Three-day festival ends on high note looking to the future of space exploration


Three-day festival ends on high note looking to the future of space exploration

SETIcon II, a three-day celebration of the exploration of space, science, technology, the arts, and science education, ended last night with three panel discussions, one examining how NASA’s Kepler space telescope mission is revolutionizing astronomy, a second on science and video games, and a third detailing the exciting research plans for the SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array. SETIcon II attracted more than 800 attendees from as far away as Washington, D.C., and visitors from five foreign countries.

“The response we received from the public and the scientific community was outstanding,” said Edna DeVore, deputy CEO of the SETI Institute. “Everyone from astronauts to scientists, to a Pulitzer Prize-winning author served on our panels and gave freely of their time and knowledge to make this an extremely engaging conference where we looked at the challenges facing scientific- and space-exploration in the coming decades, and how people interact with science and discovery through the arts.”

The last day of SETIcon, Sunday June 23, probed questions around finding life on other worlds. Is extraterrestial life more likely to be single-celled slime or scintillating intelligent beings? On Earth, biologists estimate that there at 5 x 1030 (5 nonillion) bacteria. These tiny single-celled organisms are found everywhere in and around us, and make up the vast majority of the biomass on our planet; they have dominated life on Earth for most of its 4.5 billion years existence. Humans, trees, butterflies, starfish, and such are a tiny portion of Earth’s living matter, and relative newcomers. Why would it different elsewhere? In the panel, “Do Any Exoplanets Have Intelligent Occupants?” Jill Tarter, Margaret Turnbull, Dan Werthimer and Jon M. Jenkins debated how, in the future, we might sniff out signs of life with ground and space-based giant telescopes that seek the subtle fingerprints of life in the atmosphere of distant exoplanets like those being discovered by NASA’s Kepler Mission and others. And, whether SETI scientists might grab the top prize by detecting incontrovertible evidence of extraterrestrial technology, a proxy for extraterrestrial intelligent life. These discoveries remain to be made in our future.

Astronauts, futurists and planetary scientists debated the future of space exploration at a time when many of the public believe that the US is getting out of space exploration because the space shuttles were retired. Should the focus be on robotic explorers that make one-way trips to asteroids, moons and planets in our solar system, or is it time to send the next Christopher Columbus in a 21st century spaceship to the Moon and beyond? This panel discussion featured Bob Richards, futurist and space entrepreneur, former astronaut Tom Jones, Cynthia Phillips, a planetary geologist at the SETI Institute who works on outer solar system exploration, and Robert Picardo, Hollywood’s humanoid robotic doctor from Star Trek: Voyager. When asked “Who would put the first boot prints on Mars: NASA, the Chinese space agency, or Elon Musk of SpaceX?” by an audience member, the panel bet on commercial space pioneer, Musk.

“While it is more expensive to send humans into space and bring them back, that’s what we’ve always done because humans are explorers,” said former astronaut, Tom Jones. “Without the great adventure of manned space flight, NASA would be a much smaller because the public is simply not as excited about sending robots to explore the solar system. We really need to do both and the advances in technology over the next 5 to 10 years will open unimagined opportunities for tools to help humans explore space.”

The social impact of finding life beyond Earth was to topic of “Would Discovering ET Destroy Earth’s Religions?” by panelists Bob Richards, Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at SETI Institute, Robert J. Sawyer, noted science fiction author, and Doug Vakoch, a psychologist who investigates how we might develop messages to communicate with extraterrestrials. As they discussed the impact of discovering intelligent life elsewhere, Shostak asserted that, as scientists, we should look at the data.

“We’ve done this experiment. When Percival Lowell took the 19th century discovery of faint lines on the surface of Mars by Italian astronomers, which they termed “canali,” to mean that there was a vast canal-building society on Mars, there were enormous headlines in the newspapers. There was a great deal of public interest, but no panic. When NASA announced in 1996 the possible evidence of fossilized bacteria in the Martian meteorite, ALH84001, it was the science story of the year. Again, the public was extraordinarily interested. So, this experiment has been run many times, and nobody panicked,” said Shostak. “Most people’s beliefs will not be changed much by these discoveries.”

Other panels focused on whether Hollywood gets ET biology right, how art and artists are key contributors to science through interpreting discoveries, how science gets into television for film screenplays, science and videogames, how to invent alien languages, the discoveries of the Kepler Mission, and the future of the Allen Telescope Array which SETI Institute scientists use to search for ET. It was a weekend of astrobiology, astronauts, actors, and artists interacting with all of the attendees.

The true highlight of Sunday was an interview of Frank Drake, a SETI pioneer, who was the first human to point a radio telescope at nearby stars in search of ET more than 50 years ago. Drake is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and Chairman Emeritus of the SETI Institute’s Board of Trustees. In his long—and continuing—career, Drake Professor, has been Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Cornell University, where he served as director of Arecibo Observatory, the world’s largest radio telescope, and Dean of Science at UC Santa Cruz. Interviewed by Andrew Fraknoi, Chair of the Foothill College astronomy department, and long-time colleague, Drake reflected on his early career, and his life-long adventure of seeking evidence of ET. The wide ranging conversation wrapped up with Drake’s vision for a new telescope that uses the Sun as a giant gravitational lens that focuses at 500 times the distance of Earth from the Sun. A spacecraft sent there could collect images of distant worlds by seeing the light from their cities at night. Drake is optimistic that we will find life beyond Earth, and is still pursuing that scientific passion.

All of the events at SETIcon—panels, interviews, presentations, and performances—were videotaped by Media Archives, and will soon be available for purchase. Individual sessions, or the entire conference proceedings can be ordered. Further information will be available at soon. A year from now, SETIcon will draw together leading researchers, artists, musicians, and the public to again engage in an entertaining celebration of science and space exploration.

About SETI Institute

The SETI Institute is a multi-disciplinary, highly collaborative, research organization designed to explore, understand, and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe utilizing expertise in fields ranging from astrophysics and planetary science to biology and social science, as well as computer science and signal detection.  We have a passion not only for discovery, but also for sharing knowledge as scientific ambassadors to the public, the press, and the government.  The SETI Institute is a distinguished partner for government agencies, academic institutions, and corporations around the world.