Stephen Hawking thinks that making contact with aliens would be a very bad idea indeed. But with new, massive telescopes, we humans are stepping up the search. Have we really thought this through?
In February 2008, Nasa sent the Beatles song, Across the Universe, across the universe. Pointing the telescopes in its Deep Space Network towards the north star, Polaris, astronomers played out their short cosmic DJ set, hoping that it might be heard by intelligent aliens during its 430-year journey to the star.
The hunt for intelligent species outside Earth may be a staple of literature and film – but it is happening in real life, too. Nasa probes are on the lookout for planets outside our solar system, and astronomers are carefully listening for any messages being beamed through space. How awe-inspiring it would be to get confirmation that we are not alone in the universe, to finally speak to an alien race. Wouldn’t it?
Well no, according to the eminent physicist Stephen Hawking. “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans,” Hawking has said in a forthcoming documentary made for the Discovery Channel. He argues that, instead of trying to find and communicate with life in the cosmos, humans would be better off doing everything they can to avoid contact.
Hawking believes that, based on the sheer number of planets that scientists know must exist, we are not the only life-form in the universe. There are, after all, billions and billions of stars in our galaxy alone, with, it is reasonable to expect, an even greater number of planets orbiting them. And it is not unreasonable to expect some of that alien life to be intelligent, and capable of interstellar communication. So, when someone with Hawking’s knowledge of the universe advises against contact, it’s worth listening, isn’t it?
Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the Seti Institute in California, the world’s leading organisation searching for telltale alien signals, is not so sure. “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.”
If we were really worried about shouting in the stellar jungle, Shostak says, the first thing to do would be to shut down the BBC, NBC, CBS and the radars at all airports. Those broadcasts have been streaming into space for years – the oldest is already more than 80 light years from Earth – so it is already too late to stop passing aliens watching every episode of Big Brother or What Katie and Peter Did Next.
The biggest and most active hunt for life outside Earth started in 1960, when Frank Drake pointed the Green Bank radio telescope in West Virginia towards the star Tau Ceti. He was looking for anomalous radio signals that could have been sent by intelligent life. Eventually, his idea turned into Seti (standing for Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence), which used the downtime on radar telescopes around the world to scour the sky for any signals. For 50 years, however, the sky has been silent.
There are lots of practical problems involved in hunting for aliens, of course, chief among them being distance. If our nearest neighbours were life-forms on the (fictional) forest moon of Endor, 1,000 light years away, it would take a millennium for us to receive any message they might send. If the Endorians were watching us, the light reaching them from Earth at this very moment would show them our planet as it was 1,000 years ago; in Europe that means lots of fighting between knights around castles and, in north America, small bands of natives living on the great plains. It is not a timescale that allows for quick banter – and, anyway, they might not be communicating in our direction.
The lack of a signal from ET has not, however, prevented astronomers and biologists (not to mention film-makers) coming up with a whole range of ideas about what aliens might be like. In the early days of Seti, astronomers focused on the search for planets like ours – the idea being that, since the only biology we know about is our own, we might as well assume aliens are going to be something like us. But there’s no reason why that should be true. You don’t even need to step off the Earth to find life that is radically different from our common experience of it.
“Extremophiles” are species that can survive in places that would quickly kill humans and other “normal” life-forms. These single-celled creatures have been found in boiling hot vents of water thrusting through the ocean floor, or at temperatures well below the freezing point of water. The front ends of some creatures that live near deep-sea vents are 200C warmer than their back ends.
“In our naive and parochial way, we have named these things extremophiles, which shows prejudice – we’re normal, everything else is extreme,” says Ian Stewart, a mathematician at Warwick University and author of What Does A Martian Look Like? “From the point of view of a creature that lives in boiling water, we’re extreme because we live in much milder temperatures. We’re at least as extreme compared to them as they are compared to us.”
