Posts Tagged ‘SETI’

Have Astronomers Found Traces of Life on Venus?

September 19, 2020

The big story on Tuesday was that astronomers had discovered traces of a gas, phosphine, in the atmosphere of Venus. The gas is produced by living organisms, and so it’s discovery naturally leads to the possibility that the second planet from the Sun may be the abode of life.

The I’s edition for 15th September 2020 reported the discovery in an article by David Woods entitled, ‘Forget Mars, a startling discovery may mean there’s life on Venus’. This ran

Alien life could be thriving in the clouds above Venus: a team of astronomers detected a rare gas in its atmosphere, according to a study involving British researchers.

Venus, the second planet from the Sun, has a surface temperature of 500o C, and 96 per cent of its atmosphere is composed of carbon dioxide. But the discovery of phosphine, around 31 miles (50Km) from the planet’s surface, has indicated that life could prosper in a less hostile environment.

On Earth phosphine – a molecule of one phosphorus atom and three hydrogen atoms – is associated with life. It is found in places that have little oxygen, such as swamps, or with microbes living in the guts of animals.

A group of British, American and Japanese scientists – led by Jane Greaves from Cardiff University – first identified Venus’s phosphine using the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii. The presence of the gas was confirmed at an astronomical observatory of 45 telescopes in Chile. The discovery was published yesterday in the journal Nature Astronomy.

Professor Greaves said: “This was an experiment made out of pure curiosity. I thought we’d just be able to rule out extreme scenarios, like the clouds being stuffed full of organisms. When we got the first hints of phosphine in Venus’s spectrum, it was a shock.” Dr Emily Drabek-Maunder, a Royal Greenwich Observatory astronomer, who was part of the research team, added: “This was an incredibly difficult observation to make. We still have a long way to go before we can confirm how this gas is being produced but it is definitely an exciting time for science.”

The team is now awaiting more telescope time to establish whether the phosphine is in a particular part of the clouds, and to look for other gases associated with life. While the clouds above Venus have temperatures of around 30oC, they are made from 90 per cent sulphuric acid – a major issue for the survival of microbes.

Professor Emma Bunce, president of the Royal Astronomical Society, has called for a new mission to Venus to investigate the findings.

This reminds me somewhat of the excitement in the 1990s when scientists announced that they may have discovered microfossils of Martian bacteria in a meteorite from the Red Planet found in Antarctica. The above article was accompanied by another piece by Woods, ‘Nothing found since claims awed Clinton’, which described how former president Clinton had made an official announcement about the possibility of life on Mars when the putative microfossils were found. The article states that confirmation that these are indeed fossils is lacking. It also notes that 4,000 exoplanets have also now been found, and that some of them may have life, but this has also not been confirmed. Astronomers have also been searching the skies for radio messages from alien civilisations, but these haven’t been found either.

Dr Colin Pillinger, the head of the ill-fated Beagle Project, a British probe to the Red Planet, also argued that there was life there as traces of methane had been found. This looked like it had been produced by biological processes. In a talk he gave at the Cheltenham Festival of Science one year, he said that if a Martian farted, they’d find it.

A few years ago I also submitted a piece to the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society suggesting that there might be life in Venus’ clouds. It was based on the presence of organic chemicals there, rather similar, I felt, to those on Saturn’s moon, Titan, which at one time was also considered a possible home of alien life. I got a letter stating that the Journal was going to run it, but in the end they didn’t. I think it may have been because another, professional astronomer published an article about it just prior to the proposed publication of my piece. I think I threw out the Journal’s letter years ago while clearing out the house, and so I don’t have any proof of my claim. Which is obviously disappointing, and you’ll have to take what I say on trust.

The possibility that there’s life on Venus is interesting, and undoubtedly important in its implications for the existence of life elsewhere in the cosmos if true. But I think that, like the Martian microfossils, there isn’t going to be any confirmation for a very long time.

Egyptians Issue Polite Invitation to Musk to See that Aliens Didn’t Built the Pyramids

August 4, 2020

Here’s a rather lighter story from yesterday’s I, for 3rd August 2020. Elon Musk, the billionaire industrialist and space entrepreneur, has managed to cause a bit of controversy with Egyptian archaeologists. He’s a brilliant businessman, no doubt, but he appears to believe in the ancient astronaut theory that alien space travellers built the pyramids. He issued a tweet about it, and so the head of the Egyptian ministry for international cooperation┬á has sent him a very polite invitation to come to their beautiful and historic country and see for himself that this is very obviously not the case. The report, ‘Musk invited to debunk alien pyramid theory’, by Laurie Havelock, runs

An Egyptian official has invited Elon Musk, the Tesla and SpaceX tycoon, to visit the country and see for himself that its famous pyramids were not built by aliens.

