Here’s an image that brings out the philosopher in me, or maybe the poet. It’s Voyager 1, as detected by a new processing system called COSMIC, now deployed at the Very Large Array west of Socorro, New Mexico. Conceived as a way of collecting data in the search for technosignatures, COSMIC (Commensal Open-Source Multimode Interferometer Cluster) taps data from the ongoing VLASS (Very Large Array Sky Survey) project and shunts them into a receiver designed to spot narrow channels, on the order of one hertz wide, to spot possible components of a technosignature.
Technosignatures fire the imagination as we contemplate advanced civilizations going about their business and the possibility of eavesdropping upon them. But for me, the image below conjures up thoughts of human persistence and a gutsy engagement with the biggest issues we face. Why are we here, and where exactly are we in the galaxy? In the cosmos? Spacecraft like the Voyagers were part of the effort to explore the Solar System, but they now push into realms not intended by their designers. And here we have the detection of doughty Voyager 1, still working the mission, somehow still sending us priceless information.
Image: The detection of the Voyager I spacecraft using the COSMIC instrument on the VLA. Launched in 1977, the Voyager I spacecraft is now the most distant piece of human technology ever sent into space, currently around 14.8 billion miles from Earth. Voyager’s faint radio transmitter is difficult to detect even with the largest telescopes, and represents an ideal human “technosignature” for testing the performance of SETI instruments. The detection of Voyager’s downlink gives the COSMIC team high confidence that the system can detect similar artificial transmitters potentially arising from distant extraterrestrial civilizations. Credit: SETI Institute.
Voyager 1 is thus a dry run for a technosignature detection, and COSMIC is said to offer a sensitivity a thousand times more comprehensive than any previous SETI search. The detection is unmistakable, combining and verifying the operation of the individual antennas that comprise the array to show the carrier signal and sideband transmissions from the spacecraft. The most distant of all human-made objects, Voyager 1 is now 24 billion kilometers from home. For one participant in COSMIC, the spacecraft demonstrates what can be done by combing through the incoming datastream of VLASS. Thus Jack Hickish (Real Time Radio Systems Ltd):
“The detection of Voyager 1 is an exciting demonstration of the capabilities of the COSMIC system. It is the culmination of an enormous amount of work from an international team of scientists and engineers. The COSMIC system is a fantastic example of using modern general-purpose compute hardware to augment the capabilities of an existing telescope and serves as a testbed for technosignatures research on upcoming radio telescopes such as NRAO’s Next Generation VLA.”
COSMIC is the result of collaboration between The SETI Institute (working with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory) and the Breakthrough Listen Initiative. The key here is efficiency – the technosignature search draws on data already being taken for other reasons, and given the challenge of obtaining large amounts of telescope time, an offshoot method of tracking pulsed and transient signals simply makes use of existing resources, with approximately ten million star systems within its scope.
Technosignatures are fascinating, but I come back to Voyager. We’ve gotten used to the scope of its achievement, but what fires the imagination is the details. It wasn’t all that long ago, for example, that controllers decided to switch to the use of the spacecrafts’ backup thrusters. The reason: The primary thrusters, having gone through almost 350,000 thruster cycles, were pushing their limits. When the backup thrusters were fired in 2017, the spacecraft had been on their way for forty years. The “trajectory correction maneuver,” or TCM, thrusters built by Aerojet Rocketdyne (also used on Cassini, among others), dormant since Voyager 1’s swing by Saturn in 1980, worked flawlessly.
In his book The Interstellar Age (Dutton, 2015), Jim Bell came up with an interesting future possibility for the Voyagers before we lose them forever. Bell worked as an intern on the Voyager science support team at JPL starting in 1980, and he would like to see some of the results of the mission stored up for a potentially wider audience. Right now there is nothing aboard each spacecraft that tells their stories. Bell quotes Jon Lomberg, who worked on the Voyager Golden Records and has advanced the idea of a digital message to be uploaded to New Horizons:
‘One thing I wish could have been on the Voyager record… is that I wish we could have had something of ‘here’s what Voyager was and here’s what Voyager found,’ because it’s one of the best things human beings have ever done. If they ever find Voyager they won’t know about its mission. They won’t know what it did, and that’s sad.’
And Bell goes on to say:
…let’s try to upload the Earth-Moon portrait; the historic first close-up photos of Io’s volcanoes and Europa and Ganymede’s cracked icy shells; the smoggy haze of Titan; the enormous cliffs of Miranda; the strange cantaloupe and geyser terrain of Triton; the swirling storms of Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune; the elegant, intricate ring systems of all four giant planets; the family portrait of our solar system. Let’s arm our Voyagers with electronic postcards so they can properly tell their tales, should any intelligence ever find them.