On Earth, life exists in water and on land but, on a giant gas planet, for example, it might exist high in the atmosphere, trapping nutrients from the air swirling around it. And given that aliens may be so out of our experience, guessing motives and intentions if they ever got in touch seems beyond the realm’s even of Hawking’s mind.
Paul Davies, an astrophysicist at Arizona State University and chair of Seti’s post-detection taskforce, argues that alien brains, with their different architecture, would interpret information very differently from ours. What we think of as beautiful or friendly might come across as violent to them, or vice versa. “Lots of people think that because they would be so wise and knowledgeable, they would be peaceful,” adds Stewart. “I don’t think you can assume that. I don’t think you can put human views on to them; that’s a dangerous way of thinking. Aliens are alien. If they exist at all, we cannot assume they’re like us.”
Answers to some of these conundrums will begin to emerge in the next few decades. The researchers at the forefront of the work are astrobiologists, working in an area that has steadily marched in from the fringes of science thanks to the improvements in technology available to explore space.
Scientists discovered the first few extrasolar planets in the early 1990s and, ever since, the numbers have shot up. Today, scientists know of 443 planets orbiting around more than 350 stars. Most are gas giants in the mould of Jupiter, the smallest being Gliese 581, which has a mass of 1.9 Earths. In 2009, Nasa launched the Kepler satellite, a probe specifically designed to look for Earth-like planets.
Future generations of ground-based telescopes, such as the proposed European Extremely Large Telescope (with a 30m main mirror), could be operational by 2030, and would be powerful enough to image the atmospheres of faraway planets, looking for chemical signatures that could indicate life. The Seti Institute also, finally, has a serious piece of kit under construction: the Allen Array (funded by a $11.5m/£7.5m donation from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen) has, at present, 42 radio antennae, each six metres in diameter, but there are plans, if the Seti Institute can raise another $35m, to have up to 300 radio dishes.
In all the years that Seti has been running, it has managed to look carefully at less than 1,000 star systems. With the full Allen Array, they could look at 1,000 star systems in a couple of years.
Shostak is confident that, as telescope technology keeps improving, Seti will find an ET signal within the next two decades. “We will have looked at another million star systems in two dozen years. If this is going to work, it will work soon.”
And what happens if and when we detect a signal? “My strenuous advice will be that the coordinates of the transmitting entity should be kept confidential, until the world community has had a chance to evaluate what it’s dealing with,” Davies told the Guardian recently. “We don’t want anybody just turning a radio telescope on the sky and sending their own messages to the source.”
But his colleague, Shostak, says we should have no such concerns. “You’ll have told the astronomical community – that’s thousands of people. Are you going to ask them all not to tell anybody where you’re pointing your antenna? There’s no way you could do that.
“And anyway, why wouldn’t you tell them where [the alien lifeform] is? Are you afraid people will broadcast their own message? They might do that but, remember, The Gong Show has already been broadcast for years.” And, for that matter, the Beatles.
NASA in alien life BREAKTHROUGH after DNA discovery
NASA has synthesised an “alien” form of DNA, revolutionising our understanding of what extraterrestrial life may resemble and where it exists.
Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) contains the genetic instructions for all known living things. And scientists at US space agency NASA have created an “alien” form of DNA. This DNA could lead breakthroughs in understanding what alien life could resemble.
The NASA discovery suggests there might be unimagined forms of DNA-based life as we know it on Earth.
And alien life on other worlds might be built using different molecular systems of the kind the NASA scientists have synthesised, they have suggested.
The new molecular system will allow scientists searching for alien life to recalibrate what exactly they are actually looking for and where it could exist.
DNA is a complex double helix-shaped molecule stored and then transmitting the genetic information that makes us who we are.
This data is passed from generation to generation in every living thing on Earth, allowing life to continue.
DNA is constructed of four different ingredients, known as nucleotides and are common across all life on our planet.
But DNA could likely vary significantly elsewhere in the universe, the NASA study has shown.
