‘A Traveler from an Antique Land’ – Herald Tribune

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‘A Traveler from an Antique Land’ – Herald Tribune

OK, wait. Let me see if I’ve got this straight:

In 2015, Silicon Valley Israeli-Russian billionaire Yuri Milner has mortality on his mind. And legacy. He will drop $100 million on SETI in long-shot hopes of confirming the one non-random radio signal that will change everything. But, being in his late 50s, Milner figures he probably won’t be around for whatever success that mission might encounter.

So he’s got this other idea, too. He calls it the Starshot Initiative.

Milner wants to design a spacecraft capable of reaching Earth’s closest star system, Alpha Centauri, within 20 years or so. There’s an Earth-sized planet parked in a Goldilocks zone outside red dwarf star Proxima Centauri. (And, in an unforeseen development in 2019, Proxima Centauri would grow more alluring when astronomers at the Parkes Observatory in Australia detected still-unexplained radio signals emanating from the vicinity; analysis remains ongoing.)

By 2019, this artist’s initial conception of ‘Oumuamua as a cigar-shaped mass of rock was already obsolete. A deeper look at the data suggested the interstellar curiosity was pancake- or disc-shaped./CREDIT: solarsystem.nasa.gov

Anyway: Among those Milner engages is Avi Loeb, who chairs the Harvard astronomy department. So Loeb & crew start looking at a package, camera and transmitter included, that could travel at one-fifth the speed of light.

It’s called a lightsail and, in theory, it could make that 4.2 light-year voyage within Milner’s projected lifetime. The concept isn’t new – it’s been around since the early 17th century. The Planetary Society began testing the basic theory with cubesats during the double aughts, and this year, NASA will deploy lightsail technology on a lunar mission.

In October 2015, the Loeb team goes public with its Proxima Centauri version, in the Astrophysical Journal. Loeb’s model will be propelled on the front end by surgically targeted lasers, then employ solar radiation to hit cruising speed. Its proportions will be radical – a razor-thin mirror flared wide to absorb solar fuel, but calibrated to utilize no more than 1/100,000th of the available light, lest the platform get incinerated in transit.

So that’s the lightsail. Got it. I think. But then this?

In 2017, two years after the Astrophysical Journal piece, suddenly, unannounced, unanticipated, boom, just like that, the real thing, an operational lightsail, comes hauling ass from the direction of Vega, twinkling in the constellation Lyra? At 58,900 mph? Detected by Hawaii’s Pan-STARRS telescope, and closing to within 20 million miles of Earth?

Like, what the hell? Does whatever’s Out There subscribe to Astrophysical Journal? Was this a letter to the editor? “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”?

OK. We don’t know for sure if what astronomers now call ‘Oumuamua is a lightsail or not. After 11 days of collecting observational data on the interstellar visitor, nobody knows what it was, or is. But we’re hearing all about it now, again, because Loeb is ubiquitous in promoting his account of the investigation with his new book Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth. If you’ve been paying attention, you’re already familiar with the case Loeb makes for ‘Oumuamua’s artificiality; if not, you can catch one of his most recent interviews here.

There are a number of reasons you should read this book, not the least of which is its accessibility. A student of philosophers such as Sartre and Camus, Loeb is all about broader context. And when it comes to challenging orthodoxy, the man is so unsparing, there were moments along the way that made me want to stand up and cheer. In assailing the sorts of institutional “wisdom” that choke the life out of young academicians looking to break the mold of consensus reality, the author is ferocious.

Loeb dials up “The Great Filter” theory posed in 1988 by economist Robin Hanson, who suggested that a civilization capable of signaling its existence to interstellar space might also have reached “the moment when its technological maturity becomes sufficient for its own destruction, whether through climate change or nuclear, biological, or chemical wars.” In other words, whoever dispatched ‘Oumuamua might no longer even exist. The existential crises confronting planet Earth demand the urgent redirection of research priorities into SETI studies, Loeb argues. And not the zero-sum version of SETI monopolized and cheered by radioastronomers.

Loeb’s unlikely role as a heretic at the top of the Harvard food chain means his peers are obliged to listen. But only because of the Ivy League pedigree. Here’s the way Ed Kaplan of The Planetary Society introduced him in a podcast last month:

“What … Avi Loeb has proposed is, on the face of it, like the sort of thing that is found in the dark corners of the net and that we would never consider on Planetary Radio.”

Oh, you mean like child porn? Thanks for protecting us all these years, Ed. Nice work. De Void also got a kick out of watching Seth Shostak trying to maintain the unruffled avuncular smile during his own podcast interview in January. Especially when Loeb challenged him to do his job by disentangling SETI from the stump post of radiowaves. “Arrogance, that sense of privilege,” Loeb charged, “is what drives the backlash that SETI faces.”

New York Times article? What New York Times article? On UFOs? Really? What? When?/CREDIT: billy cox

Given Loeb’s spirited defense of his argument that ‘Oumuamua could be an ET probe from a dead civilization, the most peculiar element of his book is the total omission of UFO, UAP, or any other acronym related to apparent hyper-exotic technologies recorded in our own atmosphere. If you were coming into the story cold, you’d never know that, just two months after the ‘Oumuamua flyby, the NY Times broke the F-18/Tic Tac news and triggered a debate that’s been churning ever since. Loeb briefly alludes to the phenomenon only when pressed in interviews, but he rarely lingers.

Queried by De Void on this conspicuous oversight, Loeb went minimalist. “My focus was on ‘Oumuamua,” he replied in an email, “and the publisher asked that I will keep the discussion focused on that object.”

The publisher. Hm. Alrighty, then.

Avi Loeb’s avoidance of the UFO controversy should in no way negate the significance of his work in Extraterrestrial. It was and remains a fearless, inspiring and trailblazing stroke. Especially for academia. Even if, someday, ‘Oumuamua turns out to have been just an unusual chunk of cosmic debris, Loeb’s appeal to new thinking is essential to our pursuit of the baffling anomalies unfolding 20 million miles closer to Earth. He is an ally who must step up.

So: Here’s to the next book. And high expectations.

Source: The Anomalist

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