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Breakthrough Initiatives

Hunt for alien life gets a $100M boost, famous duo backing


Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Wednesday, July 22, 2015, 12:49 PM - A $100 million project to find intelligent alien life is launched by Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, a mysterious "haze" is spied around Ceres' bright spot, and has Rosetta's Philae lander moved? It's What's Up In Space!

Are we alone?

This is a question we've been asking for a very long time. While there have been several attempts to answer it so far, the new Breakthrough Initiatives project, announced by Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner and astrophysicist Dr. Stephen Hawking on Monday, July 20, promises to give this important search a boost. Not only will it provide $100 million in funding, applied to a broader and more comprehensive search, but it will also tap the creativity and innovation of the public with an open-source effort.

According to the project website, this effort will involve two parts, Breakthrough Listen and Breakthrough Message:

Breakthrough Listen

  • Biggest scientific search ever undertaken for signs of intelligent life beyond Earth

  • Significant access to two of the world’s most powerful telescopes – 100 Meter Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, USA (“Green Bank Telescope”)1 and 64-metre diameter Parkes Telescope in New South Wales, Australia (“Parkes Telescope”)

  • 50 times more sensitive than previous programs dedicated to SETI research

  • Will cover 10 times more of the sky than previous programs

  • Will scan at least 5 times more of the radio spectrum – and 100 times faster

  • In tandem with a radio search, Automated Planet Finder Telescope at Lick Observatory in California, USA (“Lick Telescope”)2 will undertake world’s deepest and broadest search for optical laser transmissions

  • Initiative will span 10 years

  • Financial commitment is $100,000,000

Breakthrough Message

  • International competition to create digital messages that represent humanity and planet Earth

  • The pool of prizes will total $1,000,000

  • Details on the competition will be announced at a later date

  • This initiative is not a commitment to send messages. It’s a way to learn about the potential languages of interstellar communication and to spur global discussion on the ethical and philosophical issues surrounding communication with intelligent life beyond Earth

While the apparent abundance of life out in our expansive universe seems at odds with the fact that we have yet to hear from anyone out there (this is known as the "Fermi Paradox"), this new search will expand our view, to ensure that we haven't been missing messages all along, and perhaps finally give us a definite answer to the question of whether we're alone or not. Either way, it will reveal amazing details about our universe and our place in it.

"The Breakthrough Message competition is designed to spark the imaginations of millions, and to generate conversation about who we really are in the universe and what it is that we wish to share about the nature of being alive on Earth," said Ann Druyan, creative director of the Interstellar Message for NASA's Voyager mission and co-founder and CEO of Cosmos Studios. "Even if we don’t send a single message, the act of conceptualizing one can be transformative. In creating the Voyager Interstellar Message, we strived to attain a cosmic perspective on our planet, our species and our time. It was intended for two distinct kinds of recipients - the putative extraterrestrials of distant worlds in the remote future and our human contemporaries. As we approach the Message's fortieth anniversary, I am deeply grateful for the chance to collaborate on the Breakthrough Message, for what we might discover together and in the hope that it might inform our outlook and even our conduct on this world."

Mystery haze hangs over Ceres' mystery spots?

Even as NASA's Dawn spacecraft continues to send back images of Ceres, the collection of bright spots located on the floor of the crater now known as Occator - named after the Roman agriculture god - are still a mystery to scientists.


Occator crater and its collection of bright spots.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Now, thanks to a talk given by Dr. Christopher Russell - the principle investigator of the Dawn mission - at the Exploration Science Forum, at NASA Ames on Tuesday, July 21, things in Occator crater may have just become even stranger.

According to Russell, if the crater is observed at an angle around local noon, haze can be seen filling about half the crater, but not extending beyond the crater's rim.

The composition of these bright spots is still being investigated, with water ice and salt deposits apparently being the leading explanations.

Salt would explain why the deposits are persisting on the surface, since water ice exposed to Ceres' tenuous atmosphere would quickly sublimate, while salt deposits could survive. This news about haze, however, brings water ice back as a possibility.

Philae on the move?

The ESA's Rosetta mission has been on a roller coaster ride of emotions when it comes to their tiny comet lander, Philae.

After a harrowing triple-landing back in November of 2014, the probe fell silent after only a few days and remained so for months, apparently sleeping through several attempts to contact it in the spring, and then suddenly phoning home in mid-June. Since then, the team has had intermittent contact with Philae, and even managed to send some commands for the lander to turn on one of its instruments, however there's been nothing from it since July 9.

According to the ESA Rosetta blog:

"The profile of how strongly the Sun is falling on which panels has changed from June to July, and this does not seem to be explained by the course of the seasons on the comet alone," explains Philae’s project manager, Stephan Ulamec at DLR.
One possible explanation being discussed at DLR’s Lander Control Center is that the position of Philae may have shifted slightly, perhaps by changing its orientation with respect to the surface in its current location. The lander is likely situated on uneven terrain, and even a slight change in its position – perhaps triggered by gas emission from the comet – could mean that its antenna position has also now changed with respect to its surroundings.

Philae is a tough little robot probe, as it's already shown us and the mission team, so there's still hope for it.

"Philae is obviously still functional, because it sends us data, even if it does so at irregular intervals and at surprising times," Stephan Ulamec said, according to the Rosetta blog. "Several times we were afraid that the lander would remain off – but it has repeatedly taught us otherwise."

According to the team, Rosetta will be switching between gathering science and attempting communication with Philae starting later this week, in an effort to establish a stronger connection and instruct Philae to start up more of its suite of instruments.

Comet 67P's perihelion - its closest approach to the Sun - takes place on August 13, which will give Philae the strongest dose of solar radiation. Whether it will have the right exposure to turn that into electricity to run its systems, however, is something that we'll just have to wait and see. Hopefully, the mission team can catch a lucky break and Philae can begin to conduct science from the surface again.

Stay tuned for more updates on this incredible mission.

Sources: Breakthrough Initiatives | Andrew Rivkin/The Planetary Society | Nature | ESA Rosetta blog

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