Let’s go alien-hunting

A group of researchers is lobbying for access to £1m of the UK’s space budget. Why not?

You probably don’t think of Britain as a spacefaring nation but we’re up there with the best. It’s just that we usually do the dull stuff that no one talks about. How exciting, then, that the UK could soon be the only country with a government-sponsored alienhunting programme.

Britain’s space engineering efforts at present add up to a £9bn industry that employs 30,000 people. But although Britain has its own spacemanin- training, Major Tim Peake (why couldn’t he have been a Tom?), it’s still essentially the backroom jobs we’re grabbing. Britain’s final frontier is likely to be in better satellites to improve telecommunications, internet provision, navigation systems and TV broadcasting. We will also continue to be an important player in the European Space Agency’s science missions.

We’ll get even better at earth observations that tell us about climate trends and global weather patterns. Occasionally we’ll deliver an innovative launch technology, or create infrastructure that will pave the way for space tourism. But it’s not exactly Dan Dare.

Yet one day soon we might be the first to make contact with aliens. A group of researchers is lobbying for access to £1m of the UK’s space budget. The idea is to buy time on e-MERLIN, a network of seven radio telescopes dotted around the UK, and begin the world’s only government-funded search for aliens. Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal and former president of the Royal Society, is in the captain’s chair, so the group has a good chance of being taken seriously.

That said, it does all seem a bit far-fetched. The UK Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) group made a series of presentations at the National Astronomy Meeting at St Andrews early this month. Among the more conservative suggestions was that space probes should be equipped with capabilities to interact with aliens. At the other end was the idea that the lunar surface may be studded with “extraterrestrial artefacts”, such as fragments of exotic alloys that have flaked off alien spaceships. We should go and look, apparently.

Somewhere in between was the contention that our search for aliens should also include consideration of machines that may have taken over a biological civilisation. Such eventualities would lead to different kinds of communication – machine codes – being more abundant than the biological-intelligencebased signals we’ve always sought. Then there was Anders Sandberg, a research fellow at Oxford University, who offered an analysis of the “deadly probes” scenario, in which the apparent absence of alien civilisations arises from highly developed cultures sending out space probes designed to kill off newly arising competitors.

This, by the way, is a scenario that causes great controversy in alien-hunting circles. Some say we should accelerate the time to first contact by broadcasting “We Are Here” signals for aliens to pick up. Those who object point out that some aliens might not be friendly, and could decide to come and destroy us.

You are probably rolling your eyes at all this. That is why no government funds SETI at the moment: the idea of searching for aliens is regarded as faintly ridiculous. Nasa’s alien hunt ended in 1993 after a Nevada senator pointed out that “millions have been spent and we have yet to bag a single little green fellow”.

However naive and Boy’s Own it might seem, though, first contact would be momentous – a watershed in human experience. The UK SETI group wants only a million pounds a year; it’s hardly going to kill us. Assuming the aliens are friendly, that is.

Is anybody out there? Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

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The anti-chemical weapons technology that could help rebuild Syria

A new compact chemical agent clean-up system offers hope to formerly deadly conflict zones.

The US “Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency” (Darpa) is an elite organisation tasked with developing secretive military technologies. True to form, its logo is oddly reminiscent of a supervillain’s – imposing and stark. Some of its projects, too, are futuristic weapons with darkly amusingly self-aware names, such as Mahem - a kind of self-forging molten metal spear that can penetrate armour. But not all of Darpa’s programmes add to the chaos of conflict. They have recently developed prototypes of a self-contained treatment system to neutralise chemical weapons and “scrub” the chemical-tainted earth clean.

 

Recently it has been impossible to avoid seeing the effects of chemical weapons. Clips of Syrian children simultaneously suffocating and crying uncontrollably as a result of the nerve gas sarin have become disturbingly ubiquitous, even despite chemical agents in warfare being banned. Less well-known, however, is the fact that chemical weapons are so toxic that the ground that they touch becomes unsafe.

The default methods for dealing with conventional munitions are usually open incineration or controlled detonation, also used for some chemical weapons – but the method, as well as the facility where neutralisation can occur, depends on the kind of chemical that has been weaponised. There are four types of chemical agent, which can be liquidised or in gas form. Each has a unique persistence (length of time it can remain dangerously concentrated in a given environment), and target: attacking the nervous system, the respiratory system, the blood, or cell tissues.

