On This Episode
Professor at UCLA Department of Earth, Planetary and Space Sciences and UCLA Department of Physics and Astronomy
Graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
Public Education Specialist for The Planetary Society
Chief Scientist / LightSail Program Manager for The Planetary Society
Planetary Radio Host and Producer for The Planetary Society
A new volunteer science project to search for alien technosignatures has launched! Jean-Luc Margot and Megan Li from UCLA join us to share the exciting debut of their Planetary Society STEP Grant-funded SETI project on Zooniverse. Our public education specialist Kate Howells reflects on the tenth anniversary of the Chelyabinsk Meteor Event, and don’t miss your chance to win a comfy Planetary Society beanie in this week’s Space Trivia Contest.
- Are we alone in the universe? Zooniverse project
- Meet the first STEP Grant awardees
- Announcing the First-Ever STEP Grant Winners: Citizen Science SETI and Determining Asteroid Properties
- STEP Grants: Science and Technology Empowered by the Public
- UCLA SETI
- What was the Chelyabinsk meteor event?
- The night sky
- The Downlink
- Subscribe to the monthly Planetary Radio newsletter
This Week’s Question:
Of the people on board the International Space Station (as of Feb 15, 2023), who has had the most spaceflights?
This Week’s Prize:
A Planetary Society beanie.
To submit your answer:
Complete the contest entry form at https://www.planetary.org/radiocontest or write to us at [email protected] no later than Wednesday, February 22 at 8am Pacific Time. Be sure to include your name and mailing address.
Last week's question:
What astronaut included his two rescue dogs in his official NASA photo?
The winner will be revealed next week.
Question from the February 1, 2023 space trivia contest:
In the name Comet 2022 E3 (ZTF) what does the "ZTF" stand for?
The ZTF in the name Comet 2022 E3 (ZTF) stands for Zwicky Transient Facility. The comet was discovered by the Zwicky Transient Facility's wide-field survey camera attached to the Samuel Oschin Telescope at the Palomar Observatory in California in early March 2022
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Searching for extraterrestrial technosignatures among the stars, this week on Planetary Radio. I'm Sarah Al-Ahmed of the Planetary Society with more of the human adventure across our solar system and beyond. Are we alone in the universe? It's one of the greatest mysteries, but we're about to share a new opportunity to join in the Search for life off of earth. This week, Jean-Luc Margot and Megan Li from UCLA join us to discuss the release of their Planetary Society's STEP grant-funded volunteer science project to search for intelligent life off of earth. The Planetary Society's Kate Howells will take a look back at the Chelyabinsk Meteor event as we pass its 10th anniversary. And Bruce Betts will let you know what's in the skies this week and what's up. In space news, NASA and ISRO, the Indian Space Research Organization, announced last week that they will expand their cooperation. The partnership will involve joint efforts and civil space activities, including training an Indian astronaut at NASA's Johnson Space Center and future cooperation on NASA's commercial lunar payload services program, which sends research payloads to the moon aboard commercial lunar landing vehicles. Astronomers using the Calar Alto Observatory in Spain have detected a new earth-like exoplanet that orbits in the habitable zone of a red dwarf star just 31 light years away. The habitable zone, or Goldilocks Zone as some people like to call it, is the region around a star where conditions are suitable for liquid water to exist on the surface of planetary bodies. We don't yet know if there's water on this newly discovered exoplanet, called Wolf 1069B, but it is the sixth-closest earth mass habitable zone exoplanet ever discovered. The James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST, has made an unexpected discovery. A team of European scientists observed a previously unknown asteroid measuring around 100 to 200 meters in diameter, that's approximately 320 to 650 feet across. The discovery was made when they were looking at calibration images from the space telescopes, observations of a completely different asteroid in the main belt. These kinds of small main belt asteroids aren't well studied because they're so hard to observe. But once more, JWST has proven its ability to change the game. You can learn more about these stories in the February 10th edition of the Planetary Society's Weekly newsletter, the Downlink. Read it for free or have it sent to your inbox every Friday at planetary.org/downlink. This episode is scheduled to release on February 15th, 2023, which just happens to be the 10th anniversary of the Chelyabinsk Meteor event. Kate Howells, our public education specialist and Canadian space policy advisor, has just written a new article marking this anniversary, and she's here to share more about what happened on that fateful day a decade ago. Hi Kate. What happened on that day 10 years ago?
Kate Howells: First of all, I will say I cannot believe it's already been 10 years, cause I remember when this happened and it does not seem like that long ago, but that's time for ya. So yes, on February 15th, 2013 at 9:20 AM local time, a very unexpected and unusual thing happened, a asteroid exploded in the atmosphere over a city. This was the city of Chelyabinsk, Russia, so we call this the Chelyabinsk Meteor event, and just to clarify, it was an asteroid, but then once it entered the atmosphere, it became a meteor technically. So we can kind of use those two words interchangeably. And yeah, this was a very big deal. We've never had an impact event like this happen in a populated area within recorded history. It was about a 20-meter asteroid and it exploded about 30 kilometers, which is a bit less than 19 miles above the surface. Had that asteroid made it all the way to the ground and impacted, it would've been a very different story. There would've been a lot more damage, probably a lot of deaths. As it was, it exploded high enough off the ground that it didn't kill anybody, but it did damage thousands of buildings and it did hurt about 1500 people badly enough that they went to their local hospitals and clinics with injuries. Nothing like this has ever happened in history where people on this scale have been hurt by an asteroid or a meteor. So this was a very remarkable occurrence.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah, I remember when that happened. It makes sense to me that you see a bright flash outside your window and the first thing you think is, I want to go see what that is. But the shockwave as that thing exploded in the atmosphere blew the glass out of everyone's windows and injured a lot of people. So it's a hard thing to ever anticipate, an event like this, but if anyone out there is listening, you see a bright flash outside your window and want to go see, maybe wait a minute or so before you go to that window just in case.
