Technosignatures and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

A rendering of a potential Dyson sphere, named after Freeman A. Dyson. As proposed by the physicist and astromomer decades ago, they would collect solar energy on a solar system wide scale for highly advanced civilizations. (

The word “SETI” pretty much brings to mind the search for radio signals come from distant planets, the movie “Contact,” Jill Tarter, Frank Drake and perhaps the SETI Institute, where the effort lives and breathes.

But there was a time when SETI — the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence — was a significantly broader concept, that brought in other ways to look for intelligent life beyond Earth.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s — a time of great interest in UFOs, flying saucers and the like — scientists not only came up with the idea of searching for distant intelligent life via unnatural radio signals, but also by looking for signs of unexpectedly elevated heat signatures and for optical anomalies in the night sky.

The history of this search has seen many sharp turns, with radio SETI at one time embraced by NASA, subsequently de-funded because of congressional opposition, and then developed into a privately and philanthropically funded project of rigor and breadth at the SETI Institute.  The other modes of SETI went pretty much underground and SETI became synonymous with radio searches for ET life.

But this history may be about to take another sharp turn as some in Congress and NASA have become increasingly interested in what are now called “technosignatures,” potentially detectable signatures and signals of the presence of distant advanced civilizations.  Technosignatures are a subset of the larger and far more mature search for biosignatures — evidence of microbial or other primitive life that might exist on some of the billions of exoplanets we now know exist.

And as a sign of this renewed interest, a technosignatures conference was scheduled by NASA at the request of Congress (and especially retiring Republican Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas.)  The conference took place in Houston late last month, and it was most interesting in terms of the new and increasingly sophisticated ideas being explored by scientists involved with broad-based SETI.

“There has been no SETI conference this big and this good in a very long time,” said Jason Wright, an astrophysicist and professor at Pennsylvania State University and chair of the conference’s science organizing committee.  “We’re trying to rebuild the larger SETI community, and this was a good start.”


At this point, the search for technosignatures is often likened to that looking for a needle in a haystack. But what scientists are trying to do is define their haystack, determine its essential characteristics, and learn how to best explore it. (Wiki Commons)


During the three day meeting in Houston, scientists and interested private and philanthropic reps. heard talks that ranged from the trials and possibilities of traditional radio SETI to quasi philosophical discussions about what potentially detectable planetary transformations and by-products might be signs of an advanced civilization. (An agenda and videos of the talks are here.)

The subjects ranged from surveying the sky for potential millisecond infrared emissions from distant planets that could be purposeful signals, to how the presence of certain unnatural, pollutant chemicals in an exoplanet atmosphere that could be a sign of civilization.  From the search for thermal signatures coming from megacities or other by-products of technological activity, to the possible presence of “megastructures” built to collect a star’s energy by highly evolved beings.

Michael New is Deputy Associate Administrator for Research within NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. He was initially trained in chemical physics. (NASA)

All but the near infrared SETI are for the distant future — or perhaps are on the science fiction side — but astronomy and the search for distant life do tend to move forward slowly.  Theory and inference most often coming well before observation and detection.

So thinking about the basic questions about what scientists might be looking for, Wright said, is an essential part of the process.

Indeed, it is precisely what Michael New, Deputy Associate Administrator for Research within NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, told the conference. 

He said that he, NASA and Congress wanted the broad sweep of ideas and research out there regarding technosignatures, from the current state of the field to potential near-term findings, and known limitations and possibilities.

“The time is really ripe scientifically for revisiting the ideas of technosignatures and how to search for them,” he said.

He offered the promise of NASA help  (admittedly depending to some extent on what Congress and the administration decide) for research into new surveys, new technologies, data-mining algorithms, theories and modelling to advance the hunt for technosignatures.


Crew members aboard the International Space Station took this nighttime photograph of much of the Atlantic coast of the United States. The ability to detect the heat and light from this kind of activity on distant exoplanets does not exist today, but some day it might and could potentially help discover an advanced extraterrestrial civilization. (NASA)


Among the several dozen scientists who discussed potential signals to search for were the astronomer Jill Tarter, former director of the Center for SETI Research, Planetary Science Institute astrobiologist David Grinspoon and University of Rochester astrophysicist Adam Frank.  They all looked at the big picture, what artifacts in atmospheres, on surfaces and perhaps in space that advanced civilizations would likely produce by dint of their being “advanced.”

All spoke of the harvesting of energy to perform work as a defining feature of a technological planet, with that “work” describing transportation, construction, manufacturing and more.

Beings that have reached the high level of, in Frank’s words, exo-civilization produce heat, pollutants, changes to their planets and surroundings in the process of doing that work.  And so a detection of highly unusual atmospheric, thermal, surface and orbital conditions could be a signal.

One example mentioned by several speakers is the family of chemical chloroflourohydrocarbons (CFCs,)  which are used as commercial refrigerants, propellants and solvents.

Astronomner Jill Tarter is an iconic figure in the SETI world and led the SETI Institute for 30 years. (AFP)

These CFCs are a hazardous and unnatural pollutant on Earth because they destroy the ozone layer, and they could be doing something similar on an exoplanet.  And as described in the conference, the James Webb Space Telescope — once it’s launch and working — could most likely detect such an atmospheric compound if it’s in high concentration and the project was given sufficient telescope time.

A similar single finding described by Tarter that could be revolutionary is the radioactive isotope tritium, which is a by-product of the nuclear fusion process.  It has a short half-life and so any distant discovery would point to a recent use of nuclear energy (as long as it’s not associated with a recent supernova event, which can also produce tritium.)

