop an effective earthquake early warning system we have to first understand what happens in the hypocenter deep in the Earth, where tectonic forces stress rocks to the breaking point. My scientific work on positive hole charge carriers, which is done at the SETI Institute and the NASA Ames Research Center, seems to provide a good start.
Laboratory experiments tell us that, when a rock is stressed, it turns into a battery. Something similar must happen in all hypocenters prior to catastrophic failure.
A battery is a device that can deliver electric currents. However, for a current to flow, the battery circuit must be closed. In other words, if a stream of positive holes is to flow out of a stressed rock volume, the electrons must follow suit.
That's where the difficulty lies. Rocks are hole conductors but cannot conduct electrons. The electrons, co-activated in the stressed rock volume, have to take a different path. The situation is like in an electrochemical battery, where cations flow through the electrolyte but electrons have to hitch a ride through the wire connecting the anode to the cathode.
It appears that, occasionally, the Earth manages to generate powerful electric currents flowing out of the hypocenter, indicating that the battery circuit had closed. The currents flow in pulses. They produce potentially powerful electromagnetic signals at extremely low and ultralow frequencies (ELF/ULF).

However, there is a catch: ELF/ULF waves coming from below will be totally reflected when they hit the Earth's surface beyond a certain angle. We don't know yet how large this angle is, but suspect that it is pretty steep. This means that only ELF/ULF waves within a relatively narrow cone will have a chance to make it through the Earth surface.

To record those ELF/ULF signals directly one has to be close to the epicenter. This is rare.

At the same time any ELF/ULF waves, which make it through the Earth's surface, will be beamed straight up into the ionosphere. Once there, they will spread within the ionospheric waveguide and travel around the globe. Usually, it is hard to tell from where they came.

The moderate Alum Rock earthquake, magnitude 5.4, rattled the southern San Francisco Bay in late 2007. For those who experienced it at close quarters, it was a brief, hard jolt. Overall this event was unremarkable – except that one of QuakeFinder's CalMagNet stations, which are spread over California along the San Andreas Fault, was barely 2 km from the epicenter.
A new paper, just published by "Natural Hazards and Earth System Science," describes that three suspected pre-earthquake indicators were recorded by this QuakeFinder station: (i) short bursts of electromagnetic radiation, 10-30 sec long, increasing in number over the last two weeks before the quake, (ii) a 14-hours long episode of intense air ionization on the day before the earthquake, and (iii) a continuous wave of ULF magnetic pulsations, lasting for nearly 1 hour during the time of the most intense air ionization.  In addition, satellites picked up enhanced infrared radiation emitted from several areas around the earthquake site.  Together these observations make a strong case that they are all related to this earthquake BEFORE it struck.
With observations like these the future for earthquake early warning looks bright. Once the basic physical processes are understood, we can bring to bear many different techniques, both space-bound and on the ground, each capable of providing a different piece of the puzzle. 

Have A Wacky Theory? Write it Up

by Seth Shostak

I get a lot of communication from people who trip across insights that have somehow eluded the tweedy practitioners of mainstream science.  Let me serve up some examples for your edification and delight:

“I am a native of another star system, sent to Earth.  You can tell this is true because my eyes are a strange color.”

“Relativity is wrong, and I can prove it using seventh grade math.”

“Aliens came to Earth a long time ago to engineer a new species, and Homo sapiens is the product.”

“SETI should stop looking for radio signals, and tune in hyperdimensional waves.”

Some of these folks think that validation of such novel hypotheses is merely a matter of explaining their idea to the right person.  So they send me an e-mail or ring me up at the office.  I’m not always impressed.

Read more ...

Planet-Hunting Kepler Telescope Opens Camera Eye

By Edna DeVore, SETI Institute
Co-I Kepler Education and Public Outreach

The hunt is on. The Kepler spacecraft opened to the universe this week and is getting set to search for Earth-size planets around distant stars. Perhaps we'll find a home for E.T. I'm simply thrilled that this critical next step went off without a hitch.

On Tuesday evening, the Kepler spacecraft blew its lid. Well, actually it was a lot calmer than that; the cover was ejected in a carefully engineering maneuver.

At 7:13:36 PM, engineers at Kepler's mission operations center at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP), Boulder, Colo., sent commands to pass an electrical current through a "burn wire" to break the wire and release a latch holding the cover closed. The spring-loaded cover swung open on a fly-away hinge, and then drifted away from the spacecraft.