Kate Howells: Absolutely. Yeah. We've seen this with other things too. If there's a huge explosion on the ground, people will always film out their windows going and looking at it happening, and the same thing can happen there where the shockwave blows the windows out and people get hurt by the glass. It's more likely that it'll happen in that scenario where something on the ground is exploding than the scenario that happened in Chelyabinsk where something in the air was exploding. And I think I would have a hard time not going and looking at it because how often do you get to see a meteor that size rip through the sky? It left this incredible trail. There was this bright flash as the meteor exploded. Of course, yeah, your eye's going to be drawn to that. You're going to want to go check it out. But yes, because light travels faster than anything else, you see the explosion first and then a little while later the shockwave hits. It was a completely unexpected event too. So that's another interesting aspect of what happened is that nobody saw this coming because the asteroid came from the direction of the sun, and so asteroid hunting telescopes weren't able to see it easily. So it wasn't detected in advance at all. So it really does underscore the importance of developing technologies to look for asteroids in all directions, and that's one of the reasons that the Planetary Society advocates for the NEO Surveyor mission is that this is a space telescope that could look for asteroids in the direction of the sun, which we can't really do very well from earth. The more we can find out in advance that these things are going to happen, the better we can prepare people, even by saying, "Hey, don't look out your window. If you see a bright flash go get under your kitchen table," or if it were more serious, they could evacuate the city in advance, that kind of thing.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: That would be a good tool to have, and I'm sure many Planetary Radio listeners out there have contributed to our efforts to try to defend earth from asteroids, but becoming a Planetary Society member is a great way to support this and hopefully protect our planet and its cities from future impacts.
Kate Howells: Absolutely, yes. The more we learn about what's out there, the better we can prepare for it because yeah, Chelyabinsk really showed that something like this can happen at any time, and this was a more serious meteor event than we've ever seen in history. We've never had this many people hurt by a meteor. We've had instances, I think maybe only once in history, of somebody directly getting hit by a meteor, but that was one person. This is the first time that we've really had a widespread effect, widespread damage and injury like this from a media event. 10 years isn't that long a time. Who knows when the next one will happen. So we really do have to get out and look for those objects before they come hurdling towards us.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: If anybody wants to read more about this, where should they go online in order to find your article, Kate?
Kate Howells: If you go to planetary.org/articles, you will find it on the list no matter when you're listening to this. You can also go to planetary.org and search in our little search function for Chelyabinsk. I assume we'll also link to it on the show page.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Absolutely. I'll put this on the show page for this episode at planetary.org/radio for anyone who wants to read it. Well, thanks so much for talking more about this, and for writing the article. I'm sure so many people are going to want to reflect on that moment. My gosh, I'm so glad that everyone was okay.
Kate Howells: I know. It is quite remarkable that nobody died. I mean, for something this significant happening, it is really astonishing and lucky that no one was killed by it. So yes, everybody count your blessings and invest in planetary defense technologies.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Definitely. Well, thanks so much, Kate. I'm sure we'll have you on again when you write the next amazing article.
Kate Howells: Thanks, Sarah.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: The Planetary Society has supported innovative science and technology projects that advance space science and exploration since we were founded. It's just one part of our larger efforts to explore world's fine life and defend earth from dangerous asteroids. With the support of our members and donors, in 2021, we were happy to announce the creation of our newest grant program, the Science and Technology Empowered by the Public, or STEP Grant program, which selects new proposals for funding roughly over two years. And last year, we awarded our first two-step grants. One was a planetary defense project to use a new technique to study near earth asteroids, and the other project, led by Jean-Luc Margot at the University of California Los Angeles, or UCLA, is a volunteer or citizen science project to search for extraterrestrial technosignatures in radio data. Whether there's life elsewhere in the universe is one of the fundamental and unanswered mysteries about our reality. But more than that, we want to know if we're unique in our intelligence and technology. Are there creatures out there among the stars searching for us as we search for them? Can we detect their technology from a distance? And how do we differentiate between potential signals from extraterrestrial life and the sheer volume of radio noise humans broadcast each day on earth? The search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, is challenging to say the least, but that's part of why this specific project spoke to us. The Are We Alone In the Universe? project harnesses the power of volunteers around the world using the Zooniverse platform to help search through radio observations taken by the 100-meter Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, the world's largest steerable telescope. It gets us one step closer to solving one of the most profound questions in science. Project lead Dr. Jean-Luc Margot, who heads one of the leading searches for extraterrestrial signals at the UCLA SETI group, and Megan Li, a graduate student working on the project, join us to share the new and exciting debut of their volunteer science project. Jean-Luc is a professor in the departments of Earth Planetary and Space Sciences and the Department of Physics and astronomy at UCLA. Megan Li is pursuing a PhD in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Volunteer science projects, more popularly called Citizen Science Projects, allow members of the public to collaborate with professional scientists to process large data sets and look for complex patterns. For this interview, Jean-Luc and Megan requested that we use the term volunteer science projects to make it clear that everyone on earth, no matter their citizenship, is welcome to participate. Welcome to Planetary Radio.
Jean-Luc Margot: It's great to be here.
Megan Li: Hi. Thanks so much for having us.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Congratulations on winning one of the first ever STEP grants, and on the release of your SETI Volunteer Science project on Zooniverse.
Jean-Luc Margot: Thank you. We're really excited.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: And Jean-Luc, this is your second time on Planetary Radio, right? You came on last March to talk a bit about this project after the grant was awarded.
Jean-Luc Margot: That's correct.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: And it's wonderful to have you with us too, Megan. I'm really looking forward to hearing more about the UCLA student involvement in this project.
