A topic about outer-space and everything in it, from little green men to big spirally galaxies

Solving the Fermi Paradox: Could Advanced Aliens Be Lovecraftian 'Old Ones', Sleeping Through Eons?

Aliens in hibernation

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It's not often that you find academic papers about the possibility of alien civilisations that cite H.P.Lovecraft. But that's exactly what you'll find in a new article authored by Oxford University researchers, "That is not dead which can eternal lie: the aestivation hypothesis for resolving Fermi’s paradox".

The researchers, from Oxford's Future of Humanity Institute, ask if advanced civilisations - who would likely be burning through power sources due to vast increases in computational ability - might make the decision to go into a hibernation of sorts ("aestivation") in order to take advantage of more energy-friendly conditions in the deep future:

[E]arly civilizations have a far greater chance to colonize and pre-empt later civilizations if they wish to do so. If these early civilizations are around, why are they not visible? The aestivation hypothesis states that they are aestivating until a later cosmological era.

The argument is that the thermodynamics of computation make the cost of a certain amount of computation proportional to the temperature. Our astrophysical and cosmological knowledge indicates that the universe is cooling down with cosmic time. As the universe cools down, one Joule of energy is worth proportionally more.

...Hence a civilization desiring to maximize the amount of computation will want to use its energy endowment as late as possible: using it now means far less total computation can be done. Hence an early civilization, after expanding to gain access to enough raw materials, will settle down and wait until it becomes rational to use the resources.

We are not observing any aliens since the initial expansion phase is brief and intermittent and the aestivating civilization and its infrastructure is also largely passive and compact.

In short, the paper says, very big civilisations might have a small footprint because they have "relocated most of their activity to the future". Advanced civilizations might have “seen it all”, the researchers say, and so "do not gain much more information utility from hanging around in the early era".

To 'relocate their activity to the future', the researchers say, advanced aliens could have figured out a way to either just 'hibernate', or otherwise perhaps even regulated their "mental speed" to change their subjective experience of time to enable them to 'traverse' large periods of time with minimum impact.

The paper is obviously all very speculative, even if they do offer real science (much of it too complex for me) to try and back up their hypothesis (they also note that the paper didn't originally aim to solve the Fermi Paradox, but rather was a consideration of how advanced civilizations might manage their resources).

But if you're going to have some fun speculating about hibernating ancient aliens, why not go hog wild and throw in some Lovecraft to paint a picture? That's exactly what the authors do to illustrate their scenario of 'sleeping Old Ones', inserting the two following quotes into their paper:

That is not dead which can eternal lie.
And with strange aeons even death may die.
H.P. Lovecraft

The Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be.
Not in the spaces we know, but between them. They walk serene
and primal, undimensioned and to us unseen.
H.P. Lovecraft, The Dunwich Horror and Others

Maybe they should have put 'eldritch' in front of every second noun just to really set a Lovecraftian tone...

Link: "That is not dead which can eternal lie: the aestivation hypothesis for resolving Fermi’s paradox" on arXiv.org

Related: SETI Should Consider Black Holes As Potential Targets

(thanks Norman)

Searching for Artifacts of Ancient Technological Species in Our Own Solar System

Ancient alien city

Since its birth around a half century ago, SETI has largely focused on looking for alien civilisations beyond our own solar system, searching for radio signals from prominent or nearby stars. But what if there were earlier technological civilisations in our own solar system, or even here on Earth?

That's the question explored in a new paper posted to arXiv.org (and soon to be published in the International Journal of Astrobiology), "Prior Indigenous Technological Species", by astronomer Jason T. Wright.

SETI typically focuses on interstellar radio signals or other studies of objects beyond the Solar System, however an alternative search avenue has been appreciated for nearly as long: the search for alien artifacts within the Solar System. This has not only been a topic for science fiction (e.g. 2001: A Space Odyssey) but in the SETI literature. Indeed, the apparent lack of such artifacts has been used as evidence that humanity must be the only spacefaring civilization in the Galaxy (Hart, 1975). Despite Hart’s claim, we can hardly rule out such artifacts in the Solar System, as demonstrated by Freitas (1983a) and Haqq-Misra & Kopparapu (2012).

In these discussions it is assumed, implicitly or explicitly, that the origin of such artifacts would be not just extraterrestrial (Haqq-Misra & Kopparapu, 2012, refer to them as “Non-Terrestrial Artifacts” (NTAs)) but extrasolar. But if such technology were to be discovered, we should consider the possibility that its origin lies within the Solar System, and potentially on Earth.

