Wacky speculations about alien intelligence: ‘Oumuamua


Credit: shutter stock.com

I’ve been wondering over the past couple of days whether it would be worth my time to blog about the latest flurry of “alien spacecraft” stories, prompted by speculation in an astrophysics preprint posted on arxiv.org. I’ve decided it’s worthwhile to provide some further perspective on the claim that the interstellar object known as ‘Oumuamua might be an alien spacecraft.

(The consensus among space scientists seems to be “no,” by the way.)

On November 6, Harvard University astronomy postdoctoral student Shmuel Bialy and Harvard astronomy department chairman Abraham (Avi) Loeb posted a preprint they authored on arxiv.org, “Could solar radiation pressure explain ‘Oumuamua’s peculiar acceleration?” The paper has been accepted for publication in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Keep in mind that ‘Oumuamua is the first and only interstellar object observed in our solar system. There is no basis for comparison between it and anything else.

In this paper the authors speculate that “if [solar] radiation pressure is the accelerating force, then ‘Oumuamua represents a new class of thin interstellar material, either produced naturally, through a yet unknown process in the ISM [interstellar medium] or in protoplanetary disks, or of an artificial origin. Considering an artificial origin, one possibility is that ‘Oumuamua is a lightsail, floating in interstellar space as a debris from an advanced technological equipment.” Here Loeb cites his own writing, published in Scientific American and elsewhere, as the source of this speculation. “The lightsail technology might be abundantly used for transportation of cargo between planets (Guillochon & Loeb 2015) or between stars (Lingam & Loeb 2017)…dynamical ejection from a planetary System could result in space debris of equipment that is not operational any more(Loeb 2018).” (You can see that Loeb has been working on this fringe-y idea for a while.) “A more exotic scenario is that ‘Oumuamua may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization.”

Bialy and Loeb conclude: “A survey for lightsails as technosignatures in the Solar System is warranted, irrespective of whether ‘Oumuamua is one of them.” I’d say we need to leave it up to billionaire SETI enthusiasts, like Milner, to take up this challenge.

As soon as the preprint was posted, headlines followed – for example, “Cigar-shaped interstellar object may have been an alien probe, Harvard paper claims.”

By November 7, journalists were reporting that other scientists were dismissing the Bialy-Loeb claim – for example, “Sorry, this strange space rock was not sent by aliens to save us” (Washington Post); “Predictably, online media go nuts over ‘Oumuamua and Harvard scientists” (Ars Technica); “‘Oumuamua, oh my! Was interstellar object actually an alien solar sail? Not so fast” (GeekWire). Yet today, November 8, I’m still seeing new stories popping up online, propagating the ‘Oumuamua “alien spacecraft” claim.

Avi Loeb is chairman of Harvard University’s astronomy department. Such a position gives him instant authority. (My dissertation was a study of the role that journalists play in the social construction of scientific authority. You can read an introduction to the subject here.) Most of the stories I’ve read about this preprint don’t mention Loeb’s interest in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI).

According to his web site, Loeb chairs an advisory committee for the Breakthrough Starshot Initiative, serves as “science theory director” (whatever that means) for all Initiatives of the Breakthrough Prize Foundation. He also chairs the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies (more authority).

The Breakthrough Initiatives, funded by billionaire Yuri Milner, are “are a program of scientific and technological exploration, probing the big questions of life in the Universe: Are we alone? Are there habitable worlds in our galactic neighborhood? Can we make the great leap to the stars? And can we think and act together – as one world in the cosmos?”

Breakthrough Starshot “is a $100 million research and engineering program aiming to demonstrate proof of concept for a new technology, enabling ultra-light unmanned space flight at 20% of the speed of light; and to lay the foundations for a flyby mission to Alpha Centauri within a generation.” Another Breakthrough initiative is Breakthrough Listen, allegedly “the largest ever scientific research program aimed at finding evidence of civilizations beyond Earth.”

Loeb wrote a blog post for Scientific American, published (coincidentally?) September 27, on the subject of “how to search for dead cosmic civilizations.” With Harvard professor Manasvi Lingam, Loeb coauthored a paper posted on arxiv.org September 24, “Dependence of biological activity on the surface water fraction of planets,” which addresses “implications for the prevalence of microbial and technological species in the Universe.”

You may recall that upon ‘Oumuamua’s discovery in October 2017 – the first interstellar object detected in our solar system – there was some speculation that it could be an object constructed by extraterrestrial intelligent beings. Responding to speculation that if the object was, indeed, an alien craft, it could be leaking radio signals, the Breakthrough Listen project made an attempt to detect signals from the object. The results? Nothing.

Scientific American reported on December 11, 2017, that Loeb “helped persuade [Breakthrough’s] Milner to pursue the observations. This article noted that Loeb is “pessimistic about prospects for uncovering aliens…. Then again, Loeb [said], ‘perhaps the aliens have a mothership that travels fast and releases baby spacecraft that freely fall into planetary system on a reconnaissance mission. In such a case, we might be able to intercept a communication signal between the different spacecraft’.”

(Can you hear me slapping myself upside the head?)

In April, astrobiologist and SETI enthusiast Adam Frank wrote for npr.org about a conversation he had with Loeb “about what we should be thinking about when we consider exo-civilizations.” Frank concluded that “Loeb is essentially optimistic about the search” for so-called technosignatures – signs of technology produced by extraterrestrial intelligent life. That is, SETI. See my recent blog post about a recent workshop on technosignatures sponsored by NASA at the direction of Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), outgoing chairman of the House Science, Technology, and Space Committee, with authorizing jurisdiction over NASA. Rep. Smith is a fan of SETI and held several SETI “love-fest” hearings” in recent years. I expect that incoming Democratic chair Rep. Eddie Bernice Smith (D-TX) will take a more balanced approach to assessing NASA’s space science priorities.

As “news” fodder, SETI is easy material. It’s all speculation, and scientists and the reporters who write about claims such as Loeb’s can’t be wrong. I’m not at all sure whether this sort of speculation helps non-experts understand the scientific search for evidence of extraterrestrial life. There’s so much interesting, and scientifically grounded, research going on in the field of astrobiology. I wish it drew more attention. (Full disclosure: I am a part-time consultant to NASA’s astrobiology program. No one asked me to write this post.)


