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Review: ‘Communications from superior galactic communities’ by Ronald Bracewell

[This post is the second in a series exploring major works in the field of space archaeology. Read the first part here.] In 1959, Giuseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison proposed what would become the mainstream strategy of the modern search for extraterrestrial intelligence: scanning for interstellar radio signals intentionally beamed towards the Solar system by advanced civilisations. Ronald Bracewell of Stanford University, however, questioned some of the assumptions on which the nascent SETI program was founded: that interstellar communication was only practical using electromagnetic waves; that civilisations would transmit ‘on spec’ over geological timespans; and that a civilisation would be close enough that we would be among its targets. In late May, 1960, Nature published his response, ‘Communications from Superior Galactic Communities‘ (paywalled). In it, he suggested that a civilisation might ‘spray some number of suitable … Read entire article »

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Review: ‘Searching for interstellar communications’, by Giuseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison

[This post is the first in a series exploring major works in the field of space archaeology. The next will be more artefact-based, but it was important to begin with the origin of SETI itself.] On 19 September 1959, the modern search for extraterrestrial intelligence was born with the publication in the prestigious journal Nature of an article by Giuseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison of Cornell University. The piece, ‘Searching for interstellar communications,’ proposed a search of nearby sun-like stars for microwave radio signals on the 21-centimeter hydrogen line. You can read the article online at the (paywalled) Nature archive, or for free here and here. It’s quite short, go read! Welcome back! For such a brief article, there’s a lot to think about. First of all, it’s remarkable to see the seeds of … Read entire article »

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Apollo Planetary Historical Preserve

One of my favourite space heritage scenes from science fiction: Tranquility Base is by far the biggest tourist attraction on Luna, and the reason is its historical significance, since it is the spot where a human foot first trod another planet. Right? If you thought that, maybe I could interest you in some prime real estate on Ganymede with a great view of the volcano. The real draw at Tranquility is just over the horizon and goes by the name of Armstrong Park. Since the park is within the boundaries of Apollo Planetary Historical Preserve, the Lunar Chamber of Commerce can boast that X million people visit the site of the first Lunar landing every year, but the ads feature the roller coaster, not the LEM. A good number of those tourists … Read entire article »

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Review: Prometheus

Space archaeology movies don’t come along often, so I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time. This review is basically me venting my deep disappointment. There are spoilers. Two archaeologists – the believer ‘Shaw’ and the skeptic ‘Holloway’ – are excavating on the Isle of Skye, Scotland (I just had the awful thought that the site was chosen because it’s a homophone of ‘sky’.) In a cave they discover paleolithic art depicting an ancient alien and a star map. It’s clear that this painting is what the archaeologists were searching for. Think about how they designed that expedition: “Let’s dig randomly all over the world until we find examples of this design to support the ancient astronaut hypothesis.” That is a terrible plan. It wouldn’t take much to fix this … Read entire article »

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Review: ‘Footprints of alien technology’, by Paul Davies

Since the search for extraterrestrial intelligence began, astronomers have been trying to answer the question “Are we alone in the universe?” in two ways: by listening for deliberate messages, and by looking for physical evidence – the products and byproducts – arising as a consequence of extraterrestrial civilization. The latter search, called xenoarchaeology on this site, has explored a number of strategies such as hunting for orbiting probes, artificial structures on planetary surfaces, and astroengineering projects such as Dyson spheres. Paul Davies of the Beyond Center at Arizona State University has just published a paper in Acta Astronautica promoting the search for more subtle traces of nonhuman civilization, and asking that the entire scientific community be on the lookout. His paper covers a number of astrobiological issues such as the need to refine the … Read entire article »

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Review: ‘Response to Ben McGee’ by Linda Billings

Linda Billings states bluntly that Ben McGee’s “call for proactive xenoarchaeological guidelines” is not “a productive contribution to the scientific search for evidence of extraterrestrial life or efforts to communicate clearly about it.” Much of her criticism is of terminological imprecision. I agree with her about the way the term “astrobiology” is used by McGee: at different times referring broadly to extraterrestrial life, and narrowly to intelligent extraterrestrial life. On the other hand, her apparent dismissal of the term “xenoarchaeology” for not appearing in dictionaries fails for several reasons: McGee had himself defined the term in his initial paper; such a prescriptive approach would stymie neologisms of all kinds; the use of the prefix xeno- to refer to extraterrestrial specialisations is uncontroversial – Billings would surely be aware of the term xenobiology, a less common … Read entire article »

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Review: ‘A call for proactive xenoarchaeological guidelines’, by Ben W. McGee

A call for proactive xenoarchaeological guidelines – Scientific, policy and socio-political considerations Space Policy, Volume 26, Issue 4, November 2010, Pages 209-213. Ben McGee’s paper in Space Policy calling for the development of guidelines for use in the event of the discovery of extraterrestrial artefacts seems uncontroversial to me. The SETI mainstream has its Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence after all. However from reading his blog I know that he received a strongly negative response from Linda Billings. I’ll discuss my own thoughts about McGee’s paper in this post, and get around to the response in the next few days. My first impression is of some imprecision in terminology, particularly in use of the word “astrobiology”. Instead of  ”artifacts of astrobiological activity” for instance, I would refer to artefacts of … Read entire article »

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10 Space Archaeology Stories You Must Read

Following on from my popular post, 10 Space Archaeology Novels You Must Read, here’s a list of ten great space archaeological short stories. Where the prior post approached a “top ten”, this list can only be taken as a number of stories that I recommend, based on my limited reading. There are literally generations of magazines and anthologies that I haven’t read and which might contain brilliant space archaeological stories. Nevertheless, I think it’s safe to say that a few stories here would count among the best, such as ‘The Red One’, ‘The Sentinel’, ‘Lungfish’ and ‘Omnilingual’. ‘The Red One’ (1918), by Jack London Set in the Solomon Islands, this astonishing tale is decades ahead of its time in its science fictional concepts, while simultaneously being appallingly of its time in its depiction of the … Read entire article »

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Space Junk on Screen

Space junk has been in the news this week, and one of my tweeps asked if a space garbage truck might be the solution … this put me in mind of some space garbage moments from television and cinema, so I thought I’d do a quick post about them. Several shows have used the perceived lowly and degrading role of garbage collector to satirize glamorous and exciting portrayals of space exploration. Others use it to depict the dangers of space travel, or the mundane (so to speak) careers that one might pursue in a realistic future. Some just use it because it’s a cool setting, for example: Star Wars The trash compactor scene from Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) was one of the most memorable parts for me. It’s arguably an implausible system, … Read entire article »

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Review: The Prospect of Astro-Palaeontology, by John Armitage

Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, vol. 30, pp. 466-9, 1976. After it was published this paper seems to have fallen into utter obscurity. It was pure serendipity that led me to stumble across it. All that I can determine about John Armitage is that he became a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society on 10 December 1976[1], and that the paper was also presented at the Second British Interplanetary Society Conference on Interstellar Travel and Communication, 4-5 April 1977. In it the author argues, as I have, that it seems likely that the number of galactic extinct civilizations is greater than the number of galactic extant civilizations. Armitage makes the distinction that detectable civilizations are only apparently extant, given the relativistic gap between signal transmission and detection. … Read entire article »

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