Megan Li: Thank you. I'm so grateful to have been invited.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: I love that this project involves so many people, and particularly that it spun out from a class. We'll get to that in a moment. Your project is now available to everyone. It just launched on February 14th. It's wonderful that the project you guys have worked on is about the search for life in the universe. I know that that's something that's really important to everyone here at the Planetary Society, but was also really important to our founders, particularly Carl Sagan. And I loved hearing about your time interacting with Carl Sagan at Cornell and your previous Planetary Radio appearance, Jean-Luc.
Jean-Luc Margot: Yeah. So he was a big inspiration and the search was really meaningful to him. So I was definitely inspired by Carl. He left us way too early, but his legacy lives on.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Agreed. I think a lot of us can relate to that. He inspired so many of us to pursue this field. Megan, can you tell us briefly the Are We Alone? project?
Megan Li: Are We Alone In the Universe? is a volunteer science platform hosted by Zooniverse where volunteers from all ages, from like 10 plus, can sort different radio signals into various categories to help UCLA SETI with our search.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: So awesome. I love that everyone can get involved in this. And I know it began as a SETI course at UCLA and you've taught that for many years, is that right, Jean-Luc?
Jean-Luc Margot: Yeah. So at UCLA we've been teaching a full length SETI course about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence since 2016. It's been really exciting course, we think it's the first course of its kind. It's also the most regularly offered course of its kind. And we've reached 120 undergraduates and about 12 graduate students so far with the course.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: That's wonderful. I would've loved to take that in undergrad. What do students actually do? Is it more about the search and how you do that search or is it a hands-on, get involved in the research, look at the data kind of class?
Jean-Luc Margot: So the UCLA SETI course is a team-based, project-based, hands-on class, learn by doing kind of class, and in this course students design an observing sequence for the Green Bank Telescope, we observe remotely with the Green Bank Telescope, we collect terabytes of data, we download the data, and then students in small teams write code to analyze the data, do the analysis, and ultimately we write peer reviewed publications with the results of the search. So it's a really exciting class where students get to do a project essentially from A to Z, from the designing of the program to the writing of the publication.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: That's so cool. And I know you haven't had a chance to actually take this course yet, Megan, so how did you get involved in this project?
Megan Li: First, I'm very excited to potentially either take this course or TA it in spring, so that would be next quarter for me. But I became involved in this project when I applied to be Jean-Luc's grad student last year. I was looking for grad programs and two of my passions are both study and public outreach. I've been involved with public outreach for the past few years. So when I found out that this position was sort of a mix of both, I was super excited to join and I reached out to Jean-Luc, and that's how I got here.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: I love that you chased the thing that made you happiest in your heart.
Jean-Luc Margot: Hiring Megan as a graduate student was only possible because we were awarded a grant from NASA to search for technosignatures, and this is one of the rare grants that NASA has awarded to enable the search for technosignatures.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: These grants make a huge difference. Just one grant can really bring more people onto the team and really expand the effort, which is wonderful. And that brings me to my next question, which is that you knew you wanted to take this project and make it a volunteer project online for people to actually delve into the data and get involved, but to do that you needed funding. So how did you learn about the Planetary Society's STEP grant program?
Jean-Luc Margot: Well, I'm a proud member of the Planetary Society. I got the announcement and I thought, "Wow, this is really interesting. There's a small grant program to enable new science initiatives, and I wonder if this collaboration with volunteers that I've been dreaming about for years would be a good fit for that program." So I read more about the proposal submission guidelines and I thought, "Yeah, I think we have a shot." And we submitted a pre pre-proposal and a full proposal, and we're thrilled that we were selected.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Clearly this type of research really resonates with students, but why did you make the decision to turn this into a volunteer project that other people could work on and put it all online?
Jean-Luc Margot: I'm so excited about the search for life in the universe. I wanted to share my passion broadly, and it's exciting to share it with students, but as you mentioned, there are many people out there who may have the same questions about are we alone in the universe? And so this volunteer project really allowed us to reach a much broader set of people of all kinds of backgrounds all over the world and just share the excitement of the search.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Megan, why is it that this kind of research tailors itself so well to a volunteer project? What does having people volunteer on this project do for research like this?
Megan Li: Yeah, that's a great question. I think that the search for extraterrestrials is not only a profoundly academic study, but it's a profound part of humanity to wonder if we're actually alone in the universe. I don't know a single person who at some point hasn't questioned whether or not we are the only life forms around here. I think that this is a great way to sort of start branching more of our communities into science and bridge people who otherwise wouldn't be super involved in anything like astrophysics or planetary science start getting interested in that.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Part of the motivation behind this project is not just getting volunteers involved with this, but hopefully inspiring a whole new generation to take an interest in science. Can you talk a little bit about that, Jean-Luc?
Jean-Luc Margot: That's right. This project is doable by school-aged kids, and one of our hopes is that some kids out there who come on a platform and learn to classify signals and learn about the science behind it, become excited about science or engineering in general and decide, "Hey, this is an interesting area and I would like to pursue this."
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Did you get interested in science as a child?
Jean-Luc Margot: Yes, I was interested in science as a kid, building little physics and chemistry experiments at home. But this is another avenue for kids to discover science and scientific process.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: How about you, Megan? Did you fall in love with space as a child too?
Megan Li: I really did fall in love with space as a child. I think I was four years old. My grandfather taught me about astrophysics and I've been interested ever since. But I was always looking for ways to get involved with science, and I really wish Are We Alone in the Universe? was around when I was in school.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: I would've eaten that up as a child. In the past when I've worked on projects like this, it's usually in part because there's just so much data that it's hard to comb through, or because the thing that you're looking for in the data is difficult to pinpoint without human brain really looking at the data. Are you just getting a wealth of information out of the Green Bank Telescope, and that's why you needed to bring more people on board?
