The most important telescope ever built in Ireland, one capable of revealing the most closely guarded secrets of the Universe, was switched on by Minister John Halligan today (27th July 2017) in Birr Castle Co Offaly.
The scientists behind Ireland’s LOFAR radio telescope say that it can listen in to signals coming from even the most distant parts of space, and could conceivable, one day, detect a signal from an extraterrestrial civilisation.
Up to today, if ET was going to send a signal to the Earth via radio – which many believe would be his preferred option for technical reasons – Ireland certainly would not be the first place to pick up the historic transmission.
After today, it is entirely possible that Birr Castle, which is now proudly home to Ireland’s LOFAR radio telescope, could be the location where the world’s press gather to hear of the first radio contact from another civilisation.
The person that has, more than any other, put Irish astronomy back on the map, in a way that it hasn’t been since the 19th century, is Peter Gallagher, professor in astrophysics at Trinity College Dublin.
Peter led the countdown to the switching on of I-LOFAR this morning, and even heavy rain didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of a crowd of scientists, locals, journalists, as well as Minister Halligan and his officials.
It is entirely fitting that Birr Castle is home to I- LOFAR as it is also home to the Leviathan of Parsonson, an enormous hulking optical, or light-based telescope, that sits in a field adjacent to the new arrival. The Leviathan, was the world’s largest and most famous telescope between the years 1845 and 1917.
It was built, designed and operated by William Parsons, the Third Earl of Rosse, a brilliant scientist, who used his remarkable telescope, and eyesight, to make out the distinctive spiral shape of what became known as a whirlpool galaxy, because of its distinctive shape, called M51. That was in 1845.
This discovery was huge, because it meant that there was more than one galaxy outside our own, the Milky Way and meant the Universe was a lot larger than we had thought up to then. The telescope and Lord Rosse attracted visitors from around the world who came to look in awe on the remarkable man and his machine.
The switching on of I-LOFAR today as a proud and emotional day for the current Lord Rosse, Brendan Parsons, the 7th Earl.
Today was a historic and exciting day for Irish astronomy, and puts it back on the international map in a way it hasn’t been since the 19th century. Scientists here, using I-LOFAR, will, as of today, be able to hunt for new planets, try and unravel some of the Universe’s most deeply held secrets, and even, one day, perhaps, receive a signal from whatever intelligent life form may wish to send a radio signal our way.
Dogs love their owners more than cats, according to a new study, which found far higher levels of the ‘love hormone’ oxytocin in dogs when they were interacting with their owners – versus cats.
Scientists are struggling to understand why a mysterious Star – nicknamed the Tabby Star -has been steadily dimming for the past century, and flickering at irregular intervals.
The oft heard statement “I’m not a morning person” may be supported by science, as geneticists have found genetic differences between people that refer to themselves as ‘early risers’ and ‘night owls’.
Zebras we all know, have stripes. The question is why, and it’s one that has baffled scientists at least as far back as Charles Darwin, who pondered what evolutionary advantage stripes gave to Zebras.
Albert Einstein first presented his General Theory of Relativity to the Prussian Academy of Science almost exactly 100 years ago on the 25th November 1915. Science has since confirmed most of its predictions.
However, the one major aspect of the General Theory which has yet to be confirmed is the presence of something called gravitational waves, which are ripples in the space-time fabric caused by movement of energy across the Universe.
According to Einstein, space and time were each components of four dimensional reality, and that gravity was a force which pulled objects with mass along curves in space-time. Perhaps think of energy being like a mountaineer walking along the height contours of a geographical map.
Gravitational waves emerge from large objects with mass, according to Einstein, such as two stars closely orbiting each other. The waves then travel out into the Universe, as ripples in the fabric of space time, like a pebble dropped into a still lake.
Physicists get excited about gravitational waves because they can offer a final proof of Einstein’s General Theory, but also because they will carry information from the birth of the Universe, because gravitational waves were created when mass emerged somehow in those first moments.
In any case, gravitational waves have not yet been discovered yet, and the question is why?
This is one of the questions that will be addressed in a fascinating looking public lecture by Professor Mike Cruise taking place in St Patrick’s College Drumcondra on Wednesday evening 25th November this week.
This is 2015 Statutory Lecture of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) School of Cosmic Physics, to mark the 100th anniversary of General Relativity.
