| Don’t know about you, but I’m loving those mystery lights on Ceres as NASA’s surveillance probe, Dawn, bears down on the biggest chunk of real estate in the asteroid belt. And not because of the prospects for discovering alien activity – they’re remote, at best – but because of the opportunity to witness, again, the ritual disconnect that characterizes institutional science whenever The Great Taboo legitimately insinuates itself into a news cycle.
Let’s go back a few years when, after half a century of logging zilch in the Great ET Radio Signal Experiment, SETI pioneer Jill Tarter proposed
a new name for their endeavors, the Search for Extraterrestrial Technology (SETT). This was a tacit grudging concession that maybe radio astronomers had been working with a flawed model. In 2011, the International Journal of Astrobiology published a paper by astrophysicists Martin Elvis and Duncan Forgan proposing an even more specific tack, that maybe Earthlings ought to consider scanning the asteroid belt for evidence of ET “macro-engineering projects.” Translation: mining operations. Made sense. After all, they noted, asteroids are repositories for raw material like gold, platinum and silver, the kind of stuff you’d likely need to repair or refuel extended planetary missions.
And, as Forgan would hypothesize two years later in the IJA, ET wouldn’t even have to bend the known laws of physics to reach the rocky debris zone between Jupiter and Mars, no matter which part of the Milky Way he/she/it came from. Upon crunching the numbers, Forgan and a mathematician hypothesized that robotic technologies could have mapped this galaxy well below light speeds, in about 10 million years. On the cosmic scale of time, that’s no big deal.
So here’s what’s going on. In 2007, NASA hurls an unmanned vehicle toward the asteroid belt to look for clues to the formation of our solar system. Destination: “dwarf planets” Vesta and Ceres. Dawn enters a 14-month mapping orbit over Vesta in 2011, then moves on toward the bigger prize. In February, as it closes to within 29,000 miles of Ceres, Dawn’s cameras detect something totally off the charts – lights on the surface. Their luminosity doesn’t appear to be significantly affected by different sun angles. Two months and 25,000 miles closer, their intensity is still unblinking. Planetary scientists are stumped; at the Jet Propulsion Lab’s website, PR flacks do a very savvy thing by letting visitors vote on the most likely suspects: “volcano,” “geyser,” “salt deposit,” “ice,” “rock,” and “other.” Wonder what “other” could be. Hmm. Anyway, we’ll get an even better peek by summer’s end, when Dawn dips to within 900 miles of the surface.
No matter what those lights are all about, this sort of suspense is cool. Talk about a teaching opportunity for schools.
Now let’s review some of NASA’s recent headline-grabbing statements. In 2014, given our ongoing exoplanet transiting searches and the impending exploration of more local worlds like Europa, space agency scientists predicted Earthlings will discover ET life within 20 years. That forecast was reiterated just last week at the Astrobiology Science Conference in Chicago. In fact, NASA Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate (there’s a mouthful) and former astronaut John Grunsfeld suggested that ET civilizations might already have detected us, the same way we’re locating and confirming the existence of deep-space planets. Quote:
“We put atmospheric signatures that guarantee someone with a large telescope 20 light years away could detect us. If there is life out there, intelligent life, they’ll know we’re here.”
Left unsaid, what none in that sheltered crowd wants to contemplate: And if they discover us before we discover them, maybe they’re already a lot closer than we think. But of course, there was no room in Chicago for a discussion of UFOs. That would be a little too declasse, like farting in church. Oh, and just to make sure nobody got terribly excited, coverage of last week’s Windy City pow-wow also included a canned statement from NASA chief scientist Ellen Stefan. In April, during a discussion about Mars, she drew distinctions between the discovery of biological life and some other silly alternative like, well, the 2011 peer-reviewed paper’s “targeted asteroid mining” scenario. “We are not talking about little green men,” she insisted. “We are talking about little microbes.”
Stofan could’ve said “intelligent life.” But she went for the gag line instead. Knowing full well how much everybody loves microbes.
Hey, no one wants to look like an idiot as we approach the biggest discovery of all time, wherever that may be. The solution to the Ceres lights will likely fall far short of little green men. But the language we employ as we draw closer to the inevitability doesn’t inspire much confidence; it suggests we’re deeply conflicted in our enthusiasm for confirming The Other. Or at least the people at the top of NASA appear to be. Fortunately, we can console ourselves with the knowledge that science and politics never mix.