Who’s doing what in planetary defense: further clarification


Credit: chemistry world.com

The B612 Foundation has just issued its 2018 annual report, and, as usual, it appears to attempt to take credit for the work of others and mislead readers about who’s doing what in planetary defense. (See my previous blog posts of May 7 and May 8 on this subject. And for the purposes of disclosure, I am a part-time consultant to NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office. No one asked me to write this post.)

In a letter announcing the publication of the report, B612 President Danica Remy says, “It is time for space agencies, private corporations, academics, and nonprofits to work together with the goal of filling in the details on the millions of asteroids in our inner solar system.”

The institutions and individuals in all of these sectors that are capable of doing the work are already working together, and they have been working together for some time. Due to global efforts to find, track, and characterize NEOs and predict close approaches (within five million miles of Earth’s orbit) and possible future impacts with Earth, a worldwide network of organizations and individuals interested in planning for planetary defense against future asteroid impacts is in place, and growing in numbers and scope.

NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office and the NEO Segment of the European Space Agency’s Space Situational Awareness Program are members of the International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN) and the Space Missions Planning Advisory Group (SMPAG), multinational endeavors recommended by the United Nations for an international response to the NEO impact hazard and established and operated by space-capable nations. Other members of IAWN and SMPAG include research institutions and observatories in Eastern and Western Europe, Asia, and South and North America. The IAWN steering committee held its first meeting in January 2014, which I participated in, and SMPAG held its first meeting in February 2014. Both groups have been meeting about twice a year since then, adding new members, and, from my perspective, they are making good progress. The IAWN now has 15 members, the most recent to join being an observatory in Croatia. B612 is not a member of either group.

On October 18 and 19, I attended (virtually, via livestream) meetings of the International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN) and the Space Missions Planning Advisory Group (SMPAG).  A summary of the SMPAG meeting is already posted online. A summary of the IAWN meeting will be posted online soon.

The Minor Planet Center (MPC), sanctioned by the International Astronomical Union, is the global repository for positional measurements of asteroids and comets. It has been in operation since 1947. For the past decade, the MPC has been fully funded by NASA. The MPC is responsible for identification, designation and orbit computation for these “minor planets.”

Worldwide, space agencies are working with disaster-planning and emergency-response organizations to prepare for planetary defense.

B612 President Danica Remy writes in the 2018 report, “With asteroid 2018 LA, we saw the planet’s Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS) and the community work together and were thus able to detect this asteroid and determine it was on a course to impact Earth. Because of the systems in place, astronomers were able to assess this object shortly after discovery and determine its Earth-impacting trajectory. The good news is that NASA has announced it is funding two additional ATLAS telescopes in the southern hemisphere.” To my eyes, this is a bit misleading. The ATLAS project is fully funded by NASA’s Near Earth Object (NEO) Observations Program – so NASA is not only funding two new ATLAS telescopes, it’s funding the whole project. And B612 has nothing to do with “the systems in place,” as far as I know. And, yes, I suppose one could call ATLAS “the planet’s” project, as the work the project is doing serves the public interest, but IMHO it would be more accurate to describe ATLAS as “the NASA-funded” project developed by the University of Hawaii.

To provide further clarification, the NASA-funded Catalina Sky Survey was the first observing project to report the detection of 2018 LA. Follow-up observations by ATLAS reduced uncertainties in predictions of the asteroid’s so-called impact corridor (that is, predictions of where it would enter the atmosphere). The MPC and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Center for NEO Studies (CNEOS), funded by NASA, determined the asteroid’s entry point based on observations reported to the MPC.

“What started in 2002 as a visionary idea to develop the technology to deflect an asteroid has grown into a world-renowned organization and scientific institute with a key role in the emerging field of planetary defense,” Remy writes. Yes, B612 is “world-renowned,” because of its relentless publicity campaigning.  B612’s “visionary idea” did not lead to the development of deflection technology. Its proposal to build a space-based NEO survey telescope called Sentinel did not move forward.

The only funded planetary defense mission, intended to demonstrate the kinetic-impact deflection method – the Double Asteroid Redirect Test – is a NASA-funded project being developed by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. Baltimore magazine recently published a good article about the DART mission, giving credit where credit is due.

Though I’m sure the people at B612 would argue with me on this point, I say that it’s not accurate for B612 to claim that it plays “a key role” in planetary defense. While, yes, B612 does contribute to the ongoing worldwide effort to raise public awareness about the need for planetary defense, I don’t see it as playing a key role, and typically its public-awareness efforts give too much credit to B612 and too little credit to all the individuals and organizations who are actually doing the work.

I also would not call planetary defense an “emerging” field. A major step forward in understanding the risk of possible future asteroid impacts with Earth was the discovery of a large, buried impact crater in Mexico, the Chicxulub crater, and the finding, published by Luis and Walter Alvarez and Michael Asaro in 1980, that this crater was caused by the impact of a 10-15-kilometer (6-9-mile) sized asteroid with Earth. In 1994, the break-up and impact of Comet Shoemaker-Levy with Jupiter, long predicted and widely observed from the ground and from space, provided real-time evidence that impact events continue to occur in the solar system. NASA established a NEO observations program in 1998, responding to a directive from Congress. NASA officially established its Planetary Defense Coordination Office (encompassing the NEO observations program) in January 2016. IAWN and SMPAG have been operating since 2014, as I’ve noted above. Planetary defense conferences (PDCs) have been taking place every two years since 2004. A recommendation coming out of the most recent PDC, last year in Tokyo, was: “Awareness of existing networks and groups like IAWN and SMPAG should be increased.” B612 does not seem to be doing much to increase awareness of existing networks and groups. Rather, it keeps calling out a need for things that are already in place.