After all, given that the bodies in the Solar System are at least five orders of magnitude closer than the nearest star system, and given that we know that not only are the ingredients of and conditions for life common in the Solar System, but that one of its planets is known to host complex life, it is perhaps more likely that their origin be local, than that an extraterrestrial species crossed interstellar space and deposited it here. At the very least, the relative probabilities of the two options is unclear.

In this paper, I discuss the possibility for such prior indigenous technological species; by this I mean species that are indigenous to the Solar System, produce technosignatures and/or were spacefaring, and are currently extinct or otherwise absent.

Wright notes that one of the great difficulties in finding evidence for previous technological civilisations in our solar system is simply the passage of time - old stuff disappears. "The Earth is quite efficient, on cosmic timescales, at destroying evidence of technology on its surface," he notes. "Biodegredation can destroy organic material in a matter of weeks, and weathering and other forms of erosion will destroy most exposed rock and metals on a timescale of centuries to millennia, if human activity does not erase it faster.

Wright points out that, at the very longest, some "large and durable structures, in the right environments" - such as the Giza pyramids - might last for 'just' tens of thousands of years. Given complex life has existed on Earth for over 400 million years (40,000 sequential periods of 10,000 years), you see the problem in searching for 'ancient aliens'. Not least, because, on timescales of hundreds of millions of years "plate tectonics will subduct almost all evidence for technology with the crust it sits upon, erasing it from the surface entirely.

Regardless of those difficulties, where should we look? Wright suggests that Venus - with a thinner atmosphere in the past - and Mars, once covered in water, would be good candidates. And he reminds us that search should also include Earth (though he disavows the topic of 'ancient aliens' on his blog). Furthermore, he notes, "while all geological records of prior indigenous technological species might be long destroyed, if the species were spacefaring there may be technological artifacts to be found throughout the Solar system."

It's a fascinating hypothetical topic, though it is worth pointing out that Jason Wright is not particularly happy about "all the wrong kind of attention" the paper has received "from the yellow press and the ufologists....it is mortifying...Now excuse me while I answer all these emails from Coast to Coast and ufologists sending me pictures of clouds."

No doubt his frustration has arisen from the "astronomer says ancient aliens existed in our own solar system" headlines that the paper has generated, with many mis-judging what the words "may" and "is possible" mean, in terms of likelihood of ancient alien civilisations. As Wright says on his blog, he put his paper together...

...not because I think they exist, but because we’re at the point where it should be possible to say for sure that certain types of them didn’t. The end of the paper is all about the things we can do to start drawing some conclusions.

I recommend - as I have to SETI people before - that it might be worth engaging with the ufologists and Forteans, rather than dissing them, as they could be some of your staunchest advocates, even if there is some disagreement over assumptions and conclusions.

Paper: "Prior Indigenous Technological Species", by astronomer Jason T. Wright.

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Cassini Takes a Photo of Earth While Looking Through Saturn's Rings

Earth as Seen From Between Saturn's Rings

Just to break things down in case you've lost your sense of wonder: a robot orbiting around Saturn just took a photo of all 7.5 billion of us sitting on a pinhead, and framed it with Saturn's rings.

Or, let's allow Carl Sagan to present a more eloquent explanation (originally written in 1994 regarding the original 'pale blue dot' image taken by Voyager 1):

Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot

Cassini is about to dive into Saturn's rings on its way to its 'grand finale' - a death plunge into Saturn itself.

More information on the photo is available at the Cassini website.

Reports About the Demise of the UFO Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

There's a persistent joke on the 'net about how, as camera phones have grown in usage, the number of UFO sightings has dropped (e.g. this XKCD comic). And while this joke has morphed slowly into an assumed fact, the truth of the matter is actually the opposite - at least in Canada anyhow.

Need proof? See the 2016 Canadian UFO Survey, which shows that UFO sightings are currently being reported at near-record levels. The Canadian UFO Survey has been compiled by UFOlogy Research Manitoba since 1989, and in 2016 they recorded 1131 officially filed UFO reports - the fifth year in a row above 1000 cases - which "clearly contradicts comments by those who would assert that UFOs are a ‘passing fad’ or that UFO sightings are decreasing in number".

Here's a graph of the numbers of reported sightings of UFOs in Canada from 1989-2016, just for clarity:

Graph of the Number of Canadian UFO Sightings 1989-2016

Of course, a high number of UFO sightings doesn't necessarily translate to something inexplicable. As noted in a blog post summarising the report, most of the UFOs reported were just simple lights in the sky, while 'close encounters' comprised less than 1 in 100 of the reports. Additionally, it has to be noted that the number of cases considered "Unexplained" was just 4%. And further...

