ESA’s Gaia, HD 164695, and SETI

Scientists working with ESA’s Gaia space observatory published the first part of a three-dimensional sky map this week. It’ll be the most comprehensive all-sky survey done so far.

Not unexpectedly, this year’s ‘ET calling’ headlines gave way to something slightly more down-to-Earth.

We may eventually pick up an artificial signal from the stars: but that burst of radio noise from the direction of HD 164695 was almost certainly due to a clerical error of sorts. It wasn’t our first false alarm, and I doubt it will be the last.

  1. Gaia’s Map Takes Shape
  2. False Dawns
  3. SETI and an Unregistered Satellite
  4. HD 164595, Speculation, Miscellany

Life in the Universe?

It’s among my favorite ‘flying saucer’ jokes. The lurid accounts of wrecked spaceships and alien autopsies at Area 51 are an elaborate cover story, concealing the installation’s true purpose: storing and analyzing a wrecked alien spaceship and its deceased crew.

My interest in SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, which doesn’t have much to do with the Roswell UFO incident, prompted me to participate in a highly-unscientific poll earlier this year.1 I was the 55,742th respondent.

The current results are about the same as they were then:

  • “Do you believe alien life exists elsewhere in the universe?”
    • Yes – We may not have found them yet, but they’re out there
      65% (145,192 votes)
    • No – Aliens are just part of science fiction
      20% (43,894 votes)
    • I’m not sure
      15% (32,726 votes)

I’m still in the 15% minority.

Maybe that seems odd, since the Bible doesn’t mention space aliens: and I’ll get back to that.

God’s God, I’m Not

I’m a Catholic, so I believe God is infinite and eternal, almighty and ineffable: beyond our power to describe or understand. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 202, 230)

I also believe that God is creating a good and ordered physical world; and that this universe is changing, in a state of journeying toward an ultimate perfection. (Catechism, 282308)

Studying this immense and ancient creation honestly and methodically cannot interfere with an informed faith, because “the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God.” (Catechism, 159)

Whether or not we have neighbors isn’t, as I’ve said before, my decision. God’s God, I’m not, and I’m okay with that.

Astrobiology and Psalms 111:2

Before rambling on about HD 164695, radio signals, and space aliens, here’s how the Pontifical Academy of Sciences’ 2009 Study Week on Astrobiology2 booklet began — plus something from Psalms.

“…Among my Predecessors of venerable memory there were some who studied this science, such as Sylvester II who taught it, Gregory XIII to whom we owe our calendar, and St Pius X who knew how to build sundials. If the heavens, according to the Psalmist’s beautiful words, ‘are telling the glory of God’ (Ps 19[18]: 1), the laws of nature which over the course of centuries many men and women of science have enabled us to understand better are a great incentive to contemplate the works of the Lord with gratitude.
Benedict XVI, Angelus, St Peter’s Square, Fourth Sunday of Advent, 21 December 2008

Prof. JONATHAN I. Lunine, chair of the Scientific Organizing Committee
Dr. José G. Funes, S.J., Director of the Vatican Observatory

“Astrobiology is the study of life’s relationship to the rest of the cosmos: its major themes include the origin of life and its precursor materials, the evolution of life on Earth, its future prospects on and off the Earth, and the occurrence of life elsewhere. Behind each of these themes is a multidisciplinary set of questions involving physics, chemistry, biology, geology, astronomy, planetology, and other fields, each of which connects more or less strongly to the central questions of astrobiology. Stimulated by new capabilities for scientific exploration on and off the Earth, astrobiology seems to be establishing itself as a distinct scientific endeavor….

“…Ultimately, much of the fascination of astrobiology comes from the question of whether sentient life forms exist on other worlds, and whether forms of life alien to our own in fact coexist with us – today – on our own home world. Session 8, Intelligence Elsewhere and Shadow Life, explores both these issues. The search for intelligent life elsewhere is being conducted by listening to the cosmos with radio telescopes in an effort to pick up a signal of inarguably artificial origin. A search for life with a biochemistry different from that of all the known life on Earth – what has been termed ‘shadow life’ – on our own planet is a fascinating possibility but one fraught with daunting difficulties.

“Astrobiology is an effort to use a diverse range of scientific techniques, focused on targets from the molecules in cells to the vast cosmos around us, to provide a deeper appreciation of humankind’s place in the cosmos. It is a recognition of the remarkable intricacies of all that is within and around us and a 21st century realization of the psalmist’s recommendation (Ps 111:2) to delight in its study….”
(“Study Week on Astrobiology,” Pontifical Academy of Sciences (November 6-10, 2009))

“Great are the works of the LORD, to be treasured for all their delights.”
(Psalms 111:2)

1. Gaia’s Map Takes Shape

(From ESA, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Gaia’s first sky map”

Gaia space telescope plots a billion stars
Jonathan Amos, BBC News (September 14, 2016)

The most precise map of the night sky ever assembled is taking shape.