But there many other less precise ideas put forward.

Glints on the surface of planets could be the product of technology,  as might be weather on an exoplanet that has been extremely well stabilized, modified planetary orbits and chemical disequilibriums in the atmosphere based on the by-products of life and work.  (These disequilibriums are a well-established feature of biosignature research, but Frank presented the idea of a technosphere which would process energy and create by-products at a greater level than its supporting biosphere.)

Another unlikely but most interesting example of a possible technosignature put forward by Tarter and Grinspoon involved the seven planets of the Trappist-1 solar system, all tidally locked and so lit on only one side.  She said that they could potentially be found to be remarkably similar in their basic structure, alignment and dynamics. As Tarter suggested, this could be a sign of highly advanced solar engineering.


Artist rendering of the imagined Trappist-1 solar system that had been terraformed to make the planets similar and habitable.  The system is one of the closest found to our own — about 40 light years.


Grinspoon seconded that notion about Trappist-1, but in a somewhat different context.

He has worked a great deal on the question of today’s anthroprocene era — when humans actively change the planet — and he expanded on his thinking about Earth into the galaxies.

Grinspoon said that he had just come back from Japan, where he had visited Hiroshima and its atomic bomb sites, and came away with doubts that we were the “intelligent” civilization we often describe ourselves in SETI terms.  A civilization that may well self destruct — a fate he sees as potentially common throughout the cosmos — might be considered “proto-intelligent,” but not smart enough to keep the civilization going over a long time.

Projecting that into the cosmos, Grinspoon argued that there may well be many such doomed civilizations, and then perhaps a far smaller number of those civilizations that make it through the biological-technological bottleneck that we seem to be facing in the centuries ahead.

These civilizations, which he calls semi-immortal, would develop inherently sustainable methods of continuing, including modifying major climate cycles, developing highly sophisticated radars and other tools for mitigating risks, terraforming nearby planets, and even finding ways to evolve the planet as its place in the habitable zone of its host star becomes threatened by the brightening or dulling of that star.

The trick to trying to find such truly evolved civilizations, he said, would be to look for technosignatures that reflect anomalous stability and not rampant growth. In the larger sense, these civilizations would have integrated themselves into the functioning of the planet, just as oxygen, first primitive and then complex life integrated themselves into the essential systems of Earth.

And returning to the technological civilizations that don’t survive, they could produce physical artifacts that now permeate the galaxy.


MeerKAT, originally the Karoo Array Telescope, is a radio telescope consisting of 64 antennas now being tested and verified in the Northern Cape of South Africa. When fully functional it will be the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the southern hemisphere until the Square Kilometre Array is completed in approximately 2024. (South African Radio Astronomy Observatory)


This is exciting – the next phase Square kilometer Array (SKA2) will be able to detect Earth-level radio leakage from nearby stars. (South African Radio Astronomy Observatory)


While the conference focused on technosignature theory, models, and distant possibilities, news was also shared about two concrete developments involving research today.

The first involved the radio telescope array in South Africa now called MeerKAT,  a prototype of sorts that will eventually become the gigantic Square Kilometer Array.

Breakthrough Listen, the global initiative to seek signs of intelligent life in the universe, would soon announce the commencement of  a major new program with the MeerKAT telescope, in partnership with the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO).

Breakthrough Listen’s MeerKAT survey will examine a million individual stars – 1,000 times the number of targets in any previous search – in the quietest part of the radio spectrum, monitoring for signs of extraterrestrial technology. With the addition of MeerKAT’s observations to its existing surveys, Listen will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in parallel with other surveys.

This clearly has the possibility of greatly expanded the amount of SETI listening being done.  The SETI Institute, with its radio astronomy array in northern California and various partners, have been listening for almost 60 years, without detecting a signal from our galaxy.

That might seem like a disappointing intimation that nothing or nobody else is out there, but not if you listen to Tarter explain how much listening has actually been done.  Almost ten years ago, she calculated that if the Milky Way galaxy and everything in it was an ocean, then SETI would have listened to a cup full of water from that ocean.  Jason Wright and his students did an updated calculation recently, and now the radio listening amounts to a small swimming pool within that enormous ocean.


The NIROSETI team with their new infrared detector inside the dome at Lick Observatory. Left to right: Remington Stone, Dan Wertheimer, Jérome Maire, Shelley Wright, Patrick Dorval and Richard Treffers. (Laurie Hatch)

The other news came from Shelley Wright of the University of California, San Diego, who has been working on an optical SETI instrument for the Lick Observatory.

The Near-Infrared Optical SETI (NIROSETI) instrument she and her colleagues have developed is the first instrument of its kind designed to search for signals from extraterrestrials at near-Infrared wavelengths. The near-infrared regime is an excellenr spectral region to search for signals from extraterrestrials, since it offers a unique window for interstellar communication.

The NIROSETI instrument utilizes two near-infrared photodiodes to be able to detect artificial, very fast (nanosecond) pulses of infrared radiation.

The NIROSETI instrument, which is mounted on the Nickel telescope at Lick Observatory, splits the incoming near-infrared light onto two channels, and then checks for coincident events, which indicate signals that are identified by both detectors simultaneously.

Jason Wright is an assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State. His reading list is here.

Wright of Penn State was especially impressed by the project, which he said can look at much of the sky at once and was put together with on very limited budget.

Wright, who teaches a course on SETI at Penn State and is a co-author of a recent paper trying to formalize SETI terminology, said his own take-away from the conference is that it may well represent an important and positive moment in the history of technosignatures.

