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Friday, April 27, 2018

WE ARE NOT ALONE! OR ARE WE?


You can't really read the above infograph, but #10 is the Curiosity Mars Rover at $2.5 billion.  The initial cost estimate was $0.65 billion.  That ratio is typical for space projects.  Curiosity did not find life, but indicated that Mars could have once had life.  The three most expensive:
  • #3  Project Apollo ($25.4 billion):  the USA landed on the Moon, and might well have been the most successful Federal project ever, for there is evidence that Soviet Union efforts to beat us bankrupted them, leading to the end of the Cold War.

In my SIMPLE SOLUTIONS for Humanity, I reported on my 1976  experience, where 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 by Barney Oliver and Jack Billingham. The first question asked of Cornell Professor Frank Drake (right) 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.

We, thus, began the search for exoplanets.  While most of the group focused on an interferometric device to accomplish this task, with the early assistance of Nobel Laureate Charles Townes:

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. 
This experience at Ames served as the link to help Carl Sagan gain the first Congressional Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) funding, for:

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.


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.  

That posting also showed the following:

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.

So back to extrasolar planets, in 1976 the concept that Townes and I advanced had to do with the lasing occurring in planetary atmosphere, and how, if you focused on a specific wavelength, you should be able to track that planet around any star.  While stars are billions of times brighter than the reflection of revolving bodies, the virtually monochromatic light from the planet should be detectable.  Here are details from my posting of three years ago when Charles Townes passed away.

What our top NASA scientists decided was to use the crudest possible direct technique where the very slight diminution of light which occurs when the planet passes across the star, called transit, is measured.  Even a high school student in Hawaii has accomplished this task...on land.  Hubble used this method, and so did 
  • Kepler, 
  • and so will TESS (rightNASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, which was supposed to have been launched last week, but there have been delays), 
  • and so did the European Union's COROT (COnvection, ROtation et Transits planetaires
  • and will CHEOPS (Characterising ExOPlanets Satellite, scheduled for release the end of this year)
  • and someday the James Webb Space Telescope
    • expected budget of $0.5 billion for launch in 2007
    • now at a cost of more than $8.8 billion with a hopeful operational date in 2020 (note that when I wrote my book on this subject a decade ago the lift off date was 2013)
    • surely, will cost more than $10 billion for when??
You got to wonder, what is wrong with astroscience to regularly stumble so embarrassingly using clearly limiting concepts.  And these are among our brightest minds.  Is it our governmental system that induces such mediocrity?

If the technique Townes and I had proposed in 1976 were used, we would have found an extrasolar planet a decade before the 1992 first sight reported by NASA, and accomplished it for less than 10% the cost of what has thus far been spent.  Plus, our method would also have identified the planetary atmospheric composition (related to lasing wavelength).  But the whole initial point underscored by Frank Drake was to just find one sure exoplanet to prove that there are planets outside our solar system.

As it is, earlier this month, 3,758 exoplanets have been confirmed, with 627 stars having more than one planet.  Mind you, there are other techniques in existence, such as High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) in Chile, but this instrument measures star wobble, and does not directly deal with the planet itself.  They are credited with 130 finds.

One in five Sun-like stars has an Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone.  Then, there are Red Dwarfs, which could well be more promising, for there are more of them, two out of three stars, and live longer--trillions of years versus perhaps 10 billion years for our Sun.  In any case, just in our ole Milky Way Galaxy, there could then be at least 80 billion earth-like exoplanets in the habitable zone.  And, oh, there are maybe 200 billion galaxies in our observable Universe.

So, are we the only intelligent life in the Universe?  According to a variation of the Drake Equation (see the above photo of him with the equation on the board), the odds of a habitable zone planet ever hosting intelligence is about 1 in 60 billion.  Thus, we could well be the only one in the Milky Way.  However, there is also the rest of the Universe.  But light takes more than 2 million years just to travel from us to the nearest galaxy, Andromeda.  Wormholes, travel faster than light, whatever, flying saucers from beyond our galaxy seem impossible, and even communication by microwave too much to expect.  Just consider the energy required for human travel, and the fact that Jesus Christ was only 2 thousand years ago.  


How significant are you?  Click on this clip and spend 3 minutes 33 seconds of your life to gain the perspective you need for the following paragraph.

So the two bigger questions remain.  Are we the only life?  If not, are we the only intelligent life?  Setting aside something like the concept of God for now, if by pure accident, we came to be, and happen to be the only planet with some intelligence, is it our legacy, then, to continue to exist so that a millennium or more from now we have the knowledge and technology to populate the Universe?

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