Subscribe to receive SETI Institute news weekly in your inbox.

SETI Institute in the News June 20 – June 26, 2019

SETI Institute in the News June 20 – June 26, 2019

Curiosity Rover on Mars
NASA's Curiosity rover Credit: NASA.
Life on Mars? Methane Readings Raise Hopes

Early results of measurements recently taken by NASA’s Curiosity rover show surprisingly high levels of methane on Mars, prompting the rover’s science team to schedule another sampling for confirmation and spurring excitement in the science community. On Earth, methane is predominately generated as a waste product by living things (biotic methane), and this reading might be evidence of active microbial life existing beneath the martian surface. It’s also possible that the methane is due to non-biological chemical reactions (abiotic methane). However, methane breaks down quickly when exposed to sunlight – meaning it would have to have been produced within only the last few centuries. Astrobiologists can’t help but hope that this reading may be a smoking gun, so to speak, of life on Mars. The search for life is a major reason for the interest in the red planet, as Seth Shostak, SETI Institute Senior Astronomer, noted in an Interesting Engineering article:

 “That’s the mythology,” said astronomer Seth Shostak, of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute. “Mars is about life, not geology, as interesting as that is.”

NASA has stated it will not officially announce the readings until additional data are taken and the results confirmed.

Image of an Alien-like creature by a spotlight, image by Aïda Amer/AxiosBreakthrough Listen and the Search for Extraterrestrials

Axios took note of the wealth of data released to the public by Breakthrough Listen, the largest release of SETI data to date. While significant, it still only represents searching a tiny amount of the vast universe, as Jill Tarter, co-founder of the SETI Institute and Chair Emeritus for SETI Research, told Axios:

If you compare the volume of space we're able to search for signs of advanced technology to the volume of Earth's oceans, then "so far, since 1960, we've searched about one hot tub's worth of the ocean," says longtime SETI researcher Jill Tarter.

Not only is the search only beginning, our technology may not yet be advanced enough to detect the kind of signals SETI researchers are hoping to find, SETI Institute Senior Astronomer Seth Shostak explains:

"So, there's always that possibility that we're just, you know, not at the point where we can pick up the signals easily. There may be lots and lots of signals, but we can't pick them up," SETI Institute's Seth Shostak told Axios.

Are we alone? For now, the question stands. Further analysis of the data already collected and published by Breakthrough Listen, now available to SETI researchers and the public everywhere, may inform and help to improve future searches.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration of disc-like UFOThe SETI Institute and UC Berkeley’s SETI@home: Two Approaches toward a Shared Goal

Visitors to the SETI Institute often mention that their interest in the search for life beyond Earth started with a program called SETI@home. This software allows volunteers to lend their computers to run a background program that processes data collected by radio telescopes in search of possible extraterrestrial signals. The public response to SETI@home’s 1999 launch was incredibly enthusiastic, proving the value of citizen science. While the SETI Institute is not affiliated with SETI@home, the volunteer computer project, created by the Berkeley SETI Research Center, has been an important complement to the SETI Institute’s research and outreach efforts, as SETI Institute Senior Astronomer Seth Shostak noted in a recent article on the Ringer:

Shostak says he’s often asked whether SETI@home has helped him. “Of course the easy answer is no, because it’s not our project,” he says. “But that’s not true. It’s like asking an astronomer in the 1980s, ‘Hey, does Carl Sagan help you?’ And, of course, if that guy doesn’t work with Carl Sagan he’ll say no. But, in fact, Carl Sagan has helped him, because Carl Sagan has increased the interest in the field of astronomy. … SETI@home has done much the same for SETI.”

The article also discussed the different approaches the two groups take. SETI Institute is able to monitor for signals and investigate in real-time using the Allen Telescope Array (ATA), as Shostak explained:

When it picks up a signal, it can be investigated immediately, reorienting the telescope to see whether the signal is really interstellar or is only interference masquerading as the real deal. Seth Shostak, the SETI Institute’s Senior Astronomer, says, “We wanted to follow up on signals immediately, within a minute, because you don’t want to run the risk of, well, this was a beacon, and then E.T. got bored or went out to lunch or who knows what and then turned off their transmitter, pointed it somewhere else.” 

On the other hand, SETI@home can take more time to sift through data in depth:

“We have to make a decision, what are the best sorts of signal signatures to look for,” Shostak says. “And they can look for a wider range of those, because they have all the time in the world and a lot of the processing power in the world.”

Jon Richards, SETI Institute research scientist whose work concentrates on SETI signals with the ATA, is himself cognizant of the difficulties faced by the two non-profits since funding for NASA’s SETI research was cut back in the early 90’s:

SETI Institute research scientist Jon Richards says that SETI@home “does well with the resources it has, but it needs to grow larger,” adding, “I would support a big funding initiative.” Richards notes that even if new cloud-computing companies could replicate SETI@home’s power, they couldn’t replicate the PR value of making the public part of the search.

Rather than rivalry, the two organizations share a common goal: to find out what, if any, forms of intelligent life exist elsewhere in the universe. Jill Tarter, co-founder of the SETI Institute and Chair Emeritus for SETI Research, sees the value in both paths to find answers:

Tarter values SETI@home’s role in expanding the public’s involvement in science. “No question that SETI@home put citizen science with distributed competing on the map,” she says.

Tarter is still partial to the SETI Institute’s approach. “I prefer to analyze incoming data as close to real time as possible in order to follow up immediately,” she says. “On the other hand, SETI@home has an enormous amount of time on the sky at certain frequencies, but with delayed analysis. We’ll know which was the better strategy when one of us succeeds.”

Big Picture Science

In last week’s episode, you can explore the complex emotional lives of animals in Animals Like Us. On our previous week’s episode, the team eavesdrops on some non-human communication in an encore of You’ve Got Whale.

Facebook Live

Last time on Facebook Live, you could join the SETI Institute team at AbSCiCon (the Asrobiology Science Conference) in Seattle. Videos of all past Facebook Live events can be found on our Facebook page:

Recent Articles