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Tuesday, November 24, 2009


The following continues the serialization of Chapter 4 on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) from SIMPLE SOLUTIONS for Humanity:

SETI in the 70’s

In 1971, Bernard Oliver of Hewlett-Packard and John Billingham of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Ames Research Center (ARC) conducted a summer workshop, and the group picked 1.42 GHz, the spectral line caused by interstellar hydrogen, and 1.66 GHz, caused by hydroxyl ions, called the “Water Hole,” as the ideal portion of space to conduct the search. For one, water symbolized life, and two, that band was relatively quiet. There is now that transitional link, for Book 1 featured a chapter reporting on hydrogen. Maybe there is something about hydrogen that goes beyond mere future sustainable utility.

In 1972, Oliver and Billingham authored a NASA study proposing an array of one thousand 100-meter telescopic dishes to pick up television and radio signals from neighboring stars. Project Cyclops was projected to cost $10 billion (which is $50 billion in 2009 dollars), but was never seriously considered. At this point in history, the U.S. Congress was not aware, or cared, that NASA was doing SETI work.

As an assistant professor of engineering, I then teamed with the resident futurist at the University of Hawaii, James Dator, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, on “Earth 2020: Visions for Our Children’s Children,” where in the summer of ‘74 we brought to Hawaii noted lecturers of national stature in topics related to Planet Earth, the environment and space, and weekly filled a two thousand seat auditorium. We also conducted a workshop for forty or so secondary and university faculty.

Having been thusly enlightened with this course, many of them went on to become principals, a university president, a provost, and elected public officials. Professor Dator later gained fame as Secretary General, then President, of the World Futures Study Federation. Identical summer workshops were held at San Jose State University and San Diego State University, with the advanced planning final report prepared by faculty from all three workshops. There was also a lot of cross-fertilization with the leaders of Project Cyclops. The information and curricula we generated became the standard instructional tools for a large number of teachers in Hawaii and California in the growing field of environmental consciousness. Remember, this was more than a third of a century ago.

Having thus been exposed to the SETI field, in 1976 I joined 19 other university faculty members from across the nation at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, on Project Orion, to detect an extrasolar planet (or exoplanet, used interchangeably), that is, a planet revolving around another star, spearheaded, of course, by Oliver and Billingham. The first question asked of Cornell Professor Frank Drake was: “Extraterrestrial intelligence? How do you know there are even other planets outside our solar system?” So the faculty group was tasked to design a system to accomplish this feat. Why me? Well, I had an idea on how to do this, plus I long harbored visions that the cure for cancer and the solution to world peace might be beaming unto Planet Earth from advanced civilizations.

Originally, in the mid 1800’s, stars were classified by hotness (Class I for white and blue, down to Class IV for red and Class V). Early in the 1900’s, the Harvard classification was adopted, ranking stars by luminosity—O, B, A, F, G, K, and M—Oh Be A Fine Girl, Kiss Me.

F and G type suns seem best suited for planets. Our Sun is in the latter category, and the guess is that there is a 7% chance for a solar system, while the former is 1.3 to 1.5 solar masses, with a 10% chance of planets. Planets do not form in binary star systems, and have a higher probability of creation in galactic arms where heavy elements are located. There is a 20-30% chance towards the external portion of a galaxy, where we are located.

How does a planet form? Well, more and more, astronomers are seeing disks surrounding stars. Very simply, the dust agglomerates into planets. Thus, first find a planet, any planet. Then, find planets where life is possible. These sites should be:

o older than 3 billion years;

o with a star smaller than 1.5 times our Sun mass;

o having a stable location between galaxy spiral arms; and

o in a solar system which is singular, that is, without a binary star.

While most of the team went on to design an interferometric system to indirectly do the job, a few of us were allowed to pursue other directions. Indirect means to measure something else. That is, as you can’t see that extrasolar planet, the starlight being so intense relative to the reflection from the planet, measure the orbit wobble of the star, with the pattern mathematically being fitted for possible planets. Direct means somehow block out the starlight and see that extrasolar planet, or, better yet, actually measure and track something, anything, from the planet itself. I was the only one to take this latter option, for I like to see what I’m doing, and the optical spectrum was my choice.

That same previously mentioned (in Chapter 2) Charles Townes, who had won the Nobel Prize for the laser, and who will later be mentioned in Chapter 10 for being awarded the 2005 Templeton Prize (generally given to a noted scientist who has religious predilections), happened to just arrive at the University of California Berkeley from the Massachusetts Institute Technology in 1976, and had published a paper speculating that planetary atmospheres lased (that is, flashed a well-defined color like in a typical laser, representing the gaseous molecule undergoing this phenomenon).

