Tag Archives: project ozma

[December 17, 1961] XMAS COOL (UK report and Drake’s Equation)


By Ashley R. Pollard

I find December, in fact all the winter months, a tad difficult because it’s dark in the morning when I get up to go to work, and dark when it’s time to come home.  To add to the misery it’s cold too.  However, a piece on the misery of Christmas is, I feel, not congruent with the general feeling of excitement and good cheer that emanates from seeing people shopping, and of course the switching on of the Oxford Street lights.  A tradition that started in 1954 and seven years later is still going strong.

In other good cheer, our Health Minister the right honourable Enoch Powell (not my favourite member of parliament because he’s too clever for his own good) gave British women an early Christmas gift by making birth control pills available from the National Health Service.  It may not sound like much, but it’s all part and parcel of women’s emancipation, which in my opinion is a good thing.  Having the means to give women some control of their bodies about when they want to get pregnant is certainly a sign that the future is here.

Thinking back to when I was a child, a tablet like this would’ve been something right out of a science fiction story.  Not that I can readily think of any science fiction stories where the woman are in control of when they become pregnant.

A part of me thinks that birth control may have some unintended second order consequences.  The positive part is freedom to choose, and it will certainly address the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus 1798 work, An Essay on the Principle of Population, where he postulates that unchecked population growth is exponential while the growth of the food supply was expected to be arithmetical, with catastrophic consequences for humanity.  His solutions having had provided authors with a raft of apocalyptic story lines over the years.

Speaking of the Age of Enlightenment, I have access to the 1753 Cyclopædia: or, An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences by Ephraim Chambers.  This was one of the first ever encyclopaedias published.

Imagine my delight and surprise when reading through it to find a definition of the word interstellar,

“is a word used by some authors to express those parts of the universe that are without and beyond our Solar system; in which are supposed to several other systems of planets moving around the fixed stars as the renters of their respective motions: and if it be true, as it is not improbable, that each fixed star is thus a sun to some habitable orbs, that move round it, the interstellar world will be infinitely the greater part of the universe.”

This is the stuff of science fiction before science fiction existed as a genre.

But it invites a question, if there are habitable planets out there, do they have life?  Are there aliens in the universe?  Countless stories have been written by science fiction authors about aliens — some lurid, some frightening, some optimistic — but now Dr. Frank Drake has come up with an equation to allow mankind to estimate the probability of the existence of aliens in the universe.

His equation arose out of an article published in 1959 by Giuseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison in the journal Nature called Searching for Interstellar Communications.  Cocconi and Morrison thought radio telescopes were now sensitive enough to pick up any transmissions being broadcast by civilizations orbiting other stars, and they went on to posit that these transmissions would be sent using the frequency of neutral hydrogen, a logical landmark in the radio spectrum.

A couple of months later Professor Harlow Shapley from Harvard University opined that the universe had ten million, million, million suns, and if one in a million has a planet around it, and if only one in a million of those has a planet that supports life as we know it, then there would be 100 million worlds where life could evolve.

This article spurred Dr. Drake to start the first systematic search for signals from extraterrestrial intelligent civilizations, which has not been successful in finding in finding said signals.  However, undeterred Dr. Drake hosted a meeting to discuss the search for extraterrestrial intelligence using radio signals at the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope.  Out of that meeting has come his equation defining the parameters needed to make an estimate of the number of alien civilizations that might exist.

What it doesn’t do is give an answer per se; it only defines what we must know for us to arrive at an answer.  But now that mankind is venturing into space we may be able to start collecting the data necessary to plug figures into the equations: for example things like the number of stars with planets around them, which given we haven’t got proof that there are other planets around other stars, is a big step.  After that, determining how many planets might be habitable will be another hurdle scientists will have to overcome.  But, the hope that we may one day know the answer to the question, which was first propounded in the 1753 edition of Chambers Cylopaedia, is what makes mankind’s future bright.

So one day, in another time and galaxy, we may well be celebrating the changing of the seasons with beings from other worlds.  On that note, allow me to wish all the readers of Galactic Journey a very merry time, and my best wishes for a happy and prosperous new year.  I’m sure 1962 is going to be even more exciting than 1961. 

Thank you all for reading.

[May 27, 1960] Stalled Flights (Midas 2, Pioneer 5, Ozma, and Eichmann)

There was another mystery Atlas Agena launch from Cape Canaveral on May 24.  My sources tell me it was in the same series as the mission late February that broke up before it could reach orbit.  It appears to be some kind of infrared missile launch detection system.  I even got my hands on some conceptual art, though there’s no way of knowing how accurate it is.  Its project name appears to be MIDAS–I’m guessing this stands for “Missile Infrared Detection Alarm System” or something like that.