Remy claims, “For years, B612, our partners, and a global community of dedicated scientists and researchers have advocated for increased asteroid detection and many victories have resulted from those efforts. Asteroid detection is now debated seriously in scientific, governmental, and public conversations.” I would give the lion’s share of credit for advocacy to the “global community of dedicated scientists and researchers” who are actually doing the work.

Remy claims B612’s Asteroid Decision Analysis and Mapping project (ADAM) “will support transparent analysis of asteroid data with open and published algorithms and will be used to assess threatening situations, identify and analyze the trade-offs in possible realistic courses of action, and create actionable decision-making analysis.” See this July report from CNEOS describing how this work is already being done. All data reported to the MPC are publicly available. CNEOS’ Sentry system, a highly automated collision monitoring system that continually scans the most current asteroid catalog for possibilities of future impact with Earth over the next 100 years,” makes all of its data publicly available. CNEOS’ Scout system provides trajectory analysis and hazard assessment for recently detected objects listed on the MPC’s NEO Confirmation page (detections reported on this page are in need of confirmation by other observers). The only difference between what CNEOS and other organizations are already doing and what this ADAM project proposes to do is perhaps open-source software.

B612’s annual report includes an abstract of a paper authored by B612 co-founder Ed Lu and Richard Carty making the case for “the need, value, and opportunities for a dynamic map of our solar system. This map will be served up by the engine the Asteroid Institute is building called [ADAM] project. The paper will be published in late 2018.” If this paper is to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, peer review should ensure that the authors cite all the work on this mapping that’s already been done.

There’s more to critique, but I’m done for now.

My repeated attempts to clarify B612’s rhetoric remind me of my repeated attempts to convince my cat not to walk on the dining table. They both keep doing it. But I’ll keep doing it, too.

Big-ticket rockets in the news


Credit: lovepik.com

Lots of rockets are in the news this week. Not all the news is good, and not all of it is new.

Yesterday the U.S. Air Force announced it had awarded nine-figure contracts to three aerospace companies for new expendable launch vehicle projects. According to Reuters, the value of the contracts is a total of $2.3 billion.

The contracts go to Blue Origin ($500 million) to build a launcher called New Glenn, United launch Services ($967 million) – an arm of the United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Boeing and Lockheed Martin – to build a launcher called Vulcan, and Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems ($791.6 million) to build a launcher called OmegA. These rockets will be designed to launch spacecraft, not people.

As of today, according to Forbes magazine, Jeff Bezos – who owns Blue Origin – has a net worth of $144.7 billion. With a B. He could build his new rocket all by himself. (He’s received subsidies and contracts from NASA to build his New Shepard rocket system.)

Meanwhile, NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a report on the development of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), designed to launch people into space, first to the International Space Station (ISS), and then, presumably, elsewhere. Marcia Smith of Space Policy Online reports that “poor performance by [contractor] Boeing and program management by NASA are blamed…. Boeing will spend twice what was planned” – $8.9 billion rather than the $4.2 billion awarded to build the system – “through 2021 for building two core stages and an upper stage while delivery of the first core stage has slipped 2.5 years already and may be further delayed.” See Marcia’s report for a good summary of the OIG report.

In a 2016 report on the development of so-called “commercial” human-rated launch systems – SLS and SpaceX’s Falcon 9/crew Dragon system – the NASA OIG said that NASA’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program had awarded fixed-price contracts worth a total of $6.8 billion to Boeing ($4.2 billion) and SpaceX ($2.6 billion). “Given delays in the Commercial Crew Program,” according to this report, NASA had to extend its contract with the Russian space agency Roscosmos for astronaut transportation through 2018 “at an additional cost of $490 million or $82 million a seat for six more seats.” Roscosmos’s Soyuz rocket is the only means of transporting NASA astronauts to and from the ISS.

As Space Policy Online reported today, this week’s launch of a NASA astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut to the International Space Station was a failure. The Russian Soyuz rocket malfunctioned, the crew capsule separated from the rocket, and the crew returned safely to Earth. (Will NASA get a refund, or will it have to pay twice to get its guy to the ISS?)

The 2016 NASA OIG report noted that “in November 2013, we reported on the status of and challenges facing the Commercial Crew Program.In that report, we noted the Program had received only 38 percent of its requested funding for fiscal years (FY) 2011 through 2013, and as a result, NASA had delayed the first crewed mission to the ISS from 2015 to at least 2017.”

In August of this year, NASA reported that its “Commercial Crew Program and SpaceX are finalizing plans for launch day operations as they prepare for the company’s first flight test with astronauts on board. The teams are working toward a crew test flight” to the ISS with two astronauts “in April 2019. In preparation for this test flight, SpaceX and NASA will continue to complete and review the important analyses and tests leading to launch.” (Whatever that means.)

So it appears that now we’re looking at 2019 (not 2015, not 2017) as the earliest possible date for a NASA “commercial crew” launch. And somehow I doubt that it will happen next year…

I work with space science programs at NASA – astrobiology and planetary defense. What does all this rocket stuff have to do with space science? It eats up a huge chunk of federal funding available for space activities. By my estimate, human space flight activities take up at least two thirds of NASA’s budget, leaving the rest for aeronautics, science, facilities…. (And I won’t even get into the military space budget….) Meanwhile, space science missions are growing more and more complex, and thus more and more expensive.

The cost of NASA’s Europa Clipper project — an orbiter mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, now in its design phase, has been estimated at $2 billion. Given the history of space science mission development (take a look at the James Webb Space Telescope project, which is years behind schedule and many billions over budget), the cost of this mission is likely to be much higher. The astrobiology community would love to see NASA take on a Europa lander mission – which undoubtedly would be more expensive than Clipper, an orbiter mission. NASA’s budget for planetary defense – the request (not yet appropriated) for the current fiscal year is $150 million – is not big enough to fully fund the development of a space-based near-Earth-object survey telescope, a $500 million mission that the planetary defense community has long advocated as a top priority.