Imagining forms of life that might use different structures – and developing ways of detecting them – is a central part of NASA’s work.
And this week’s announcement is a huge breakthrough, as the study has has created such a molecule.
Lori Glaze, acting director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division said: “Life detection is an increasingly important goal of NASA’s planetary science missions, and this new work will help us to develop effective instruments and experiments that will expand the scope of what we look for.”
The new research saw scientists create a new kind of molecule system that functions like DNA, but has an important difference.
Instead of DNA’s usual four ingredients, the NASA scientists have created one containing eight.
It has all of the four that are found in life on Earth: adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine.
The NASA scientist have added an extra four synthetic ones, capable of mimicking the structures of the ingredients found in regular DNA.
The NASA researchers call the new creation “hachimoji” DNA – hachi is Japanese for eight, while moji means letter.
Hhachimoji DNA functions the same as our DNA, meeting the same requirements that allow it to store and transmit information.
That has meant that the kinds of molecules that might be storing information in life on alien worlds could be similarly different.
Massachusetts Town Removes Monument to Historically Documented UFO Sighting
In this age of government UFO revelations and presidential candidates promising disclosure of secret UFO files, you would think that the town which claims to be the home of the “only historically documented UFO sighting in the United States” would be proud of a monument touting the event. In this case, you would be wrong.
“The monument was removed at considerable expense to the town. Unfortunately, the party responsible was not responsive.”
The Berkshire Edge interviewed Selectman (a New England term for a member of the local government board) Martin Mitsoff about the removal this week of the Sheffield UFO monument located near the Sheffield, Massachusetts, covered bridge where in 1969 Thomas Reed, then age 9, and his family found themselves “being taken aboard a tarnished circular looking vessel where an image of a willow tree was displayed.” The next thing he says he remembers is being back in the car and a couple of hours had passed.
His grandmother reported the incident to the police and found that at least 20 others had also reported seeing a UFO and a local radio station said they received 40 calls from witnesses. Reed claims he took a lie detector test and got a 99.1 truth rating. Based on that, the Great Barrington Historical Society declared the UFO sighting “historically significant and true” and money was raised to create a 6-foot tall, 5,000-pound concrete memorial (you can see photos of the monument and the park here) with an inscription that reads in part:
“This Governor’s Citation [is] in recognition of the off-world incident on Sept. 1st, 1969, which engaged the Reed Family, which has been established.”
Cool! What’s Selectman Mistoff’s problem? Well, the monument attracted graffiti and was discovered to be on government property, so it was moved 50 feet and updated with lights and a bench. Then it was discovered to be on a town right-of-way easement. That prompted a year of meetings and email exchanges which resolved nothing. On June 4, this happened:
“A crew from the town highway department arrived at around 8:30 a.m. with a front-end loader/backhoe combination and hauled away the monument, a bench and a row of crushed stone.”
The story doesn’t reveal where the monument was hauled away to, but Reed considers this to be an act of theft and plans to file charges.
Wait a minute! Why doesn’t the governor’s office get involved, since the plaque on the statue is from current Governor Charlie Baker? Doesn’t that make this an official state monument? An earlier story by The Berkshire Edge has a possible answer:
“Tim Buckley, then Baker’s communications director, said in 2016 the citation was issued in error after a persistent Reed repeatedly asked the governor’s staff to put his signature on it. The text of the citation is all in capitals and is poorly written. It appears to have been notarized by a justice of the peace in Connecticut.”
Uh-oh. It looks like the local officials agree with the governor’s former communications director and not with Reed nor the producers of the TV show “Unsolved Mysteries,” which had just been in town to do a segment on Reed and his UFO story. Should Reed try to enlist some UFO disclosure proponents like former US Senator Harry Reid or Tom DeLonge? That might help, but for now it appears the parties have their lawyers aimed at each other and will shoot it out in court.
