Subscribe to receive SETI Institute news weekly in your inbox.

SETI Institute in the News June 6 – June 12, 2019

SETI Institute in the News June 6 – June 12, 2019

Saturn's moon Daphnis
A false-color image mosaic shows Daphnis, one of Saturn’s ring-embedded moons, and the waves it kicks up in the Keeler gap. Images collected by Cassini’s close orbits in 2017 are offering new insight into the complex workings of the rings.
Moons Sculpt Saturn’s Rings in Intricate Dance

While NASA’s Cassini mission ended back in 2017, scientists continue to delve into the treasure trove of data collected from the close observations of Saturn made by the spacecraft in its final year. A new paper describes the observations of the primary rings of Saturn, revealing intricate interactions between the rings and Saturn’s moons. The tiny moons appear to shape the rings, providing insights that have implications beyond Saturn. Matt Tiscareno, a senior research scientist at the SETI Institute and the lead author of the study, elaborated in a statement:

"These new details of how the moons are sculpting the rings in various ways provide a window into solar system formation, where you also have disks evolving under the influence of masses embedded within them."

As Tiscareno explained to ABC, this window to the past is part of what makes the rings so important for understanding our solar system:

Saturn's rings are analogous to a "baby solar system" and provide a "natural laboratory", Dr. Tiscareno said.

"We can't go to other stars that have discs around them or back in time to when our solar system was forming, but we can go to places like Saturn's rings."

As CNN reported, new questions have been brought up by these close-up images, which show several distinct textures with defined boundaries:

"This tells us the way the rings look is not just a function of how much material there is," Tiscareno said. "There has to be something different about the characteristics of the particles, perhaps affecting what happens when two ring particles collide and bounce off each other. And we don't yet know what it is."

USA Today reported that being able to observe Saturn’s magnificent rings, which are likely much younger than the planet itself, may come down to luck:

“There is no clear reason why Saturn should be special in this way," Tiscareno said in an e-mail to USA TODAY. "One possible answer is that Saturn, in fact, is not special, but is simply the lucky planet that has rings at the time when we happen to live."


Image of two bottlenose dolphinsDolphin Babble and Herding Humpbacks

SETI Institute research scientist Laurance Doyle is a renaissance man who’s got a knack for uncovering patterns. Drawing on information theory and statistical tools, Doyle was able to find patterns in animal communications and then compare their complexity. Doyle described his work in a recent interview on PRI’s Living on Earth:

"We decided to start with bottlenose dolphins and humpback whales because they're intelligent, they're socially complex, and they both use tools,” Doyle explains. “But, also, they put most of their communication in audio. Unlike [studying] chimpanzees, we wouldn't have to try and interpret gestures or facial expressions.”

Doyle’s research shows that whales and dolphins possess and follow rules when they communicate, similar to the use of syntax in human communication. Also, just like human babies, Doyle was able to show that infant dolphins “babble” until they learn the language. In humpback whales, he found that there’s a difference in complexity between feeding calls and social vocalizations:

He compares whales’ feeding calls to a cowboy who is herding his cows. While he’s talking to his friend, he’s also shouting “Hya, hya, hya!” “You would say ‘hya’ is a sound he's making along with the others, but it's a herding call. It's not a social vocalization,” he explains.

Doyle’s work is key to the success of the SETI Institute, as we need to know how to recognize and comprehend any extraterrestrial communications we might encounter. That work starts here at home, Doyle asserts:

Doyle says “there's a continuity of complexity in the communication systems of all the species on Earth," including plants. In fact, he wrote a paper on how a certain cotton plant sends “an air traffic control communication” to a certain wasp to tell it what plant to land on.

“In other words,” he says, “everything around us is communicating like crazy. I’m trying to get us not to stare up at the stars and say, 'Are we alone’ when dolphins are tugging at our pants, saying, 'Habla español,’ you know? ‘Parlez-vous français?' We've really got to quit staring off [into space] for intelligence. We need to recognize it here.”

Seeing Blue HeaderThe Search for E.T. – Or Their Stuff

Seth Shostak, Senior Aqstronomer at the SETI Institute and longtime alien hunter, recently wrote a piece for discussing the search for extraterrestrial life. Shostak points out that most of the efforts to find alien life are focused on our solar system, mainly on planets or moons believed to have underground oceans and lakes, noting that, “for anyone content with finding aliens that are microscopic, then searching the solar system is their best bet”. But what about technologically advanced aliens? Shostak highlights that only two US groups are pursuing radio searches, including the SETI Institute. Still, Shostak remains hopeful:

Thanks to the indefatigable march of technology – and more specifically computer technology – the speed at which researchers are scanning the skies is accelerating. In the next two decades, more than a million star systems will be examined for signs of alien signals. If, as some scientists guess, tens of thousands of such societies are scattered across the Milky Way, then a signal could be found soon. The foreseeable future could give us a major news story.

Shostak also suggests that the search could be approached differently, by searching for alien artifacts:
Obviously, we can only guess at the type of projects that sophisticated societies might tackle, but a search for artifacts is certainly worth considering. In addition to the advantage that no altruistic behavior by the extraterrestrials is required (they don’t have to transmit for our benefit), it’s also conceivable that we could discover their handiwork in the course of ordinary astronomical investigation. Structures are a ‘signal’ that’s always on.

You can hear more from Seth Shostak on his podcast and radio show, Big Picture Science.

Big Picture Science

In last week’s episode, discover your next home away from home as Big Picture Science examines habitability beyond Earth, in an encore of It's Habitable Forming. On our previous week’s episode, what you don’t know about animals will surprise you in an encore of Creature Discomforts.

Facebook Live

Last time on Facebook Live, SETI Institute senior astronomer Seth Shostak and senior research scientist Matt Tiscareno talk Cassini data and Saturn’s rings. Videos of all past Facebook Live events can be found on our Facebook page:

  • AlienCon 2019: June 21-23. 2019, Los Angeles, CA SETI Institute Senior Astronomer Seth Shostak is one of the featured speakers
  • AbSciCon: June 24-28, 2019, Bellevue WA The SETI Institute will be a participating sponsor and numerous SETI Institute scientists will be presenting their work
  • Starmus V – A Giant Leap: June 24-29, 2019: Zurich, Switzerland Jill Tarter, co-founder of the SETI Institute, is on the Starmus advisory board and will be one of the featured speakers
  • IAU Chile: June 30-July 6, 2019, Copiapo, Chile SETI Institute research scientist Meng Jin will offer a talk: Coronal dimming as a proxy for stellar CMEs
  • Astronomy Nights on Mount Tamalpais – Cassini’s Spectacular Final Year at Saturn: July 13, 2019, Mill Valley, CA SETI Institute senior research scientist Matthew Tiscareno is the scheduled speaker

Recent Articles