Mr Musk appeared to publicly state his support for a popular conspiracy theory that imagines aliens were involved in the construction of the ancient monuments.

But Egypt’s international co-operation minister corrected him, and said that laying eyes on the tombs of the pyramid builders would be proof enough.

Tombs discovered inside the structures during the 1990s are definitive evidence, experts say, that the structures were indeed built by ancient Egyptians. On Friday, Mr Musk tweeted: “Aliens built the pyramids obv”. which was retweeted more than 84,000 times. It prompoted Egypt’s minister of international co-operation Rania al-Mashat to respond: “I follow your work with a lot of admiration. I invite you & SpaceX to explore the writings about how the pyramids were built and also check out the tombs of the pyramid builders. Mr Musk, we are waiting for you.”

Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass also responded in a short video in Arabic, posted on social media, saying Mr Musk’s argument was a “complete hallucination”.

Hawass used to be head of their ministry of antiquities, and a very senior archaeologist. He was on TV regularly in the 1990s whenever there was a programme about ancient Egypt. And he doesn’t have much truck with bizarre theories about how or why the pyramids were built. ‘Pyramidiots – that what I call them!’ he once declared passionately on screen.

The idea that the ancient Egyptians couldn’t have built the pyramids because it was all somehow beyond them has been around for some time, as have similar ideas about a lost civilisation being responsible for the construction of other ancient monuments around the world, like Stonehenge, the Nazca lines and great civilisations of South America, Easter Island and so on. Once upon a time it was Atlantis. I think in certain quarters it still is. And then with the advent of UFOs it became ancient astronauts and aliens. One of the illustrations Chris Foss painted for a book cover from the 1970s shows, I think, alien spacecraft hovering around the pyramids.

There’s actually little doubt that humans, not aliens, built all these monuments, and that the ancient Egyptians built the pyramids for which their country’s famous. Archaeologists have even uncovered an entire village, Deir el-Medina, inhabited by the craftsmen who worked on them. This has revealed immensely detailed records and descriptions of their daily lives as well as their working environment. One of the documents that has survived from these times records requests from the craftsmen to their supervisors to have a few days off. One was brewing beer – a staple part of the ordinary Egyptians diet – while another had his mother-in-law coming round. I also distinctly remember that one of the programmes about ancient Egypt in the 1990s also proudly showed a tomb painting that at least depicted the system of ramps the workers are believed to have used to haul the vast stones into place. And the great ancient Greek historian, Herodotus, in his Histories, states very clearly that the pyramids were built by human workers. He includes many tall tales, no doubt told him by tour guides keen to make a quick buck and not to worried about telling the strict truth to an inquisitive foreigner. Some of these are about the spice and rich perfumes traded by the Arab civilisations further west. He includes far-fetched stories about how these exotic and very expensive products were collected by giant ants and other fabulous creatures. But no-one tried telling him that it wasn’t people, who built the pyramids.

On the other hand, the possibility that aliens may have visited Earth and the other planets in the solar system isn’t a daft idea at all. Anton ‘Wonderful Person’ Petrov, a Russian YouTuber specialising in real space and science, put up a video a few weeks ago stating that it’s been estimated that another star passes through the solar system once every 50,000 years. A similar paper was published by a Russian space scientist in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society back in the 1990s, although he limited the estimated to a star coming within a light-year of Earth. That’s an incredibly small distance, and if there have been other, spacefaring civilisations in our Galaxy, they could easily jump off their solar system to visit or explore ours. We can almost do it ourselves now, as shown by projects that have been drawn up to send light-weight probes by solar sail to Alpha Centauri. In addition to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence using radio telescopes to comb the skies for a suitable signal, there is also planetary SETI. This advocates looking for the remains of alien spacecraft or visitors elsewhere in our solar system. It’s advocates are serious scientists, though it suffered a major blow to its credibility with the furore over the ‘Face on Mars’. Which turned out not to be a face at all, but a rock formation as its critics had maintained.