Jean-Luc Margot: So we get, as I mentioned, terabytes of data from the Green Bank Telescope, and when we analyze this data, we're looking for narrowband radio signals, that means radio signals that occupy a very narrow range of frequencies. And when we run our algorithms, we detect millions of them. Of course, most of these are produced by human technology. We call it radiofrequency interference, or RFI for short, and we have developed algorithms that allow us to recognize the radiofrequency interference in 99.5% of the cases. So we run this algorithm and it eliminates 99.5% of the signals. But then when you have millions and millions of signals, that 0.5% still amounts to tens of thousands of signals, and so those are the signals that we're putting on the platform. These are the most interesting signals that have not been ruled out as radiofrequency interference by the automatic algorithms. And we're asking volunteers to help us look at these and classify them.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: I really love the Zooniverse platform as a place to host this and I've worked on projects that have been up there in the past, but why is this a platform that you chose for this project?
Jean-Luc Margot: We considered building our own platform, and then we looked at the features that Zooniverse was offering, and we found that by and large, it offered pretty much all the capabilities that we wanted, in addition to having an amazing support team, a lot of experience in building these kinds of community science projects, and so we decided to go with them. With their help, we've been able to come up with the sort of interface that we really were looking for for the project.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: And Megan, I know you've been really involved in designing this project on zooniverse, so what's the process of actually creating a Zooniverse page?
Megan Li: So we've gone through a lot of different stages of testing. I know Jean-Luc went through several iterations of the project before I got here. In our case, we are having our volunteers sort images into different categories. We have 20 different categories that our signals can be sorted into and it took Jean-Luc and I a while to settle on these 20 categories into making sure that they covered the span of all the different types of signals, but also we didn't have too many extraneous things that would confuse volunteers. There's been just a lot of trying to take a step back and imagine, "If I were a volunteer, how would I think about this classification? What information would I need to properly make the classification?" Because people like Jean-Luc and I talk about this all day long, so when we write descriptions for things, they're not always going to be super accessible to the public. So I got to ask my family a few times if they could try it out and make sure that it was accessible to every single person in my life, and after weeks of working on it and revising, I think it's great now.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: I love the idea of just going to your family member and being like, "Hey, do you mind searching for extraterrestrial technosignatures for a moment while I just test this out?"
Megan Li: They're used to that for me.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: And Jean-Luc, can you explain a little bit about what a technosignature is and how this kind of search is different for looking for biosignatures on other worlds?
Jean-Luc Margot: Sure. If you don't mind, I'll add a few words about Zooniverse. They've developed a project builder, which is a really convenient way of building a project on their platform. So you just click a number of tabs and fill out the information, and there you go, it builds your project for you. So it's really convenient. The difference between technosignatures and biosignatures is that we're looking for evidence of technology. We're looking for the existence of another engineer somewhere in the galaxy or beyond. Whereas in the biosignature field, you're looking for evidence of biological activity, metabolism and so on. I think that the search for technosignatures has four compelling advantages compared to the search for biosignatures. I'm really excited about the search for life in general, so I support the search for biosignatures completely and fully, but these kinds of searches are expensive. If you think about the James Webb Space Telescope, if you think about the sample emissions on Mars, they both cost $10 billion on that order. I think the search for technosignature in contrast can be done with much smaller budget. So if you think about maybe $10 million a year, we could have a very, very robust search for technosignatures. So the first advantage is cost. The second is search volume. All the searches for biosignatures right now are confined to a very, very small bubble around the sun. We're looking at a handful of places in the solar system and we're looking at dozens of exoplanets that are very close to the sun. Whereas technosignatures gives us access to the entire Milky Way galaxy, or even beyond. So the volume of the search space is something like a million times larger for technosignatures than it is for biosignatures. The third advantage that I like to mention is the certainty of interpretation. In many cases, a bio-signature has false positives. It can be confused with a geological process. And there's lots and lots of debate right now about how we're going to address this when we first get our oxygen signal, how are we going to disentangle that from other processes that are not due to life? In contrast, the search for technosignatures has several ways of giving us signals that are going to be extremely compelling. For instance, if we find a narrowband signal, that kind of signal occupies a small range of frequencies, we know that nature doesn't produce these signals. So there is no false positive, and if we detect such a signal from a specific direction on the sky, it's going to be really compelling evidence. And finally, the fourth advantage that I'm really excited about is that if we detect the signal, there might be a message encoded in there, and so the potential for discovery and advance in knowledge is absolutely phenomenal.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: For context, if there were extraterrestrials that were scanning earth and observing all of the different radio frequencies and things coming out of our planet, do you think it would be obvious to them from a distance that we were here and shouting hello into space?
Jean-Luc Margot: Well, first of all, they may not know that we're here. They almost certainly don't know that we're here because radio waves propagate at the speed of light and we've only been transmitting for something like a hundred years. And so the little... again, it's a tiny little bubble. Our electromagnetic noise is only propagated about a hundred light years. That's a tiny, tiny fraction of the Milky Way galaxy. Other civilizations, if they exist, almost certainly don't know that we're here, unless they're very close to us, which would be pretty unlikely in my opinion. So if you assume that there's a civilization that is close to us, close enough that they could detect our signals, would they recognize us? Sure. There are some signals that are pretty clearly designed by an intelligence and would be recognized as such, and I'm thinking, for instance, our radar astronomy transmissions. When we observe asteroids or planets in the solar system, we're sending either narrowband signals or clearly encoded signals that another intelligence would recognize as technological.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah, and that's an interesting point in that even if we do find these creatures, who knows if they're still around anymore, and that people looking for creatures like us would have to be very close by to even know we're here. It goes back to that Drake equation and that idea of how long does a civilization last, and could we even find them if they were around for say a hundred years or even a thousand years? It's an interesting problem.
Jean-Luc Margot: Right. You'd have to hope that they've figured out how to survive and create a civilization that lasts for millions of years.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Well, if people do want to get involved in helping volunteer for this project, you talked about it a little bit, Megan, the images and stuff they're going to be going through. What's the step-by-step process for someone who gets involved in this project?