“Without NASA support, the whole field has lacked the normal structure by which astronomy advances,” he said.  “No teaching of the subject, no standard terms, no textbook to formalize findings and understandings.

“The Seti Institiute carried us through the dark times, and they did that outside of normal, formal structures. The Institute remains essential, but hopefully that reflex identification will start to change.”


Participants in the technosignatures conference in Houston last month, the largest SETI gathering in years.  And this one was sponsored by NASA and put together by the NExSS for Exoplanet Systems Science (NExSS,)  an interdisciplinary agency initiative. (Delia Enriquez)

Back to the Future on the Moon

There have been no humans on the surface of the moon since the Apollo program ended in 1972.  Now, in addition to NASA, space agencies in India, China, Russia, Japan and Europe and developing plans to land humans on the moon. (NASA/Robin Lee)

What does NASA’s drive to return to the moon have to do with worlds of exoplanets and astrobiology that are generally discussed here?  The answer is actually quite a lot.

Not so much about the science, although current NASA plans would certainly make possible some very interesting science regarding humans living in deep space, as well as some ways to study the moon, Earth and our sun.

But it seems especially important now to look at what NASA and others have in mind regarding our moon because the current administration has made a top priority of returning landers and humans to there, prospecting for resources on the moon and ultimately setting up a human colony on the moon.

This has been laid out in executive directives and now is being translated into funding for NASA (and commercial) missions and projects.

There are at least two significant NASA projects specific to the moon initiative now planned, developed and in some cases funded.  They are the placement of a small space station that would orbit the moon, and simultaneously a series of robotic moon landings — to be conducted by commercial ventures but carrying NASA and other instruments from international and other commercial partners.

The goal is to start small and gradually increase the size of the landers until they are large enough to carry astronauts.

And the same growth line holds for the overall moon mission.  The often-stated goal is to establish a colony on the moon that will be a signal expansion of the reach of humanity and possibly a significant step towards sending humans further into space.

A major shift in NASA focus is under way and, most likely in the years ahead, a shift in NASA funding.

Given the potential size and importance of the moon initiative — and its potential consequences for NASA space science — it seems valuable to both learn more about it.


Cislunar space is, generally speaking, the area region between the Earth and the moon. Always changing because of the movements of the two objects.

Development work is now under way for what is considered to be the key near-term and moon-specific project.  It used to be called the the Deep Space Gateway as part of the Obama administration proposal for an asteroid retrieval mission, but now it’s the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G.)

If built, the four-person space station would serve as a quasi-permanent outpost orbiting the moon that advocates say would enhance exploration and later commercial exploitation of the moon.  It would provide a training area and safe haven for astronauts, could become a center for moon, Earth and solar science, and could continue and expand the international cooperation nurtured on the International Space Station (ISS) project for several decades.

In its Gateway Memorandum, published last month, NASA and the administration also made clear that the station would have, as a central goal, geopolitical importance.

As stated in the memorandum, “the next step in human spaceflight is the establishment of U.S. preeminence in cislunar space through the operations and the deployment of a U.S.-led lunar orbital platform,  “Gateway.”  (“Cislunar space” is the region lying  between the Earth and the moon.)

The administration requested $500 million for planning the LOP-G project in fiscal 2019.  The first component to be built and hopefully launched into cislunar space under the plan is the “power and propulsion element.”


An artist version of a completed Gateway spaceport with the Orion capsule approaching. (NASA)

Five companies have put together proposals for the “PPE,” and NASA officials have said they are ready to move ahead with procurement.

During a March meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s human exploration and operations committee, Michele Gates, director of the Power and Propulsion Element at NASA Headquarters, said the agency will be ready to move ahead with procurement of the module when the five industry proposals are completed.

Some of those companies had been involved in studies for the cancelled Asteroid Redirect Mission and Gates said, “Our strategy is to leverage all of the work that’s been done, including on the Asteroid Redirect Mission.”

Five different companies have contracts to design possible space station habitation modules as well.

So the plan has some momentum.  If all moves ahead as described, NASA will launch the components of the Gateway in the early to mid 2020s.  More than a dozen international agencies have voiced interest in joining the project, including European, Japanese, Canadian and other ISS partners.

As part of that outreach, an informal partnership agreement has already been signed with Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, with the possibility of using a future Russian heavy rocket to help build the station and ferry crew.


Astronaut John Young of the Apollo 16 mission on the moon. The primary goal of the NASA moon initiative is to return astronauts to the surface.(NASA)

The other NASA moon initiative involves an effort to send many robotic landers to the moon to look for potential water and fuel (hydrogen) to be collected for a cislunar and ultimately lunar economy.

NASA had worked for some time on what was called a Resource Prospector, a mission to study water ice and other volatiles at the lunar poles.  But this spring NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced the Prospector was being cancelled because it was not suited to the what is called the new Exploration Campaign — NASA’s concept for a series of missions that will initially use small, commercially developed landers, followed by larger landers.

So the Prospector project is now considered “too limited in scope for the agency’s expanded lunar exploration focus,” the agency said in a statement. “NASA’s return to the moon will include many missions to locate, extract and process elements across bigger areas of the lunar surface.”

The agency also says it will rely on private companies to design and build the landers, as well as launching them into space.

So these are the out-of-the gate projects NASA has in mind for the moon. They, however, are hardly where the big money is going.  That is directed to the heavy rocket under development and construction for more than a decade (the Space Launch System, or SLS) and the Orion space capsule.

