Where in the Worlds has SETI Institute Been? - Mar 12 - 18, 2018

Hubble image: NASA and ESA
Acknowledgment: K.D. Kuntz (GSFC), F. Bresolin (University of Hawaii), J. Trauger (JPL), J. Mould (NOAO), and Y.-H. Chu (University of Illinois, Urbana)

The Voice of ET May Haunt Our Galaxy

Scientists gathered at the SETI Institute in Mountain View last week to chart new approaches to answering the question: are we alone? The Mercury News reported on the conference, titled “Decoding Alien Intelligence”, which sought to broaden perspectives and expand the methodologies applied in the effort to detect extraterrestrial technology:

“New tools are available that can enable this approach and help us decipher the evolutionary and probabilistic nature of advanced alien life,” said organizer and SETI Institute Director Nathalie Cabrol. “We can build a new roadmap that is multidisciplinary, that opens the toolbox.”

A recently released update to the Drake Equation – a framework for discussing the probability of intelligent life existing beyond Earth – is receiving a fair bit of media buzz. The Drake equation was developed during the outset of the modern SETI field to act as a framework for the scientific community to discuss the probability of advanced extraterrestrial life. The probabilistic argument was devised by pioneer in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and Chair Emeritus of the SETI Institute Board of Trustees, Dr. Frank Drake, who participated in the new study. This updated analysis posits that any extraterrestrial signals we might detect will likely come from long dead civilizations.

According to the study, if advanced aliens exist on the furthest edge of the galaxy from us, any signals traveling at the speed of light will not reach us for quite some time. Any signals that do reach our planet will likely be vestiges of a long dead civilization, as Dr. Drake recounted to the Mercury News:

“The signals will be from the civilization as it was,” said Drake. “It is not a remote possibility — it is a high probability — that signals we receive will be from a civilization that no longer exists.”

There’s the chance that it’s still alive “but no longer be transmitting,” he added. “Or it may have changed in a very big way, such as migrating from the planet to escape its expanding star.”

Senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, Seth Shostak, still sees the value in collecting such a message:

“To me, it is like finding a bottle on a beach with a note in it,” said Shostak. “It may be that whoever put the note in is long gone. But at least you know there’s somebody on the other side of the world.”

It’s important to remember that determining the longevity of a potential alien race based on the still-developing example of our own survival has a limited value, as SETI Institute Board Trustee Andrew Fraknoi points out:

“Until we know more about our longevity, it is pure guesswork,” he said. “Every year we don’t destroy ourselves, we add one more year to what we know civilizations can do.”

Ultima thula“Beyond the Known World” – a Poetic Nickname for New Horizon’s Next Target

On January 1, 2019, NASA’s New Horizon’s spacecraft will do a close flyby of a small object on the outer edge of our solar system. The object received the designation “2014 MU69”, a name that evoked little of the grandeur and mystery befitting the farthest object any mission has voyaged to in human history. The small object awaiting our examination in the Kuiper Belt now bears the evokative nickname, “Ultima Thule”. Mark Showalter, Senior Research Scientist and Fellow of the SETI Institute, headed the nicknaming campaign. Showalter shared a little bit about the name in a post on Frontier Worlds, the blog set up with the SETI Institute to host the naming campaign:

“The name comes from medieval mapmakers, where Thule (pronounced "thoo-lee") was a distant and unknown island thought to be the northernmost place on Earth. "Ultima Thule" (which translates as "farthest Thule" or "beyond Thule") has come to be used as a metaphor for any mysterious place "beyond the borders of the known world". This is an apt metaphor for the tiny object, four billion miles away, that will be the next destination of the New Horizons spacecraft.

“The name was nominated independently by about 40 participants in the Frontier Worlds campaign, and was ranked very highly in the voting. Ultima Thule will serve as the unofficial nickname for MU69 through the flyby on New Year's day, 2019. Later in 2019, we will work with the International Astronomical Union to establish a formal, permanent name for the body.”

More than 34,000 nicknames were submitted by the public, which were then refined down to 37 nominations to be voted on, with Ultima Thule being among the most popular nominees. While a formal name will be selected after more is known about Ultima Thule, it is a striking title for a distant world we strive together to discover.

moon collisionSynestia Theory, Spelunking Robots, and Radio Telescopes on the Moon!