Yesterday the National Academy of Sciences released a report on NASA’s astrobiology strategy for the search for life in the universe.  The expert panel that prepared this report recommended that “to advance the search for life in the universe, NASA should accelerate the development and validation, in relevant environments, of mission-ready, life detection technologies. In addition, it should integrate astrobiological expertise in all mission stages— from inception and conceptualization to planning, development, and operations.” The report also says that NASA should push forward the development of “high-contrast starlight suppression technologies in near-term space- and ground-based direct imaging missions,” and that “NASA’s programs and missions should reflect a dedicated focus on research and exploration of subsurface habitability” on other planetary bodies. These are all sound recommendations, but it will take more than the $65 million a year or so in NASA’s budget for astrobiology to make such things happen. (I will post more about this report sometime soon.)

Here’s my five cents worth: given that space science missions are focused more and more intently on the search for habitable environments and life in the solar system and beyond, astrobiology should be elevated from a research and analysis program to a full-blown program, with a big enough budget to develop life-detection missions.  As the National Academy of Sciences report noted, astrobiology investigations now fly as add-ons to mission designed for other purposes – such as the Mars Exploration Rovers and the Mars Science Laboratory. As to planetary defense, though it’s still not big enough to fully fund the development of a space-based NEO survey telescope, the 2019 budget request for it does elevate planetary defense from a research program to a full-blown program with the potential for developing missions.

On a final note, earlier this week Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson said – for the umpty-umpth time over many years – that he will be launching his first tourist-in-space flight into suborbital space, um, soon. Branson told CNBC“that he hoped to be onboard an early Virgin Galactic flight ‘in months not years’, with passengers willing to part with $250,000 (£192,000) taking their seats ‘not too long after that’.” I’ll believe it when I see it.

Technosignatures: SETI in sheep’s clothing


Last month I attended (virtually) a scientific workshop on “technosignatures,” held in Houston and sponsored by NASA. It was weird, fascinating, and ultimately frustrating.

NASA sponsored this workshop, organized by scientists with the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS), because Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science Committee, which is in charge of authorizing NASA programs, is fascinated by SETI and thinks NASA should get back in the game. Rep. Smith, by means of a video clip, opened the workshop by saying he’s read every single book on the subject.

Michael New, the NASA Science Mission Directorate’s deputy associate administrator for research, said at the workshop that NASA was sponsoring the meeting because “there’s language in our authorization bill that says we should be interested.” New also mentioned that NASA’s call for proposals for exobiology research does not exclude SETI research in general – only searches for radio signals of extraterrestrial intelligent origin.

Scientists engaged in the search for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligent life (SETI, for search for extraterrestrial intelligence) have decided that “SETI” has acquired a taint. So now they say they are searching for evidence of technosignatures – that is, evidence of technologies produced by intelligent life. It’s still SETI, as far as I’m concerned (see below for more on what a technosignature might be).

Scientists at the workshop offered up many interesting, intriguing, far-out, and to a large degree infeasible (either financially or technologically, though mostly financially) proposals for advancing the search for evidence of ETI life.

Sofia Sheikh of Penn State University reported to the group on recommendations from an ad hoc committee on “SETI nomenclature.” For example, the recommended definition for (or meaning of) “intelligence” is “the quality of being able to deliberately engineer technology which might be detectable using astronomical observation techniques.” (This definition excludes non-human varieties of intelligence – say, octopus intelligence, bird intelligence…). The group also recommends rejecting use of the term “advanced” because it’s a vague term that stems from “deprecated theories” (that is, the belief that human life is the pinnacle of evolution and that human life is superior to all other forms of life on Earth).

Nonetheless, other presenters referred to the so-called “Kardashev scale” – proposed in 1964 by Russian radio astronomer and SETI advocate Nikolai Kardashev – “ a method of measuring a civilization’s level of technological advancement based on the amount of energy a civilization is able to use,” according to Wikipedia.

David Grinspoon of the Planetary Science Institute questioned the wisdom of the Kardashev scale. The history of human civilizations “disqualifies us from considering ourselves an intelligent” species. So in pursuing SETI, “what we seek is not what we are.” An “inevitable-expansion fallacy” is embedded in the Kardashev scale, an assumption that the more energy a civilization consumes, the more developed it will be. Intelligent civilizations on Earth have not acted very intelligently.

Adam Frank of Rochester University posed the question, “How do we avoid anthropocentric tunnel-vision?” (Good question. It was on display in a number of presentations at the workshop. See below.)

SETI Institute president Bill Diamond claimed that “all of humanity is curious” about extraterrestrial intelligent life. (I myself am not aware of any convincing evidence showing this to be the case.) Diamond also claimed that “SETI can only serve to drive greater public interest” in space exploration and that SETI “can enhance NASA’s brand.” (These are questionable claims, and I disagree.)

Shubham Kanodia of Penn State noted that our knowledge of the “known” universe is severely lacking and that SETI scientists have searched very little of the “cosmic haystack” for evidence of ETI – “a bathtub of water out of all of Earth’s oceans.” Why? “Because we haven’t searched that much.” (Though this was not Kanodia’s point, the point to me is that the search space is so vast that the idea of a thorough search is implausible.)

Others argued that SETI researchers should be looking for evidence of non-terrestrial artifacts in our own solar system – say, on Mars or Venus, planets that may have been habitable billions of years ago. Ravi Kopparapu of Penn State said researchers have searched very little of the searchable space in the solar system, “Repeated searches with time” may yield finds. He also said what’s needed to advance the search for ETI artifacts is “further synthesis and study on the persistence of uniquely industrial byproducts in ocean sediment environments.”

Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said we could explore the subsurface of Venus and Mars with ground-penetrating radar and deep drilling to look for buried signs of past civilizations. Such searches should look for metals, multiple extinction horizons, nuclear waste, plastics, and synthetic chemicals, for example. Something to think about: “What will the fingerprint of the Anthropocene era” – the current human-dominated era of life on Earth – “be in the eventual sedimentary record hundreds of millions of years from now? Fingerprints of past industry may be more apparent in geology than in artifacts, he said.

(These arguments for searching for ETI artifacts are based on the “anthropocentric-tunnel-vision” assumption that ET intelligence would be like human intelligence – not, say, octopus intelligence.)