Has anyone considered asking for help from the crew of the UFO?
Source: Mysterious Universe
Navy pilots report seeing UFOs
© Adam Ferguson/The New York Times
The strange objects, one of them like a spinning top moving against the wind, appeared almost daily from the summer of 2014 to March 2015, high in the skies over the East coast. Navy pilots reported to their superiors that the objects had no visible engine or infrared exhaust plumes but that they could reach 30,000 feet and hypersonic speeds.
“These things would be out there all day,” said Lieutenant Ryan Graves, an F/A-18 Super Hornet pilot who has been with the Navy for 10 years and who reported his sightings to the Pentagon and Congress. “Keeping an aircraft in the air requires a significant amount of energy. With the speeds we observed, 12 hours in the air is 11 hours longer than we’d expect.”
In late 2014, a Super Hornet pilot had a near collision with one of the objects, and an official mishap report was filed. Some of the incidents were captured on video, including one taken by a plane’s camera in early 2015 that shows an object zooming over the ocean waves as pilots question what they are watching.
“Wow, what is that, man?” one exclaims. “Look at it fly!”
No one in the Defense Department is saying that the objects were extraterrestrial, and experts emphasize that earthly explanations can generally be found for such incidents. Graves and four other Navy pilots, who said in interviews with The New York Times that they saw the objects in 2014 and 2015 in training maneuvers from Virginia to Florida off the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, make no assertions of their provenance. But the objects have gotten the attention of the Navy, which this year sent out new classified guidance for how to report what the military calls unexplained aerial phenomena, or unidentified flying objects.
Joseph Gradisher, a Navy spokesman, said the new guidance was an update of instructions that went out to the fleet in 2015, after the Roosevelt incidents.
“There were a number of different reports,” he said. Some cases could have been commercial drones, he said, but in other cases “we don’t know who’s doing this, we don’t have enough data to track this. So the intent of the message to the fleet is to provide updated guidance on reporting procedures for suspected intrusions into our airspace.”
The sightings were reported to the Pentagon’s shadowy, little-known Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, which analyzed the radar data, video footage, and accounts provided by senior officers from the Roosevelt. Luis Elizondo, a military intelligence official who ran the program until he resigned in 2017, called the sightings “a striking series of incidents.”
The program, which began in 2007, was officially shut down in 2012 when the money dried up, according to the Pentagon. But the Navy recently said it investigates military reports of UFOs, and Elizondo and other participants say the program – parts of it remain classified – has continued in other forms. The program has also studied video that shows a whitish oval object described as a giant Tic Tac, about the size of a commercial plane, encountered by two Navy fighter jets off the coast of San Diego in 2004.
Leon Golub, a senior astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said the possibility of an extraterrestrial cause “is so unlikely that it competes with many other low-probability but more mundane explanations.” He added that “there are so many other possibilities – bugs in the code for the imaging and display systems, atmospheric effects and reflections, neurological overload from multiple inputs during high-speed flight.”
Graves still cannot explain what he saw. In the summer of 2014, he and Lieutenant Danny Accoin, another Super Hornet pilot, were part of a squadron, the VFA-11 “Red Rippers” out of Naval Air Station Oceana, Va., that was training for a deployment to the Persian Gulf.
Graves and Accoin spoke on the record to The Times about the objects. Three other pilots in the squadron also spoke to The Times about the objects but declined to be named.
The pilots began noticing the objects after their 1980s-era radar was upgraded to a more advanced system. As one fighter jet after another got the new radar, pilots began picking up the objects but ignoring what they thought were false radar tracks.
But Graves said the objects persisted, showing up at 30,000 feet, 20,000 feet, even sea level. Then pilots began seeing the objects.
What was strange, the pilots said, was that the video showed objects accelerating to hypersonic speed, making sudden stops and instantaneous turns – something beyond the physical limits of a human crew.
Asked what they thought the objects were, the pilots refused to speculate.
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