General Relativity shook up the science world in 1915, and over the past century it has stood up to testing and scrutiny remarkably well.
One prediction was that the speed of light, denoted as c in the famous equation e=mc2 was constant. That has proved correct, and it seems that the speed of light, as Einstein predicted, is the Universe’s ultimate speed limit.
Then there was the revolutionary idea that time was not constant, but relative. The passage of time depended on speed, and that as speed increased towards the speed of light, time would slow down.
This ‘time dilation’ effect has also proved correct. A simple proof lies in the fact that an atomic clock onboard a satellite will run slower than the same atomic clock on Earth. The people that design GPS systems – which are based on information from satellites received on Earth – know this and they must correct for it to ensure GPS works on the ground.
Another major prediction of General Relativity was that light waves would be distorted and bend around an object with a lot of mass, such as a Star. This was proved famously in 1919 and there’s an Irish connection to the story.
When Einstein announced General Relativity to the world, scientists were blown away by it, but the rest of the world was preoccupied with WW1.
It wasn’t until 1919, when the remarkable new theory was put to its first serious test by the British astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington.
Eddington, unlike other British and English-speaking scientists, kept track of the work of top German scientists like Einstein.
He was a Quaker and a pacifist, and, not antagonistic towards Germans or Germany. He was also one of Britain’s leading astronomers.
Eddington decided that the best way to test General Relativity was to travel to see a solar eclipse, and see – with our Sun blocked out – whether the light from other Stars did, in fact, bend as they went around the Sun.
He got funding from the Royal Irish Academy, still very much in existence, to travel to a remote part of Brazil to view the eclipse in 1919.
The other Irish connection to this story was that the instrument he used to observe the eclipse, a coelostat, was made by the famous Irish scientific instrument makers – Grubb Brothers, of Rathmines.
The original coelostat used by Eddington, which has been restored by the Paris Observatory is currently on public display at DIAS.
Eddington observed that light – exactly as Einstein predicted – bent around the Sun. This result made news headlines around the world, and 4 years after he announced General Relativity, Einstein became famous.
Whomever confirms the presence of Einstein’s waves, will, no doubt, be also the subject of global headlines.
There are many space missions ongoing, and planned, which hope to find the elusive waves – even one wave – and these will be mentioned by Prof Cruise in his lecture.
“Even one such detection with high precision would rule out many competing theories of gravity,” said Prof Cruise in an email.
The great quest of modern physics is to find a way to unite Einstein’s General Relativity, which relates to large macro objects, with Erwin Schrodinger’s Quantum Mechanics, which describes the weird behaviour of tiny particles.
(Another Irish connection here – Schrodinger became an Irish citizen after he arrived here fleeing Nazi Germany, and became the first Director of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies)
This quest will be helped by finding gravitational waves because it would rule out many competing theories of gravity which have been devised, in an ad hoc way, to try and marry Relativity with Quantum Mechanics.
“In addition to proving Einstein right at a certain level of accuracy,” Prof Cruise continued, “the detection of gravitational waves, will allow us a very different view of the Universe than is currently available from optical, radio or X-ray telescopes.”
To find out more about this fascinating topic, why not go along to the DIAS lecture on Wednesday?
Click above to listen to discussion about how the odds of finding extra-terrestrial life have improved with Keelin Shanley on Today with Sean O’Rourke (Broadcast 28th July 2015)
Ever since humanity emerged as an intelligent species here on Earth, people have wondered whether we are the only intelligent creatures in the Universe? Or whether other intelligent beings exist somewhere out there?
It is a huge question for our species, and our identity, yet finding an answer to it has never been placed at the top of any political or scientific agendas.
Many politicians and scientists believe it is a waste of time and money to search for so-called ‘little green men’ when there are so many problems here on Earth that need attention and resources.
Some leading scientists, including Stephen Hawking, have also, in the past, questioned whether it is a good idea for us to make contact with an alien intelligence that may have superior technology to ourselves.
We can think of what happened to Africa, when the Europeans ‘made contact’ with Africans in the 19th century.
And there is a risk, Hawking has said that we could end up like the Africans did after contact with Europeans; exploited, enslaved, or even wiped out.
Assuming an ET intelligence is ‘benign’ could be the worst, and last mistake mankind every makes.
