Archive | June 2012

Exoplanet Atmospheres and SETI

Narrowing the Search: SETILive is a part of the much larger, much broader and rapidly advancing field of exoplanetary research. The “S” in SETI stands for “search” and these advances will directly benefit SETI by narrowing the search. The current explosion in exoplanet discoveries ignited by the Kepler project is providing great fundamental data for planetary and astrobiology scientists to begin figuring out exactly how planets form and develop and what the prospects for life on these planets could be. The more they learn, the narrower the search for ET can be.

The SETI Institute’s concentration on these Kepler planets, with SETILive as a part of it, is an early example of this more informed search, focusing for the first time on a large number of planets that have good evidence that they could be in the water-based habitable zone. The new wave of discoveries that will help narrow down this search even more is the analysis of exoplanet atmospheres – finding out what gases are present.  Some of these gases, if found, could be a strong indication that a planet hosts life at some level, and quite possibly intelligent  life.

New Techniques: A sign of the progress being made in the study of exoplanet atmospheres is this work done through the European Southern Observatory also reported on Here, they are directly measuring the very weak “rainbow” of colors from the planet’s faint infrared glow produced by its own heat. This new technique is different than the method of seeing how the planet’s atmosphere affects the rainbow spectrum of the starlight behind it during a transit. It is based on that fact that, like a star, a planet’s own rainbow spectrum is affected by gases that surround it. The difference is that the planet’s rainbow light is very much weaker than a star’s and it’s concentrated in infrared wavelengths that are far out of the range visible to our eyes.

On the Horizon: So far, exoplanet atmospheric measurements are only feasible for large planets like this Jupiter-class one in a nearby star system. Measurements for smaller (earth-class), and more distant planets will come along in the coming decades as new instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope and the new giant ground-based telescopes come into play.

I feel that we’re at the beginning of a very exciting few decades in the search for extraterrestrial life in general and SETI in particular.


SETIcon II This Weekend, Lots of Prime Telescope Time

SETIcon II Event: This weekend the SETI Institute presents SETIcon II, in Santa Clara, California, US. It’s billed as ” a unique, entertaining and enlightening public event where science and imagination meet” on the event website. It looks to me like it will fill that bill and I wish I could have attended. If I lived anywhere near the Bay Area… road-trip, most definitely. It will feature SETILive in one of the many interesting exhibits. Other than it being of general interest to “SETIzen scientists” here at SETILive, it also means our “Telescope Active” time is going a bit off the normal routine for about a week, but there’s a good reason…

Lots of Prime Weekend Telescope Time: We normally observe the Kepler star field, looking for signals from specific stars determined by the Kepler project to have planets likely in the liquid water-based habitable zone. That star field is currently only above the horizon and visible from the ATA from late evening to mid-morning US time, and the other time is filled by other observing projects looking at different parts of the sky. By lending some SETILive active time from late evening and morning sessions during weekdays this week and next  to other ATA projects, the SETI Institute can give it back to SETILive this weekend for a pretty full daytime schedule in the Americas and from late afternoon to early morning east of the Atlantic. They’re filling the US daytime schedule this weekend by feeding us data from other exoplanet candidates outside the Kepler field when it’s below the horizon. So,  SETIcon II attendees will be able to see it work and work with it themselves using live data and of course, you can get on and classify  live data this weekend at times you aren’t normally be able to.

You can see the upcoming schedule along with the current status, as always, at

BTW: Telescope Active Window Slowly Shifts: By the way, and speaking of active telescope windows, six months from now the Kepler viewing window, and therefore our “Telescope Active” times, will have shifted by 12 hours and will be pretty much all during daytime hours in US . The apparent motions of Kepler field stars in the sky, like all extra-solar objects are due to  the true rotation period of the Earth, the sidereal day which is about 4 minutes shorter than our solar day. In six months, this small shift accumulates to half of a day, or 12 hours.

Follow-ups Progress

Over the past weekend, we were working behind the scenes on “closing the loop” between SETILive and the ATA so that when enough of you mark a potential ET signal, a followup measurement is triggered. You produced a number of follow-up triggers, but the basic problem is that they arrive too late at the ATA. There’s a limited time, for a variety of reasons, between when the data is sent to us and when we have to ask the ATA to interrupt it’s normal sequence. We’re looking at a variety of steps in the process at the SETILive end, some of which we know are contributing and some that could be. These include the time we keep waterfalls available for marking prior to analysis, processor priority for the “workers” that process the marking analysis and the speed of image rendering. We’ll also look at waterfall data rendering and follow-up messaging at the SETI Institute end as well.

When we make some progress on the timing, we’ll be ready for some more testing and may schedule another follow-up testing party in the coming days, we’ll let you know by email if we do. We’ll also give you an update here and in Talk  on any further followups progress made.

Again, thanks very much for your participation and support for the project.

Thanks! Made Some Good Progress on Follow-ups

All that activity you brought to SETILive during our second testing session allowed us to find and fix a few bugs lurking in the machinery. We ended up getting a reasonable number of follow-up allowing us to track down and clean up a couple issues at SETILive’s end preventing the ATA from getting our requests for follow-ups.  This was not quite soon enough to catch the tail end of today’s ATA’s active window, which ended at 11:55 EDT. So, the telescope never had a chance to respond to the ET-like signals you found (Murphy’s Law again?).

Although we didn’t trigger any actual telescope follow-ups, we’re in good shape to start doing that sometime tomorrow when we test again. We don’t think we’ll need  any help at any particular time tomorrow, but we’ll let you know if that changes and we’ll let you know how it went.

We’re getting there. Thanks again!

Followups Test Party #2 Starts Late, but We’ll Keep Going! (also, more testing next week)

You can now login to SETILive and help with the Follow-ups Testing. The 2nd test window almost came and went, but the final login server problem was solved about 30 minutes ago! So, the ATA staff is game to keep this party going until the Kepler Field “leaves the house” and starts to set below the horizon at 11:55AM EDT. So if you can, get on and classify anytime up until then to help us keep the healthy classification rate we have now going or maybe make it even higher!

We’ve got 30+ people classifying right now and that is amazing considering the frustrations and disappointment many probably experienced trying to log in. That rate should be enough to give us some follow-ups but more certainly wouldn’t hurt.

We will also be scheduling some more sessions in the next week and if things go well, we’ll soon be doing follow-ups all the time the ATA is active and giving you some live feedback on it in some form.

We don’t have the live notification protocol set up just yet, but we’ll let you know how it went when we go through this test data.

Thanks so much to all of our Citizen Scientists – you’re the best!

Followups Test Party Crashed by Gremlins – Let’s Try Again!

Last night at about 12 PM EDT, we were ready to do some full-function follow-up tests in the background and many dedicated users had responded to our request to log in and start classifying during the first of two predetermined testing windows. Just as all things were about to come into place,  the entire zooniverse site went down because our web service provider Amazon Web Services had a a major crash apparently due to a power failure. The situation was developing only minutes before our scheduled test so the timing couldn’t have been worse. This is a classic case of “Murphy’s Law”.

We are incredibly impressed and very grateful that so many of our SETIlive citizen scientists came to the party last night, we’re so sorry it was “crashed” by some major-league internet gremlins.

We have a second window scheduled in less than two and a half hours at 9 AM EDT and hope that folks will show up for this one too like they did last night. And let’s also hope the gremlins have been dispatched for good by that time.