...It should be emphasized the classification of Unknown does not imply alien visitation. Each case may still have an explanation following further investigation. And of those that remain unexplained, they may remain unexplained, but still are not incontrovertible proof of extraterrestrial intervention or some mysterious natural phenomenon.

For more detailed (and fascinating) breakdowns of the data, as well as selected cases of interest, see the full 2016 Canadian UFO Report (PDF download).

Cassini's Grand Finale

While I'm not exactly in the mood to marry a robot, if ever there was a machine that I could love it is the Cassini probe. After almost 20 years in space on its mission to investigate Saturn and its moons, later this month the probe will begin a five month approach that will see it eventually destroyed as it descends into the cloudy atmosphere of the ringed planet.

To commemorate Cassini's two decade-long mission, NASA and JPL have released the short video above.

The final chapter in a remarkable mission of exploration and discovery, Cassini's Grand Finale is in many ways like a brand new mission. Twenty-two times, NASA's Cassini spacecraft will dive through the unexplored space between Saturn and its rings. What we learn from these ultra-close passes over the planet could be some of the most exciting revelations ever returned by the long-lived spacecraft. This animated video tells the story of Cassini's final, daring assignment and looks back at what the mission has accomplished.

For more detailed information about Cassini's 'grand finale', head over to the NASA website.

Fly Above the Surface of Mars in this Stunning Video

What would it be like to float above the surface of the Red Planet in a dirigible (because that's how H.G. Wells would have wanted it dammit)? Something like the video above I'm guessing, painstakingly constructed frame-by-frame by Finnish engineer and photographer Jan Fröjdman from still anaglyph images taken by the HIRISE camera:

The anaglyph images of Mars taken by the HiRISE camera holds information about the topography of Mars surface. There are hundreds of high-resolution images of this type. This gives the opportunity to create different studies in 3D. In this film I have chosen some locations and processed the images into panning video clips. There is a feeling that you are flying above Mars looking down watching interesting locations on the planet. And there are really great places on Mars! I would love to see images taken by a landscape photographer on Mars, especially from the polar regions. But I'm afraid I won't see that kind of images during my lifetime.

It has really been time-consuming making these panning clips. In my 3D-process I have manually hand-picked reference points on the anaglyph image pairs. For this film I have chosen more than 33.000 reference points! It took me 3 months of calendar time working with the project every now and then.

The colors in this film are false because the anaglyph images are based on grayscale images. I have therefore color graded the clips. But I have tried to be moderate doing this. The light regions in the clips are yellowish and the dark regions bluish. The clips from the polar regions (the last clips in the film) have a white-blue tone.There are a lot of opinions and studies of what the natural colors on Mars might be. But the dark regions of dust often seems to have a bluish tone. Please study this issue on e.g sites by NASA.

This film is not scientific. As a space enthusiast I have just tried to visualize the planet my way.

Be sure to HD and fullscreen that baby, it's so beautiful.

The Hunt for 'Planet Nine' Explained

Mystery planet

In recent years new astronomical observations have led researchers to suggest that there may be another large planet in our Solar System, on a very elongated, elliptical orbit compared to the rest of the planets. Since nicknamed 'Planet Nine' (Planet X perhaps being too heavy with Zecharia Sitchin baggage for 'respectable' astronomers?), the mystery object is believed to currently be in the general direction of the constellation of Taurus (as viewed from Earth).

If you'd like to understand the discovery, and now search for, the mysterious Planet Nine, check out the video below by Mike 'Pluto Killer' Brown of Caltech, which is a part of a free online astronomy course "The Science of the Solar System", offered by Coursera. Brown gives the historical background to the search for distant planets, then describes how astronomers (including him) came to believe there was another large planet to be found, and how they are going to try and find it. A very interesting, concise explainer of the Planet Nine story, I definitely recommend checking it out:

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Researchers Say We Should Check for Alien Messages in Neutrinos

Radio telescopes

Researchers from Purdue University have proposed a new search for alien messages, not by scanning radio frequencies, but by looking for artificial patterns of neutrino pulses ('NU-SETI'). They note that since neutrinos are weakly interacting, any signal carried by a neutrino beam is "less likely to be distorted en route to Earth than would be the case for an electromagnetic signal":

In searching for SETI signals carried by neutrinos, there are at least two classes of signals that might be accessible to us. We start by recognizing that we already have the capability of generating pulsed neutrino beams at Fermilab, starting from pulsed proton beams. Specifically a pulsed beam was sent over a distance of 0.66 miles at an effective bit rate of 0.1 bits/sec, and was received with a detection accuracy of 99%. If we assume an advanced civilization can do somewhat better, then we can search for “universal” strings of pulses, say, those characterizing prime numbers 1,2,3,5,7,… The other class of signals would be those specific neutrino signals associated with an advanced civilization running exclusively on fission or fusion sources all of which produce characteristic neutrino signals.