There is, Hawking has said, an argument that we would be better off not just to stop seeking contact, but to ignore an alien signal even if one should come our direction.
But the main problem facing the tiny number of top scientists who have dedicated their careers to finding ET is a lack of funding. The lack of funds has meant that we are little further down the road to answering the question Are we alone? than we were 50 or 60 years ago at the dawn of the Space Age.
Some dedicated ET-seeking scientists, have even begun to ask the question, was it still worth it, given the lack of success since the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) began with the setting up of the SETI Institute in 1960.
After all, as one leading astronomer has pointed out, despite 55 years of listening for signals from ET, scientists have been met with nothing more than ‘An Eerie Silence’.
Into this atmosphere of pessimism, came news just last week that an Earth-like planet Kepler 452b had been discovered by NASA’s Kepler telescope.
This planet is 60 per cent larger than Earth, with a similar surface temperature; it has twice the gravity, lots of sunshine, probably liquid water, a rocky surface, and a 385-day year.
It is very like the Earth, and all the conditions exist for life to develop there. Also, it is 6 billion years old, 1.5 billion older than Earth, so there has been even more time for life, even intelligent life to evolve there.
This is just one of many Earth like planets that the Kepler telescope is discovering in the Milky Way, so there is lots more Kepler 452b’s out there.
Kepler cost $600 million when it was launched in 2009 and has found thousands of exo-planets since; planets that are outside our own Solar System, and some of these, like Kepler 452b, have conditions that allow for life.
Allied to this, came the news that Yuri Milner, a Russian billionaire is to pump $100 billion of his own funds into the search for ET intelligence.
Yuri Milner is a 53-year-old Russian, science graduate turned entrepreneur with an estimated personal net worth of $1.8 billion.
He studied theoretical physics at Moscow State University, graduating in 1985. In 1990, he went to the US to do an MBA after reportedly being disappointed in himself as a physicist.
Milner made a fortune through his early involvement in a Russian email service, the mail.ru group, and investing in Facebook and Twitter.
He was inspired as a child by reading ‘Intelligent Life in the Universe’ by Carl Sagan, listening to the inspiring speeches by President John F Kennedy, and watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the Moon as an 8-year old.
This is not the first time that a wealthy private investor has come to the rescue of resource-starved ET hunters. In 2001, Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, provided $30 million in funding for the Allen Telescope Array, a linked collection of telescopes north of San Francisco dedicated to the search for ET.
Allen was the eccentric character depicted by John Hurt, some might remember in the film Contact, which featured Jody Foster, playing the role of astronomer Eleanor Arroway, based on real life ET hunter Dr Jill Tarter.
Allen’s investment was remarkably, but Milner’s investment is more than triple that, and is a game changer for scientists searching for ET intelligence.
The story begins really in 1960, when legendary astronomer Frank Drake, set up the SETI, or Search for Extra-Terrestrial, Institute in California.
Drake is still alive, aged 85 now, and actively involved in the SETI Institute’s work, which has the mission statement to “explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe.”
From the start it was decided to focus on trying to pick up radio signals from space, which could only have been generated artificially.
It was thought more likely, for scientific reasons, that an alien civilisation would transmit at certain frequencies, so these frequencies became the focus of the search, while many others were ignored.
So, SETI was limited in its scope from the start, by a lack of funding. It was directly funded by the US taxpayer for a time, but this stopped in the mid-1970s. Since then it has been reliant on funds from private donors, big and small.
As Murphy’s Law would have it, a few years after SETI’s Federal funding was cut, one of its researchers, a man called Jerry Ehman, who was now working on SETI project without pay, made perhaps the most important discovery in the history of the search for ET.
On August 15, 1977, a huge, and apparently artificially produced radio signal was ‘heard’ by the Big Ear Observatory in Ohio. This showed up in the data later read by Jerry Ehman. The signal was immensely powerful, lasted about 90 seconds long, and came from an uninhabited area of deep space.
All man-made possible radio sources were ruled out systematically by Ehman and his colleagues, but the signal never repeated and there the mystery was left.
Famously, Ehman wrote the word ‘Wow’ beside the data which showed the massive pulse on the paper printout, as he read through it in amazement.
I managed to track the now retired Ehman down last year, as part of an RTE Radio 1 science series called What’s It All About? He spoke to me about his experience, and he still thinks about the Wow signal every day, 38 years later.