It’s easy to design an algorithm to look for a specific hypothesized signal, noted David Kipping of Columbia University, but the challenge is knowing how to recognize “the truly weird.”

Other presenters offered ideas about how to employ data mining, machine learning, artificial intelligence, near-infrared/infrared astronomical observations.

Jamie Drew, chief of staff for the billionaire-backed Breakthrough Initiatives, reported on partners in the organization’s SETI project, Breakthrough Listen, including the Green Bank Observatory, the University of California-Berkeley, and the Square Kilometer Array. The project is also pursuing a partnership with China’s FAST 500 Telescope, now the largest radio telescope in the world. Drew also noted that Breakthrough will not be proceeding with its proposed Breakthrough Message project due to its controversial nature (many scientists think it would be unwise, perhaps unethical, to send messages out in hopes that they would be received by ETI).

It seems to me that the SETI community has done a good enough job of tapping into billionaire reserves (Paul Allen for the Allen Telescope Array, Yuri Milner for Breakthrough Listen). NASA receives far more qualified proposals for funding for astrophysics and planetary science research than it has the budget to fund. Why add SETI? And even if Rep. Smith’s proposed $10 million a year for two years for SETI at NASA is appropriated – an unknown right now – I can’t see how the sorts of science projects discussed at the workshop will get very far along. Then again, I’m a self-described SETI skeptic.

Unearthing a bit of Soviet space history


Caption: Josef Gitelson (left) and Genry Lisovsky at Bios-3 in Krasnoyarsk

I’ve just moved into a new home – my second move in a little more than a year. In preparing for my first move, from Arlington, Virginia, to Sarasota, Florida, I culled an immense amount of space-related books, reports, papers, and notes from the collection I’d amassed over my 35 years of work in the space community.

Now, after my second move – to a new home in Sarasota – I’m sorting through what’s left of my space collection. And I keep coming across interesting things….

Right now I’m looking at notes dated May 16, 1989, on a meeting I had, while working with NASA’s space life sciences program, with two fascinating Soviet scientists. I remember this meeting quite vividly. (Somehow, NASA scientists were able to maintain collaborative relationships with Soviet scientists throughout much of the Cold War period.*)

Josef Gitelson was director of the Institute of Biophysics at the Siberian branch of the USSR Academy of Sciences in (then secret-city) Krasnoyarsk. His colleague Yevgeny Shepelev was with the Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow. Both worked on the Bios project in Krasnoyarsk, started in 1961. (I remember that Shepelev grinned like a Cheshire cat and chain-smoked throughout the meeting. Gitelson was more solemn….)

The Bios project developed a series of “abioregenerative” life-support systems to demonstrate what cosmonauts would need, “possibly in space but more likely on the surfaces of the Moon or Mars. Learning to construct and to operate such a life-support system was a goal of the Soviet space program from its inception….” (Frank Salisbury, Josef Gitelson, and Genry Lisovsky, “Bios-3: Siberian experiments in bioregenerative life support,” BioScience,Volume 47, No. 9, 1997.)

Bios-1, built to support one person, was completed in 1965. In 1968 a new chamber was added to the facility to grow food plants, and Bios-1 became Bios-2. Bios-3, built underground, was completed in 1972. The first three-person crew – two men and one woman – spent six months in Bios-3 during the winter of 1972-73.

In 1962, Shepelev became the first person to spend 24 hours in Bios-1, “breathing only oxygen produced by 45 liters of Chlorella algae.” (Renata Tyszczuk, Provisional Cities: Cautionary Tales for the Anthropocene, Routledge, 2017, np. Also see Sabine Hohler, Spaceship Earth in the Environmental Age, 1960-1990, Routledge, 2016, p. 119.)

Gitelson and Shepelev told me that the last Bios experiment with humans took place in 1984. Most experiments took place between 1970 and 1980, and human crews spent a cumulative total of two years in the habitats. (My notes show that Bios-3 had 120 square meters of surface area inside and 600 cubic meters of volume. I should note that these numbers differ from numbers cited in other sources I’ve cited in this post.)

“Sci-Fi, Science, and Space Geek” Mohan Sanjeevan reports on his Facebook page, “On the walls of the Institute of Biophysics in Krasnoyarsk hang black-and-white photos telling the story of the groundbreaking results, obtained during the 1960s and 70s. Bios-3, an 315 cubic-metre habitat, was designed to mimic a spacecraft headed to Mars; today, the simulator is a rust heap, and the “no photos” sign no longer applies. The historical images depict happy and tired subjects, presented with flowers upon their release from the simulator…. The Russians wanted to re-create the Earth’s cycle in a closed system, under controlled conditions, and transfer the model to spacecraft and space stations…. The Soviet Union also had dreams of a Mars colony and hoped to one day have space stations scattered across the solar system.”

(Tomorrow, Mars-colonization advocates – I’d guess overwhelmingly American – gather to begin their annual Mars Society meeting. Stay tuned for Mars madness, coming at you from Pasadena, California.)

Reading my notes on my meeting with Gitelson and Shepelev has reminded me that I am very fortunate to have met and worked with, and learned from, so many interesting people in my 35 years in the space community. Thank you, everybody!


*According to Roald Sagdeev, former head of the Soviet Space Research Institute, the United States “was pragmatic about keeping up its contacts with Soviet scientists” during the Cold War. U.S.-Soviet consultations on space science issues took place through a channel between the U.S. and Soviet national academies of sciences. NASA scientists were especially interested in learning about the health effects of long-duration space flight. And U.S. and Soviet scientists met regularly at meetings of the Committee on Space Research and the International Astronautical Federation.

(One final note: I met Roald Sagdeev at an International Space Year meeting in New Hampshire in 1992. We shared a dinner table at a restaurant in Main – I think it was the Cliff House in Ogunquit –  and I watched him eat his first-ever lobster.)

Astrobiology and SETI: different evolutionary pathways


Credit: Youtube.com


Following up on my last two posts, about astrobiology and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), today I’m writing about the separate, non-parallel paths on which astrobiology and SETI evolved.*

Some might perceive that exobiology/astrobiology and SETI are closely linked. Actually, at least at NASA, this is, and has not been, not the case. NASA’s exobiology program and NASA’s SETI program had different origins and developed on different tracks.

