As The Debrief looks back on its first year in business, one of the big areas we have covered involves the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI.

The SETI Institute Looks Back on 2021, and Forward to the Future


Welcome to this week’s holiday edition of The Intelligence Brief… as The Debrief looks back on its first year in business, one of the big areas we have covered involves the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI. Therefore in this week’s newsletter we’ll be looking at a few of the key achievements in SETI research, astrobiology, and space exploration this year that were recapped in a recent online event hosted by the SETI Institute. Topics we’ll be covering include 1) the focus of Tuesday’s live online event, 2) advances in astrobiology and planetary exploration, 3) how SETI is aiding a Harvard astronomer in the search for the unknown, and 4) other milestones in SETI research over the last twelve months.

Before we dive in, a few of the headlines we’re covering this week at The Debrief include how NASA has released a new audio recording featuring the eerie sounds of Ganymede, one of Jupiter’s moons, and a new advanced propulsion concept known as the Bussard Ramjet has undergone a new analysis to determine its feasibility. Elsewhere, some are asking whether scientists have managed to quantum entangle a tardigrade… is there anything these peculiar little water bears can’t do?

Meanwhile in video news, don’t forget to check out the latest weekly recap with Cristina Gomez over on The Debrief’s official YouTube Channel. As always, we’ll have a complete roundup of our latest stories at the end of this newsletter for your enjoyment.

And now, we turn our attention toward one of the greatest questions of all: are we alone in the universe? These are some of the scientists that are probing space for answers… and what they said was noteworthy about the last 12 months in SETI research.


SETI Institute Live: A Look Back at SETI in 2021

On Tuesday, the SETI Institute hosted a live stream that recapped some of the most significant findings and other events related to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) in 2021.

Hosted by Beth Johnson, the live stream, titled “SETI: Looking Back, Looking Forward”, featured a panel discussion with French-American astrobiologist Nathalie Cabrol and SETI Institute Senior Astronomer Seth Shostak.

“The thing that struck me the most is the fact that SETI is broadening,” Shostak said during the online event. “What I mean by that is that there are more organizations doing it, more people doing it, and the approaches are wider than has been the case for the past well 60 years.”

Seth Shostak (Credit: B.D. Engler, CC 3.0).

“We’re doing it better than ever,” Shostak said of the Institute’s efforts to scour the galaxy for signs of intelligent extraterrestrials. “But there are also other approaches that, you know, in the past couldn’t even have been. It couldn’t have been done, and I think that that’s a good thing.”


Astrobiology and Planetary Exploration

A main focus of Tuesday’s live stream dealt with advances in astrobiology in 2021, particularly with regard to the current efforts underway on Mars.

“Astrobiology is such a broad field,” Cabrol said during the live stream, adding that much like SETI programs, planetary and space exploration have seen significant gains in the last year.

“You have a number of space agencies who have an integrated program and have had one for many years, who are going on Mars and in transitioning from the characterization of habitability to the search for life.”

Cabrol was particularly enthusiastic about the scientific work being carried out right now by the Pereseverance rover, and what it means not only for our broadening understanding of the Martian environment, but what it may help us learn about whether life ever existed there.

The Perseverance rover explores the Jezero crater on Mars (Credit: NASA).

“Perseverance is a biosignature detection mission, and so right now we are looking for traces of past and present life.”

“And there has been recently an announcement two days ago about… organic molecules being found at Jezero crater,” Cabrol noted of the recent confirmed detection of molecules containing carbon-hydrogen bonds within dust on the base of the crater.

“These are the bricks of life,” Cabrol said. “It’s nothing until they are being assembled, but it’s very important that we keep confirming that they are there. It means that they are abundant, and this is good news.”


Harvard, SETI, and the Search for the Unknown

Along with showcasing highlights from the SETI Institute’s work over the last twelve months, topics that were also addressed during Tuesday’s event included the efforts of The Galileo Project, a research effort spearheaded by Avi Loeb of Harvard University.

“Galileo’s the idea and the project actually of Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb,” Shostak explained during the live stream. “A couple of years ago… ‘Oumuamua was zipping through the solar system it was seen as a dot. And the question was, what is that thing? Because its orbit proved that it, you know, or at least indicated that it came from another solar system. So what was it? Was it a comet, was it an asteroid?”

“Avi Loeb suggested [‘Oumuamua] was something that was artificially constructed,” Shostak said. “An artifact, okay? And that would be, of course, incredibly interesting if true.”

Following the appearance of a report on unidentified aerial phenomena delivered to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in June, SETI researchers were put in the unusual position of having to reconsider whether there could be more to a topic long maligned by the scientific community.

According to a statement from the SETI Institute, the ODNI report on UAP raised “important questions for the SETI community, primarily are UAPs worthy of deeper scientific study and if so, how do we do it? Researchers at Harvard University, the SETI Institute, and the broader community are working on answers to these questions.”

“Most astronomers who study asteroids think it’s an asteroid,” Shostak added during Tuesday’s live stream. “But in any case Avi Loeb got interested in the whole UFO—or as they’re now called, UAP—story that came out of the mostly, well it was a front page on the New York Times in 2017.”

“And so he has started this Galileo Project because he’s very interested in things that might be in our atmosphere that might be sailing over your head every night and you’re unaware.”

“So I am part of the science council for that,” Shostak added, describing his role in aiding Avi Loeb and the Galileo Project with its prospective UAP studies.


A Year in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

Over the last twelve months, several important events helped shaped what became a landmark year in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, which included the detection of radio signatures associated with complex molecules in space, first spotted by the Green Back Telescope in West Viriginia.

Another notable achievement had been the detection of a Fast Radio Burst in June which had been the first to be located by the Allen Telescope array, showcasing its sensitivity and demonstrating its capabilities in the search for alien life.

And of course, the launch of the James Webb Telescope—arguably among the most exciting developments in astronomy in the last decade—is similarly being received with enthusiasm from the SETI community.

Artist’s impression of the James Webb Space Telescope (Credit: NASA)

“With the launch of the James Webb Telescope, researchers are hoping to learn more about these interesting candidates for life beyond Earth,” a SETI Institute article on December 8 stated.

As Tuesday’s live stream event drew to a close, Shostak indicated that his excitement about SETI and space exploration isn’t just limited to the new items in our tool kit that 2021 has seen; he is also particularly excited to see what the next generation of astronomers and SETI researchers will be able to find with them.

“This is the first generation—you listening today—you’re a member of the first generation that has the technology the knowledge and of course the wherewithal and the interest to actually find out if we’re alone in the universe or not.”

“I think that’s a pretty exciting subject to talk about.”

That concludes this week’s edition of The Intelligence Brief. You can read past editions of The Intelligence Brief at our website, or if you found this installment online, don’t forget to subscribe and get future email editions from us here. Also, if you have a tip or other information you’d like to send along directly to me, you can email me at micah [@] the, or Tweet at me @MicahHanks.

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