Dark side (5/25/23)
Good afternoon, and happy Thursday. This week, astronomers across the world spied a new supernova light up in the Pinwheel Galaxy. It’s the closest supernova spotted in a decade, and if you’re lucky enough to live somewhere dark and have a strong enough telescope at home, you could still catch a glimpse tonight.
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Decoding Alien Signals
This week, SETI—i.e., Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence—researchers staged a test, encouraging participants across the world to brace for first contact with life from elsewhere in the universe.
Well, more or less. In a project entitled “A Sign in Space,” artist Daniela de Paulis teamed up with the SETI Institute and ESA to beam a practice message from the ExoMars Orbiter to Earth for participants to decode.
“This experiment is an opportunity for the world to learn how the SETI community, in all its diversity, will work together to receive, process, analyse, and understand the meaning of a potential extraterrestrial signal,” Allen Telescope Array project scientist and project participant Wael Farah told Cosmos Magazine.
The ExoMars Orbiter deployed the message yesterday afternoon. It traveled 16 minutes to Earth, where it was intercepted by several radio telescopes. Researchers at those telescopes then distributed the message to engage the public in decoding it collaboratively.
Preparing for contact: Though such a test run for finding and decoding alien messages rings of science fiction, the search for life elsewhere in the universe remains one of the central goals of modern astronomy. SETI research depends on being ready to intercept signals from the deep cosmos if and when they arrive.
Once a year, NASA scours the field for the most out-there, far-fetched inventions it can find with potential to transform the future of spaceflight, and awards them funding through the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. The agency announced this year’s batch last month, and one of the six awards went to Ronald Polidan at Lunar Resources, Inc. in Houston to explore building a radio observatory on the far side of the Moon to listen for faint signals from the depths of the universe.
The Moon’s far side is one of the best vantage points in the solar system to sit quietly and gather radio observations, since it is naturally shielded from Earth’s buzzy, nonstop chattering by a (7.3 x 10^22)-kg mass of rock. The FarView Observatory, as the concept is called, would consist of 100,000 dipole antennas over ~200 sq km, and would be manufactured right on the lunar surface.
The observatory wouldn’t just probe for intergalactic messages from our potential neighbors—it’s also designed to help us better understand the cosmic “Dark Ages,” the period of time from before the first stars formed.
Keep an eye and an ear out: While FarView is in the exploration phase and global participants of “A Sign in Space” are combing through a simulated message to practice for the real thing, there are ongoing projects looking out for the potential of life.
Through JWST and other telescopes, researchers are looking for exoplanets that fit into the habitable zones of their stars, where liquid water—and therefore, maybe, life—could exist. And the Allen Telescope Array and Very Large Array are both optimized to search for artificial radio signals coming from beyond.
Other News from the Cosmos
JWST spotted a huge geyser on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, shooting a plume of water and gas into space.
Three agencies in the US government are looking into the safety of liquid oxygen and methane fuels for launch vehicles.
The noise from rocket launches could be harmful to wildlife around spaceports, and a team led by California State University and Brigham Young University researchers is looking into it.
A polar cyclone was spotted on Uranus by the Very Large Array in New Mexico.
The Bio-SPHERE project, mimicking the experience of life on Mars, has kicked off in a tunnel system underneath North Yorkshire.
Vortex rings that emanate from supernovae could help nuclear fusion researchers compress fuel in a more efficient way.
Meteors or volcanic eruptions are the most likely culprits responsible for kickstarting the chain reactions that led to the first formation of life on Earth.
The View from Space
What’s better than one space telescope? Five space telescopes and a ground observatory. NASA combined observations from JWST and the Chandra X-ray Observatory with supplemental data from Hubble, Spitzer, XMM-Newton, and the New Technology Telescope to create four new images of well-documented phenomena as seen from Earth’s orbit.