As an aside, there is something karmic coupling the afterlife with SETI, as Science Digest, in its October 1985 issue on “The 20 Greatest Unanswered Questions of Science,” featured on its front cover, English-born and Princeton professor Freeman Dyson, the 2002 Templeton Prize awardee. Dyson was asked the question, “Are We Alone in the Universe?” He responded, “engaging in mathematical calculations on the probability of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe is not a worthwhile exercise. The universe may be crawling with life. The answer is: Wait and see.” Dyson had previously worked on a different Orion Project, but that was around 1960, and it had to do with using nuclear pulse propulsion for space-flight.

Anyway, returning to the discussion, a Jupiter-size planet cannot be seen revolving around a typical Sun-size star tens of light years away because the starlight is so much brighter by 5 to 10 orders of magnitude (meaning 10 to that power, or in the inverse, the light from an extrasolar planet is from 1/100,000 to 1/10,000,000,000, or one ten billionth that of the star). However, if the planetary atmosphere lased, then these spiked discrete frequencies, first, might well be detectable because you would know exactly which monochromatic colors to check (the lasing frequency of those gases that would be found in planetary atmospheres), thus, also, this would accordingly give the atmospheric composition. Conversely, if no lasing is detected, then that planet has no atmosphere, and can summarily be deleted from future consideration regarding the potential for harboring life. My PhD dissertation experience, which included building a tunable laser before you could purchase one, provided this spark of imagination. I went to see Professor Townes, and he graciously provided encouragement.

My final report to NASA was called “To See the Impossible Dream: the Planetary Abstracting Trinterferometer (note the acronym, PAT),” with a Man from La Mancha symbol on the cover. I of course quoted Miguel de Cervantes:

To Man, the Don Quixote of the universe

May he succeed in his impossible dream.

At first I thought David Black, the NASA coordinator, reacted to my paper as being some kind of joke, but I now understand that optical searches were not company policy. That is, as it makes a lot more technical sense to measure the microwave spectrum for actual alien signals, NASA seemed wedded to focusing only on that particular technology, even for detecting extrasolar planets. Why microwave? These signals can travel further in space (less degradation) than optical ones.

Anyway, Black surmised that the Hubble Telescope would be soon to fly and find such exoplanets. Hubble was actually deployed 14 years later, and only in 2008 (32 years later) detected a planet orbiting a star. This telescope was serviced one final time later in 2009 for operation until 2013, when the James Webb Space Telescope is expected to be launched. Without an orbit reboost, the Hubble could plunge to Earth sometime soon after 2019. In any case, the prevailing convention then, as now, was to explore and receive the microwave band, so anything resembling optical searches did not meet the accepted requirements.

Either way, there is a timing concern, as, more and more, new commercial communications satellites will cloud the radio spectrum, especially in the range of the most promising detection channels. Thus, SETI will soon need to move into outer space if the focus is to continue traditional interferometry measurement techniques on Earth.

Two final bits about the ‘70’s, in 1975, the U.S. Congress published “The Possibility of Intelligent Life Elsewhere in the Universe.” In 1978, Senator William Proxmire (D-Wisconsin) selected NASA’s SETI program for one of his famous Golden Fleece Awards. The following year found me in Washington, D.C. as U.S. Senator Spark Matsunaga’s Special Assistant on Energy. Little did I know that while helping to solve our second energy crisis, one of my more interesting tasks would be related to SETI.

At one point today, the Dow Jones Industrials dipped more than 100 points. However, the DJI ended down only 17 at 10,434, while world markets were also mostly lower. Gold continued to set world records, jumping $9/toz to $1169. Crude oil is now around $77/barrel.

Tropical Typhoon Nida, at 115 MPH, was at first heading in the general direction of Guam, located 200 miles away, but now looks to move towards southern Japan, perhaps in a week. There is a tropical depression now affecting Mindanao (southern Philippine island). Tropical Cyclone Bongani, at 40 MPH, is moving west, just north of Madagascar.

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Formerly part of Romania, Moldova was incorporated into the Soviet Union at the close of World War II. Although independent from the USSR since 1991, Russian forces have remained on Moldovan territory east of the Dniester River supporting the Slavic majority population, mostly Ukrainians and Russians, who have proclaimed a "Transnistria" republic. One of the poorest nations in Europe, Moldova became the first former Soviet state to elect a Communist as its president in 2001.

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