An ex-US Navy analyst once divulged to me that one of the reasons why chemical weapons are used in Syria is because they trigger an immediate halt to any plans for ground troops to be deployed in the affected area. Without knowledge of which agent was used, there is the risk that personnel do not have the relevant personal protective equipment, and they cannot be sent in unprepared. At the moment, troops are given masks and skin decontamination lotion kits, but scientists are also developing systems to protect soldiers against chemical attacks. The most hopeful potential is a caged “bioscavenger” – small enough to circulate (undetected by the immune system) throughout the bloodstream to counter the poisonous impact of certain chemical agents.

However, for civilians in the warzone, the effects are much longer lasting. Even after the agents have mostly dissipated in the air, and become dilute enough to breathe in, the ground retains some toxic qualities from the weapon’s decomposition. Darpa’s new machine – the “Agnostic Compact Demilitarization of Chemical Agents” (ACDC) – is significant because it is “agnostic”, i.e. unspecific to one kind of chemical weapon. The self-sufficient neutralisation units can also be used to safely dispose of bulk stockpiles of chemical agents alone and with any kind of contaminated soil. There are two distinct systems, a “dry pollution control process” that is suitable for arid soil, and a “wet” one that uses a slightly different procedure.

Darrel Johnston, senior programme manager for ACDC’s developer – Southwest Research Institute’s chemistry and chemical engineering division – said that “it is in [the US’s] national interest to have a field operable unit that can safely dispose of chemical warfare agents and other dangerous chemicals on the front lines in a timely manner."

The ACDC works similarly to a catalytic converter in a car, which makes polluting gases less toxic - it neutralises residual salts and acidic gases. Initial indoors tests demonstrated a probable 99.99 per cent success rate of eliminating all harmful by-products of chemical weapons usage. The resultant non-hazardous compounds can be left in the ground, without posing a risk to the environment or anyone’s health. This is a much “greener” course of action than conventional destruction techniques, which are typically very complex and require several stages due to inefficient treatment of waste.

Two of the most significant aspects of ACDC are its portability, as it is compact enough to fit into a shipping container, and its low cost. Doug Weir, manager of the Toxic Remnants of War Project, told me that there are many legacy cases, such as the WWII mustard shells abandoned on the Pacific Islands, “where infrastructure is limited and where the scale of the problem doesn't justify the price tag of a formal facility - where a mobile system would be really valuable”.

There are already attempts to neutralise the after effects of chemical weapons in Syria, but up until now, each weapon has required a different kind of method, which makes the process expensive and wasteful. According to Weir, regarding the logistical and security nightmare of processing roughly 1,300 tonnes of Syrian chemical weapons, the priority is likely to have been removing the weapons from the conflict zone “at all costs”. However, “there were a number of environmental groups who raised concerns about waste disposal from the [at-sea] process”. This is because each of the numerous methods used (one per chemical compound) yielded risky by-products that later had to be broken down further. Overall, the process has cost in the hundreds of millions of US dollars and generated 5.7 million litres of waste. In contrast, Darpa hopes that ACDC will cost just 1 per cent of the Syrian mission.

Although this all sounds optimistic, Gwyn Winfield, Editorial Director of CBRNe World, reminded me that “any system that attempts demilitarisation needs, by its nature, to be in a permissive environment”, meaning that Syria would have to be stable enough for ACDC’s arms control work to be meaningful.

Similarly, Dr. Michelle Bentley, author of Syria and the Chemical Weapons Taboo: Exploiting the Forbidden, told me that “this technology will not challenge the political problems behind chemical weapons use”. In particular, Assad has proven unwilling to part from his chemical stockpiles. She added that “we can’t just think about what we do about chemical weapons – we have to think more about how we do it”.

At the moment, the constraints on outside forces are such that the UN allowed the Syrian army to accompany inspectors to all of Assad’s chemical production and storage facilities, even those in rebel-held territory. The resulting tensions made it clear that – rather than technology being the limiting factor – the biggest task would be mitigating the political pitfalls of disarmament in such a polarised country. It is impossible to tell when Syrian air will be safe for civilians to breathe, or its soil will stop being too toxic to grow food.

However, those who have been forced from their homes by the noxious attacks may take some comfort in the knowledge that once the lab testing stages are over, Darpa plans to use ACDC in the field. If successful, ACDC will be rolled out as part of standard US military vehicles so that any chemical agent (combined with any kind of soil) could be neutralised, and former conflict zones might become slightly safer and healthier.

For now, at least ACDC can offer the hope of a clean start.

 

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman

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