In addition, since the 1980s research results in both exo/astrobiology and astronomy and astrophysics have weakened any perceived link with SETI (see yesterday’s post), with both fields focusing more and more intently on understanding the origin and evolution of stars, planets, and life; assessing planetary habitability; and detecting single-celled life as we know it and as we don’t know it. And since the late 1950s, exo/astrobiology has expanded its purview to embrace the comprehensive study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe, while SETI remains primarily focused on its original, narrow goal: detect radio signals of extraterrestrial technological (that is, intelligent) origin.

Here’s an abbreviated history of the field of exo/astrobiology and NASA’s exo/astrobiology program and of the concept of SETI and NASA’s SETI program.

I’ll start with exo/astrobiology.

Exo/astrobiology arose as a field of study in the late 1950s once scientists realized they would soon have access to space – that is, the ability to look for evidence of life in the solar system.

At that time, Joshua Lederberg (who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1958) began communicating with colleagues about the possibility of searching for evidence of extraterrestrial life (not intelligent life) in the solar system.  Through the National Academy of Sciences and other means, Lederberg played a key role in NASA’s establishment of an exobiology program.

In 1959, NASA sent a “work request” to the National Academy of Sciences’ Space Science Board (SSB) for input on “basic philosophical objectives that should underlie” NASA space science activities. In this request NASA stated that one “very exciting, philosophical basis for a space science program would be to learn as much as possible about the behavior of terrestrial life forms in space and under the conditions of space flight, and to seek out extraterrestrial life. The philosophical implications of a discovery that life does indeed exist elsewhere than on earth are tremendous, and surely of interest to the entire world, as well as to the scientist.”

In 1959, NASA funded its first exobiology grant, to Wolf Vishniac, for his Wolf Trap experiment that was intended to fly on the Viking mission to Mars (it ultimately was dropped from the mission due to weight limits).

In 1960, NASA established an exobiology research program. Also in 1960, Lederberg gave a paper on exobiology at a meeting of the Committee on Space Research, then published the paper in Science. He wrote: “Exobiology is no more fantastic than the realization of space travel itself, and we have a grave responsibility to explore its implications for science and for human welfare with our best scientific insights and knowledge.’’

In 1964, the SSB recommended to NASA associate administrator of space science and applications Homer Newell that NASA should adopt as its most important space science goal for 1971-1986 “the exploration of planets with particular emphasis on Mars leading toward eventual manned exploration. This objective includes the search for extraterrestrial life.”

In the 1980s, responding to input from the scientific community, NASA expanded the purview of the program: it became the exobiology and evolutionary biology program.

Fast forward to the late 1990s, when NASA created an astrobiology program, encompassing and expanding on its established exobiology program to include studies of chemical evolution in interstellar space, the formation and evolution of planets, and the natural history of Earth.

In 2007, the SSB’s Committee on the Origin and Evolution of Life delivered three astrobiology reports to NASA: Exploring Organic Environments in the Solar System, An Astrobiology Strategy for the Exploration of Mars, The Limits of Organic Life in Planetary Systems, and Assessment of the NASA Astrobiology Institute(established 1998).

In 2015, the astrobiology community, in collaboration with NASA’s astrobiology program, produced an astrobiology science strategy that reflects the growth in breadth, depth, and complexity in the field. Currently the astrobiology program is commencing some reorganization to better focus on key questions in astrobiology (subject of a future post).

Now to SETI.

As Steve Dick has documented in his books Plurality of Worlds: The Extraterrestrial Life Debate from Democritus to Kant(1982) and Life on Other Worlds:The 20thCentury Extraterrestrial Life Debate(2001), the idea of extraterrestrial intelligent life is thousands of years old and has been discussed among philosophers, scientists, and others throughout human history.

As to “modern” SETI, I suppose one could say that it began in 1959, when Giuseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison published “Searching for interstellar communications” in Nature. In their paper they proposed that ground-based telescopes could be used to listen for radio signals of extraterrestrial intelligent origin.

In 1960, astronomer Frank Drake conducted the first U.S. SETI search, Project Ozma, at the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia.

In 1961, the National Academy of Sciences convened a meeting on SETI at the Green Bank Observatory. Frank Drake and Philip Morrison were in attendance, as was Carl Sagan (see below).

In 1968, John Billingham, a physician by training who had worked with NASA Johnson Space Center on spacesuit technology, joined NASA’s Ames research center in Mountain View, California, as chief of its biotechnology division. Shortly after arriving, he happened to read Soviet astronomer Iosif Shklovskii and Carl Sagan’s book, Intelligent Life in the Universe, published in the U.S. in 1966. (Shklovskii had first published the book in Russian.) Billingham reportedly found the book fascinating, and he began to talk with colleagues at Ames about the possibility of some sort of SETI project at Ames.

In 1969, Hans Mark became director of NASA Ames. Billingham proposed to Mark that NASA do a design study of a system for detecting ETI signals. Mark approved funds for a small study. Billingham oversaw the study in 1970 and then went back to Mark with a proposal for a larger study. Mark approved it.

In 1971, Barney Oliver, then at Hewlett Packard, led the larger study, which produced a concept for a large-scale SETI search called Project Cyclops. The cost of the 10-15 year project was estimated at $6 billion-$10 billion. Obviously, it was a non-starter.

In 1973, SETI researchers at Ames developed a SETI project plan and briefed it to NASA administrator James Fletcher, who did not approve it. In 1974, NASA Ames presented a revised SETI project plan to NASA HQ, and Fletcher approved  $140,000 for SETI in fiscal year 1975.

In 1976, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) director Bruce Murray proposed conducting an all-sky SETI survey. (The NASA Ames SETI team favored a targeted search.) In 1976, NASA HQ approved $775,000 for a SETI research program to be managed by NASA Ames.

By 1977, SETI funding did not materialize. Mark complained to NASA HQ: “We will be lucky to see a third of that.”

