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Friday, January 16, 2015

SIMPLE SOLUTIONS FOR HUMANITY'S MOST IMPORTANT PROBLEMS: #3 Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

You ask, how can the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) be more important than the discovery of dark matter/energy or formulation of super symmetry or understanding time zero of the Big Bang?  Well, if science derived solutions to the latter three are attained, so what?  How will those monumental achievements materially aid humanity?

The beauty of SETI is that, according to Arthur C. Clarke (LIFE, September 1992):  extraterrestrials may be continuously broadcasting an easily decoded Encyclopedia Galactica for the benefit of their less advanced neighbors (like us, for our Sun has only been around for less than 5 billion years and other solar systems might well be 9 billion years older) and may contain answers to almost all the questions our philosophers and scientists have been asking for centuries, providing solutions to many of the practical problems that beset mankind.  Peace on Earth?  Fusion energy?  Cure for cancer?

Conversely, regarding space in general, it makes no sense at all to send humans to Mars, or any celestial body in our solar system.  What would they find?  Life?  Well, that would be nice to know, but so what?  Resources?  How would anything that weighty be transported profitably back to Earth?

The Apollo Project to the Moon was essential to help end the Cold War and there is some romance about space travel, where many extraterrestrial movies can become very popular.  But the reality is, what can we gain from such travel?  Cliff Singer (left) proposed an interstellar (meaning to another star) spacecraft using high velocity pellets at a price of roughly $10 trillion.  Click on The Challenge of Relativistic Spaceflight to read a summary of Singer's and other similar visions.  The bottom line is that it would take too long and cost too much if you can finance such a futile effort at all.

That leaves us with two ways to gain all that possible advanced knowledge that surely must be wafting about throughout our Universe.  One, wait for a friendly Unidentified Flying Object, also sometimes known as a Flying Saucer, to visit us.  That is commonplace in the media, but the reality is that the odds are infinitesimally low that this will, in fact, happen, at least in our lifetime.  I am a colleague of the late Ron Bracewell of Stanford, and his  contention that advanced intelligence could have sent probes to fertilize planets like Earth, creating first life here, has some validity.  However, if this actually happened, that was several billion years ago.

The other?  A successful Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI.  A third of a century ago, in Project Cyclops, Barney Oliver and Jack Billingham, two people I got to know very well, proposed a $10 billion budget.  That would be closer to $60 billion today, and here is a comparison with some of our other major federal expenditures:
  • F-35 Joint Strike Fighter:  $1.3 trillion, or $1,300 billion.  Set aside $60 billion for SETI and still spend $1.240 trillion for that lemon.
  • The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will cost us $6 trillion.  That $60 billion for SETI is a one time cost, but if it takes $60 billion/year to accomplish the task, the program would run for 100 years.
Oliver and Billingham were opposite personalities.  Bernard Oliver (right) was a CalTech PhD in electrical engineering who, honestly, probably was most responsible for your iPhone, the original concept invented at Hewlett-Packard, than anyone else.  He was brilliant and commanding.  John Billingham was a decade older than me, a medical doctor from the British Royal Air Force, who came to America to work on the Mercury program, gravitated to NASA's Ames Research Center, and became director of the SETI Program Office.  He was urbane and creative.

I made my contribution in the mid-70's with the Planetary Abstracting Trinterferometer (PAT), for I spent some time at the NASA Ames Research Center on a project to find an extrasolar planet, and you can read about my experience HERE.  At that time the overriding question was whether we were the only planets in the Universe.  Finally, the first exoplanet was confirmed almost two decades later.  

Now, there are nearly 2000 exoplanets in some process of confirmation.  My problem with the dominant strategy is that all the money is being spent trying to detect these planets using a technique called transit, where the very slight diminution of starlight is measured when that planet, by pure chance, traverses the star, which is all the Kepler Telescope does.  They are not able to determine the Earth-like quality, as my method could have.  In any case, some continuation of searching for exo-Earths can be supported, but when we found the first one, that confirmed we are not alone in the Universe, and should have given the green light to enter the next phase, which is to detect possible signals from space.  

To simplify my concept, place identical "telescopes" each at the top of Cerro Armazones (Chile) and Mauna Kea (Hawaii), with a third somewhere in Australia, and detect those discrete frequencies resulting from the lasing atmospheres of exoplanets.  You can't measure the reflected light from these bodies, for the star is too bright, but if you are searching for a specific frequency, you should be able to track the planet itself.  Now knowing the wavelengths, you can determine the atmospheric composition.  My proposal to further develop this Planetary Abstracting Trinterferometer was ignored by NASA, mostly because they thought I was joking (possibly because I had the Man from La Mancha on the cover, with a subtitle:  To See the Impossible Dream), but perhaps because SETI scientists had selected the radio band, and purposefully set aside optical wavelengths, for you can more efficiently detect lower frequencies.  I was also told in 1976 that my $100 million proposal would not be able to compete with the Hubble Telescope, which was soon to be launched.  Well, it was not until 1990 that Hubble became operational and did find a few extrasolar planets, but only those that were much larger than Jupiter.  And the cost was about $2.5 billion.

Further, NASA seems only dedicated to improving the science to find exoplanets, and determine the various bio-options for life.  The highest priority should now be to search for signals.  NASA is reluctant to enter that field because of two Congressional actions.  In 1979 Senator William Proxmire gave them a Golden Fleece Award for SETI.  However, I was then working for Senator Spark Matsunaga (below, right), and he was able to arrange for a meeting of Carl Sagan with Senator Proxmire, who subsequently backed off his resistance.  

Tragically, in 1993 Senator Richard Bryan  personally killed the $12 million/year budget and barred NASA from doing any SETI research.  To quote from SIMPLE SOLUTIONS for HumanityStephen Garber of NASA explained what happened.

So before NASA can do anything, the U.S. Congress first needs to rescind the restrictive language, and more so, provide encouragement.  The military-industrial complex would not be particularly supportive, for they would rather become involved with billion dollar adventures in space.  SETI primarily needs land based antennas, but is unfortunately cost effective, meaning being too cheap for American industry.

In the meantime, the SETI Institute, founded in 1984, located in Palo Alto with 50 researchers, is faced with the grim task of groveling for private sector funding, and, let's face it, there is little sure profit to come from SETI.  Thus, like the Blue Revolution, the only hope is to gain the interest of mega-billionaires.  Thankfully, Paul Allen has contributed $30 million for his Allen Telescope Array (ATA) to detect signals from outer space.

Nearly 300 miles north of San Francisco is the Hat Creek Radio Observatory (64 miles east of Redding on 299 in Lassen National Park), where the 350 6-meter diameter dishes of ATA are under construction.  The first phase of 42 dishes became operational in 2007.  They've had some funding problems, but now seem on track to someday become fully functional.

Jill Tarter, holder of the Bernard Oliver Chair, and said to be model for Jodi Foster in CONTACT, is, appropriately enough, in charge.  Former University of Hawaii colleague, David Morrison, who reviewed my SETI chapter in SIMPLE SOLUTIONS for Humanity, is director of the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe.

Europe recently entered the picture, as they have now built 21 LOFAR--the Low Frequency Array--stations, of the 48 anticipated, in the Netherlands, the UK, Frarnce, Germany and Swedan.  Here is one to the left.  This system is plumbing as low as 20 MHz, for the first time ever.

I'm afraid that these efforts reflect only one-tenth of 1% what Project Cyclops aspired to accomplish more than three decades ago.  We should be providing at least a thousand times more for what could well become the most consequential effort by humanity to leapfrog into the future.

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