They are designed to be the main conduits to the Gateway and perhaps beyond some day, and they have been enormously costly to build — at least $22 billion to construct up through 2021, NASA officials told the Government Accounting Office in 2014. And that doesn’t include the more costly second SLS rocket scheduled for 2023 with a crew aboard.

What’s more, it is estimated to cost at least $1.5 billion to launch each SLS/Orion voyage in years ahead.


Astronauts go into an Orion capsule mock-up. The un-manned spacecraft is expected to be ready for launch in 2020. (NASA/ Bill Stafford and Roger Markowitz)


Another mock-up of the inside of the Orion crew module, which carries four astronauts and is scheduled to launch in 2023. It has 316 cubic feet of habitable space, compared with 210 cubic feet for the Apollo capsules. (NASA)


Since this column is primarily about space and origins science, I was drawn to the conference held late Feb. in Denver — billed as the Deep Space Gateway Concept Science Workshop.  The idea, surely, was to share and showcase what science might be achievable on the mini-space station.

As you might imagine, a major scientific focus was on the challenges to humans of living in deep space and techniques that might be used to mitigate problems. Abstracts included studies of the effects of radiation on astronauts, on drugs, on food, on the immune system and more.

NASA and others have studied for years radiation and micro-gravity effects on astronauts aboard the International Space Station, but conditions in a deep space environment would be quite a bit different.  Probably most importantly, astronauts aboard the Gateway would be exposed to much more dangerous radiation than those in the ISS because that low-Earth orbit station is protected by the Van Allen radiation belts.

There was also an intriguing proposal to study the ability of lunar regolith (the rock, dust and gravel on the surface) to shield growing plants on the station from radiation, and others on the role and usefulness of plants and micro-organisms in deep space.

Scientists also proposed many different ways to study the moon, the Earth and the sun.  Harley Thronson of NASA Goddard, one of the moderators of the conference, said that sun scientists seemed especially excited by the opportunities the Gateway could offer.

As far as I could tell, there was but one proposal that involved astrobiology or exoplanets.  It was a plan by scientists from SETI and NASA Ames to study Earth with a spectrometer as a way to understand and measure potential bio-markers on exoplanets.

So there’s undoubtedly good science to be done on a lunar space port regarding human space flight, the moon, the Earth and sun.

What I wonder is this:  Will this new, intense and costly lunar focus on the moon take away from what I like to think of as The Golden Age of Space Science — the unending breakthroughs of recent decades in understanding planets and distant moons in our solar system, detecting and characterizing the billions and billions of exoplanets out there,  as well as revealing the structure and history of the cosmos.


The Sombrero Galaxy, as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA’s Flagship observatory of the 1990s. The James Webb Space Telescope is delayed but is expected to provide the same remarkable images and science as Hubble once it’s up and working.  WFIRST, the planned flagship observatory of the 2020s was cancelled by the administration earlier this year because of a NASA funding shortfall, but its fate remains undecided. (NASA)

I’m not thinking about today but about when costly NASA flagship space observatories or major planetary missions come up for approval, or non-approval, in the future.  Will the funding, and the deep interest, still be there?

Others more knowledgeable about the mechanics of space travel also criticize the Gateway as a costly detour from what long has been considered the main goal of space exploration — sending humans to Mars — and as redundant when it comes to accessing and studying the moon.

On a more encouraged note, a lunar station and lunar base could become part of a much larger space architecture that will allow for all kinds of advances in the decades ahead.  This is precisely the kind of build-out that Thronson, who is Senior Scientist for Advanced Astrophysics Mission Concepts at NASA Goddard and Chief Technologist for the Cosmic Origins and Physics of the Cosmos Program Offices, has been working towards for years.

Ever mindful of the uses of such a space architecture, he pointed out one potential use of a lunar space station that is seldom heard:  If a powerful new telescope in deep space needs repair or upgrading, he wrote in an email, there’s no way to get humans to it now.  The Hubble Space Telescope could be fixed because it was not in deep space and astronauts could get to it.

Thronson sees a potential parallel use for the Gateway, as he described in an email. “My astronomy colleagues, including myself, have been for many years advocating using a Gateway-type facility to assemble, repair, and upgrade the next generation (and beyond) of major astronomical missions. Nothing beats having a human on site, if there are complicated activities that need to be carried out.”




A Reprieve for Space Science?

View of WFIRST focusing on supernova SN1995E in NGC 2441. The high-priority but embattled space telescope would, if congressional support continues, add greatly to knowledge about dark energy and dark matter, supernovae, and exoplanets.  (NASA)


A quick update on a recent column about whether our “golden age” of space science and discovery was in peril because of cost overruns and Trump administration budget priorities that emphasized human space travel over science.

The 2018 omnibus spending bill that was passed Wednesday night by the House of Representatives and Thursday night by the Senate represents a major push back against the administration’s earlier NASA budget proposals.  Not only would the agency receive $1.6 billion more funding than proposed by the administration, but numerous projects that had been specifically eliminated in that proposal are back among the living.

They include four Earth science satellites, a lander to accompany the Europa Clipper mission to that potentially habitable moon and, perhaps most important, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) space telescope.

Funding for that mission, which was the top priority of the space science community and the National Academy of Sciences for the 2020s, was eliminated in the proposed 2019 Trump budget, but WFIRST received $150 million in the just-passed omnibus bill.

A report accompanying the omnibus bill is silent about the proposed cancellation and instructs NASA to provide to Congress in 60 days a cost estimate for the full life cycle of the mission, including any additions that might be needed.  So there appears to be a strong congressional desire to see WFIRST launch and operate.