In 1978, Democratic Senator William Proxmire gave SETI a Golden Fleece award. Those awards were intended to bring attention to projects that Proxmire deemed “government waste.”

In 1979, the first joint Ames/JPL SETI program meeting took place. NASA budgeted $300,000 for SETI. In 1980, NASA budgeted $500,000 for SETI, drafted a program plan, and formed a SETI Science Working Group. In 1981, NASA HQ cut the 10-year SETI program plan in half.

In 1981, Sen. Proxmire attached an amendment to NASA’s FY82 appropriations legislation that prohibited spending on SETI. In 1982, Carl Sagan came to SETI’s rescue, obtaining a meeting with Proxmire, the result of which was that Proxmire agreed not to enforce the prohibition. Proxmire told me in a telephone interview (for my chapter in First Contact) that while Sagan’s efforts and NASA’s responses to his questions convinced him that there was just enough sense to SETI to justify the small amount of funding allotted to it, “there’s absolutely no evidence whatsoever” that life exists beyond Earth.

In fiscal year 1983, Congress appropriated $1.6 million for SETI, for the first year of a five-year R&D program.

In 1987 and 1989, Barney Oliver briefed White House officials on SETI, at the request of White House Science Advisor William Graham (who at some point served as acting administrator of NASA).

In 1989, the Ames and JPL SETI teams began advocacy campaigning on Capitol Hill. (It was at this point that I went to work with the SETI program, as a contractor, to help with advocacy planning.) Advocates for the Ames team were SETI Institute employees and not subject to restrictions placed on civil servants.

In October 1992, the two-pronged SETI search – the High-Resolution Microwave Survey – began. In the summer of 1993, Congress canceled the project.

To my mind, the history/evolution of exo/astrobiology more closely parallels the history/evolution of planetary protection. Exo/astrobiology and SETI evolved on very different, non-parallel tracks.

* Much of the information in this post comes from my chapter on NASA’s SETI program, “From the observatory to Capitol Hill,” in Ben Bova and Byron Preiss, eds., First Contact: The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, New American Library, 1990; and from my paper, “Astrobiology in culture: the search for extraterrestrial life as science,” Astrobiology 12(10), 2012. I am a consultant to NASA’s astrobiology program. No one asked me to write this post.




SETI: on the edge of astrobiology


Credit: space-facts.com

Following up on yesterday’s post about Rep. Lamar Smith’s interest in SETI and the inclusion of $10 million for a “search for technosignatures” (SETI) in a NASA authorization bill for 2018-2019, I’m going to review a little history of SETI.

SETI advocates have been arguing of late that SETI should be funded by NASA’s astrobiology program.* I disagree.

SETI uses ground-based telescopes to listen for radio signals of extraterrestrial intelligent origin. (As noted in a PBS TV program“NOVA Wonders Are We Alone?”, which aired last week, “we’ve been listening for almost 60 years, and, so far, crickets.”) It’s the National Science Foundation that funds ground-based telescopes (and historically, many ground-based telescopes have been, and continue to be, public-private partnerships.)

Following historical guidance from the National Academy of Sciences, SETI falls within the domain of astronomy and astrophysics – not astrobiology. Some of the Academies’ decadal surveys of astronomy and astrophysics have noted the promise of searching for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence by using radio telescopes to listen for signals of technological origin. (See below.)

However, no decadal survey has recommended SETI as a research priority for NASA, the National Science Foundation, or any other federal agency, nor has the Academies’ Space Studies Board (SSB) or the SSB’s Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science (CAPS) (or CAPS’ predecessor the Committee on the Origins and Evolution of Life). While some scientists in astronomy/astrophysics and the astrobiology community see value in searching for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligent life, most see SETI as a highly speculative, long-term endeavor. Less speculative, shorter-term space research projects take precedence for federal funding.

In its “SETI 2020” research roadmap, published by the SETI Institute in 2002, the SETI community itself noted, “The annual appropriations of funds in a political arena are, in hindsight, a poor venue for support for an open-ended quest. We need to fall back on historical precedent, and primarily rely on philanthropy to fund the search.”  (Clearly the Institute has changed its strategy since then, presumably because, Breakthrough Listen aside, sufficient private-sector funding is not forthcoming.)

In my humble opinion, SETI is an endeavor that falls outside the purview of government funding and is suited to private-sector support.

NASA did fund a SETI program from 1972 to 1993 (more on how this happened in a subsequent post). Congress cancelled the program in 1993. Neither the astronomy and astrophysics community nor the exobiology/astrobiology community has embraced SETI as a priority for government funding since then.

The astrobiology community is in agreement that searching for evidence of habitability and life in our own solar system and studying the potential habitability of planets around other stars should remain top priorities in space research. It does not assign high priority to SETI. The 2015 astrobiology science strategy, a product of input from hundreds of members of the astrobiology community and published by NASA, has this to say about SETI:

“There is the question of technological civilizations elsewhere. Complex life may evolve into cognitive systems that can employ technology in ways that may be observable. Nobody knows the probability, but we know that it is not zero. As we consider the environments and biospheres of other planets, this is among the type of developments we could anticipate. While traditional Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is not part of astrobiology, and is currently well-funded by private sources, it is reasonable for astrobiology to maintain strong ties to the SETI community.

There are also other ways not included in contemporary SETI that astrobiology can contribute to the search for technological life. Chief among these is the search for “technosignatures.” As we explore the exoplanets and search for biosignatures, we should also be aware of the possibility that technological life could also perturb atmospheric composition, or other planetary qualities, in observable ways. Rather than argue for or against the likelihood of finding such a signature, or attempt to describe specifically what such a signature would look like, we should be sure to include it as a possible kind of interpretation we should consider as we begin to get data on the exoplanets.”

But let’s go back to guidance from the National Academies. From its beginning, NASA has sought, and largely heeded, advice from the Academies on priorities in space science (within the limits of its budget…). The National Academy of Sciences has conducted decadal surveys of astronomy and astrophysics since the 1970s. It produced its first decadal survey of priorities in planetary science in 2003 and its second in 2012. (The latter survey is now in midterm review.)