It's all well and good to propose these things, but how viable is the search in real life given the equipment and time required? The researchers note that their proposed NU-SETI system would be "a scalable array of individual sites spread over the world", each looking for the signature decay rate of specific radioactive sources; each of those sites would cost approximately $20,000 to set up, so 1000 worldwide sites would cost $20million.

While this sounds like a non-starter based on the costs alone - especially considering how difficult it has been for regular SETI to raise funds over the years - the researchers involved point out that NU-SETI might happily be funded by "sectors sensitive to the effects of solar storms such as electric power companies and the military", as the data collected could simultaneously be used to predict solar storms and thus mitigate their effects. In that case, $20million seems like a bargain (as compared to, say, losing a satellite to an unexpected solar storm).

Link: "NU-SETI: A proposal to detect extraterrestrial signals carried by neutrinos" (PDF)


Chilean UFO Video Stumps Experts - But Is It Just a Jet?

We've waited a long while for a high profile UFO case, but on the weekend a new story broke and has since received plenty of coverage across the intarwebs. Unveiled by journalist Leslie Kean - author of the bestselling UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record - this latest UFO (or as they're now known, UAP...'Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon') report originated from two experienced officers in the Chilean Navy - and it was caught on video, notably infrared (see video above, object is first seen around 40 seconds in).

The sighting was made in November 2014, when the two naval officers were carrying out a routine daytime patrol aboard an Airbus Cougar AS-532 helicopter:

On board were the pilot, a Navy Captain with many years of flying experience, and a Navy technician who was testing a WESCAM’s MX-15 HD Forward Looking Infra Red (FLIR) camera... The aircraft was flying at an altitude of approximately 4,500 feet on a clear afternoon with unlimited horizontal visibility...

...At 1:52 pm, while filming the terrain, the technician observed a strange object flying to the left over the ocean. Soon both men observed it with the naked eye. They noticed that the velocity and the altitude of the object appeared to be about the same as the helicopter, and estimated that the object was approximately 35 to 40 miles (55-65 km) away. It was traveling W/NW, according to the Captain. The technician aimed the camera at the object immediately and zoomed in with the infra red (IR) for better clarity.

Shortly thereafter, the pilot contacted two radar stations - one close by on the coast, and the other the main DGAC Control system (Ground Primary Radar) in Santiago - to report the unknown traffic. Neither station could detect it on radar, although both easily picked up the helicopter. (The object was well within the range of radar detection.) Air traffic controllers confirmed that no traffic, either civilian or military, had been reported in the area, and that no aircraft had been authorized to fly in the controlled air space where the object was located. The on-board radar was also unable to detect the object and the camera’s radar could not lock onto it.

The pilot tried several times to communicate with the UAP, using the multi-national, civilian bandwidth designed for this purpose. He received no reply.

The unidentified object was filmed for almost 10 minutes by the crew, and upon returning to base and reporting the encounter the Navy immediately turned over the footage to the CEFAA - the Chilean government agency consisting of military and technical experts that investigates UAP sightings. According to Kean "none of them have been able to explain the strange flying object", ruling out bird, flying insect, drone, parachute or hang glider as possible explanations.

One facet of the video that has received plenty of attention is that “in two instances [the UAP] discharged some type of gas or liquid with a high thermal track or signal”, according to the infrared camera technician. You can see this occurring around 8 minutes into the video above.

Chilean UFO Infrared Plume

According to French experts who examined the case, however, the object may have a simple explanation: the peanut-shaped infrared signature is an aircraft with twin-jet engines (as the shape was “consistent with the standard distance between the two jet engines of a medium-haul aircraft”), and the odd trails probably result "from dumping some cabin waste water, forming a plume oriented along the local wind blowing from the west.”

Kean says, however, that Chilean experts ruled this idea out for a number of reasons:

This plane would have been seen on primary radar; it would have had to be cleared for landing in Santiago or at another airport; it would likely have responded to radio communications. Airplanes do not throw out water when landing...[and] if - hypothetically - water was expelled, it would have immediately plummeted to the ground given the warm air temperature.