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By Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer
SETI Institute

Fortunately, it wasn’t large enough to require intervention by Bruce Willis, but asteroid 2008 TC3 is the first space rock to have been spotted before it crashed to Earth. It streaked into the skies over northern Sudan in the early morning of October 7, 2008, and then exploded at a high 37 km above the Nubian Desert, before the atmosphere could slow it appreciably. It was believed that the asteroid had fully disintegrated into dust.

A meteor astronomer with the SETI Institute’s Carl Sagan Center, Peter Jenniskens, thought otherwise. After establishing a collaboration with Mauwia Shaddad of the Physics Department and Faculty of Sciences of the University of Khartoum, he traveled to the Sudan.  The two researchers, together with students and staff from the university, collected nearly 280 pieces of the asteroid, strewn over 29 km of the Nubian Desert.  Never before had meteorites been collected from such a high altitude explosion. As it turns out, the assembled remnants are unlike anything in our meteorite collections, and may be an important clue in unraveling the early history of the solar system.

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Naming New Extrasolar Planets

By Laurance R. Doyle, SETI Institute

There has been more public furor over the demotion of Pluto to "dwarf planet" than I have seen about other astronomical issue in a long time.

It's good to have large participation and interest in astronomy, and many folks really care significantly about the naming of celestial objects. In a recent science meeting many colleagues discussed the naming of new extrasolar planets. I happened to disagree with the majority, and was surprised when a young scientist stated, with what appeared to be frustration (and not a little enthusiasm), the naming of extrasolar planets was already a tradition and could not be changed. Wow, a tradition in only 15 years! But the emotional involvement was a surprise, especially from a scientist. So here is the issue at hand.

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Excitement Builds for Kepler Planet-Hunting Mission

By Edna DeVore

Co-I, Education and Public Outreach, Kepler Mission

centuries after Johannes Kepler first described how planets orbit the Sun,
NASA's Kepler mission launches in search of Earth-size planets around distant

Kepler will
evidence of planets
by observing more than 100,000 stars continuously,
looking for the tiny dip in brightness caused by a planetary transit. I'm sure
that Johannes would be amazed; I know that I am. The launch is scheduled from Cape
Canaveral, Fla., at 10:48 p.m. EST on Thursday, March 5. That's one week from
now, and the countdown in underway. The excitement is palpable.

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What Finding Alien Life Could Mean for Earth?

By Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer, SETI Institute

that tomorrow morning scientists tell the world they've found evidence for a colony
of aliens living only 35 million miles from Earth.

Do you
think your
neighbors would wig out - stocking up on Ramen noodles, and secluding
themselves and the family schnauzer in the basement? Or do you believe most
folks would simply mutter "whatever," and go back to checking out new Facebook

question's not altogether fatuous, because this kind of discovery
could happen soon, thanks to the efforts of astrobiologists - researchers
who study the origin, nature and distribution of life. 

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Sponges in the Galaxy

by Dr. Laurance R. Doyle

are many questions of key interest to SETI (the Search for
Extraterrestrial Intelligence). For example, Why didn’t the dinosaurs
go to the Moon? They had 200 million years and many species had hands
with an opposable digit, big brains, and were bipedal. Another entirely
different SETI question could be: What do Medieval Arabic texts have to
say about the origin of optics? Light was thought to come from the eye
at the beginning of the Middle Ages but within a few centuries advanced
optical studies emerged from Arab countries with refracting lenses,
prisms, and light was understood clearly to go into, not out of, the
eye. Such an emergent process would be essential to understand if one
wants to generalize the development of telescopes by intelligent

read more

Is Humanity a Spacefaring Race?

By Seth Shostak

destined to go to the stars. That's the assumption we've been making for a
century, and I daresay most readers believe this as surely as they believe
we'll eventually cure dandruff.

Our anticipation
of an interstellar destiny is not merely the consequence of too many
couch-hours spent watching Spandex-suited astronauts in Star
, Star Wars, or Futurama. It's been a subtext of our
space program. You might recall a low-grade, 1960 biopic about Wernher von Braun
entitled I Aim at the Stars. Or perhaps you know the sunny motto of the
National Space Society: "ad astra" ("to the stars"). Boldly sending our descendants
into the galaxy's stellar realms seems as inevitable as teen sex.

Read more ...

Search the Skies with Jill Tarter

Astronomer Dr. Jill Tarter is Director of the Institute's Center for SETI Research and also holder of the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI. She is one of the few researchers to have devoted her career to hunting for signs of sentient beings elsewhere, and there are few aspects of this field that have not been affected by her work. Read more

Thanks... And Best Wishes for the Holidays!

