Aug 23 2009

Kepler, Carl Sagan, and the Guzman Prize — Our Century-Long Search for Space Aliens

Special thanks to Dr. Sean for vectoring me toward this week’s Newsweek.

Newsweek this week (8/24 & 31/09) features “In Search of Aliens” on its cover and uses NASA’s new $ 600 M Kepler spacecraft as our most recent attempt. On March 6 Kepler became the first spacecraft ever launched whose mission is to directly detect Earth-like planets in the habitable zones of nearby stars.

This is huge.

Kepler’s mission is among the most important in the history of space science. Click kepler.gif.

Although early science results already exist — the HAT-P-7 light curves — Kepler’s monumental significance is not yet fully appreciated by the global community. However, it will grow in global esteem as we approach the 2015 Maslow Window because Kepler feeds directly into 2 of the basic rationales driving near-term space colonization: 1) detection and international exploration of Earth-like planets, and 2) discovery of extraterrestrial life, especially intelligent space aliens. And it motivates the third: Human settlement of the solar system and beyond.

As we approach the 2015 Maslow Window, the way we currently search for extrasolar Earthlike planets (including their possible residents!) is with Kepler. But by 2015 we’ll have an even more sophisticated and powerful tool: the Terrestrial Planet Finder!

Of course, our search for space aliens didn’t start with Kepler, it goes back at least to the late 19th century discovery of canali on Mars by the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli. And as we scan the last century it becomes apparent that the public’s interest in space aliens has been modulated by the long wave. During times of economic upswings (especially during Maslow Windows) there is great interest in detecting and communicating with space aliens, but as the long wave plummets toward its trough between Maslow Windows, the public becomes more negative toward them.

During the 1960s Apollo Maslow Window, astronomer Frank Drake launched ebullient radio searches for messages from space aliens, and popularized the “Drake Equation” — familiar to every introductory astronomy student — that attempted to estimate N: the number of high-tech civilizations in our Galaxy.

Interest in Drake’s seminal work encouraged the development of extraordinary NASA concepts for advanced searches (Project Cyclops). Bernard Oliver’s favorite featured a phased array of one thousand, 100 – meter radio attennas covering an area 10 km in diameter! Now that’s 1960s ebullience! It’s scope was exceeded only by its pricetag: $ 6 to 10 B.

Toward the end of the 1960s Apollo Maslow Window, a directed beam from the Kelvans, Kelinda and Rojan, in the Andromeda Galaxy could have theoretically been detected by Cyclops. Click kelvans.jpg.
© 1968 Paramount Pictures

Of course Project Cyclops was never built because it broke a fundamental rule for Macro-Engineering Projects: Never propose a multi-billion dollar MEP toward the end of a Maslow Window. The last 3 Apollo missions had already been canceled, and as the Apollo program wound down, there was little political or public interest in another MEP — no matter how exciting — that cost 1/2 of Apollo.

One of the most ebullient scientists of the late 20th century and maybe the best science popularizer of all time, Carl Sagan was not one to avoid the infectious ebullience of the 1960s Apollo Maslow Window. In 1963 he wrote a scientific paper (Planetary and Space Science Vol. 11, May, 1963, pp. 485-498) asserting that space aliens could come here (and probably had already done so) in real interstellar spaceships and would be aided by relativisitic time dilation!

Although Cyclops became an early casualty of the collapsing Apollo Maslow Window, a much smaller version was eventually funded by NASA. Unfortunately, it was canceled by Congress in 1993 — a victim of the “Giggle Factor” as constituents began to ridicule the public-funded search for space aliens. This was only a few years before the long wave trough — an anti-ebullient time for sure.

During perhaps the most ebullient decade in US history — the Peary/Panama Maslow Window (1903-1913) — space alien fans had a field day. Lowell Observatory was founded to study Mars and its presumably modern, canal-based civilization. The Guzman Prize was offered to anyone who could prove contact with space aliens; But they couldn’t be from Mars because that was considered too easy! But that’s hardly surprising because the Wall Street Journal published an article in 1907 on “the proof by astronomical observations . . . that conscious, intelligent human life exists upon the planet Mars.” And some ebullient folks even suggested we should light huge fires at night to signal the Martians directly.

By contrast, during the Great Depression in 1938 — almost exactly one 56 year long wave before Congress canceled SETI — Orson Welles did his famous radio broadcast of the War of the Worlds, in which the Martians invaded New Jersey. It reportedly resulted in panic and mass hysteria.

Near long wave troughs we ridicule search attempts for space aliens (and cancel funding) or imagine the aliens actually attacking us; either way we’re pretty negative toward them. But as we approach Maslow Windows, such as the one in 2015, interest in space aliens picks up.

Just ask Newsweek.

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One Response to “Kepler, Carl Sagan, and the Guzman Prize — Our Century-Long Search for Space Aliens”

  1. […] times before a hand comes out of the screen, slaps me, and I suddenly “get it”. “Kepler, Carl Sagan, and the Guzman Prize — Our Century-Long Search for Space Aliens” deals with the – as yet under-appreciated – significance and promise of the Kepler […]

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