“Astronomers working on the Gaia space telescope are releasing a first tranche of data recording the position and brightness of over a billion stars.

“And for some two million of these objects, their distance and sideways motion across the heavens has also been accurately plotted.

“Gaia’s mapping effort is already unprecedented in scale, but it still has several years to run.

“Remarkably, scientists say the store of information even now is too big for them to sift, and they are appealing for the public’s help in making discoveries.

“A web portal has been opened where anyone can play with Gaia data and look for novel phenomena….”

The European Space Agency’s Gaia mission is a followup to their 1989-1993 Hipparcos mission that gave us the 118,218-entry Hipparcos Catalog.

If all goes well, the Gaia catalog will have around 1,000,000,000 entries: 1% of the Milky Way galaxy’s stars, give or take, plus thousands of Jupiter-sized exoplanets.

If the name Gaia sounds familiar, you know your ’90s cartoons. Whoopi Goldberg (1990-1993) and Margot Kidder (1993-1996) voiced Gaia, the anxious Earth-goddess in Captain Planet and the Planeteers.3

Getting back to the ESA’s space observatory, “Gaia” started an acronym: Global Astrometric Interferometer for Astrophysics. The original idea was that they’d use interferometry, measuring how light waves overlap.

They eventually decided that measuring stellar paralax, how much a star shifts position against more distant objects, was a better idea; but kept the “Gaia” name “to provide continuity with the project,” as ESA put it.

There’s an ESA’s Gaia resource link list near the end of this post.

2. False Dawns

(From BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The Allen Telescope Array, which has joined the search for possible alien radio signals”
(BBC News))

The wrong turns and false dawns in Earth’s search for alien life in the universe
Alex Partridge, BBC News (August 31, 2016)

There was excitement this week when it emerged a Russian radio telescope had detected a strong signal coming from the direction of a star 95 light years away from Earth.

“Could alien life finally have been found?

“The signal was detected by the RATAN-600 telescope, in the town of Zelenchukskaya near the Georgian border, last May.

“At the time, the telescope was pointed in the direction of a star called HD 164695.

“It’s a similar size to our sun but is only known to have one gassy, Neptune-like planet orbiting it….”

I didn’t pay much attention to this ‘alien signal’ story at first, partly because it peaked in late August: along with other ‘silly season‘ news.4

A few decades back, that would be when more than the usual quota of alien abduction and Elvis sighting stories would spill over from grocery checkout lines.

I might have ignored it entirely, but the headlines were starting to look interesting:

I didn’t know what to expect from the Forbes op-ed; and was less than impressed when Dr. Miller cited a science fiction novel, “The Three Body Problem,” as an authority.

Don’t get me wrong: I like science/speculative fiction, but realize that ‘good enough for a story’ ideas don’t necessarily work in real life.

Secrecy, Religious Polarization, and Phyllosilicate Minerals: a Digression

Dr. Miller figured this is what we could expect, if someone got solid evidence that we’ve got neighbors:

  1. Secrecy
    • for as long as it could be maintained
  2. Authoritarianism
    • An almost war footing for governments as they try to work through implications
  3. Religious polarization
    • The religious spectrum polarized more dramatically towards the poles
  4. Societal shift.
    • A shift in sciences, resurgence for evaluating cultural differences, language, humanities, and communications

I’m not sure what he meant by “evangelicals” in his discussion of “religious polarization.” If it’s his polite way of saying Bible thumpers, he’s probably right:

“….Not a complete shift, but more evangelicals, and more hard-core atheists. The people in those categories become more extreme; those in between are annoyed by them….”
(John L. Miller, via Forbes)

I put an excerpt from Dr. Miller’s piece, including an extended version of that list, near the end of this post.5

Some of that “polarization” popped up last summer, when “Earth 2.0,” Kepler-452b, was in the news. I’ve quoted this before. (July 29, 2016)

Earth 2.0: Bad News for God
Jeff Schweitzer, Huffington Post (July 23, 2015)

“…Let us be clear that the Bible is unambiguous about creation: the earth is the center of the universe, only humans were made in the image of god, and all life was created in six days. All life in all the heavens. In six days….”

From the tone of Dr. Schweitzer’s op-ed, I suspect that the only Christians he encountered were wholeheartedly convinced that their version of the Bible was literally, word-for-word, true.

Like I’ve said before, I’m a Catholic: so I must take Sacred Scripture seriously. It’s ‘Catholicism 101’ — and then some. (Catechism, 101133)

But I don’t have to believe that the creation story in Genesis 1:12:4 and the one in Genesis 2:47 are both literally word-for-word true.