Megan Li: First, you should go to our URL, arewealone.earth. There you will sign up for a Zooniverse account, and then afterward you can immediately begin classifying. So your screen will give you a radio signal on the left and a few simple to answer questions on the right. So you'll just answer if the signal is mostly vertical or horizontal. This would work better if, while you're listening to the podcast, you also have the webpage open, and then you'll just answer a follow-up question and you're all done. And if somehow you manage to find a signal that doesn't match any of our categories, you get to click the very special other button. And other is very special because it may be E.T., it may be something completely different, and Jean-Luc and I will take a much closer look at any signals that are marked other.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: In the past, I know when I've gone to these projects, they've told everyone involved how many different bits of data are left to process through. How much data are you going to be jumping into this? Is it going to be the entire repository of your data from this project, or is it going to be a subset that you might expand later?
Jean-Luc Margot: So we are starting with a set of about 7,500 signals. That's the first batch, Zooniverse recommends that we put a small batch to start with. Our ambition is to classify between 20,000 and 100,000 signals.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Gosh, and if you were looking at one of these slides, Megan, what would obviously stand out as a signal? How will people interpret this or what might be something interesting visually for them to spot?
Megan Li: I'll just start by highlighting that all of the signals that our volunteers will be looking at are the top most interesting signals, specifically, they're the top 0.5% like Jean-Luc had mentioned. So they're all some kind of bright, narrowband radio signal, and some of them look like parallel lines, some of them are wavy, some of them are polka-dotted. I haven't truly seen one that's going to be super exciting yet, one of those that wouldn't match any of our categories. I'd say that if you're on our platform and you're looking for something interesting, just pick something that you think looks cool or that you think looks like could be from somewhere else.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Just something that visually stands out against the background of all the other wiggles.
Megan Li: Yeah, exactly.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: That's usually what it is. It's like you're looking through the data and then there's just something that doesn't match the rest of the pattern, and that's always a little spooky, but in this case, could be a signal from an alien world. That's wild.
Megan Li: I would be so excited if somebody found one that I was not able to come up with a category for.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: We'll be right back with the rest of my interview with Jean-Luc Margot and Megan Li after a short message from George Takei.
George Takei: I'm very proud of my association with Star Trek. Star Trek was a show that looked to the future with optimism, boldly going where no one had gone before. I want you to know about a very special organization called The Planetary Society. They are working to make the future that Star Trek represents a reality. When you become a member of the Planetary Society, you join their mission to increase discoveries in our solar system, to elevate the search for life outside our planet and decrease the risk of Earth being hit by an asteroid. Co-founded by Carl Sagan and led today by CEO Bill Nye, the Planetary Society exists for those who believe in space exploration to take action together. So join the Planetary Society and boldly go together to build our future.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: What are all of the categories?
Megan Li: Yeah, so they're grouped by mostly horizontal stripes or mostly vertical stripes, or some mixture of both horizontal and vertical. For the most part, we see parallel lines. There are a few polka-dotted looking ones, and then a few that are just like a single bright line.
Jean-Luc Margot: There's lots of different kinds of signals, and I'm sure that our categories don't encompass the full range of structures that people will see in these signals. But again, as Megan mentioned, there's the other button. If you find a signal that doesn't match any of the classes, just click on that other button and we'll be taking a very careful look. I wanted to add also that we'll keep adding signals. As we continue to observe with the Green Bank Telescope, we will upload some of the very newest data that we've acquired to the platform.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: And I want everyone to know that I will be linking to the Zooniverse project on our planetary radio page for this episode. So you can either find that at planetary.org/radio, or as Megan said, you can go directly to aretealone.earth to find this project. I know, too, that your team, as part of this project, is hiring a bunch of undergraduate students to engage with Zooniverse volunteers and really kind of hype them up. How many students are you going to be hiring, Jean-Luc, and what's their role in this project?
Jean-Luc Margot: So we've hired four so far, and we're possibly looking for more. They're all really interesting UCLA students. We have mostly astrophysics major, also a cognitive science major. They're going to help us engage with the volunteers, monitor the talk boards, these bulletin boards where people post questions, provide guidance, help answer questions, maybe write about the experience of the team. So we're just all really excited to engage with the public and it's great to have these students on board, and again, wouldn't have been possible without the support of the Planetary Society, so we're extremely grateful.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: That makes me so happy to hear. I hope they have so much fun working on this project. In previous volunteer science projects I've worked with, every so often I'll get an email that says, "Here's a publication coming out from the data and this project," and they'll actually put the names of the volunteers that help discover these things on the papers. Is that going to be the case with this project? Could people volunteering their time for this end up in a published science paper?
Jean-Luc Margot: Yes, that's entirely possible. We probably won't have everybody who's classified one or two signals, but we do anticipate that some volunteers may become very passionate about the project and maybe more involved task. So we'll see where it goes. We're open to possibilities and to collaborating with a variety of volunteers. It really is a collaboration, and in that sense, as you mentioned, people who contribute substantially to a publication usually get to be co-authors on that publication. So we certainly anticipate that that might happen.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: That's one more bonus reason to get involved. Who doesn't want their name on an awesome science paper that might lead to the discovery of intelligent life in the universe? That's amazing. Something that I think is so powerful about these kinds of volunteer science projects is that it allows us to comb through a lot of data that is difficult to process by computer, but then we can use human analysis to train these computer learning algorithms that then make it easier for us to do this in the future. That's part of the goal, right, Megan?
Megan Li: Yeah, that's correct. One of the things that I'm most excited about this project is that it will follow me for probably my entire graduate school career. So for the first part, we'll be collecting the data, having all of the volunteers make the classifications, but then afterward I'll be building machine learning algorithms using the labeled training set from Are We Alone in the Universe? to help out with future UCLA study searches. So thank you again to the Planetary Society for allowing me to do that and really pursue something that I'm so passionate about in both outreach and machine learning and SETI.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Have you worked on previous kind of machine learning AI programs in the past?