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the leaves have turned from beautiful crimson and shades of golden yellow to winter brown, and the crisp air alerts us to the coming holidays. The entire SETI Institute team would like to take this opportunity to say thank you to our long-time loyal Space.com readers and to those of you who occasionally drop in at www.seti.org to learn about our latest research.

Our SETI Institute team works on topics that encompass the best of human spirit and inventiveness by exploring the origins of life and the possibility that life exists beyond this “pale blue dot,” as our late friend and SETI Institute trustee Carl Sagan once called it.  Read More...

The Mother of All Beacons

December 4, 2008

by Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer

There’s a small difficulty with SETI that reminds me of a situation I often encounter in European restaurants. I call it the “synchronicity problem.”

Imagine that I’ve spent two hours savoring the restaurant’s house special (usually some species of fish known only to ichthyologists), and want to get the bill and get out. What is the probability that when I stare at the waiter to signal my intentions, he’ll be looking at me?  Read More...

Adopt a Scientist: The Father of SETI

November 20, 2008

by the SETI Institute

Frank Drake, who conducted the first modern SETI experiment in 1960, continues his life-long interest in the detection of extraterrestrial sentient life. He participates in an ongoing search for optical signals of intelligent origin, carried out with colleagues from Lick Observatory and the University of California at Berkeley, using the 40-inch Nickel telescope at Lick. Dr. Drake also continues to investigate radio telescope designs that optimize the chances of success for SETI (he proposed the plan used in the design of the Allen Telescope Array, based on some of his work of more than forty years ago.) READ MORE...

On Being Selected as an LROC Participating Scientist

November 13, 2008

by Ross A. Beyer, SETI Institute Principal Investigator

I've always been interested in science. The SETI Institute hosts summer interns in their Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program, which is very similar to one I attended 12 years ago where I had my first experience working with spacecraft. Who would have dreamed what was to come....

In March 2008, I was selected by NASA to join the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera Science Team as a Participating Scientist. What is that, you may ask? The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) is a spacecraft scheduled for launch in 2009. It represents the first in a series of lunar spacecraft, and a return to lunar exploration by NASA. READ MORE...

How water made earth livable for us - the peroxy way

By Dr. Friedemann Freund

Carl Sagan Center, SETI Institute, NASA Ames Research Center

posted: 6 November 2008

Living on a planet with an oxygen-rich
atmosphere we tend to forget that our planet is an anomaly.

About 4.5 billion years ago, when the solar
system accreted
out of a disk of gas and dust, the Earth was thoroughly
reduced. Over the course of the first 1-2 billion years our planet became
slowly, but inextricably ever more oxidized. Vast amounts of iron rich
sediments precipitated out of the oceans, known as "Banded Iron Formations" or
BIFs, indicating that reduced ferrous iron, Fe2+, converted into
ferric iron, Fe3+. This required a large, sustained supply of
oxidizing power.


Reconstructing ETs: Lessons from a Neanderthal

October 30, 2008

by Douglas A. Vakoch, SETI Institute

SETI scientists and astrobiologists share a common challenge: they are limited in the amount of observational data they can gather to test their theories. SETI scientists are separated from potential interlocutors by the vast distances between stars. Geologists studying other planets and moons within our solar system face a similar challenge, exploring other worlds through the proxy of spacecraft. READ MORE...

SETI Signal Detectors See First Light on Radio Telescope

October 23, 2008

by Jill Tarter, Director of the Center for SETI Research, SETI Institute

Jane Jordan runs the software team at the Center for SETI Research. She is an avid birdwatcher who displays lists of the birds she has been able to observe in the Bay Area and around the world. In the cubicle down the hall, where we conduct remote observations with our SETI detectors installed on the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory in Northern California, Tom Kilsdonk has been keeping another list of ‘birds’ for the past few months. Tom’s list contains the distant spacecraft whose signals he has been able to detect with our new/old Prelude detection system working in concert with the beamformers built by our consultant Billy Barott, along with Oren Milgrome, Matt Dexter, Dave MacMahon, and others from the Radio Astronomy Lab at UC Berkeley. READ MORE...

A Major Moon Dust-Up

October 16, 2008

by Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer, SETI Institute

Like Rodney Dangerfield, dust don’t get no respect. If you make a laundry list of the material contents of the cosmos, you’ll be sure to put stars, planets, gas clouds and dark matter on the ticket. But dust? Who cares about such tiny, sticky bits of carbon, silicon, and other boring stuff? Read More...