Still hanging fire is the fate of the James Webb Space Telescope, which has fallen behind schedule again and is in danger of crossing the $8 billion cap put into place by Congress in 2011.  NASA officials said this week that they will soon announce their determination about whether a breach of the program’s cost cap will occur as a result of further delays.

NASA has a fleet of 18 Earth science missions in space, supported by aircraft, ships and ground observations. Together they have revolutionized understanding of the planet’s atmosphere, the oceans, the climate and weather. The Obama administration emphasized Earth studies, but the Trump administration has sought to eliminate future Earth missions. This visualization shows the NASA fleet in 2017, from low Earth orbit all the way out to the DSCOVR satellite taking in the million-mile view. (Goddard Space Flight Center/Matthew R. Radclif)


Four of the five Earth science programs the administration sought to cancel are specifically named for funding in the omnibus bill — the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, and ocean Ecosystem (PACE) mission, the CLARREO Pathfinder and Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3 instruments and the Earth observation instruments on the Deep Space Climate Observatory spacecraft. A fifth program was already cancelled by NASA earlier this year for technical reasons.

In all, the Science Mission Directorate would receive $6,221 million, an increase of $456  million.  Language in the bill explicitly “reiterates the importance of the decadal survey process and rejects the cancellation of scientific priorities.”

While all this is promising and hopeful, it may well be a short-term reprieve — as reported in that earlier column.

A two-year budget deal reached earlier this year raised spending caps substantially for both defense and non-defense programs, freeing up additional funding that may or may not be available in future years. The 2019 budget needs to be passed in six months, and funds could easily be stripped out then or in subsequent years.

But most important, the administration’s plans to focus on sending astronauts to the moon and establish a colony there could and almost certainly would, in time, eat up large portions of the space science budget.

Under the omnibus bill, NASA would receive $4.79 billion for space exploration efforts, up $466 million over 2017 funding levels.  This includes $2.15 million for the heavy-lift Space Launch System and $1.35 for the Orion space capsule.

The bill also provides $350 million to build a second mobile launch platform at the Kennedy Space Center. NASA considered, but did not request, funding in its 2019 proposal for a second platform.  If built, it could substantially shorten the gap between the first and second launches of SLS by eliminating the delays that would inevitably come at the launch site as it is modified to handle subsequent larger rockets.


Illustration of the Space Launch System as it will appear on the launch pad. In development for almost decade, it is now scheduled for a maiden launch in 2019. (NASA)


In some of its funding, the omnibus bill seems almost too good to be true.

The planetary science program, for instance, received $300 million more than last year.  The $2.2 billion total includes $595 million for work on the Europa Clipper mission and for a follow-on lander — a scientifically exciting aspect of the Europa program, but one that had earlier been cancelled.

The bill also keeps earlier plans to use the SLS to launch Europa Clipper by 2022 and the lander by 2024. An SLS launch would halve the number of years it would take to get the spacecraft to Europa, a moon of Jupiter.

But NASA’s assessment of the SLS program make it highly unlikely that the rockets will be ready for those launches, and there are competing plans to use the second SLS launch to send humans into orbit.

As a kind of added treat, the omnibus bill also provides $23 million for a proposed helicopter NASA has under consideration for the the Mars 2020 rover mission.

The Trump administration has shown great interest in manned missions and little interest in space science and especially Earth science.

Clearly, many members of Congress have very different views, informed no doubt by a highly mobilized space science community.  And for now, at least, they appear to have carried the day.



Space Science In Peril


NASA’s decades-long success at enabling ground-breaking discoveries about our planet, our solar system, our galaxy, our origins and the billions of other planets out there is one of the crown jewels of our nation’s collective inventiveness and will, and surely of our global soft power.

Others have of course made major contributions as well.  But from the Viking Mars landings of the 1970s on to the grand space observatories Hubble and Spitzer and Chandra, to the planetary explorations such as Cassini (Saturn), Galileo and Juno (Jupiter), New Horizons (Pluto and beyond) and Curiosity (Mars), to the pioneering exoplanet census of Kepler, the myriad spacecraft enhancing our understanding of our own planet and the sun, and the pipeline confidently filled with of missions to come, NASA has been the consistent and essential world leader.

What we know of our world writ large has just exploded in these decades, and we’re far richer for it.

But of late, the future of these efforts to ever expand our knowledge of the logic and make-up of our universe has become worryingly unclear.

First there are the recently revealed new problems with the James Webb Space Telescope, initially scheduled to launch years ago and now reportedly unlikely to meet its launch date next year.  It is also over budget again and under serious threat.

This news came as Congress wrestled with the White House decision to scuttle the WFIRST dark energy, planet and star formation, and exoplanet mission, planned as NASA’s major flagship mission of the 2020s.

And perhaps most worrisome, NASA now wants to fold its Space Technology Mission Directorate into the Human Exploration and Operations Directorate, surely to support the administration’s goal of setting up a human colony on the moon.

This is an Apollo-sized, many-year and very costly effort that would have to take funds away from potential space science missions unless the NASA budget was growing substantially. But the proposed 2019 NASA budget would cap spending for the next four years.

Might our Golden Era of space discovery be winding down?


An illustration of the James Webb Space Telescope after deploying in space.  The pioneering technology of the JWST is both its great promise and recurring pitfall. (NASA)


First the JWST situation.  The telescope, far more powerful and complex than anything sent into space, is expected to open up new understandings about the origins of the universe, xxx, and exoplants.