It remains mysterious, and was the inspiration for the contact made by alien intelligence depicted in the Hollywood film contact, based on a book by Carl Sagan and staring Jody Foster.
The reason, SETI researchers would argue has to do with the size of the Universe, and the lack of resources put into the search up to now.
Most scientists now accept that given the size of the Universe and the number of earth-like planets that exist out there that can potentially hold life, that life, and intelligent life – mathematically speaking – simply must exist elsewhere.
Consider the figures:
There are an estimated 11 billion earth-like planets in the Milky Way alone which could hold life. And, there are 100 billion galaxies in the Universe.
To many scientists, those numbers suggest one thing: Life and lots of it.
Yet, given the vast distances involved with space, ET life remains elusive.
But, it’s perhaps a bit like trying to find a needle in a haystack somewhere in the Soviet Union, but we don’t even know which haystack the needle is in yet.
Frank Drake, whom I mentioned before, famously came up with the Drake Equation in 1961 to estimate, using mathematics, and the number of active, communicative extra-terrestrial civilisations in the Milky Way galaxy.
Drake estimated that there would be between 1,000 and 100,000 such civilisations in the Milky Way. The Drake equation has its critics, who argue over the mathematical parameters used to come up with its conclusions.
However, perhaps the most powerful argument against Drake, and the entire SETI enterprise came from the physicist Enrico Fermi.
Fermi looked at the Drake equation, made some calculations of his own, and came up with something which became known as the Fermi Paradox.
The Paradox is that if there was such a high probability intelligent ET civilisations out there, as Drake proposed, then why Fermi asked, was there no evidence of human contact with them?
Fermi put forward the simple, provocative question ‘Where is everybody?”
The involvement of Hawking is interesting and significant because of his former statements, as I mentioned earlier, about the wisdom of seeking contact with alien intelligences.
Yet, Hawking’s presence, certainly helps to add scientific credibility to the initiative and guarantees lots of press coverage, as huge press coverage follows whatever Hawking does.
Hawking said to British press in 2010:
“We should be wary of answering back, until we have evolved,” said Hawking. It “might be a bit like the original inhabitants of America meeting Columbus. I don’t think they were better off for it.”
But Hawking has obviously changed his mind for whatever reason, as the Milner projects will involve both passively looking for signals coming from space, and actively seeking to compose messages which mankind ‘might’ (it has to be discussed further) decide to send out into space.
Hawking now says it is right that we should seek out other civilisations as we can learn things from them, such as how to best use and allocate natural resources.
The other interesting thing about Hawking worth mentioning here is that he believes that life spontaneously arose on Earth.
This is at odds with many reputable scientists who now increasingly believe that life was ‘seeded’ here following comets or asteroids slamming into the Earth.
There are two initiatives called ‘Breakthrough Listen’ and ‘Breakthrough Message’.
Breakthrough Listen is, by far, the more important of the two.
It will search for life on planets orbiting the some 1 million stars, like our Sun, which reside in our own galaxy the Milky way. It will also search for life in the 100 galaxies closest to the Milky Way.
Breakthrough Message, meanwhile, will fund an international competition to determine the content of messages that we humans want to send to alien civilisations. This is open to everyone – what would you like to say to an alien civilisation? And there is prize money of $1 million for the best messages.
This is probably more to do with public relations and winning the public over to get interested and involved in the search for ET intelligence.
Most of the $100 million will be used over the next 10 years to buy expensive telescope time on the Green Bank Telescope in west Virginia USA and the Parkes Telescope in Australia.
The ET intelligence researchers plan to use that telescope time to examine up to one million ‘relatively’ nearby star systems for artificially produced radio signals which would indicate the presence of intelligent life.
The funding will also enable researchers to develop new receiving technologies which can speed up the search for radio broadcasts across a wide spectrum of frequencies and from many locations of the sky.
Aside from searching ‘local’ stellar targets, the researchers will also look at a large number of galaxies beyond our Milky Way for signs of very advanced intelligence which may be capable of sending signals across inter galactic distances. This would require immensely powerful transmission technology.
The money will also be used to look for laser flashes, which can also indicate the presence of an advanced civilisation.
Last year, I interviewed Seth Shostak, a highly regarded researcher with the SETI Institute and he answered that exact question. He has worked in the field all his life, and is in a good a position to make a prediction.