A problem with radio telescopes on Earth is interference from terrestrial signals, but the quiet solitude provided by the far side of the moon may provide an elegant, relatively local solution. Pioneer astronomer and co-founder of the SETI Institute, Jill Tarter, outlined the benefits for community news site, Health Thoroughfare:

“This is the one quiet place in our solar system, which we preserved. We’re now thinking about fantastic new space opportunities that could very well pollute it before we get a chance to exploit it for radio astronomy,” said Jill Tarter, a SETI researcher and an astronomer.”

While radio telescopes on the Moon are a potential future, scientists are excited by the possibility our satellite might be riddled with tunnels, etchings of its volcanic past. Particle noted SETI Planetary Scientist, Pascal Lee, who discovered pits in the floor of an impact crater through analyzing imaging data from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). These pits are potentially ‘skylights’ to icy subsurface tunnels, which Lee suggests may someday be explored by “robotic spelunkers”. Verifying the presence of lava tubes could benefit future expeditions elsewhere in our solar system, as Lee explained in a SETI Institute press release:

“Exploring lava tubes on the Moon will also prepare us for the exploration of lava tubes on Mars. There, we will face the prospect of expanding our search for life into the deeper underground of Mars where we might find environments that are warmer, wetter, and more sheltered than at the surface.”

If lava tubes and radio telescopes on the Moon aren’t enough for you, there’s yet another lunar topic orbiting the news this week! The official campus newspaper of UC Davis, the California Aggie, took a look at the recent update to theories of lunar formation. SETI Institute research scientist Matija Cuk was a co-author on the study, which posits that the Moon emerged from a doughnut-shaped cloud of vaporized rock – a synestia – which is why certain elements are relatively scarce, despite otherwise being nearly the Earth’s identical twin in terms of elemental makeup. More data is needed to refine the theory, the Aggie noted:

“The next step for a synestia theory is more detailed simulation of both chemistry and physics of the synestia, which may involve very massive computer simulations,” said Dr. Matija Cuk, a research scientist at the SETI Institute and one of the co-authors of the study.”

Jill TarterJill Tarter – Impact of a SETI Icon

The Chattanooga Pulse took a moment to recognize some significant women in science, including Jill Tarter, the former director of the Center for SETI Research and holder of the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI at the SETI Institute. Celebrate International Women’s Month by reading more about the woman who pioneered SETI research and who’s work served as inspiration for the film “Contact”, based on the novel by Carl Sagan.

Stephen HawkingsWe’re Hearing Signals… from Seth Shostak!

The world mourns and remembers Steven Hawking, and many articles are taking an opportunity to look back at the legacy of the remarkable physicist. Of note was his stated believe that contact with advanced extraterrestrials would have dire consequences for humanity, a position that Seth Shostak, the SETI Institute’s Senior Astronomer, respectfully disagreed with when interviewed by the Guardian in 2010:

"This is an unwarranted fear," Shostak says. "If their interest in our planet is for something valuable that our planet has to offer, there's no particular reason to worry about them now. If they're interested in resources, they have ways of finding rocky planets that don't depend on whether we broadcast or not. They could have found us a billion years ago."

Dr. Shostak also appeared on the Ajay Bruno Show to discuss his career, the Drake Equation and the work of SETI. Remember, you can also hear Shostak’s melodious expositions every week on Big Picture Science, the radio show and podcast of the SETI Institute.

FliesBig Picture Science:

Last week in Space: Why Go There? our guests considered why, and where, we should be exploring space. This week, The X Files reveals some of the wonders of insects, the good and the bad.

Facebook Live

Last week we explored Decoding Alien Intelligence with Nathalie Cabrol, Lori Marino, Laurance Doyle and Kathryn Denning. All Facebook Live videos can be seen on the SETI Institute’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/SETIInstitute


  • SETI Talks: March 27, Menlo Park, CA Roving on Mars: Revving up for Future Exploration of the Red Planet with SETI Institute scientists Janice Bishop, Virginia Gulick and Pablo Sobron
  • European Week of Astronomy and Space Science, April 3-5, Liverpool, UK Franck Marchis will participate
  • Contact Conference: April 6-8, Sunnyvale, CA Seth Shostak and Nathalie Cabrol will be speaking
  • California Academy of Sciences: April 12, 2018 Seth Shostak to participate in the monthly Nightlife talk
  • Silicon Valley Astronomy Lecture Series: April 18, Los Altos Hills, CA SETI Institute scientists Michael Busch 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
    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