But late last month, the General Accounting Office released a report that said:

“The James Webb Space Telescope, the planned successor to the Hubble Telescope, is one of NASA’s most complex and expensive projects.

“NASA recently announced that JWST’s launch would be delayed several months, from October 2018 to no later than June 2019, because components of the telescope are taking longer to integrate than planned.

“Based on the amount of work NASA has to complete before JWST is ready to launch, we found that it’s likely the launch date will be delayed again. If that happens, the project will be at risk of exceeding the $8 billion cost cap set by Congress.”

That cost cap was put in place in 2011, after a House subcommittee voted to end the project entirely because of overruns.  The full Congress then agreed to continue funding but only to the $8 billion mark.

Will Congress agree to more money if the agency needs more time to complete launch preparations?  Or will the money have to come out of the existing NASA budget?  It seems highly unlikely that the project will be halted but all the overruns and delays — often based on the difficulties associated with new technologies — cast a pall of sorts over plans for big space science projects in the decades ahead.

The long-term ramifications of the JWST delays and overruns could be substantial.  The space community began pushing in the 1970s for the launching of a new grand space observatory every decade, and the science and public engagement results have been tremendous.  The process of selecting a grand observatory mission for the 2030s is underway now, with teams of scientists and engineers feverishly gathering ideas, data, technology know-how and cost predictions for four contenders.

Two focus on astrophysics and questions about the make-up and origins of the universe and two on exoplanets and the effort to determine if some might have the conditions that could support life and, perhaps, might actually do so.  Those two are the Habitable-Exoplanet Imaging Mission (HabEx), and Large Ultraviolet-Optical-Infrared Surveyor (LUVOIR).

Both are likely to be quite costly, and LUVOIR in particular.  But unlike HabEx, LUVOIR would have the power and kinds of instruments needed to determine not only if life might be possible on an exoplanet, but potentially if that life is present.  It would be a Hubble on steroids — a dream observatory that would have the ability to transform (or greatly deepen) space science.


If it is restored to the NASA budget, WFIRST would survey distant galaxies looking for the effects of dark matter, that mysterious stuff that can’t be seen or touched but outnumbers normal matter by roughly 5 to 1. The telescope would study Type Ia supernovas to track dark energy, that strange repulsive force that is causing the universe to expand faster and faster. The observatory could  use its instruments to explore the planets around other stars and to better understand how stars and planets are formed . (NASA)


But the enormous promise of a LUVOIR or HabEx helps explain some of the scientific dismay about the administration’s decision to cancel NASA’s  “flagship” observatory of the 2020s, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST.)

Selected in 2010 by the space science community and later the National Academy of Sciences as the priority mission of the 2020s,  WFIRST would focus on the nature of dark matter, the expansion of the universe, and would push forward some exoplanet observing as well.

So cancelling of the mission — if Congress now allows that to happen — would not only eliminate an important observatory that would keep NASA in the forefront of space astrophysics, but would also send a message that even being selected as the top priority space mission for the decade does not provide ironclad protection.

At space subcommittee hearing of the House Science Committee with NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot, Rep. Ami Bera (D. Calif.) voiced that concern earlier this month.

“The decadal survey has served us well, and not looking at this scientific-based prioritization and moving away from that can certainty set a dangerous precedent,” Bera warned.


James Irwin on the moon during the Apollo 15 mission of the summer of 1971.  While Apollo was an enormous success, it took up large percentages of the NASA budget between 1964 and 1972.  The peak was 1967, when it accounted for 70 percent of the NASA budget.  In all, the program cost the 2016 equivalent of $107 billion.  (NASA)


The elephant in the room in this discussion is easy to identify — the administration’s well-publicized desire to set up an on-going human colony of Americans on the moon, or at least to get American astronauts back on the lunar surface during the 2020s.  The stated goals are exploration, commercial and international joint ventures and geopolitics, with seldom a mention of science.

The proposed 2019 budget does not set aside a great deal of money for the moon project, but it does do something that worries many former NASA leaders and NASA followers — the funding for space technology and innovation ($1 billion) will now be housed within the human exploration directorate, as “Exploration Research and Technology.”

The stated logic is that technological advancement should be directed toward human space exploration.

“The FY 2019 budget is restructured to align with the Administration’s new space exploration policy by consolidating and refocusing existing NASA technology development activities on space exploration,” the budget document reads.

This will inevitably take some funds away from technology projects that could be useful across NASA’s directorates, but more important sets the stage for a ramp up in funding for moon missions in the years ahead.  And since the proposed 2019 budget would cap NASA funds for the next four years, other NASA programs would have to suffer — most notably Earth sciences and other science exploration unrelated to the moon.

Seldom discussed by those excited by the prospect of continuing the legacy of the Apollo program and having Americans return to the moon is that Apollo was extraordinarily expensive and required great national sacrifice.

During the 1960s the NASA budget (which was directed in large part into the Mercury and Apollo manned missions) took up as much as four percent of the federal budget (the equivalent of $40 billion today.)  For six years it took up three percent or more of the budget.  The NASA budget is now at its lowest point since 1959 as a percentage of the federal budget — less than one-half of one percent of the budget —  and provides less than $20 billion and has for decades.

It seems pretty clear that ambitious humans-on-the-moon project would mean fewer Cassinis, fewer Hubbles, fewer Keplers.

