Where in the Worlds has SETI Institute Been? Apr 16 - 22, 2018

peter with studentsDiamonds in the Sky: Rare Meteorites Offer Insight into Early Solar System

Over the eastern reaches of the Sahara, in the Nubian Desert region of Sudan, an asteroid exploded into hundreds of diamond-rich pieces and scattered across the arid dunes. It was October, 2008, and the asteroid (dubbed 2008 TC3) had been detected and tracked 20 hours prior to impact. Despite indications that the fireball had disintegrated at high altitude, researchers soon set out to see if any fragments could be recovered. SETI Institute senior research scientist Peter Jenniskens, in collaboration with Mauwia Shaddad of the University of Khartoum, went to the site and collected nearly 280 pieces. Dr. Jenniskens spoke about the find with palpable excitement in a 2012 SETI Institute press release:

“This was an extraordinary opportunity, for the first time, to bring into the lab actual pieces of an asteroid we had seen in space,” comments Jenniskens, the lead author on a cover story article in the journal Nature that describes the recovery and analysis of 2008 TC3.

A newly published analysis of the fragments suggest the diamonds trapped inside the rare meteorites, called ureilites, likely contain the remains of an ill-fated protoworld that was lost in extreme collisions of early planets that formed in the tumultuous infancy of our solar system. New development in microscopic imagery technology and techniques allowed for meticulous examination of the extraterrestrial diamonds. The study’s lead author, Farhang Nabiei, and co-authors believe the Almahata Sitta meteorites (named for the fall area of Sudan) likely came from a protoplanet roughly half the size of Earth.

Amateur astronomers and meteorite hunters alike may want to take a look at Meteorshowers.org, a site that uses meteor data provided by Dr. Jenniskens to create mesmerizing visualizations of all the different showers orbiting the sun. You can read more about the Almahata Sitta meteorites, and Peter Jenniskens’s work with the SETI Institute, at SETI.org.

TESSTESS Launch Marks New Era of Exoplanet Research

With the successful launch of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), nearer and brighter stars will be surveyed for orbiting worlds. Following in the footsteps of the Kepler mission, which had discovered over 1000 confirmed exoplanets of 2015, TESS is expected to survey an area 400 times larger than Kepler. Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, spoke to Space.com about Kepler’s impact and the promise TESS holds for the search for life on other planets:

“Thirty years ago,if you ask[ed] people, 'Do you think there are a lot of planets out there?' most people who knew anything about astronomy would say, 'Yeah, probably there are.' But nobody knew," said Shostak. With Kepler, researchers discovered that the universe is littered with planets. "For the first time in 300,000 years, Homo sapiens had found planets around other stars," he said.

Shortly thereafter, scientists began to get enough data to hypothesize that many of those planets might be habitable. Over the past quarter-century, science has increasingly led scientists to believe that the existence of life may not be a miracle after all, Shostak said. And he said he sees no evidence that this trend will stop.

With the search for intelligent life elegantly articulated in the Drake equation – created by astronomer and Chair Emeritus of the SETI Institute Board of Trustees, Frank Drake – a key component is estimating the fraction of stars that have planets, and the fraction of those planets where life could arise. Thanks to TESS researchers will have the capability to detect worlds close enough for more detailed follow-up study, and the question, ‘are we alone?’ has never been more compelling. In early 2018, SETI Institute scientist Jeff Smith spoke at a SETI Talk event about his work with the Kepler and TESS missions and the use of AI in planet detection. You can view the presentation, and other SETI Talks, on our YouTube channel.

gorilla suitThe Overlooked Gorilla and the Search for E.T.

A recently published study is continuing to make waves, and raise questions about the viability of observational SETI. The study authors, psychologists at the University of Cadiz in Spain, argue that our preconceived notions about what alien life might look like cause us to overlook evidence, even when it’s absurdly obvious. The study found that when people concentrate on finding particular information – in this case, signs of built structures in an image of alien terrain – people, especially those with an analytical cognitive style, tend to overlook the unexpected… in this case, a gorilla waving happily from the corner of the same image. The subjects, for the most part, were so focused on finding the expected signs of life that they missed an actual life form nonchalantly inserted into the image by the researchers. Does this spell doom for humanity’s endeavors to detect extraterrestrial life? Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, suggests it’s not so black-and-white. In a piece for NBC News, Dr. Shostak writes:

Sure, our preconceived notions of what would be good evidence of aliens — including radio signals, flashing lasers, or megastructures — might be blinding us to clues that, like nitrogen in the air, are all around us and yet overlooked. But to quote Dirty Harry, “a man’s got to know his limitations.” The men and women searching for extraterrestrials can do no better than to go with what they know.

