How Big Astronomy is Wasting its Time and Money – and ours

Steen Hjortsoe

Revised 10 September 2020

I don’t deny everything: Big astronomy (1) is actually progressing by leaps and bounds these days and nights. Indeed, a few years ago, in 2017, empirical evidence of the electromagnetic counterparts of a detected source of gravitational waves was established heralding the era of multi-messenger astrophysics and astronomy (2-3).

And at the preliminaries to the 2020s, big astronomy is reaping, on a daily basis, an exuberant crop of high-quality data allowing for a deeper understanding of the universe and the galaxies (4), particularly the structure and properties of our own galaxy, the Milky Way (5).

Meanwhile, the self-conscious big astronomers promote their names in monumental columns (6) antecedent to articles with the apparently unobjectionable buzz-word of multi-messenger in the title. Roped in by this whopping unanimity why not queue up under the safe winner, a new, recently even empirically confirmed concept ?

It seems credible that multi-messenger astronomy and astrophysics are conducive to achieving a more comprehensive survey and deeper understanding of the universe. Of more immediate public interest is however the detection of life on earth-like, extrasolar planets considered highly probable and impending by many astronomers.

This landmark discovery could be imagined as the establishment of evidence of a row of potential gaseous biosignatures, O2 and O3 in particular, surface biosignatures, like photosynthesis, and temporal biosignatures, e.g. oscillations of atmospheric gases (7), manifesting themselves as spectroscopic signals  emanating from the atmospheres and surfaces of potentially habitable exoplanets orbiting optimal target stars similar to our sun (8). 

The extrasolar planets which are going to be selected at the beginning of the 2020s in a cooperation between the TESS satellite (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, 9-10) launched on 18 April 2018 and the James Webb space telescope scheduled for launch in October 2021 (11) might actually give evidence of the craved for, suspected biosignatures.

Exciting though this discovery may be, it may however also involve a potential anticlimax. As for the contact with intelligent life there might basically not be much more for us to do throughout several centuries than patiently waiting for something  extraordinary to happen while perpetuating the fine analysis of spectrographic data from the atmospheres of earth-like planets selected for close study. That is, nothing much might happen, if Charles S. Cockell’s reservation below were correct (12).

“We know from Kepler space telescope data that the nearest habitable planets are tens to thousands of light years away. Even if one was to assume that they host intelligent civilizations, efforts to communicate with them, let alone physically visit them, and they visit us, would be multi-century to millennia projects. If the speed of light is the limit of our rate of travel (my italics, S.H) –  then no amount of optimism and technology will make these time scales more sensible.” (C.S. Cockell, 2015).

Is this reservation, however, intuitively convincing ? An earlier experiment (13) with which prof. Cockell seems to share this way of thinking appears hopelessly naïve: “ – the travel time of the message at the speed of light to M13 (the globular cluster to which a 3-minute message from the Arecibo radio telescope was sent in 1974) is 24,000 years, so we certainly cannot expect to have an answer before twice 24,000 or 48,000 years have passed.“

That  Charles Cockell’s reservation and the Arecibo experiment can be considered naïve is corroborated by realistic reflections upon the profound and necessarily highest prioritized objective of radio communication between intelligent global civilizations, namely survival,  and by a few facts about the age of the habitable universe and the galaxy we live in. The universe is between 13.7 and 13.8 billion years old and many spiral galaxies including the Milky Way were consecutively in an early phase of assembly 11 billion years ago with life and intelligent life presumably appearing in the galactic habitable zone a few billion years later.

Now, Sharov and Gordon offer a well reasoned suggestion (14) that intelligent life may very well have arisen in our galaxy as early as 4 billion years before our earth materialized with the implication that many generations of intelligent life may have populated the Milky Way Galaxy before life arose on the Earth. And advanced intelligence will invariably involve a highly developed predictive capability.

Thus a much more probable radio communication scenario than prof. Cockell’s Earth-centric random marathon excursion into the galaxy requires the more advanced civilization or galactic civilization network to elaborate and send a smart message thousands of years ago destined to be received, un-zipped and deciphered by us at a precisely predicted and calculated moment of compromised survival for our global civilization.

Launching a global electromagnetic pulse bringing about a peculiar time-space scenario, i.e. ‘Doomsday’, lasting 24 hours, engages to fulfil the potential of a very special post-religious accordance, involving a radio window of opportunity (e.g. conveying narrow-band signals near the 21 cm hydrogen frequency, (13)) anticipated and transmitted by the senior galactic civilization and, at a certain stage of development of radio science on our planet, even prepared and finally precipitated by ourselves.

As the primary purpose of initial contact between intelligent generations of civilizations needs to be and ensure survival, it will be relevant for the older and more advanced civilization to adapt the radio communication to carry information vital to cope with survival threats and important existential issues. Once we have understood this, we are then going to receive the radio message exactly at the anticipated moment, Doomsday, deciphering it in the days and weeks following Doomsday.

