“Where is everybody?”


Don’t get too excited about finding E.T. just yet. Get excited about the engineering.

A few days ago NASA had a press conference moderated by NASA Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan. The filtered headline that eventually made its way into the popular consciousness of the internet is that the discovery of extraterrestrial life is a paltry couple decades away. The way the conference was parsed into news form range from the relatively guarded “NASA scientists say they’re closer than ever to finding life beyond Earth” at the LA Times to the more sensational “NASA: ALIENS and NEW EARTHS will be ours inside 20 years” at the The Register. As statements, the former headline is almost unavoidably true given an assumption that humans eventually stumble upon life off-planet, and the latter is only one more over-capitalised word from being wholly fantastic. Neither actually touches on the content of the NASA press conference.

The impetus of the conference was partially fueled by an April announcement of a discovery by the Kepler program of the Earth-similar Kepler 186f, which happens to reside in the habitable zone of its siminymous parent star. Although Kepler 186f definitely might be sort of a bit more Earth-like, its discovery was only the latest in a long list of over 1800 exoplanets posited to exist to date. Although the techniques for exoplanet discovery planetary transit attributable stellar dimming, are not infalliable [paywalled primary source], the continued refinement of modern signal processing for unearthing (heh) exoplanet planet signatures makes this an exciting time to look skyward.

The speakers took a broad view of progression toward answering the question “are we alone?” John Grunsfeld, Hubble mechanic extraordinaire, emphasised the approach of looking for spectral signals corresponding to bio-signatures with the upcoming James Webb telescope. Of course, the terracentric focus shared by the panel means that NASA plans to look for signals associated with Earth life: water, methane, oxygen, etc. Carl Sagan et al. considered the task of finding similar biosignatures on Earth itself. Looking for signs we know to be associated with our own personal experience of life is our best current guess for what we should be looking for, but no guarantee exists that it is the right one. We are no longer too enthralled by the idea of trading arsenate for phosphate, but our own planet has plenty of examples of strange metabolism, that we should expect life off planet to consist of more peculiar possibilities. Imagine our chagrin if we spend a few centuries looking for spectral signatures of water before stumbling across hydrophobic biochemistry on Titan.

Many of us may remember the nanobe-laden Martian meteorite ALH84001 that touched off a burst of interest and a flurry of Mars probes in the latter half of the 1990s. Like the 100-200 nm fossilised “bacteria” in the Mars meteorite, the tone suggesting imminent discovery of extraterrestrial life (particularly the sensationalist coverage by the lay press) serves as nothing more than hyperbolic rhetoric. If this effect carries over to those with a hand on the purse-strings, so much the better, but don’t get too caught up as a member of the scientifically literate and generally curious public. The likelihood of finding life outside our own planet in a given time span is essentially impossible to predict with no priors, hence the famous Fermi’s paradox which graces the title of this post. The actual content of the video is much more important than the wanton speculation that fuels its press coverage.

A major advantage of placing the Hubble space telescope above the atmosphere was to avoid optical aberrations generated by atmospheric turbulence. The present state of the art in adaptive optics and signal processing essentially obviates this need, as ground-based telescopes such as the Magellan II in Chile can now outperform the Hubble in terms of resolution. The James Webb will offer some fundamentally novel capabilities in what it can see, with a 6.5m primary mirror and sensors sensitive to wavelengths from 600 nanometre red to the mid infrared at 28 microns.

The upcoming TESS survey, described by McArthur Fellow Sarah Seager, will use the same basic technique-observing planetary transits-as the Kepler mission to look for exoplanets. TESS will launch in 2017, slightly in advance of the main attraction of JWST. Looking for planetary transits has served us well in the past, but direct imaging is the holy grail. Seager described a starshade for occluding bright, planet-hosting stars to further that goal as part of the New Worlds mission. The design resembles a sunflower in pattern rather than a circular shade, the latter would introduce airy rings from diffaction around the edges, and desert tests of the prototypes have been encouraging so far. The precision engineering of the shade unfolding is another masterpiece. Due to its size, deployment cannot be tested in a terrestrial vacuum chamber, requiring its engineering to be all the more precise. I could see scale versions of the design as parasols doing quite well in the gift shop.


Image from NASA via Wikipedia

The natural philosophy that we now call science has roots in the same fundamental questions as “regular” philosophy. “Are we alone?” Is really just a proxy for “Where are we, how does it work, and why are we here?” Without any definitive answers to these questions on the horizon, I think we can safely say that building the machines that allow us to explore them and conditioning our minds in order to think about our universe is a pretty good way to spend our time. It will be a lonely universe if we find ourselves to be a truly unique example of biogenesis, but not so lonely in the looking.

As for yours truly, I’m looking forward to the “Two Months of Terror” (to quote Grunsfeld), October-December 2018, as the James Webb telescope makes its way to the L2 Lagrange point to unfold and cool in preparation for a working life of precipitous discovery.

Link to video

Ellen Stofan- Chief Scientist, NASA
John Grunsfeld- Astrophysicist, former astronaut, Hubble mechanic
Matt Mountain- Director: Space telescope Science Institute
John Mather- Project scientist James Webb telescope, 2006 physics Nobel laureate
Sarah Seager- Astrophysicist, MIT Principal Investigator, McArthuer fellow 2013
Dave Gallagher Electrical Engineer, Director of Astronomy and Physics at Jet Propulison Laboratory

Also read up on ESA projects: the Herschel Space Observatory, observing at 60 to 500 microns, and Gaia, a satellite set to use parallax to generate a precise galactic census.

Top image by the author


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