That’s just as well, or my faith would be threatened every time I see something other than phyllosilicate minerals — literal clay — when I check my blood sugar; and I’ve said that before. (July 15, 2016)

Martian Canals and a Microwave Oven

Alex Partridge — I’m back to the BBC News item now — skips lightly over Giovanni Schiaparelli’s observations of Mars and how “canali” became “canals.”

Percival Lowell had a lot to do with it, and I’m skipping lightly over the matter, too.

Partridge discusses three other “wrong turns and false dawns:” the 1977 “Wow! signal,” a radio signal detected at Ohio State U.’s Big Ear; a 17-year intermittent transmission from a break room’s microwave; and the whatsit around KIC 8462852.

He didn’t, however, mention 19th-century proposals for signalling Mars, Nikola Tesla, or PSR B1919+21 — and neither will I. Not today. I’m leaving that for another post.

3. SETI and an Unregistered Satellite

(From, via SETI Institute, used w/o permission.)
(“The RATAN-600 radio telescope”
(SETI Institute)

A SETI Signal?
Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer; SETI Institute (August 30, 2016; updated August 31, 2016)

“…The signal seems to have been discussed in a presentation given by several Russian astronomers as well as Italian researcher, Claudio Maccone, the chair of the International Academy of Astronautics Permanent SETI Committee. Maccone has recently sent an email to SETI scientists in which he describes this presentation, including the signal ascribed to star system HD 164595….

“…So what’s the bottom line? Could it be another society sending a signal our way? Of course, that’s possible. However, there are many other plausible explanations for this claimed transmission – including terrestrial interference. Without a confirmation of this signal, we can only say that it’s ‘interesting.’ “

My hat’s off to the SETI Institute for that ‘wait and see’ attitude.

It looks like the signal did come from space: but wasn’t sent by space aliens.

Director of the Institute of Applied Astronomy at the Russian Academy of Sciences Alexander Ipatov explained that the RATAN-600 radio telescope had been pointed at HD 164595 and an unregistered Soviet-era satellite when that signal came in.

“…’We, indeed, discovered an unusual signal. However, an additional check showed that it was emanating from a Soviet military satellite, which had not been entered into any of the catalogs of celestial bodies,’ Ipatov said….”
(Tass (August 30, 2016), quoted by the SETI Institute)

If this was a science fiction story, we’d be in Dr. Miller’s first and second stages now: secrecy and authoritarianism. I’ve enjoyed yarns like that, but think Ipatov is probably right.

Various nations launched roughly 6,600 satellites since Sputnik 1 went up. A little over half are still in orbit, and about 1,000 are still in operation.

One of the Soviet Union’s military satellites, with its transmitter switched on, crossing in front of HD 164595, seems likely enough. The folks at RATAN-600 would, ideally, have known about every satellite ever launched; but we don’t live in an ideal world.

HD 164595 is a great deal like our sun: spectral type is G2V D, compared to our star’s G2V; with pretty close to the same temperature, mass, and metallicity. That last item, metallicity, is the fraction of its mass that’s not hydrogen or helium.

HD 164595’s single known planet, HD 164595 b, isn’t particularly Earth-like.

Its year is about 960 hours long, roughly 40 days; the planet’s mass is 16.14 times Earth’s, give or take; and the temperature is right around 5,790K: over 9,900 degrees Fahrenheit, 5,500 Celsius. That’s almost hot enough to boil tungsten.

There could be an Earth-like planet farther out, but no: this does not look like a ‘first contact’ situation.

4. HD 164595, Speculation, Miscellany

(From ESO, via CNN News, used w/o permission.)
(“Mysterious signal not from aliens, scientists say”

Hear me now? ‘Strong signal’ from sun-like star sparks alien speculation
James Griffiths, CNN (August 30, 2016)

“Astronomers engaged in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) are training their instruments on a star around 94 light years from Earth after a very strong signal was detected by a Russian telescope.

“An international team of researchers is now examining the radio signal and its star, HD 164595 — described in a paper by Italian astronomer Claudio Maccone and others as a ‘strong candidate for SETI’ — in the hopes of determining its origin.

” ‘The signal from HD 164595 is intriguing, because it comes from the vicinity of a sun-like star, and if it’s artificial, its strength is great enough that it was clearly made by a civilization with capabilities beyond those of humankind,’ astronomer Douglas Vakoch, president of METI International, which searches for life beyond Earth, tells CNN….”

The article also quotes Vakoch on the odds that this was a signal from the stars:

“…’Without corroboration from an independent observatory, a putative signal from extraterrestrials doesn’t have a lot of credibility,’…

“…’the greatest limitation of the May 2015 signal is that it hasn’t been replicated. Before we can give any credence to a signal as coming from extraterrestrials, we need to see it repeatedly to make sure it wasn’t just a transient phenomenon.’