Another sign of the lowering profile of NASA science is the proposal in the 2019 budget to launch the other NASA flagship science mission of the 2020s, the flyby of Jupiter’s moon Europa, on a commercial heavy-lift rocket rather than NASA’s Space Launch System.  The SLS was sold to Congress as the vehicle that could send spacecraft speedily to outer planets, but now both production delays and a desire to quickly get astronauts into space on the SLS has made that far less likely and some years further out, if it happens at all.

Heavy lift rockets other than SLS—including SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and the Delta IV from United Launch Alliance —lack the power to blast the Europa Clipper directly from Earth to Jupiter. A conventional rocket would rely on three gravity assists from Earth and one from Venus, increasing the transit time from about 3 years to at least 6 years.


The search for life, or habitable conditions, beyond Earth in the 2020s will continue on Mars and is scheduled to expand to Jupiter’s moon Europa.  The moon orbits Jupiter every 3.5 days and that proximity, coupled with the fact that Europa has a slightly elliptical rather than circular orbit, creates the tidal “flexing” and resulting heating that can keep water liquid beneath its surface of ice. The Europa Clipper mission was set by Congress to launch in 2022, but that date looks near impossible.  A plan to have an accompanying lander was sidelined because of cost. (NASA)


Missions happen when they are a priority, and clearly now not just a scientific priority.  Nothing is settled, but the warning signs are there that the moon program will force space science down the priority list unless NASA suddenly gets a lot more money.


Is That the Foundation of NASA I Feel Shifting?

A lunar outpost was an element of the George W. Bush era Vision for Space Exploration, which has been replaced with President Barack Obama’s space policy. The outpost would have been an inhabited facility on the surface of the Moon. At the time it was proposed, NASA was to construct the outpost over the five years between 2019 and 2024. Now the man nominated to be the next NASA administrator, James Bridenstine, is a strong and vocal advocate of building a moon colony.  (NASA)

Reading about some of the views coming from the man recently nominated to become NASA’s Administrator, Rep. James Bridenstine of Oklahoma, I heard the sound of a door closing.

Other doors will surely be opened if he is confirmed by the Senate, but that shutting door happens to be to the gateway to a realm that has engrossed and nurtured me and clearly many millions of Americans.

What is happening, I fear, is that our Golden Age of space science, of exploration for the sake of expanding humanity’s knowledge and wonder, is about to wind down.  The James Webb Space Telescope will (probably) still be launched, and missions to Europa and Mars are on the books.  But to be a Golden Age there must be an on-going vision for the future building on what has been accomplished.

When it comes to space science, that clearly takes strong government support and taxpayer money.  And if what I’m reading is correct, a lot of that future NASA funding for exploring and understanding the grand questions of space science will be going instead to setting up and maintaining that colony on the moon.

And the goals Bridenstine appears to have in mind when he speaks of setting up a moon colony are decidedly military, strategic and commercial.  As when Vice President Mike Pence spoke to NASA workers at the Kennedy Space Center to telegraph the Trump Administration’s space vision, space science is essentially an afterthought.

Media coverage of the Bridenstine selection has tended to focus on the fact that he’s a politician and that he has earlier been quite critical of climate change science.

But what concerns me most are his views about space science in general.  Because with the money and focus a major moon colony project would take, NASA’s space science initiatives run the risk of returning to the back seat they occupied in the agency’s earlier days.

Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., addresses the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs in 2016. (Tom Kimmell)

A former jet pilot, director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and an early supporter of then candidate Donald Trump, Bridenstine has been clear for a long time about his priorities in space.  I think we have to assume they correspond to the views of those in the White House.

In a speech last year to the Lunar Exploration Group titled This is Our Sputnik Moment,”  he pointed to what he described as a major missed opportunity the mid 1990s “discovery” of water at the poles of the moon by a Defense Department mission.  (It was actually a Navy-NASA mission that first made the detection, and it hinted at the presence of water rather than proving anything. The proof came later via missions by NASA, the Japanese space agency, the Chinese space agency and perhaps most important, the Indian space agency.)

Here are excerpts from the talk he gave, which I am quoting at length to to give a better feel for his mindset and for the kind of change he is proposing.  These are points consistent with talks he has given many times before and are memorialized in his proposed American Space Renaissance Act.   American space activities, he makes clear, should focus first and foremost on cis-lunar space, the area between the moon and Earth.

“This single discovery” of frozen water on the moon, he said, “should have immediately transformed America’s space program. Water ice not only represents a critical in situ resource for life support (air and water); it can be cracked into its components, hydrogen and oxygen, to create the same chemical propellant that powered the Space Shuttle.

“From the discovery of water ice on the moon until this day, the American objective should have been a permanent outpost of rovers and machines at the poles with occasional manned missions for science and maintenance. The purpose of such an outpost should have been to utilize the materials and energy of the moon to drive down the costs and increase the capabilities of cis-lunar space. Let’s talk about why.

“The watershed discovery of lunar ice happened at a time when space was transforming all of our lives, ” he continued. “Today, our very way of life depends on space. We have transformed how we communicate, navigate, produce food and energy, conduct banking, predict weather, perform disaster relieve, provide security, and so much more.

“Each of these market segments continues to grow and improve the human condition on Earth, but a 2013 study by the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee determined that the debris population in low earth orbit will continue to grow due to collisions even if nothing new is launched. Catastrophic collisions such as Iridium 33-Cosmos 2251 [which took place in 2009] will occur every five to nine years. Each such collision will create thousands of pieces of debris and result in more collisions.”

