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Thursday, December 17, 2009

CHAPTER 4: SEEKING THE LIGHT—SETI (Part 8)


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



The Future of SETI

The major player for SETI into the future will need to be NASA. President George Bush in 2004 identified the search for Earth-like planets in his new vision for space exploration. But that is already what NASA does. No money, though, for SETI. New President Barack actually increased funding for NASA in 2009, but Congress slashed the NASA budget by $670 million.


NASA’s Ames Research Center reported on plans for a four-year, $400 million space mission to hunt for Earth-size planets. But this is illegal, for it is science in search for exoplanets. Anyway, Congress now and then looks the other way, and space telescope Kepler (see below) was launched in March of this year to watch 100,000 stars and look for a dimming of signals that might be caused by an Earth-size planet. The expectation is to, by 2011, find a few dozen Earth- and Mars-size planets. The odds? It is compared to seeing a firefly hovering next to a lighthouse searchlight 3,000 miles away, also appreciating that 99.5% of the possible planets will not be detected because they need to just pass directly in front of the star. That’s certainly a lot of money just for this purpose. Why not use the Townes atmospheric optical lasing concept?

Another ambitious mission is the Space Interferometry Mission (SIM), now called SIM PlanetQuest (see below), at a cost of $1.4 billion, just to monitor the position of 10,000 stars, but with precision. The launch is now expected to occur in 2015, and the extent of star shimmy will provide clues as to target priority. Let’s see now, the 2007 budget for renewable energy at the Department of Energy is less than this amount, so a fair question would be how just to do this specific mission can compare with the incoming asteroid called Peak Oil and Global Climate Warming. And, why be so fixed on indirect techniques or pure luck?

Stock Illustration - sim planetquest,  scheduled for  launch within  the next decade.  fotosearch - search  clipart, illustration,  drawings and vector  eps graphics images

NASA’s Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF) (below right) mission envisions, over the next twenty years, at a cost approaching $1 billion, the deployment by 2014 of two space telescopes—a coronagraph operating at visible wavelengths and an interferometer in the infrared—capable of detecting molecules such as water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane and free oxygen in the form of ozone, initially within 30 light years and to then, over the follow-on decades, out to 45 light years. The European Space Agency will cooperate. But in 2007, Congressional action all but killed this project.

Terrestrial Planet Finder comprises two complementary observatories: a visible-light coronagraph, to launch around 2014, and a formation-flying infrared interferometer (this image), to launch before 2020.

Another terrestrial capability is the interferometric imaging $120 million Large Binocular Telescope (above left) of Germany and Italy, with American partners, located on 10,400 foot Mount Graham in Arizona. “First light” was seen in 2005, but “second light” will take a couple more years. It is reported that LBT will finally make direct observation of extrasolar planets possible, but only of Jupiter-sized objects. Why bother?

Finally, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) could become operational by 2020. SKA would be the most powerful radio telescope, 50 times more so than existing facilities, and theoretically could pick up television signals from a planet several light years away. China, Argentina, Australia and South Africa were in the running for this $1 billion project, but the latter two countries appear now to be the front runners. Why not the USA? Well, according to the reporting article, we withdrew from the competition because of a lack of funding to prepare a decent proposal.


Thus, you can appreciate the NASA logic of first determining where Earth-like planets might be located, an acceptable mission. Then, someday, when the political setting is more favorable, perhaps contributing to the real search, which is to detect incoming signals. Having by 2025 detected potential Earth look-alikes out there, Life Finder might be initiated to use a space telescope to look for signs of life on exoplanets.


All this leads to the future of NASA, for the science portion has become the equivalent of a ping pong ball, with no SETI money. NASA Director Michael Griffin (replaced by Charles Bolden), himself, when he was first appointed, told the disorganized and new NASA science advisory panel that he made commitments in advance that he could not honor, leaving the actual budget to the whim of Congress. The White House request for FY2008 funding was $17.3 billion, about half a billion dollars higher than FY2007, with $5.5 billion for the Science Missions Directorate. The Planetary Society, founded by Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray and Louis Friedman, has been reasonably effective speaking out for the field.

A CBS News poll of 1,222 adults about continuing the Space Shuttle Program showed that support has declined:


o 2005 59%

o 2003 75%

o 1986 80%.


But, The Gallup Poll in 2009 reported that space program costs are justified.


So if any money is to be spent on space, should there be some tangible reward for us taxpayers? Not necessarily, as science is based on the search for fundamental knowledge, which is fine, and should, to some degree, continue to be supported. But the argument could be made about what use might come of knowing how the solar system started. At some point, some congressman, or the president, might demand value to society, as we have seen all too often. SETI at least has potential for providing some ultimate solutions for humanity.

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The Dow Jones Industrials sunk 133 to 10,308, while world markets mostly also fell. Gold crashed $36/toz to $1105, while crude oil is now just below $73/barrel.


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No major ocean storms of note.

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