Aliens may well have visited the solar system in the deep past, but it was definitely very human ancient Egyptians, who built the pyramids. Because, as Gene Roddenberry once said about such theories, ‘humans are clever and they work hard.’ Wise words from the man who gave us Star Trek.

Let’s go out in space to seek out new life and new civilisations by all means, but also keep in mind what we humans are also capable of achieving on our own down here.

Radio 4 Next Monday on Possible Extraterrestrial Life

March 11, 2020

Next Monday, 16th March 2020, at 11.00 AM, Radio 4’s Out of the Ordinary is covering the subject of what aliens are probably like. The programme, ‘Aliens Are the Size of Polar Bears (Probably), has this brief description in the Radio Times:

Jolyon Jenkins concludes his series by hearing from astronomer Fergus Simpson, who predicts that if aliens exist they will be living on small, dim planets in small populations, have big bodies and be technologically backward.

This looks like a different take on the question of intelligent extraterrestrial life. Way back in the 1990s some of the astronomers involved in the hunt for it, such as SETI’s Seth Shostak, considered that aliens, if they exist, would probably be small, the size of Labradors. It’s also been an assumption of the search for intelligent aliens that the universe is old enough for alien civilisations to have arisen many times over, colonising space. Simpson’s suggestion that the aliens, if they’re out there, are probably technologically backwards, sounds like a solution to the Fermi Paradox. This was first proposed by the Italian-American physicist, Enrico Fermi, and runs: if the universe is old enough to have produced intelligent aliens, then why haven’t we found any? There are several solutions to the problem. One is that they don’t actually exist. Others are that space travel may be difficult, or that aliens don’t feel any need to expand into space. Or that advanced, technological civilisations destroy themselves in catastrophes like nuclear wars before they move outward across the Galaxy. Another solution is that they’re there, but keeping very quiet in case there are other, malign intelligences out there intent on their extermination.

This last solution is explored by the SF writer Alistair Reynolds in his novels Revelation Space, Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap. In this trilogy, humanity has expanded into space, only to be threatened by an ancient extraterrestrial menace – the Inhibitors. This is a machine culture that exists solely to destroy spacetravelling civilisations. Their reason is that millions of years ago, the Galaxy suffered a prolonged series of devastating wars as different species moved out into the Galaxy to claim territory from their rivals. In order to prevent further such wars occurring, the Inhibitors embarked on a long-term campaign of eradicating such civilisations. They aren’t enemies of intelligent life per se. Indeed, the whole policy is in order to protect such life, provided it remains confined to its home planet or solar system. But once it moves out into interstellar space, it becomes a target for eradication. And the Inhibitors themselves are quiet, dormant and so undetectable, until they discover their next prey, and wake up.

If aliens do live on small, dim planets, then they’d be difficult to discover with present astronomical techniques. Planets are too small for telescopes to detect normally, as they’re lost in the glare of their star, although some may later be seen through extremely high-power telescopes using very advanced optical techniques. And the planets that have been the easiest to discover are large worlds orbiting close to their suns. They’ve been detected because their gravitational pull has caused their stars to wobble as they orbit around them. Small planets further out would exert less force, and so caused smaller wobbles that may be difficult to detect. And if they’re technologically backwards, we would not be able to detect signs of their industrial and other activities, like radio or television transmissions, for example. If spacefaring civilisations do exist, at least close to us, then we should have detected signs of them by now. There was a paper in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society suggesting that a light sail used within 30 light years of Earth would produce so much gamma radiation that we would be able to detect it. The fact that we haven’t may mean that such civilisations don’t exist. Simpson’s suggestion for the possible nature of extraterrestrial life is therefore one solution to the problem of the Fermi Paradox.

Radio Programmes Next Week on Homelessness, Conspiracy Theories and Aliens

February 6, 2019

Looking through next week’s Radio Times for 9th-15th February 2019 I found a number of programmes which might be of interest to some people following this blog.

On Monday, 11th February at 8.00 pm on Radio 4 there’s Beyond Tara and George, about rough sleepers. The blurb for this programme reads

Last year there were nearly 600 deaths on the streets of the UK. In this follow-up to last summer’s Radio 4 series on east London rough sleepers Tara and George, presenter Audrey Gilan catches up with the pair to ask what it would take to prevent the unnecessary deaths of homeless people. (p. 137).