Over the past 50 years, the SSB has produced numerous reports and recommendations relating to exobiology and astrobiology. While the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life has remained a top research priority in SSB reports, SETI has not.

In an August 11, 1964, memorandum to NASA associateadministrator for space science and applications HomerNewell on ‘‘future goals of the space science program,’’ the Academies’ Space Science Board (predecessor of the Space Studies Board) recommended that NASA adopt as its most importantspace science goal for 1971–1986 ‘‘the exploration of planetswith particular emphasis on Mars leading toward eventualmanned exploration. This objective includes the search forextraterrestrial life.’’

In a 1971 report, Priorities for Space Research 1971-1980, the SSB stated:

“Exobiology…involves not only the search for evidence of past or present extraterrestrial life but also for indications of nonbiological chemical evolution that could support or clarify our present ideas about the origin of life and the possibility that terrestrial life might survive on other planets. This field has almost universally caught the imagination of scientists and the public at large… The study of exobiology – particularly if life is found elsewhere in the universe – will have a profound impact.”

The Academies’ decadal survey of astronomy and astrophysics for the 1970s, conducted for NASA and the National Science Foundation and published in 1972, addressed the promise of searching for radio signals of extraterrestrial intelligent origin:

“Our civilization is within reach of one of the greatest steps in its evolution: knowledge of the existence, nature, and activities of independentcivilizations in space…. An assurance of rapid results cannot be made in a search for extraterrestrial civilizations. Such a search is akin to the one for the proverbial needle, but in this case the haystack contains three dimensions of space and two more of time and frequency, and there may be no needle. It is only our knowledge of the value of that needle, if it exists, that compels us to pursue such a difficult objective…. Despite the power and promise of our instruments for serious searches for other civilizations, no major search has taken place. The explanation lies in the intense pressure on major astronomical instruments to produce the astrophysical results that are the mainstream of astronomical research. Because we cannot accurately predict the effort needed to detect another civilization, quick results cannot be guaranteed. Indeed, the time estimated for a single radio telescope to yield a reasonable probability of success is a few decades, even with high-speed equipment and procedures. In today’s rush such a time scale is usually considered unacceptable. Nevertheless, each passing year has seen our estimates of the probability of life in space increase, along with our capabilities for detecting it.”

This survey committee did not recommend the undertaking of a SETI search. Its top priorities for the ‘70s were the construction of astronomy facilities, with top priority assigned to the Very Large Array.

The Academies’ decadal survey of astronomy and astrophysics for the 1980s was conducted, again, for NASA and NSF, and published in 1982. The committee assembled to conduct this survey set up seven working groups, including one on SETI. This survey committee recommended four major new programs and seven “moderate” new programs. Among the “moderate” programs was SETI:

“The recommended moderate new programs address a variety ofopportunities in astronomy…. While the Committee recognizedthat [SETI] has a character different from that normally associated withastronomical research, intelligent organisms are as much a part of the Universe asstars and galaxies; investigating whether some of the electromagnetic radiationnow arriving at Earth was generated by intelligent beings in space may thus beconsidered a legitimate part of astronomy. Moreover, the techniques that can nowbe most effectively brought to bear on a SETI program for the 1980’s are those ofastronomy…. Since the chance for a successful detection in the next decade is quite uncertain and may be small, it should be understood that the SETI effort is to be undertaken on a long-term, evolutionary basis…. Modest support of such programs by U.S. funding agencies is a legitimate scientific activity, and choice of programs within each agency should be made through the normal process of peer review.”

The Academies’ decadal survey of astronomy and astrophysics for the ‘90s presented a different perspective on SETI. In considering the scientific potential of searching for evidence of life in our solar system and searching for planets around other stars, the SSB’s Task Group on Astronomy and Astrophysics for the 1990s noted in its report:

“[SETI] has a different character than the broader-based search for life and is not addressed in this study. Obviously, if the NASA Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program were to find radio signals from another planetary system, it would be a tremendously exciting and significant event. In the case of the more restricted study described here, even the hint of life in another planetary system would trigger a new era in planetary research.”

Although the Academies had not endorsed SETI as a top priority in space research, NASA did initiate a 10-year SETI research and development program in the 1980s,to culminate in a ground-based search for signals. NASA started its SETI listening project in 1992. Congress cancelled it in 1993.

The SSB’s first decadal survey of priorities in solar system exploration, commissioned by NASA in 2001 and published in 2003, identified four ‘‘cross-cutting themes that integrate the various goals identified by the panels,” including key themes in astrobiology: the first billion years of solar system history; volatiles and organics; the stuff of life; and the origin and evolution of habitable worlds. The next SSB decadal survey of priorities in solar system exploration, commissioned by NASA and published in 2012, highlighted the growing role of astrobiology in planetary exploration. Neither of these surveys addressed SETI.

In the NASA Authorization Act of 2000, Congress called for a National Academies review of NASA and other government and nongovernment programs focused on the search for life in the universe. In a 2003 report on this review, the SSB’s Committee on the Origins and Evolution of Life (COEL) noted:

“Perhaps the most romantic venture in astrobiology is the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). This effort has had a checkered reception by scientists and federal lawmakers, with the result that the current efforts are almost entirely privately funded. The SETI Institute…the nexus of such efforts in the United States, has accomplished in a spectacular way the founding of a science institute and the procurement of stable private funding to carry on the search.”

I should like to note that in 2005, NASA awarded a grant to a SETI researcher for a project called “detection of complex, electronic markers of technology.” In 2008, NASA amended its solicitation for space science research proposals to include “detection and characterization of other planetary systems including those that may harbor intelligent life” within the scope of its Origins of Solar Systems research program.

The bottom line is that traditional SETI – using ground-based radio telescopes to listen for signals of extraterrestrial intelligent origin – falls outside the boundaries of NASA’s astrobiology program.

All National Academies reports cited in this post are available free online at www.nap.edu.

* I am a consultant to NASA’s astrobiology program. No one asked me to write this post.