” ‘It deserves at least a few hours of observing time by SETI researchers at other locations to make sure we don’t miss an opportunity to make first contact, however remote.’…”
(James Griffiths, CNN)

He also mentioned gravitational lensing, where light from a distant source gets focused when it passes by a closer mass. Like I said about the SETI Institute, my hat’s off for METI’s ‘wait and see’ attitude.

Neither outfit was just waiting, though. METI and SETI International were making followup observations of HD 164595 at the Optical SETI Observatory, and Allen Telescope Array: with no positive results.

If that two-second pulse — the chart is from Paul Gilster at Centauri Dreams, via Wikimedia Commons — had come from near HD 164595, the transmitter would have been very powerful.

That’s what fueled speculation that it was an “isotropic beacon from a Type II civilisation.” (Wikipedia)

An isotropic beacon is, or would be, a transmitter that sends an unmodulated signal in all directions. Folks who could tap a star’s energy output, all of it, to broadcast static might use one to get attention.

That strikes me as a remarkably inefficient use of resources.

Which gets me to Type II civilizations and the Kardashev scale. Astronomer Nikolai Kardeshev came up with it in 1964, and it’s been extended since then.

I agree with folks who say the Kardashev scale isn’t universally useful because folks who aren’t human — may not act like us.

On the other hand, it’s a handy way to think about what sort of civilizations could exist. Kardeshev’s scale sorts hypothetical civilizations by how much energy they can store and use:

  • Type I
    All energy reaching their planet from their sun
  • Type II
    Energy of the entire star
  • Type III civilization
    Energy on the scale of its entire host galaxy

On this scale, we’re working our way up to Type I.

Then there’s XKCD’s commentary on our efforts to find intelligent life in the universe.

More of my take on:

In case you haven’t had enough of SETI, exoplanets, and all that, I put a sincerely-excessive number of resources in a ‘background‘ link list at the end of this post.

1 That’s the “Starshot, SETI, and the Universe” post, back on Blogger. (April 15, 2016)

The ‘do you believe’ poll was under Still Searching for Neighbors“Belief in Extraterrestrial Life:” Certainty, Uncertainty, and Religious Affiliation, and here’s a link to the article that got me started:

2 Extraterrestrial life, science, and the Vatican:

3 Gaia is also the ancient Greek version of Mother Earth, and Gaianism is what happened when 20th-century environmentalism got mixed up with New Age grooviness.

I’m a Catholic, so I see letting anything — money, politics, pleasure, family, fame, whatever — except God take first place in my priorities as a bad idea. (Catechism, 1723, 21122114, 2289, 2424)

That said, I live on Earth, so enlightened self-interest dictates a reasoned concern over this planet’s condition. On top of that, we’re this world’s stewards, responsible for managing the place: using this world’s resources wisely, showing concern for our neighbors and future generations. (Catechism, 339, 952, 24022405, 2415, 2456)

I talked about sane environmentalism last month. (August 12, 2016)

4 ‘Silly season:’ the later part of summer, when newsworthy events are generally few and far between; in the English-speaking northern hemisphere of Earth, anyway.

5 Excerpt from Dr. Miller’s op-ed:

“…The implications of realizing we’re not alone in the universe would go something like this, I think:

1. Secrecy, for as long as it could be maintained. People blissfully unaware, and no change to our lives.

2. Authoritarianism. An almost war footing for governments as they try to work through implications. Similar impact on people’s liberties as being at war, as resources are diverted to figure out what it means, and others take advantage of that diversion of resources.

3. Religious polarization. The religious spectrum polarized more dramatically towards the poles. Not a complete shift, but more evangelicals, and more hard-core atheists. The people in those categories become more extreme; those in between are annoyed by them.

4. Societal shift. A shift in sciences, resurgence for evaluating cultural differences, language, humanities, and communications. Other ‘hard’ sciences get reduced. Again, this affects those in those disciplines.

“Ah, but that wasn’t the question. For the average person, I think life would trundle on. It’s like a building toppling over next door. You stop, you stare, you’re amazed. Then you move on. Maybe your life is a little different, a little less convenient, but a million details are still the same….”
(John L. Miller, on Quora, via Forbes)

ESA’s Gaia:

Background, more than you may want to know about about:

About Brian H. Gill

I'm a sixty-something married guy with six kids, four surviving, in a small central Minnesota town. I mostly write and make digital art. I'm only interested in three things: that which exists within the universe; that which exists beyond; and that which might exist.
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6 Responses to ESA’s Gaia, HD 164695, and SETI

  1. Naomi Gill says:

    Missing an article: “to do with Roswell UFO incident,”

    Missing letter: “and Gainism is what happened”

    The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

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