With so many satellites and much debris in low-earth orbit, Bridenstine said, it has become increasingly hazardous to send up multi-million and billion-dollar satellites.  One way to limit the congestion, he said, is to make satellites fly higher and live longer, and that means getting them additional fuel to stay on course.  The way to do that, he argues, is to gear up that envisioned water-cracking facility on the moon to produce the hydrogen to refuel satellites.   A potentially reasonable series of points.

Spent space satellites and debris, including that from a Chinese missile fired in 2007 that broke up one of the nation’s older weather satellites, are making low-Earth orbiting more hazardous.  Can hydrogen fuel from cracked water ice on the moon help break the logjam by servicing satellites further from Earth and allowing them to orbit for longer periods of time?  (NASA)

Then comes what would be a real game-changer:

“This is only possible because of all the risk that the government has already retired for these capabilities. Now, the U.S. government should play a part in developing the tools for lunar energy resource development, cis-lunar satellite servicing, and maintenance. The U.S. government must work to retire risk, make the operations routine, and once again empower commercial companies.

In other words, the U.S. government and presumably NASA should do the heavy lifting to create (and fund) this architecture so that commercial companies — among others — can profit from it.

This investment, he said, “has already worked to an extent in low Earth orbit, and now we should apply this model to cis-lunar space. This is not only appropriate for economic development and to improve the human condition on Earth, but to provide for national security, which is now entirely dependent on space-based capabilities. Every domain of warfare today depends on space.

“Once the cis-lunar market develops to service and maintain our traditional space-based military and commercial capabilities, other opportunities will naturally follow. The surface of the moon is composed mainly of oxides of metals: iron, magnesium, aluminum, silicon, titanium and others.

Raw platinum

“While these oxides can be used to produce oxygen for life support and metals for additive manufacturing in situ, they will not likely be exported to earth. However, it is possible, if not likely, that highly valuable platinum group metals are much more available on the moon from astroblemes than they are on earth.

“Such a discovery with cis-lunar transportation capabilities would fundamentally transform American commercial lunar development and could profoundly alter the economic and geopolitical balance of power on Earth. This could explain the Chinese interest in the moon. The question is: What are WE, the United States, doing to make sure the free world participates economically in such a discovery? The U.S. government has a role to play here.

“Competition for locations on the moon (the poles) and resources is inevitable. It must be stated that constitutionally, the U.S. government is required to provide for the common defense. This includes defending American military assets in space AND commercial assets in space, many of which have and will have a dual role of providing commercial and military capabilities. President Kennedy said, ‘Whatever men shall undertake, free men must fully share.’

“The U.S. government must establish a legal framework and be prepared to defend private and corporate rights and obligations all within keeping the Outer Space Treaty. And to enable freedom of action, the United States must have cis-lunar situational awareness, a cis-lunar presence, and eventually must be able to enforce the law through cis-lunar power projection. Cis-lunar development will either take the form of American values with the rule of law, or it will take the form of totalitarian state control. The United States can decide who leads.”

This image of the moon’s north polar region was taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera, or LROC. One of the primary scientific objectives of LROC is to identify regions of permanent shadow and near-permanent illumination. Since the start of the mission, LROC has acquired thousands of Wide Angle Camera images approaching the north pole. From these images, scientists produced this mosaic, which is composed of 983 images taken over a one month period during northern summer. This mosaic shows the pole when it is best illuminated, regions that are in shadow are candidates for permanent shadow, and possibly H2O. (NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University)

So this is where a moon colony leads us as viewed by a proponent: to a day when satellites and spacecraft can be fueled with lunar hydrogen while in space, but also with potential turf wars on the moon over the source of that precious hydrogen fuel.  To an expansion of American might and power to meet the perceived need to dominate space between Earth and the moon. And to a desire to exploit the moon for platinum and potentially other riches.

The only references I’ve seen from Bridenstine about space science are that a moon colony could be a good refueling and take-off point for travel to deeper space, and the belief that while sending humans to Mars should be a long-range vision, it isn’t going to happen anytime soon.  In fairness, it must be said that Bridenstine has pretty consistently voted in favor of NASA space science projects in the past,  and he has not shown hostility towards planetary or orbiting observatory missions.  But that was before there was a costly moon colony infrastructure to potentially build.

In some ways a NASA U-turn like this was almost inevitable.  The agency that made its historic mark with the Apollo program has been, with limited exceptions, out of the humans-to-space business for years.  Rockets and capsules to change this are on their way, and many possible uses for this very powerful and very costly equipment has been debated for some time.

All the while,  in the place of human exploration of space has been the phenomenal success of the space science program — with its grand observatories like the Hubble (and soon the James Webb Space Telescope), unmanned mission such as Cassini (to Saturn) and Juno (to Jupiter) and New Horizons  (to Pluto,) ground-breaking surveys of the exoplanet world by Kepler, and the now five years of Curiosity roving on Mars.

All have been immensely popular with the public by any measure, and I like to think they helped people understand much better the world in which we live.  But the missions are clearly less appealing to commercial, military and generally strategic forces that seem to want a very different kind of American space program.

Our overall national space effort has always spent more on the military side than the civilian, and NASA has also obviously played a role that is both geopolitically and militarily important.

But at its heart, NASA has for some time been about exploring and better understanding the planets and exoplanets and stars and galaxies of our universe (those Many Worlds,) and thereby enriching, enormously, I believe, life here on Earth.

The cis-lunar vision of Bridenstine and others may fail to get off the drawing boards, rather like the Obama Administration’s plan to capture and pull an asteroid towards Earth where astronauts could learn how to live and work in deep space.

But change is in the air, and the selection of Bridenstine is a pretty clear sign of how and where the winds are blowing.