Then a half hour later at 8.30 on the same channel, Analysis covers conspiracy theories. The Radio Times says of this

Professor James Tilley explores the current spate of political conspiracy theories, and examines what belief in them tells us about voters and politicians.

The next day, Tuesday 12th February, at 1.30 pm on the Beeb’s World Service there’s Documentary: So Where Are the Aliens?, which the Radio Times describes thus

Space, to quote the late, great Douglas Adams, is mindboggling big. So huge, in fact, that the probability of there being civilized life elsewhere in the universe is almost a mathematical certainty. This begs an obvious question, to which Seth Shostak – chief astronomer of the Seti institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) has devoted his career. He speaks with fellow scientists Frank Drake and Jill Tarter about their pioneering work chasing extraterrestrial radio signals as well as the new listening and light-based techniques designed to open up the sky like never before. Last year’s tantalizing fly-by of the mysterious cigar-shaped Oumuamua has revived interest in this topic, although in 2019 ET could be forgiven for giving Earth a wide berth. (p. 138).

Regarding the programme on preventing the homeless dying, one way to stop it would be to fix the welfare state so that poor and vulnerable people didn’t become homeless in the first place. Giving more funding and expanding the number of homeless shelters so that they were safe and able to provide accommodation for rough sleepers would also be very good. As would support schemes for those with drug, alcohol or mental health problems. And as Mike’s pointed out in his reports on attacks on the homeless, it would also be very good idea for the right-wing media to stop portraying the homeless, as well as the disabled, the unemployed and those on benefits generally all as scroungers committing welfare fraud and generally demonizing them. But as the Tory party, the Scum, Express and Fail all depend on this for votes and sales, it isn’t going to happen.

The prgramme on conspiracy theories could be interesting, but I doubt it will actually face up to the fact that some conspiracies are real. Not the malign and bogus myths about a Jewish plot to destroy the White race, or that the business and political elite are really evil Reptoid aliens, a la David Icke, or have made a demonic pact with grey aliens from Zeti Reticuli to allow them to abduct us for experimentation while giving them the benefits of alien technology. Or similar myths about the Illuminati, Freemasons or Satanists.

The real conspiracies that exist are about the manipulation of politics by the world’s secret services, and secret big business think tanks and right-wing pressure groups. Such as the various front organisations set up by the CIA during the Cold War, the smears concocted by MI5 during the 1970s presenting Harold Wilson as a KGB agent, and the contemporary smears by the Integrity Initiative, funded by the Tory government, claiming that Corbyn and other left-wing figures across Europe and America were agents of Putin. And, of course, the real conspiracy by Shai Masot at the Israeli embassy to have Tory cabinet ministers, who didn’t support Israel, removed from government. As well as the embassy’s role in making fake accusations of anti-Semitism against entirely decent people in the Labour party.

But I’ve no doubt that the Beeb will shy well away from these real conspiracies, not least because of Britain’s sordid role in the West’s history of regime change in Developing nations that dared to defy the Americans and ourselves. The Beeb has put on similar programmes before, and the person being interviewed or presenting the argument was former Independent journo David Aaronovitch. And his line has always been to ignore these real conspiracies, and concentrate on all the mythical rubbish, which he presents as typical of the conspiracy milieu as a whole. Which you’d expect from an establishment broadcaster, that now seems to see itself very much as the propaganda arm of the Conservative British state.

Moving on to the programme on SETI, Shostak, Tarter and Drake are veterans not only of the search for intelligent alien life, but also of programmes and documentaries on the search. Drake was the creator of the now famous equation which bears his name, which is supposed to tell you how many alien civilisations we can expect to exist in the galaxy. He was one of the brains behind Project Ozma, alias ‘Project Little Green Men’ in the 1960s to listen for alien signals from two nearby, roughly sun-like stars, Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani. Which found zilch, unfortunately. Shostak and Tarter were two of the leaders of the new wave of SETI researchers in the 1990s, and Shostak wrote a book about the possibility of alien life and what they would possibly be like. This concluded that they wouldn’t be anything like us, ruling out aliens like Mr Spock in Star Trek. In size they would probably be the same as Labradors.