Thus the answer to Enrico Fermi’s intuitive exclamation: “So where is everyone ?” may turn out to be: ‘they’ are everywhere in the galaxy’s habitable zone, but will only appear on a special occasion, Doomsday, and only after a deliberate effort by ourselves to access (‘dig out’) the incoming radio message from the galactic network of intelligent civilizations.

So why were the CIA scientists attached to the apocalypse project not capable of moving the American government to decide to launch Doomsday many years ago ? The answer is probably that for many years the whole project was considered highly speculative by several powerful decision-makers. Unfortunately, there is undoubtedly also another, more prosaic reason: that the American government  invariably, throughout decades, would give the relentless, and undisturbed, development of American space science and the lucrative weapons industry a higher priority.

Our planet does, however, not just represent a system of a higher order than the nation-state of America, but is also incapable, at ‘the end of times’, of continuing to embrace and sustain the American military-industrial preferences, which have led the world astray since 1949,  disastrously speeding into the abyss of 11 September 2001 to set the pace for the militarization and distortion of the global economy and environment.

And our astronomers, environmental scientists and virologists confronted, at the time of writing, with a rising global tsunami of coronavirus, are all right now in the same boat in dire need of actively putting pressure on the CIA – and on the general public –  to remove the remaining obstacles to release Doomsday with ensuing ETI contact. The alternative, continuing to pretend, in Earth-centric splendid isolation, to be in perfect control of coronavirus, global warming, water management, a potential nuclear war is tantamount to maintaining that a trove of comprehensive experience from habitated earthlike planets from the first few decades after their respective Doomsdays would be irrelevant to our global civilization right now.

But the choice should be clear: in a global urgency we do not really have the latitude to hesitate to transcend the threshold of an intelligent galactic network.

Pride goes before a fall; our admittedly quite capable astronomers will have to leave, at least for some time, the present comfortable position apparently without a hitch at the leading edge of science so delightfully flattering for their momumental ego’s. Instead they will have to realize, together with the entire global community, our common urgent existential need of getting help to solve issues vital to our continued existence.

References:

  1. Zhang, Yanxia and Zhao, Yongheng: Astronomy in the Big Data Era. Data Science Journal. 22 May 2015. https://datascience.codata.org/articles/10.5334/dsj-2015-011/
  2. Chornock, Ryan et al.: Multi-Messenger Astronomy with Extremely Large Telescopes. Astro 2020 Science Whitepaper. https://arxiv.org/pdf/1903.04629.pdf
  3. Multi-Messenger Universe with Gravitational Waves from Binary Systems.   Astro 2020 Science White Paper. https://arxiv.org/pdf/1903.09277.pdf
  4. Peeples, Molly S.: Understanding the Circum-Galactic Medium is Critical for Understanding Galactic Evolution. 2020 Science White Paper. https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1903/1903.05644.pdf
  5. Belokurov, Vasily: Gaia’s Living and Breathing Galaxy. https://www.nature.com/articles/s42254-018-0009-z.pdf
  6. Abbott et al.: Low Latency Gravitational Wave Alerts for Multi-Messenger Astronomy during the Second Advanced Ligo and Virgo Observing Run. 11 March 2019. https://arxiv.org/pd f/1901.03310.pdf
  7. Schwietermann, Edward W. et al.: Exoplanet Biosignatures – A Review of Remotely Detectable Signs of Life.  Astrobiology, Vol. 18, No. 6, June 2018.https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/pdfplus/10.1089/ast.2017.1729
  8. Lingam, Manasvi and Loeb, Abraham: Optimal Target Stars in the Search for Life. Astrophysical Journal Letters, Vol. 857, No. 2, 20 April 2018. https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.3847/2041-8213/aabd86/meta
  9. Coffey, Valerie C.: TESS. the Little Satellite with a Big Job. Optics and Photonics News, February 2020. https://www.osapublishing.org
  10. Gilbert, Emily A. et al.: The First Habitable Zone Earth-Sized Planet from TESS. I. Validation of the TOI-700 System. 2020.https://arxiv.org/pdf/2001.00952.pdf
  11. Fortenbach, Charles D. and Dressing, Courtney D.: A Framework for Optimizing Exoplanet Target Selection for the James Webb Telescope. Febr. 6, 2020.https://arxiv.org/pdf/2002.01495.pdf
  12. Cockell, Charles S.: Astrobiology. Understanding Life in the Universe. Wiley-Blackwell, 2015.
  13. Pasachoff, Jay M, and Filippenko, Alex: The Cosmos. Astronomy in the New Millennium. Cambridge University Press, 2019.
  14. Gordon, Richard and Sharov, Alexei: Habitability of the Universe before Earth. Cambridge: Academic Press, 2018.

About the author: Steen Hjortsoe is a Danish radiofrequency target person and political writer. He was educated at the University of Copenhagen.

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