Adopt a Scientist: Geology of Other Worlds

October 9, 2008

by the SETI Institute

While we yearn to walk on other worlds, SETI Institute scientist Cynthia Phillips strolls the surfaces of distant planets each day at her computer. She’s a planetary geologist on a quest to understand how liquids change the surfaces of other worlds. She studies Mars and the icy moons of the outer solar system, mapping the evolution of their surfaces. It’s all part of the search for life beyond our home planet, Earth. Read More...

Two Companions Found Near Dog-Bone Asteroid

October 2, 2008

By Franck Marchis, Principal Investigator, SETI Institute, UC Berkeley

A team of astronomers led by F. Marchis, PI, at the SETI Institute and at UC-Berkeley, and P. Descamps from Paris Observatory announced recently the discovery of two moons around an intriguing asteroid. The main-belt asteroid 216 Kleopatra has two companions. Read More...

The Spectacular Breakup of ATV: One Final Experiment

September 25, 2008

By Peter
and Jason Hatton

SETI Institute (Jenniskens) and ESA/ESTEC

In early March 2008, the European Space Agency launched a new spacecraft called
the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV). ATV is a bigger version of the Russian
Progress, a re-supply ship for the International Space Station (ISS). ATV had a
perfect launch and docked to ISS as planned. After delivering supplies, the
craft was used as crew quarters, and at one point helped push ISS out of the way
of a dangerous piece of orbital debris. On September 5, 2008, it was finally
time to call an end to the mission and the ATV was undocked from the ISS, ready
to enter Earth's atmosphere over the South Pacific Ocean. Lacking a heat shield
to save weight, the craft will break up on reentry in a spectacular fireball.  Read More...

How rare is the earth?

By Edna DeVore

Is the
Earth a rare place in our galaxy, or are Earth-like planets as common as stars?
Scientists do not yet have the data to answer this question, but should get it
through NASA's upcoming Kepler Mission. Personally, I find the Kepler Mission
to be inspiring. With this space mission, we're taking a big step on the quest
to understand our place in the universe. Read More ...

The Yin-Yang of Ultraviolet Radiation

September 11, 2008

by Lynn J. Rothschild

Now that we have passed through summer, replete with warnings about the health hazards of exposure to ultraviolet radiation, the subdued light of autumn provides the ambiance in which to take a more balanced look at what UV radiation has meant to life on Earth. We need UV radiation to synthesize vitamin D, which is critical for calcium absorption. UV radiation is used by some organisms as an environmental cue, and it aids in some repair mechanisms for DNA damage. Further, UV-catalyzed reactions in the atmosphere and on the early Earth were critical to providing the conditions for life to arise. But the fact remains: UV radiation itself is hazardous to carbon-based life such as ours. Why should this be so, and how has life overcome this obstacle to thrive on Earth?  Read More...

Press Release: Art Imitates Life

Electronic Arts’ eagerly awaited video game, Spore,which was released yesterday, is based on serious scientific research that is out of this world. Literally. The game, which incubated for five years in the studios of the world’s leading developer of video games, takes much of its inspiration from the real-world research of the SETI Institute, an organization dedicated to the deep scientific understanding of life in all its forms on Earth and to exploration of the cosmos for evidence of life, especially intelligent life. Read More...

Spore is More

September 4, 2008

by Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer

“It’s just a video game!” I hear you say. Well, sure, it is. And “Star Trek” was just a television show, too.

Except that it wasn’t. The starship Enterprise sailed an impressive track from weekly entertainment, to cult program, to lucrative franchise, to archetypical embodiment of our dreams for the future.

Spore may follow in its wake. The new title from powerhouse video game developer Electronic Arts, hitting the shelves and download sites this week, is an example of art imitating science. The game is the brainchild of Will Wright, the fellow who designed such hot property entertainments as Sim City and Sim Earth. These games allowed players to do what Julius Caesar had in mind: namely, run a city or build an empire (without the danger of being knifed in the Forum). Read More...

Putting the Jelly in the Space Donut

by Gerry Harp, Astrophysicist, SETI Institute

The second "A" in ATA stands for array, meaning that this instrument is made of many small dishes. Although each dish is as big as a house, they are small compared to the complete telescope: ten city blocks on a side. The bigger the telescope, the more detail you see in the images. By breaking up our collecting area into hundreds of small pieces, we capture detail as if we had a telescope the size of a subdivision for the price of a single apartment building. Read More...

The Makeup of Mesmerizing Mars

by the SETI Institute

What is Mars made of? Dust and many kinds of rock, for sure. But Dr. Janice Bishop, who is both a chemist and planetary scientist, is trying to learn more about the Red Planet's makeup by studying the spectral behavior of other materials that might be found there. Her group is analyzing pure minerals, rocks from potential Mars analog field sites, and meteorites that are rocks from Mars. Spectroscopy is a means of identifying compounds by the specific wavelengths of light they reflect, and her expertise in this hi-tech "fingerprinting" scheme has led to her participation in the research programs of many of today's robotic Mars explorers. These include NASA's new Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the highly successful and peripatetic Exploration Rovers, and Europe's Mars Express.  Read More...