Megan Li: No. This will be my first time, which I think is really cool. Please have faith in me. I am going to try really, really hard to make sure that it comes out good, but this is my first time getting to try machine learning.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Well, you always have to start somewhere, and in the end you've got the input of, I'm hoping, hundreds if not thousands of people who are going to contribute to this project.
Jean-Luc Margot: Right. It will be, for the UCLA SETI, it will be the second machine learning application. Our previous graduate student, Paul Pinchuk, who got his PhD in SETI a couple of years ago, built our first machine learning application, and for that application we had to create a training set to train the algorithm by ourselves. In this instance, we're really excited to have the help of all these volunteer scientists to create the label training set, and that's why we're looking to get 20,000 to 100,000 images classified because the larger the training set, the more powerful the algorithm will be at classifying the signals.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: It comes at an interesting time now that I'm thinking about it because there's this huge rise of AI in so many aspects of our lives, whether it's art or writing. Who knows, someday you just put your data into ChatGPT and it spits out the findings. But in this case, there really is no downside here. It just allows us to comb through so much more data than ever before. So it feels nice to have this not morally gray AI. This is literally just something that we can use to help humanity be even better at what we love. So I love that.
Jean-Luc Margot: Megan and I are laughing because one of our applicants submitted... one of our applicants submitted a cover letter written by ChatGPT. We found out about it and we decided to hire him anyway.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: I love that.
Megan Li: He was just so passionate about what we were doing, it had to be forgiven.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Absolutely. I mean, these tools make it more accessible, as long as they don't lie about it. I value that you decided to go through with that anyway. That's wonderful. So Jean-Luc, if this project does find some signals that might be really interesting, might indicate that there's intelligent life out there, what are the next follow-up steps to actually verify that data?
Jean-Luc Margot: Yeah, that's a really important question. We describe on our platform various steps that we will go through to do the confirmation steps that we need to do. So first of all, there are things that we can do internally within UCLA SETI to eliminate certain signals that have been identified as potentially interesting on the platform. So we'll first run those tests. If the signal passes those tests, then we would need to do something else, and that something else involves re-observing that direction on the sky with the Green Bank Telescope, with other telescopes, sending the data through other teams so that they can process the same data through their pipelines. Just going through the general scientific method of confirmation, verifying reproducibility and so on and so forth. If all these tests are successful, then we will be absolutely elated because we'll have really important finding. So those are the sort of steps that we'll be going through.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Are you planning on incorporating this volunteer project into your UCLA SETI course going forward? Will students actually be kind of combing through the data there?
Jean-Luc Margot: Actually, it's the other way around. The students in the course have helped make the platform possible. Every year, the students work on specific projects to improve our data processing pipeline and for the past two or three years have had a project dedicated to, "Hey, let's build a volunteer science project." And the students have made real tangible contributions to making the project possible. In particular, in the last instance, two students looked at our classification scheme and they thought, "Well, this is really not very good. Let's see if we can come up with something better." And they came up with something better. So the classification algorithm that we have on the website now is inspired by the contributions from these students.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: And I have to ask, because I know that this would mean a lot to me and to a lot of our Planetary Radio listeners, why is the search for extraterrestrial intelligence so important to both of you and what do you think it would mean for humanity if we actually found intelligent life on another world?
Jean-Luc Margot: Go ahead, Megan.
Megan Li: Specifically I think the search extraterrestrial intelligence is really important to me because I would rather not be alone in the universe. I think it would actually be so much more shocking if it was really only us and absolutely nothing else. I'm really interested in finding other forms of life. I know I've attended a few study conferences and this word that comes up very often is anthropocentrism, meaning that we are so focused on how humans perceive life and carbon-based life and things that are just very earth related and very human related, and I just think it's always good for yourself to sort of open your mind to different cultures, and now potentially other forms of life in general. I think if humanity were to find life somewhere else, I think there'd be mass chaos, but hopefully we become better from it. As Jean-Luc had mentioned, for another civilization to have found us first, they're probably a lot more advanced than we are, and hopefully we can learn something from them.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Wouldn't that be wonderful?
Jean-Luc Margot: Right. So that's an important element in our search is that if there's another transmitting civilization out there, the probability that they developed their civilization at the same time as we did is almost zero, because we've only been technological for a hundred years in the 14 billion year history of the universe. That means that almost certainly, almost guaranteed they will be far more advanced than we are. And to me, that's really the most compelling aspect of doing the search is that the prospect for us to learn from a more advanced civilization is just so exciting. I mean, imagine what we could learn if we established contact with an advanced civilization. It's just very hard to imagine, but it would completely revolutionize human knowledge. So that's why I'm particularly excited about it. Megan mentioned the importance of finding another form of life, and of course that's important if we want to understand what life is. It is extremely important to have another sample of life because right now all we have is terrestrial life, which is all related to one common ancestor. So there's a strong interest in finding another form of life of any kind, could be bacterial life or intelligent life, but that would be really important for science overall.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah, would be exciting either way. I will throw a party the day that we find bacteria on say Enceladus or something, but it would be a whole different thing to actually be able to say hello and to learn from each other, and who even knows what we could learn. It would be absolutely amazing.
Jean-Luc Margot: I don't know if we could say hello, because again, the distances are so vast that it may have taken hundreds or thousands of years for the signal to get here. So I'm not really in the search for the ability to say hello, but I'm really in the search for the ability to listen and to see if a signal comes with an encoded message.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah. Hopefully, if we do find one of these kinds of signals, it comes from a place that's near enough by that if we send a signal out to them, maybe they hear it in a hundred years, maybe, but it'll be quite a while. This is the beginning of a larger search, and it'll be a while even if we find them to communicate back. But it bodes well for the future. It's really exciting.
