Just like with the CONTEXT series, we want to continue our THEORY series of blogposts. These have changed in tone over time, but the general brief remains the same: allow the theoretical and scientific meaning and ramifications of SEED be explored and mapped out. Let us know on Discord or in the Comments below what topics we should explore next. And what’s more, we’re delighted to have back our walking wikipedia Adam P!
By Adam Phillipson
It may already have happened, and it just passed us by. Literally what could have been our first encounter with an extraterrestrial ended when it passed through our Solar System and back into the vast darkness of interstellar space beyond the reach of our telescopes. On October 19, 2017 the Pan-STARRS telescope, located on the peak of the Haleakalā volcano on the Hawai'ian island of Maui spotted an object hurtling through our Solar System from a direction that meant it didn’t belong here. This was our first official interstellar visitor and we called it ‘Oumuamua (the Hawai’ian for ‘the scout from really, really far away’). A scout. Doing what? Checking us out, quite possibly. But we’ll get to that in a few moments.
First of all, what was this visitor? We saw it only as a flickering pixel, and this shimmering and variation allowed us to discern some of its characteristics: this unusual space object was shaped like a flying cigar, six times longer than it was wide, tumbling end over end. This cylindrical shaped object brings to mind a craft of some type, and indeed many people in the field thought of Arthur C Clarke’s prize-winning novel Rendezvous with Rama from 1973, when just such a shaped spacecraft appears in our Solar System, abandoned and mysterious.
One person who is convinced that ‘Oumuamua was an alien is Avi Loeb, someone I’ve had the pleasure to meet and who is a fantastic cosmologist based at Harvard. He is in no doubt because of three reasons:
1) As it left our Solar System, ‘Oumuamua sped up due to the influence of a force other than gravity;
2) It had a really unusual trajectory and relationship to other stars that is evidence of design, or as Loeb puts it poetically, its movement and positioning makes it ‘like a buoy resting in the expanse of the universe.’
3) Interstellar objects are just so rare by at least two orders of magnitude that this exception almost begs to be considered unnatural.
I agree on these three points unreservedly. And the reason is because I and Avi Loeb (and plenty of others) believe in the plausibility of interstellar spacecraft. Loeb chairs the advisory committee of Breakthrough Starshot which is a non-profit organisation that aims to create probes that can travel between the stars. Its mandate is summed up on their website:
In the last decade and a half, rapid technological advances have opened up the possibility of light-powered space travel at a significant fraction of light speed. This involves a ground-based light beamer pushing ultra-light nanocrafts – miniature space probes attached to lightsails – to speeds of up to 100 million miles an hour. Such a system would allow a flyby mission to reach Alpha Centauri in just over 20 years from launch, beaming home images of its recently-discovered planet Proxima b, and any other planets that may lie in the system, as well as collecting other scientific data such as analysis of magnetic fields.
There is no doubt that this is incredibly exciting and valid: the time to take this seriously is now, not least because we have been visited by an interstellar scout ‘from very far away’. Now is the time to send our own scouts. The Breakthrough Starshot website lists a number of challenges and it's truly heartening to see the progress made on many of these. My colleagues and I at Frontiers Engineering have successfully researched and developed a plethora of devices that solve a lot of these challenges, especially in Fresnel lens imaging and planar Fourier capture array
The question of why SETI (the Search for Exterrestrial Intelligence) has yet to result in any successful contacts with any life beyond our solar system becomes a further source of urgency. It could well be that it’s incredibly hard for life to find the right conditions in which to start and advance to the point of obtaining the intelligence to allow for interstellar communication. Or, it could well be that we’re being monitored and ‘Oumuamua’s arrival was just a scout from a civilisation that had picked up our radio signals from the 20th century loud and clear and deduced that our solar system is indeed full of the signs of life, not least the presence of oxygen on our own planet and the huge amounts of carbon dioxide we’ve created. It’s logical that they would send a probe and relay what it finds here.
We’re all aware of the warning of Cixin Liu’s vision in The Three-Body Problem trilogy (and if we’re not, we should be): to reveal your presence in the cosmos is a collective act of suicide, inviting inevitable destruction. You’re giving your position away. This is where the companion to SETI comes into play, Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence is in fact a multi-generational conversation. Sure we can use our current radar technology to send messages out into space, but it’ll be our descendents who will hear the reply (or suffer the attack). By 2064 who is to say we won’t have to resume a new position entirely like an army platoon in a nighttime forest whose location has been given away by tracer fire lighting up the dark sky, we will have to be incredibly prepared not to face extinction just because we wanted to say ‘hello there universe’.
Finally, the very fact of ‘Oumuamua furthers the conversation around panspermia - spreading life across the universe - first introduced in 1946 by the cosmologist Fred Hoyle. Loeb himself is a firm proponent of it. It’s the natural step to take once we get our first probing scouts out into the dark night sky.
He has recently published a book about this visitor of ours entitled Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth, 2021, John Murray, London.
https://breakthroughinitiatives.org/initiative/3. Last accessed, June 8, 2021.
https://www.osapublishing.org/ol/abstract.cfm?uri=ol-36-15-2949. Last accessed, June 9, 2021. We have now an advanced range of MX-tech patents that make our planned image capturing mission a reality within my lifetime.
There is another possible reason why we currently seem to be alone in the universe and that is the idea of the cosmic zoo: we’re just left here to go about our little Earth existence, benignly observed by a civilisation or group of civilisations incredibly far more advanced than us. Klang Games have looked into this in the past in the podcast episode ‘The Zoo’, cf: https://www.thelifecyclepodcast.com/episodes/2019/10/25/the-zoo