Dr. Shostak acknowledges the limitations of observation, but doesn’t find the find the lack of practical solutions inspiring, as he related to Space.com:

The limits of human imagination do likely constrain the search for extraterrestrial life, said Seth Shostak, the senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, which uses radio and optical observations to hunt for brainy extraterrestrials. But that observation is "not exactly a call to action," he said.

"I do get emails that say, 'Oh, well, you guys are just not being broad-minded enough," Shostak said. "That's a pretty easy thing to say, but it doesn't advance the search much."

Recently, Dr. Shostak spoke to Euronews about the possibility of finding real evidence of alien life, responding to public questions posed to #AskSpace:

"I think that we most definitely will," he tells Euronews. "The reason is A - I think that it is out there. There are a million, million planets just in our galaxy, in the Milky Way. That's an awful lot of real estate, so it's hard to believe that only this planet has life. And the only real question is B, Can we find it? And we might find it nearby. NASA, the European Space Agency, they're all spending your tax dollars to look for life in places like Mars, some of the moons of Jupiter or Saturn. Maybe within 20 years they'll find it; probably it's life you need a microscope to see. We're looking for intelligent life. I've bet everybody a cup of coffee that we'll find life by 2025. Intelligent life."

For now, it seems, the cosmic gorilla effect is not enough to deter this particular scientist and alien hunter.

green bank telescopeLife in the Quiet Zone: a Photographic Journey to Green Bank

Project Ozma, named for the fictional ruler of the land of Oz in the children’s book series written by L. Frank Baum, marked the beginning of modern SETI research. Pioneered by Frank Drake, Chair Emeritus of the SETI Institute Board of Trustees and creator of the Drake Equation, the experiment conducted observations in the first attempt to detect interstellar radio transmissions. The telescope used in the operation is located in Green Bank, in the U.S. state of West Virginia. To ensure the giant telescopes can accurately detect non-terrestrial signals, the region is in a National Radio Quiet Zone that places heavy legal restrictions on radio transmissions. As a result, Green Bank, is without devices that emit electromagnetic energy – no microwaves, televisions, Wi-Fi, or cell towers. This unusual place, and the juxtaposition of incredible technology with extreme restrictions on the local use of technology most of us consider ordinary, has been poigniantly captured in a new photography book by Fountain Books Berlin. Titled The Drake Equation, after Dr. Drake’s famous mathematical formula describing the probability of finding advanced extraterrestrial life, the book highlights the unusual mix of people who are drawn to the town that was the early home to the modern search for life in our universe.

You can find out more about Frank Drake’s work and Project Ozma on our website, SETI.org.

people with signsBig Picture Science:

Last week, Skeptic Check: Political Scientist looked at the sometimes-contentious relationship between science, political engagement, and activism. In this week’s episode, High Moon, explore a lunar colony with science fiction writer Andy Weir (author of the Martian, now a motion picture, and Artemis), and discover the emerging space agencies of Kenya and other African nations, along with Lunar X and the big picture view of today’s space race.

Facebook Live

Last week’s Facebook Live featured a visit with our Science Advisory Board, including: SETI pioneer Dr. Frank Drake; astrobiologist and former NASA planetary protection officer, John Rummel; and SETI Institute co-founder and Bernard M. Oliver Chair Emeritus for SETI Research, Jill Tarter. Join SETI Institute CEO, Bill Diamond, as he introduces you to these and other great minds advising the Institute.

Videos of all past Facebook Live events can be found on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SETIInstitute/

  • Girl Scouts: April 28, 2018, San Francisco, CA The annual Girl Scouts Bridging walk across the Golden Gate Bridge and gathering in Chrissy Field Pamela Harman, Acting Director of Education will participate
  • Hive Summit, May 2 SETI Institute Senior Scientist Franck Marchis will speak
  • Palo Alto Jewish Community Center, May 2, Palo Alto, CA Seth Shostak to of offer SETI Talk presentation
  • Association of Computer Professionals in Education: May 4, Welches OR Seth Shostak to participate in annual conference
  • San Mateo County Astronomical Society May 4 SETI Institute Senior Scientist Franck Marchis will present
  • The Villages: May 8, San Jose, CA Seth Shostak to offer talk about SETI
  • Silicon Valley Astronomy Lecture Series: May 15, Los Altos Hills, CA Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto with Alan Stern and SETI Institute Scientific Advisory Board member David Grinspoon
  • SETI Talks: May 23, 2018 Menlo Park, CA Hal’s Legacy: 2—1’s Computer as Dream and Reality with David Stork
  • Yerkes Observatory: May 26, 2018, Williams Bay, WI Seth Shostak to speak