Could images be uploaded to the Voyager tape recorders at some point before communication is lost? It’s an intriguing thought about a symbolic act, but whether possible or not, it reminds us of the distances the Voyagers have thus far traveled and the presence of something built here on Earth that will keep going, blind and battered but more or less intact, for eons.
When the original Grand Tour mission was conceived with new space probes called Thermoelectric Outer Planets Spacecraft (TOPS), it was canceled due to cost, but later revived with the Voyager space probes.
The Jeff Hawke cartoon strip in the UK’s Daily Express paper used the TOPS proposal as the prologue to the story “Here Be Tygers”. The TOPS probe, by chance, flew by an alien artifact at the edge of the solar system. And hence Jeff Hawke and crew, near Pluto, then investigated with an advanced nuclear spaceship. The alien artifact was in fact a warning to aliens that a dangerous species – humans – were in the system and that our system was to be avoided.
The idea that space probes should record their journey, rather like a ship’s log, or journal, illustrated with photographs of what it discovered on the way, is a wonderful idea. Obviously harder to do than simply adding a curated disc of images, the trick will be how to store the data. I am skeptical of electronic storage as bit rot will slowly damage the data even if the observer knows how to decode the binary data. For our future interstellar precursor probes, what we need is a better way to record the data so that it is obvious to the observer what it is and that damage to the record still allows it to be understood. Perhaps white light holographic technology, but made more long-lasting would be one solution. It burdens the craft, but it would be of inestimable value to a future terrestrial or ETI discoverer of a probe launched from Earth. The time between launch and discovery would dwarf the age of our archaeological artifacts. It might be more like flint tools in age. [Imagine if ‘Oumuamua was a dead spacecraft how long would it be exposed to cosmic radiation and micrometeoroid damage before it entered our system.]
Putting a journey record in Voyager is very much like giving it the status of a message in a bottle. To be useful, that message must be both readable and long-lasting.
Nice idea to include such a CV/résumé on spacecraft: if at all discovered it will likely be at a time when Homo sapeins would be extinct. Hopefully not like dinosaurs, but like our precursors such as Homo erectus that went extinct by transforming through evolution into us.
“the technosignature search draws on data already being taken for other reasons… simply makes use of existing resources, with approximately ten million star systems within its scope.”
With the inception of all-sky surveys such as SKA and the question of how to store such an enormous quantity of data we need to keep in mind that strategies for compression and roll-up of data presume we understand enough about the data being captured so that our compression schemes are ‘lossless.’ But in cosmic investigations, such as the search for techno signatures, the capture of relatively raw data is necessary precisely because we don’t know what we are looking for until we find it. Astronomy needs to move away from the paradigm of photographic plates toward one of a 4-D meta-universe, where data points are captured for every position and moment. Then let AI lose on the data set ;)
So beside the NRO, Russians and Chinese plus numerous balloons that are listening in on your Cell Phone conversations, the Aliens know your secrets also!
Can ET Detect Us?
As I mentioned in another post, the SETI web talk assumed that ETI was very distant, likely on their homeworld. No consideration was given to possible Bracewell/Lurker probes that could be in our system monitoring our planet. SETI people continue to stick with the paradigm set back in the 1960s that ETI does not have any interstellar capability. Given that some ETI civilizations are likely very old, this idea of never sending out probes is almost quaint, especially as we are already envisioning flyby probes to other systems. SETI can do some very good talks, but this was not one of them.
Our home base receiver network will only get bigger and bigger, so long as these probes transmit in our direction we will always pick the signals up.
I don’t think there are any FTL probes. I like the idea of a warp drive engine in a nutshell, but it is impossible. One needs a large spacecraft because of the enormous energy requirements needed to make FTL propulsion, even if there are energy shortcuts. For example: The amount of gravity waves holding you on the ground over a few square feet is only around two hundred watts. Some household appliances use more power than that. Lets supposes some of the UAP’s we have seen use anti gravity. Anti gravity waves with the energy of a few thousand watts would easily be able to propel a small spacecraft to escape velocity. I assume than any small probes must be useful for only short range and don’t have the energy for FTL. Star Trek and Star wars show small spacecraft being able to go faster than light, but in my opinion, one of me being savvy in both physics, and rocket science, I don’t think that is possible. I don’t want to be the spoiler for people who like science fiction by invalidating some ideas, but science fact and physics requires that if one takes it seriously. I am a science fiction fan myself and I love Star Trek and Star Wars.