Summer Triangle: Target for Kepler Mission

by Edna DeVore, Co-I Kepler Education and Public Outreach

Each evening, I go outside and look overhead at the Summer Triangle: three bright stars high above my home in California. Then I dream about what will happen when we find another Earth, a habitable planet around a distant Sun. In less than a year, the first actual observations to make this dream come true will be underway with NASA’s Kepler Mission. Read More...

UFOs: Flying Emotions

UFOs: Flying Emotions
by Seth Shostak

Reader warning: I'm taking off the kid gloves. If I seem angry here — a state of emotional discombobulation that seldom seems to be my wont — it's because people whom I barely know, or in some cases haven't even heard of, insist on propelling me over the precipice. Read More...

Lord of the Rings

Lord of the Rings - Mark Showalter

SETI Institute planetary astronomer Mark Showalter is rabid about rings.
Showalter directs the Planetary Rings Node of NASA's Planetary Data System. Anyone looking for information on planetary rings comes to Showalter's website here at the SETI Institute. Read More...

Congressional Appropriation in Support of the Allen Telescope Array (ATA)


Some recent news stories have erroneously characterized Department of Defense appropriations for the Allen Telescope Array as being intended to fund SETI research. These stories have been either poorly researched or purposely sensationalized. The modest appropriation in question, sponsored by California Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, has been provided to the United States Naval Observatory. It's purpose is not to underwrite the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, but to support the DoD evaluation of ATA technology for potential use in an important defense priority called space situational awareness (SSA). The Defense Department's SSA mission includes finding and tracking stealth satellites or vehicles dispatched to destroy U.S. space assets, and identifying "space junk" that might threaten American satellites. The importance of SSA was highlighted in January, 2007 when, as a demonstration of capability, China deliberately destroyed an orbiting satellite.

This article gives an accurate description of the ATA's role in space situational awareness.
Writing for an Extraterrestrial Audience

 Writing for an Extraterrestrial Audience
by Douglas Vakoch

Walking past the open door of a writer's workshop that was held this spring at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, much of the conversation was of the sort you might expect from any other group of students honing their craft as creative writers. They pondered which aspects of the human condition are most important to convey through their art. They examined their motivations for writing. And continually, they struggled to make themselves understood by readers who may be very different from themselves. But there is a critical difference from other creative writing classes. The intended audience for this class - if it exists at all - lives on a planet circling a distant star. Read More ...

The Roar of the Aurora

 Roar of the Aurora
by Seth Shostak

It's the mother of all earthly radio transmissions, a broadcast that's been on the air for billions of years. However, and despite the long run, it's one radio program that you'll probably give a pass: it sounds like Fast-Finger Freddie twisting the shortwave dial at a few hundred RPM. Read More ...

Adopt A Scientist - John Marshall

 Adopt A Scientist - John Marshall

This story inaugurates a new monthly feature that will highlight the research undertaken by SETI Institute scientists, as well as provide an opportunity for you to join an expedition or participate directly in science or science education.  This month, we feature planetary geologist Dr. John Marshall.  Read More...

Scientist Hunt for Astrobiology at Carl Sagan Center
Scientists Hunt for Astrobiology

What is the Carl Sagan Center? Astrobiology has become one of the hottest fields of science, and one of the most interesting to the general public. Research in astrobiology has spread widely, with many major universities and other research institutions establishing active programs. Scientists at the SETI Institute have been doing astrobiology research for more that two decades. Read More ...

Closing In on Extrasolar Earths

 Closing in on Extrasolar Earths
by Edna DeVore

Little more than a decade ago, astronomers Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz announced the discovery of a planet in orbit about 51 Pegasi. It rushes around its sun in just over four days, seared to a temperature of 1,000 degrees Celsius (about 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit). Read More ...

Good Timing

 Good Timing
by Seth Shostak

I don't keep a Top 40 list of SETI questions, but if I did, this one would be perennially on the charts: "could our experiments pick up Earth?"

In other words, if the best of our SETI setups were suddenly transported lock, stock, and spectrum analyzer to some star system a few tens of light-years away and turned our way by snoopy aliens, would it be sensitive enough to detect any of our terrestrial transmissions? Could it successfully eavesdrop on our television, radio, radar, or cell phones? Read More ...