Seth has said publicly that he believes that we will have discovered signs of an intelligent extra-terrestrial civilisation by about 2040. By then, he said, astronomers will have scanned enough star systems to give themselves a great shot of discovering alien-produced radio signals.
At that point in time, scientists will have scanned about one million star systems, instead of the few thousands which have been scanned to date. Seth made this prediction even before the Milner funding came online.
I’m guessing that he would probably revise his date several years downward after this latest news, which he no doubt is elated by.
In the next 25 years it’s likely we’ll live to witness the historic discovery of an ET civilisation.
We will have finally discovered that we are not alone.
I could envisage that for our grandchildren, the discovery of new ET civilisations will become humdrum, and that ‘contact’ will be the next milestone sought.
Did you ever wonder where ET might be hiding? What he might look like? When we might find him? What the ‘real ET’ might say to us, and us to him, if we made contact? What would be the likely consequences on Earth from ET phoning us?
Professor Andy Shearer, Director of the Centre for Astronomy at NUI Galway acts as our celestial guide as we voyage into the vastness of space. Andy explains that even at light speed it would take 4 years for a signal to reach Earth, even from our nearest Star, Alpha Centauri. From other more distant parts of our Galaxy, it would take a signal, again travelling at light speed, hundreds of thousands of light years to reach us here.
Then, beyond that, there exists hundreds of billions of other galaxies, some of which would take hundreds of billions of years for light to reach. This is not even including the strong possibility that our Universe is just one of many more Universes that are in existence.
Dr Jerry Ehman an astronomer working at the Big Ear Telescope in Ohio discovered a radio message, apparently from deep space a few days after it was received by the telescope close to midnight on the 15th August 1977. This became the now legendary ‘Wow signal’.
According to Dr Ehman, an astronomer working with the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Life Programme) this had ‘all the attributes of a signal from an extra-terrestrial civilization’.
The signal arrived in at 1420 megahertz – a frequency that has little natural interferences – and lasted for 72 seconds before disappearing again.
The now retired Dr Ehman talks here, almost 37 years after his famous discovery. He says the signal still today cannot be explained by any man-made, or natural sources and it has remained mysterious.
Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute explains how the search for ET has progressed over the decades and what the prospects are now for finding ET.
Seth believes that a signal from ET will be found in the next few decades thanks to science’s growing ability to search faster and more accurately.
He is often asked at parties whether ET might just NOT be out there. His replay is that this is akin to proclaiming – after searching 1 square mile of Africa and finding no elephants – that there are no elephants in Africa.
Professor Paul Davies is a British astronomer based in Arizona. He believes one of the reasons why the search for ET has yielded nothing but ‘An Eerie Silence’ (the title of one of his books) is because we don’t know what to look for.
The likelihood, according to Paul, who is Director of the Beyond Centre at the University of Arizona, is that ET might be post-biological. In other words and advanced civilization might have cast off the shackles of biology, and become some kind advanced, non-living, super-intelligent system.
We have been looking for ET in our own image, says Paul, and that’s a mistake, as we have to imagine the imaginable to successfully find ET.
Professor Anthony Murphy, NUI Maynooth, describes the darkness and numbing cold of space, where temperatures hover just above ‘absolute zero’.
This is a place, he says, where nothing can be heard, and it would not be possible to speak as there is no air to carry sounds. If a person was transported to space they would be frozen and asphyxiated instantly.
Dr Brian Caulfield, UCD, is working to develop technology to help humans stay healthier for longer in space.He is working with a company called Biomedical Research to develop a machine that can help prevent muscles from wasting, increase calorie burn, and heart rate, in order to limit the damaging effects of micro-gravity.
It has been possible for some time now for anyone with a laptop to tap into the robotic global network of telescopes through the EU-funded GLORIA project.
Personal Space takes things a stage further by personalizing the sky for users.
According to its developers, the app is “an online invitation to connect with and explore the universe in an intuitive way by presenting beautiful astronomical images of the sky overhead at key moments and places of personal significance”.
By inputting an event date, time and location (e.g. wedding date and place) through a web interface, the user is supplied with an image of the part of the universe that was directly above them at that significant moment in their life.
GLORIA scientists are building an archive of stories by geo-mapping political and historical events to the sky above.