The NASA article I read about the difficulty of listening in for nearby radio signals of ET’s is not longer posted on NASA’s website. If it is, I can’t easily find it. I still do agree with it though. We already know how difficult it is to send a radio signal interstellar since it takes one million watts to barely reach the nearest star at 4.3 light years. Alpha Centauri. I’ve yet to see a small probe be able to do that, but as you yourself once pointed out that if a civilizations has FTL, radio signals become completely obsolete. A relative of mine actually came to that conclusion in 2007 and I had to agree with it. Consequently, the idea of Bracewell/Lurkers and Von Neumann probes in my opinion are an idea which is trapped in technological zeitgeist of the past when FTL was considered completely science fiction and impossible and interstellar travel very difficult.
I leave some room for error this judgment as it could be wrong and I don’t disagree with you Alex Tolley on listening in at all frequencies for any nearby probes. Maybe there are some Bracewell/Lurkers, but I still have to think that these would be very difficult to detect. It is clear that if they wanted to send us a signal short range, they would have done that by now which does not mean at all that they don’t exist. There is more than one reason why they might not want to send a signal short range to us. We have already explored those possibilities on previous Centauri Dreams papers.
I agree that we get trapped in thinking about things with the technology of our times, as we cannot foresee future technologies. The Victorians assumed steam power and as a result, did not understand the power of ICE engines. In my lifetime, many of the technologies we use today, even in consumer products, were not even dreamt of, and it is clear how quaint the future was depicted even after WWII and the explosion of new technologies.
Today, we don’t think FTL communication is possible, but we may be wrong and LeGuin’s ansibles may be possible. [A probe would still be useful to convert the FTL signal into something our technology could receive]. If FTL travel is possible, we are back to the Fermi Question – “Where are they?”. The biggest technological change in my lifetime has been the development of microelectronics and computers that has become ubiquitous. In the 1960s I never even thought about owning computers, let alone programming them. Mobile communications were radio devices, and telephones were only landlines, and families needed to struggle to get more than one line (some to get off party lines). We are already at the start of genetic manipulation that will have profound effects on our world. I expect medicine will be very different by the end of this century, as the end of the last century was different from its beginning. Clarke’s “Profiles of the Future” (1962) has no mention of genetic engineering – he seems to have been trapped in the world of physics and hardware engineering, biology being something to replace. Offhand, I don’t recall any of his stories having anything to say about genetic engineering biology. Evolution yes, but not engineering.
It will be interesting for future readers at the beginning of the 22nd century to determine if contemporary scifi writers have managed world-building that even reasonably reflects where biological knowledge and engineering took civilization. I suspect writers will fall far short of where this will take us.
I think we’ve answered that already and even here on Centauri Dreams. Carl Sagan answered it by saying maybe the ET’s are here and we just don’t see them. I think this is true, but we have to humble ourselves and admit that our technology is not advanced enough to see them. It’s easier to think we are the ultimate or the most powerful and technologically advanced civilization in our galaxy because we have not detected any radio signals. Without interstellar travel we really are isolated or limited to our own backyard. Most of the other G class stars like our Sun are older than our Sun. Krauss 2007, The Physics of Star Trek, p. 160. Consequently we might be one of the few more primitive technological civilizations in our galaxy which has been in the space age for only sixty four years.
Dumb question perhaps: Does an anti-gravity drive need a nearby mass to react against to accelerate?
What happens in deep space with there is nothing but a few atoms per cubic meter?
You might as well ask: how many teeth does a unicorn have?
Show me a unicorn and I’ll count the teeth. Until then, any proposed number is a fiction.
Scott Gurein, that is a smart question. From what I recall reading in propulsion science, the idea of propulsion without a reaction mass refers to any propulsion which uses Newton’s third law and has a specific impulse like the exhaust thrust from beneath a chemical rocket.
There is no specific impulse with a negative energy, anti gravity space warp. The answer of your question is yes, an anti gravity drive would be it’s own reaction mass. If we want to be precise, anti gravity propulsion would have a reaction mass. One would simply expand the space on the opposite side that one wanted to move the spacecraft. A hovering spacecraft or one with a fast vertical assent would have the space expanding beneath it. This idea is completely supported by general relativity.
Excuse me for the typo. Any spacecraft that has a reaction mass has a specific impulse like the trust from chemical rockets. A reaction less mass refers to a space warp because it is a form of propulsion which does not use or need any propellant to move it.