Jean-Luc Margot: If there is a civilization a hundred light years away, that would be astounding because then you have civilizations all over. You have essentially hundreds of thousands of civilizations in the galaxy. I personally think that's unlikely. If there are, let's say 10 civilizations in the galaxy, then they would be separated by roughly 10,000 years, if they're distributed uniformly in the galaxy, let's say.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: It's far more likely that we would find a bunch of mold or bacteria on a bunch of planets. To find intelligent life all that close together would have vast implications. On earth we only have one species intelligent enough to say, "Build a telescope." So I'm not guessing we're going to find that many intelligent creatures out there. I mean, this is an interesting question and not related to technosignatures, but how long do you think it's going to be before we have any kind of confirmation of life off of earth?
Megan Li: Selfishly, I would like to see some proof within my lifetime. I just turned 22, so I have maybe another like 60 years. That would be really, really great. I think it's possible, especially with so many people coming up with new ways to search, like us with Are We alone in the Universe? But other people are constantly coming up with new methods to search in new ways to interpret the data. I think it's possible. I'd like to see it happen.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: What do you think, Jean-Luc?
Jean-Luc Margot: I agree. I think it's entirely possible that we could make that discovery tomorrow or next year or 10 years from now. We do have the technology to detect technosignatures. It's just a matter of getting the program going and sampling enough of the search volume to do that search. And it's a testable hypothesis. Is there life elsewhere in the universe? And this is one way that we can test this hypothesis. So it's a real scientific question. We have the scientific instruments to answer the question. Let's do it.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Let's do it. You heard them, everyone. If you want to participate in this project, please check out their website, arewealone.earth, or you can find it on our Planetary Radio page for this project. And honestly, trying to figure out if we're alone in the universe has got to be one of the most fulfilling and challenging mysteries I can think of. So thank you both for pursuing this larger question and for everything you've done to open this project up to everyone else, I know it's going to be really meaningful to a lot of our listeners that they get to participate in a meaningful way. So thank you.
Jean-Luc Margot: And thanks again to Planetary Society members for enabling it. It's a great source of satisfaction to me, and I imagine to Megan as well, to be able to share our excitement and invite others to contribute meaningfully to the search.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: I really appreciate both of you joining me today Jean-Luc and Megan. Hopefully someday when you actually find a really cool signal amongst the data, you can come back and tell us all about it.
Jean-Luc Margot: We'll be happy to do that.
Megan Li: Sounds good. See you then.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Thanks. I've been looking forward to the release of this Zooniverse project for months, and I hope that some of you will join me in helping to analyze the data. We can accomplish so much when we work together on these kinds of projects. And if the search for extraterrestrial intelligence isn't your thing, Zooniverse offers a wealth of volunteer research projects that you can get engaged with, including everything from cloud spotting on Mars, to hunting for exoplanets. Happy data analysis, everyone. And now we turn our eyes to the skies with the Chief Scientist of the Planetary Society, Dr. Bruce Betts in What's up? Hi Bruce.
Bruce Betts: Hi, Sarah.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: As the person that's been at the helm of our Science and Technology Empowered by the Public grant program, you've got to be ecstatic that we actually have one of our grant winning projects finally launched.
Bruce Betts: Yes, although I'm not sure I phrased it as finely, they're right on the schedule they planned. But yeah, I'm very excited. And we started the STEP program, we funded the first groups last year, as you may have mentioned, and now we've got this great one going out to the public for involvement in SETI. And then meanwhile, there's a whole group of applied mathematicians and astronomers in Serbia that are working on the other one having to do with near earth asteroids. So it's exciting and we'll have some new winners in about three months. We're evaluating proposals now.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: That's going to be wonderful to hear what we give grants to next, what amazing projects there'll be. And I say finally in the context of this project, because I'm personally excited to get involved and actually open up the Zooniverse and do some of the data analysis myself. I love these kinds of projects.
Bruce Betts: No, it's great. I just wanted to make sure that we didn't imply that they were behind scheduled.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Oh, no.
Bruce Betts: They're not. Anyway, no, it's wonderful. And we built this STEP grant program to cast a wide net to find what's out there that fills a niche and is supportable by us and where we can make a difference. And this is one of the places where our funding from our members and donors has made a real difference, and now we're going to see the fruits of it. We'll see if we find aliens or not, but one way or the other, we'll do a better job looking for them and getting rid of that pesky human interference.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: One step at a time. So what's up Bruce?
Bruce Betts: Still just keep mentioning, because it's so spectacular, Venus over in the Western horizon after sunset. It's getting closer to Jupiter over the next couple weeks as Jupiter gets lower in the sky and Venus gets higher. And on March 1st they'll be hanging out very close together. Meantime, you can get some nice conjunctions with the crescent moon. So on February 21st, crescent moon is hanging out near Venus, which is near Jupiter. February 22nd, crescent moon is near Jupiter, which is near Venus. And then if you rotate and look high up in the sky, you'll see a couple of reddish things, and one of those is Mars and the somewhat dimmer one is Aldebaran in Taurus. So good planet stuff going on right now. Comet's going away, comet's ETF. It's going to be a tough one to pull, but you got comets out there, and planets, so fun, easy to see.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Although that comet even at its best time wasn't very easy to see, but a lot of our listeners tried. So we appreciate it because this is a literally once in 50,000 years kind of chance.
Bruce Betts: We move on to this week in space history. It was a busy week, as you probably are celebrating a birthday or two this week. One for 650 years ago, Nicholas Copernicus was born, who had revolutionized us back to starting to think heavily about the heliocentric view of the universe. 91 years later, Galileo was born during this week, whose observations would cement that, at least over time. And we jump forward several hundred years, 1962, John Glenn became the first American orbit the earth. And 10 years ago, as you heard, the Chelyabinsk collide exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia causing injuries and reminding us, "Hey, this planetary defense thing that's one of our core enterprises in the Planetary Society is actually important." And these impacts, they don't happen often, but they do happen. We're working on it.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: We're working on it. Trying to save the earth. No big deal.