It’s been known now that the Galaxy is old enough and big enough, with the right kind of stars and an increasing multitude of known planets, some of them possibly suitable for life, for alien civilisations to have emerged several times. And if they only advanced at the speed of light, they should be here by now. But they’re not. So far we’ve detected no sign of them. Or no absolutely indisputable signs. So where are they? This problem is called the Fermi paradox after the Italian-American physicist, Enrico Fermi. Suggested answers are that life, or perhaps just intelligent life, is extremely rare in the universe. Space travel may be extremely difficult. Aliens may exist, but they may be completely uninterested in talking to us. In this respect, we may even be a ‘protected species’ considered too fragile at our current level of civilization for contact with the rest of the Galaxy. Or perhaps there really are predatory alien intelligences and civilisations out there, who automatically attack any culture na├»ve and trusting enough to announce their presence. In which case, all the alien civilisations out there are paranoid and keeping their heads well down. One of SF writer even wrote a collection of short stories, each of which gave one solution to the Paradox.

Two ‘Super Earths’ Discovered around Nearby Star, Tau Ceti

August 10, 2017

Today’s I newspaper, for Thursday 10th August, has the news that two planets, which may be suitable for human colonization, have been found around Tau Ceti, a nearby star similar to our Sun.

The paper says on page 2

Astronomers have discovered two potentially habitable “super-Earths” orbiting a star 12 light years away. British led experts have identified four rocky planets, similar in size to Earth, in Tau Ceti’s “habitable zone” orbiting the nearest Sun-like solar system, neighbouring ours.

John Von Radowitz’s article, The Climate’s Nice 12 Light Years Away on page 5 also adds that the two ‘super-Earths’ are at the edge of Tau Ceti’s “habitable zone”, and that

British-led astronomers speculate that the system might be a potential candidate for future interstellar colonization. But there is evidence of a massive debris disc circling the star, increasing the chances of the planets being pounded by asteroids and comets.

Dr. Fabo Feng, the lead researcher from the university of Hertfordshire, said: “We’re getting tantalizingly close to observing the correct limits required for detecting Earth-like planets.

“Our detection…is a milestone in the search for Earth analogues and the understanding of the Earth’s habitability.”

The findings are to be published in ‘The Astronomical Journal’.

Philip’s Astronomy Encyclopedia (London: Philips’, 2002) states that Tau Ceti ‘is the most Sun-like of all the nearby single stars’. (‘Cetus’, p. 81), and that it is a G8-type star lying at a distance of 11.9 light years. This means its a yellow dwarf star like our Sun.

Tau Ceti is one of the stars making up the constellation Cetus, and is quite visible, unlike some of the other nearby stars, like Barnard’s Star. It’s so much like Sun that it was one of two stars, the other being Epsilon Eridani, which were the subject of Project Ozma in 1960. This was a program led by Frank Drake, using the 26 metre radio telescope at Green Bank to listen for possible signs of alien civilisations broadcasting messages along the 21 cm band. That wavelength was selected because it’s close to the wavelength occupied by the noise of cold hydrogen in space. Drake and his fellow scientists believed that it would therefore be a natural wavelength for advanced alien civilisations to use to broadcast to each other across the vast gulfs of space.

The search was, however, unsuccessful, and after a couple of months it was discontinued. Frank Drake still remains an influential figure in the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) for his formulation of the Drake Equation, a formula which allows the number of possible alien civilisations in our Galaxy to be calculated.

The Equation has also come under attack. James E. Oberg, a NASA scientist, criticized it over thirty years ago in his article, ‘New Case Against Extraterrestrial Civilisations’ in the 1981 Yearbook of Astronomy. Part of the problem with the equation is that no-one actually knows how common Earthlike planets are, nor how likely the emergence of life is, and how like intelligent, technological life is either. According to the numbers selected, the Equation gives an answer for the number of alien civilisations in our Galaxy as anywhere from several to several million. I have a feeling Carl Sagan, one of the greatest advocates of the search for alien life, believed that there may have been around a thousand or so extraterrestrial civilisations out there in our Galaxy.

Astronomers have since found many tens, if not actually hundreds of extra-solar planets since then, some of which are rocky worlds like our own. This is very encouraging for SETI advocates and researchers, but later projects to search the sky using radio telescopes have still not found any conclusive evidence of alien intelligence.

As for missions to neighbouring stars, the costs of constructing a suitable spaceship that will get there in decades, rather than centuries or millennia, is immense. However, it has been estimated that the global economy should have grown sufficiently to make such a mission affordable by the 22nd Century A.D. Always supposing that Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un haven’t destroyed the world before then.