From the editor's desk: Do you have a technosignature?

March 2023 News

Kim Roberts, Deputy Editor.

Sometimes it can be difficult to get the balance right between having your head in the sand and lying awake worrying about things you can’t control. I am enormously cheered up when I think about some of our areas of excellence in this country, and one of these is astrophysics, where South Africa is up there with the best in the world.

We have a rich history of radioastronomy, ranging from the first telescope built by NASA in the 1960s out at Hartebeeshoek, to South Africa taking on Australia to host the world’s largest radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). We won the bid because of our radio-quiet zone in the Karoo, combined with our world class scientific expertise. The SKA telescopes will allow scientists to see galaxies that were formed billions of years ago, and answer some fundamental questions − like how galaxies form, the role of cosmic magnetism, the nature of gravity and dark matter, and whether humans are alone in the universe.

Already up and running is MeerKAT, the world’s biggest and most sensitive radio telescope. This is a world-class facility in its own right and is providing new insight into unexplained activity in enormous radio galaxies in the Milky Way. MeerKAT’s control and monitoring systems are also involved in an international programme called Breakthrough Listen that is searching for extraterrestrial intelligence, and will be looking for what are called technosignatures. These are radiowave anomalies that could point to the existence of intelligent life beyond Earth. In the hunt for technosignatures it will take just two years to search over a million nearby stars.

There is some extraordinary science going on out there. Who hasn’t been captivated by the stunning images being beamed back from the James Webb space telescope?

They include “five galaxies engaged in a brilliant cosmic dance and a nebula exploding around a pair of dying stars” as Forbes describes it. They are showing us what the universe looked like 13 billion light years ago, and the light we see left before Earth had even formed.

Another remarkable milestone also attracted my attention. This one involves looking for biosignatures. NASA’s latest Mars Rover expedition has just completed its second year on Mars, surpassing all expectations. Perseverance landed on Mars in February 2021 after travelling 480 million kilometres on a six month journey, and topped this off by sending a selfie back to Earth. This was the most difficult Mars landing ever attempted. Ingenuity, a small solar powered autonomous drone made the journey strapped underneath Perseverance. The goal was to show that rotocraft-powered flight can work in the thin Martian atmosphere. Ingenuity has tested the limits and achieved the first powered, controlled flight by an aircraft on another world in a series of increasingly daring flights. The Wright Brothers’ first successful flight lasted 12 seconds.

I have been following in awe as these little vehicles push the boundaries of human achievement. Perseverance is looking for past life on Mars, and in a search for fossils of ancient microbes has stored soil and rock samples for a future spacecraft to bring back to Earth, probably by 2028. It has turned up carbon-bearing materials, the basis of life on Earth, in every sample. It is now investigating evidence of flood activity in the Jezero Crater, which had a large lake and river delta billions of years ago, and is looking for carbonate-bearing sedimentary rocks. From the data, scientists have already found sulphates and other minerals that require water to form. These could reveal biosignatures of ancient Martian life.

Down here on Earth we are preoccupied with the latest AI chatboxes, but as far as I’m concerned this is the real science. The essence of our nature is exploration and discovery. Who knows what more we’ll find?

Africa Automation Technology Fair

Back home there is another exciting event coming up, the Africa Automation Technology Fair. Technews is proud to partner with Reed Exhibitions as Title Media Partner, and will again publish the official Africa Automation Technology Fair Preview and Visitors Guide in print and electronic format. The Preview will be a standalone publication and sent out with our April issue of SA Instrumentation & Control, and the Visitors Guide will be the only publication to be handed out to all visitors to the exhibition. If you have a stand booked, this will help you maximise your profile at South Africa’s largest process exhibition. For more information call Jane on 031 764 0595 or Heidi on 011 543 5818.


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