Bruce Betts: Yeah, yeah. No, that's the goal. It was a weird time as I don't know if she mentioned, she mentions in the article because we had one of our Shoemaker NEO grant winners who discovered a very close fly by asteroid that happened within 24 hours, and we knew that was happening, and so we were talking about that when we got the amazing reports that something had happened in Russia and started seeing things coming in. Unrelated, unrelated orbits of the two objects.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: What a weird situation there where you're looking for one thing and you end up with something totally different.
Bruce Betts: Yeah, it was very confusing. We had the world's experts hanging out with us around that time. They then got busy figuring out orbits and damage and the like. Let us move on, shall we to [inaudible 00:52:41].
Sarah Al-Ahmed: That was a good one.
Bruce Betts: The moon, the earth's moon in the sky, or otherwise, moves about one moon diameter in about one hour, so relative to the background stars. So this is not the rotation of the earth causing it to move 15 degrees or so an hour. This is actually moving across the sky, just the math works out that it's about one moon diameter in one hour, which allows you with, by the way, lunar eclipses, to get an estimate of how long it takes about an hour for the moon to fully enter total lunar eclipse.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Useful to know.
Bruce Betts: I try. Well, not usually. Usually things are just fun to know and not really useful, but that one's kind kind of useful. Let's move on to the trivia contest. I asked you this whole Green Comet, 50,000 year thing, Comet ZTF C/2022 E3. What does ZTF mean? How'd we do?
Sarah Al-Ahmed: We did well. Everyone got this one right. I am sure several of them used Google, but the ZTF in Comet 2022 E3, ZTF stands for Zwicky Transient Facility. The Green Comet was first discovered by the Zwicky Transient Facility's widefield survey camera, which is attached to the Samuel Ocean Telescope at Palomar Observatory in California. And bonus info Zwicky, in the Zwicky Transient Facility refers to the astronomer Fritz Zwicky, who was the first person to use the virial theorem to first propose that dark matter existed, which is wild.
Bruce Betts: Yeah, he was quite a character. That's a public-private partnership. I don't know whether our listeners may have told you more, or I can tell you more about the...
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Go for it.
Bruce Betts: Public-private partnership with NSF, National Science Foundation, and a whole giant consortium of universities led by Caltech and Zwicky was a professor at Caltech, Swiss astronomer came to Caltech, did that, partied with neutron stars. Sounds like he was quite a character. And so they named the Zwicky Transient Facility, and they used this widefield camera with the 48-inch up there that's been used for a long time doing great stuff and they imaged the entire northern sky every two days looking for stuff that's changed.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: That's impressive. That's a lot of sky to cover in a very short amount of time. Our winner this week, the dice have spoken, is Justin Saucier from Orlando, Florida, USA. I love this because Justin wrote us to say that he's actually an engineer at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, which sounds like a really fun job. So Justin, you'll be winning a copy of This Year in Space, which is a book by the Royal Astronomical Society's Super Massive podcast. So we'll be delivering that to your door.
Bruce Betts: Most excellent way to keep things flying down there in Florida.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah, there's a lot of stuff going on there now, especially with all of the commercial spacecraft and everything getting involved. That place is hopping.
Bruce Betts: Yeah, the manatees, the alligators. It's craziness.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: I loved this message that we got from Mel Powell. He's a regular listener, but he said that ZTF should stand for Zounds, that's fantastic, and said that because he actually wants to hear both of us say the word Zounds and sell it.
Bruce Betts: The comet was discovered by ZTF Zounds. That's fantastic.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: There you go, Mel. We also got some great messages, one from Jacqueline Arnt from Mount Dora, Florida who says, "I really liked this week's podcast because my son is studying planetary science and is doing research on exoplanets." And of course she's referring to our February 1st show about the first confirmed exoplanet from JWSD. So that's really exciting, and we wish your son all the luck in his exoplanetary research, Jacqueline.
Bruce Betts: Yes, definitely. Congratulations on... Hey, go find some planets.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Tell us what their atmospheres are like. That'd be sweet.
Bruce Betts: Kind of gassy. See I don't even have to do the research. I know the answer. I'm just that kind of guy. All right, let us move on to the new trivia question. As of when this will first air, so to be specific, February 15th, 2023, of the people on board the International Space Station, as of that date, who has had the most space flights? Go to planetary.org/radiocontest.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: And you have until Wednesday, February 22nd at 8:00 AM Pacific time to get us your answer. The winner's going to receive a Planetary Society beanie, and I love these because they're so soft and comfy inside. I have one at home. It does have our old Planetary Society logo, but it also has a beautiful little Saturn on the back. Gasp our old logo, which is still very cool.
Bruce Betts: Cool. Planetary Society beanies.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Do you have one?
Bruce Betts: I do indeed. I do indeed. Because you never know when in brutal Southern California you'll need a nice warm beanie. Actually, it does happen.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: That's my one regret. I don't have enough occasions to wear it.
Bruce Betts: Well you should just wear it anyway.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: And then be very, very warm.
Bruce Betts: And we will laugh. All right everybody, go out there, look up the night sky, and think about your favorite exclamations, starting with the letter Z. Zounds. Zowie.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Zoinks.
Bruce Betts: Zoinks. Thank you and goodnight.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Thanks, Bruce. We've reached the end of this week's episode of Planetary Radio, but we'll be back next week with Meenakshi Wadhwa, Principal Scientist for the Mars Sample Return Mission at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Planetary Radio is produced by the Planetary Society in Pasadena, California and is made possible by our E.T. loving members. You can join us as we continue to search for life on other worlds at planetary.org/join. Mark Hilverda and Rae Paoletta are our associate producers. Mat Kaplan, Planetary Radio's creator and former host, is this week's audio editor. Josh Doyle composed our theme, which is arranged and performed by Pieter Schlosser, and until next week, ad astra.