Reddit-detectives however seem to side with the French analysts, although a number suggest the jet may have been a military-grade aircraft, actually a fair distance from the helicopter and moving away from it on a slight angle, while the plumes are the thermal signature of the jet putting on its afterburners.

I'm a pilot. I've seen a few weird things in the air myself from time to time but the most interesting thing for me in this video is the plume it leaves behind at the end of the video.

What do I think it is? I think it's a fast jet of some kind running hot that's quite far away. The exhaust heat from it's engines is balling up behind it and the IR bloom from that heat is making it appear like a round ball in the sky and masking its shape.

The material it squirts out? It's basically igniting its afterburners and the hot exhaust heat is blooming from behind it in the line you see. If you look at a jet aircraft with afterburner like the F18 or something like that through FLIR, you will see the exact same thing.

...The object in question looks more like two orbs or circles pushed together which would what you would expect to see from a military twin engine jet aircraft like an F18 or similar style. Also as soon as the plume appears that thing speeds up really fast which is what you would expect from a jet that's just entered reheat.

Again though, the questions remain about the lack of radar ID from the ground (unless the jet was a looong way from the helicopter), and the lack of reply when asked to identify itself.

For these reasons, Chilean officials are sticking with the 'unidentified' designation. General Ricardo Bermúdez, director of the CEFAA during the investigation, told Kean...

The CEFAA is well regarded partly because there is full participation from the scientists of the academic world, the armed forces through their representatives, and the aeronautic personnel from the DGAC, including its Director. I am extremely pleased as well with the conclusion reached which is logical and unpretentious... [T]he great majority of committee members agreed to call the subject in question a UAP (Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon) due to the number of highly researched reasons that it was unanimously agreed could not explain it.


New Research Suggests Mysterious Fast Radio Bursts Could Be a Sign of Alien Civilisations

Starshot Radio Burst

The origin of so-called 'Fast Radio Bursts' has remained a cosmic mystery since the first 'FRB' was detected in 2007. But while explanations have included phenomena such as colliding black holes and dark matter-induced collapse of pulsars, a new theory suggests that FRBs could, perhaps, be a sign of intelligent alien life.

In the newly posted arXiv.org paper "Fast Radio Bursts from Extragalactic Light Sails", distinguished physicist and cosmologist Abraham (Avi) Loeb and co-author Manasvi Lingam put forward the suggestion that FRBs could be "artificial beams which have been set up as beacons, or for driving light sails".

Currently, only 17 FRBs have been recorded... Despite the diversity of explanations advanced for FRBs, the possibility that they may be of artificial origin has not been investigated, except for a brief consideration in Luan & Goldreich (2014).

...[The idea that extraterrestrial civilizations may be using radio beams is certainly not a new one, as it dates back to the pioneering paper by Cocconi & Morrison (1959). This idea was quickly picked up and extended by researchers engaged in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI)

...[S]ome of the major observables for FRBs are consistent with the idea that they may be manifestations of extragalactic beams. However, this still fails to answer the important question of why they exist in the first place.

The authors firstly consider the idea that FRBs might serve as ‘beacons’, meant to broadcast the presence of alien civilizations. However, given the massive power expenditure involved in creating the beam, they then suggest that perhaps it is more likely such high-powered beams might instead be employed to propel spacecraft to "mildly relativistic speeds" using light sails.

Entertaining this idea and working through the relevant equations, the researchers were surprised to find that the beam frequency that would be optimal to power a light sail falls within the range of FRB frequencies. Thus, they note, "it seems quite reasonable to hypothesize that the beams are being used to power light sails".

(Another conclusion was that the likely size of a light sail using Fast Radio Bursts for propulsion would have a mass of approximately 1 million tons - a value "extremely high by human standards" - suggesting that the spaceship involved would likely be an “interstellar ark” or “world ship” of sorts.)

If the theory sounds familiar, it might be because we humans are currently working on a similar idea (though on a much smaller scale). The Breakthrough Starshot project, funded by Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner's $100 million investment in 2015, aims to send tiny space probes to our nearest star system at a fifth the speed of light, using light sails propelled by Earth-based lasers.

So it's perhaps worth noting that the research on this new FRB paper was "supported in part by a grant from the Breakthrough Prize Foundation for the Starshot Initiative", and also that Abraham Loeb is the Chair of the Advisory Committee for Breakthrough-Starshot.

Link: Fast Radio Bursts from Extragalactic Light Sails

(thanks Norman)