I don’t know if the system works or if the satellite performed properly, but I understand “MIDAS 2” did make it into orbit.  With tensions between American and the U.S.S.R. at an all-time high, thanks to the whole spy plane kerfuffle and the break-down of summit peace talks, we need probes like this more than ever.

In civilian space news, a bit of a setback.  Pioneer 5 switched on its big 150 watt transmitter a few weeks ago so that it could be heard from any point in its orbit around the sun, perhaps more than 100 million miles from Earth.  Unfortunately, the 150 watt transmitter is now off-line due to battery deterioration, and Pioneer has gone back to using its little 5 watt transmitter.  This means its voice will soon be too faint to pick up from the smaller Hawaii dish, and the Big Ear at Jodrell Bank in England will only be able to track the probe to a range of about 25 million miles.  Of course, that’s still quite a feat. 

Speaking of Jodrell Bank, remember Dr. Frank Drake’s Project Ozma, the program designed to listen for messages from the stars?  Would you believe that positive results were found within the first week of operation? 

It seems that no sooner did the investigating astronomers turn their antenna to the nearby star, Epsilon Eridani, they received an intense signal.  They listened for a few breathless minutes and then turned the antenna away to confirm that the star was indeed the source.  The signal faded as the antenna moved from the star.  Excitedly, they pointed the antenna at Epsilon Eridani again and waited. 

And waited.  Nothing happened.  Was it just a spurious signal?  Had the aliens gone off the air?

Dr. Drake and his team gave Epsilon Eridani and the frequency on which they had received the signal extra attention for the next week, but to no avail.  Then it came back, but not just from the star–from somewhere close by.  The astronomers confirmed this by poking a little antenna out of their observatory window, not focused anywhere in particular.  They picked up the signal there, too.  So, it was probably just a high-flying airplane that they’d picked up.  So much for easy pickings.

On a more personal note, Adolf Eichmann, the notorious Nazi right-hand man for Himmler, in charge of “solving” the Jewish Question, has been apprehended by the Israeli secret service and will stand trial.  He disappeared from Germany as the Third Reich fell, and has presumably been living it up in some Latin American refuge.  I look forward to justice being served.

Finally, a happy birthday to that skinny, outspoken fan and writer, Harlan Ellison.  He is 26 today!

[March 28, 1960] Calling all Stars! (Project Ozma begins)

Imagine installing telephone service in your home for the first time only to have it ring almost immediately.  This is the hope of scientists working on the colorfully named “Project Ozma” at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia.

Simultaneously with humanity’s first steps into space, we are developing brand new methods of sensing the stars from the ground.  Radio astronomy is an exciting field that allows us to sweep wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation well beyond the range of the human eye, revealing heretofore unknown features of the universe. 

It also may allows us to eavesdrop on signals emanating from another star.  Project Ozma, named after the fairy princess ruler of L. Frank Baum’s magical kingdom, Oz, operates on the assumption that alien races will be as gregarious as humans.  Dr. Frank Drake, Ozma’s chief, is hoping that once a species gets the ability to send high power messages across the galaxy, it will (and already has).

Starting next week, Drake and his team will aim their 85 foot wide “ear” to scan nearby Sun-like stars.  Their first two targets are Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani, a yellow and orange star (respectively) about the same age as our sun.  If you’re wondering why the telescope isn’t being directed at Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to ours, it’s because that promising target is only visible from the Southern Hemisphere.

Now, there’s a haystack worth of bandwidth that a needle of a broadcast could hide in.  We can’t search all of it at once, so Drake has arbitrarily picked a narrow band of wavelengths—around 21 centimeters in size.  His is not an entirely uneducated guess.  The 21 centimeter band is a sort of cosmic yardstick, home to a background hiss emitted by galactic hydrogen, that any astronomically advanced species will know about.  Moreover, targeting this band allows Drake to do some “real” astronomical research and thus further justify his funding.

What will a message from the stars sound like?  It will have to be some kind of modulated, non-random pattern.  Perhaps a series of pulses spelling out a universal constant in binary?  A simple on-off code?  The possibility I find the most fun is the idea of an alien race picking up our radio broadcasts and beaming them back at us.  That would be the surest sign that our presence in the universe has been acknowledged.

On the other hand, I’m not sure Fibber McGee and Molly are the best ambassadors Earth has to offer…




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