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More than a month after it went live, a couple of large questions remain about the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ botched launch of

The problems appear related to a number of factors, but HHS officials have talked little about the specific technology problems.

A basic question: What is is a key piece of the Affordable Care Act, the law often called Obamacare, passed by Congress in 2010. The website is one way for uninsured U.S. residents to shop for new health insurance plans, although people can also apply through the mail, on the phone and at some in-person locations. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia are running their own health insurance marketplace websites, while 34 states, including Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, opted to be part of the chúng tôi marketplace.

One of the goals of the Affordable Care Act was to open up pooled insurance markets where people without insurance could shop for inexpensive insurance plans. The law prohibits participating insurance companies from rejecting applicants because of pre-existing conditions, and it bans lifetime limits on insurance benefits.

HHS officials say they have committed $630 million to the website. Many of the fixes happening now will be including in the money paid to contractors to build the site, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a Senate hearing Wednesday. is made up of two main components, the data hub and the marketplace, or exchange.

The hub, which experienced problems in the first couple of days after launch but has been generally stable since then, helps verify applicants’ eligibility for insurance coverage and for subsidies. The hub provides a connection to federal data sources needed to verify consumer application information for income, citizenship and immigration status, among other things. It does not store any information, and is not a database.

The marketplace, or exchange, is the part of the website where users can apply for insurance coverage and compare plans available. Many of the site’s continued problems appear to be related to the marketplace.

Questions about the site’s problems

The specific technology problems remain a mystery, with HHS officials speaking in general terms during briefings and congressional testimony. One of the main problems appears to be software and database integration issues.

Still, there are some other problems we can piece together, based on press briefings from Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and congressional testimony from contractors, Sebelius and CMS Administrator Marilyn Tavenner.

Problem No. 1: No contractor overseeing the entire site. No contractor was responsible for the entire site functioning properly, until CMS hired systems integrator QSSI for that role in mid-October. CMS had taken on the role of site functionality before launch, representatives of contractors QSSI and CGI Federal told lawmakers at an Oct. 24 hearing.

Problem No. 2: Last-month changes. Executives with QSSI and CGI Federal, one of the primary contractors on the project, told lawmakers that CMS officials may have added to problems when they abandoned some site functionality within two weeks of launch. The agency made a decision to require website users to register before browsing for insurance plans because of concerns that the unregistered browsing functionality would not be ready by Oct. 1, according to the contractors and HHS officials. That decision likely led to the site’s registration system getting slammed by users in the first days after launch, the contractors said.

Problem No. 3: Inadequate testing. In addition, QSSI and CGI Federal have said the site wasn’t adequately tested before launch. The chúng tôi team spent about two weeks testing the site, when CGI “would have liked to have months” to test how the multiple pieces of the project worked together, said Cheryl Campbell, a senior vice president for the company.

Questions about the site’s security

Republican critics of the Affordable Care Act have raised repeated questions about the security of the site. CMS officials did not run an end-to-end security test on the site before it launched, although they tested individual components. Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican, has questioned whether CMS is adequately testing new code as contractors continually make fixes through this month.

Sebelius and Tavenner have defended the website’s security, saying that contractor Mitre has continually tested the site for security holes. The website complies with Federal Information Security Management Act [FISMA] and U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology [NIST] security standards, and the site is using many of the same security practices as those used on chúng tôi they said.

Still, there was one report this month of the website sharing a user’s insurance application information with a second user. HHS officials said they fixed the code after finding out about the problem.

So far, that appears to be the only security-related problem reported, but critics continue to raise concerns about the security of data at the website.

Questions about the number of insurance enrollments

CMS has not released the number of people whose applications for insurance coverage have been successfully processed. CMS officials say they will release the first set of numbers next week. Officials are still trying to get accurate totals, Sebelius said this week.

As of Oct. 25, about 700,000 U.S. residents have completed applications for health insurance, CMS officials said, but many of those applications still need to be processed. About half of those applications have come through chúng tôi and about half through the state-run insurance exchanges.

In the first month of chúng tôi about 13 million people visited the website, Tavenner said this week.

CMS has predicted sign-ups in the first weeks of a six-month enrollment period would be slow, based on early enrollment numbers when Massachusetts roll out a similar insurance program in 2006. There’s some evidence that the number early enrollments have been extremely slow.

During a Senate hearing this week, Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, said only three people in her state had managed to sign up for new coverage through chúng tôi as of Oct. 29.

In addition, Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican and chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee, released meeting notes from the chúng tôi team saying just six people were able to enroll on Oct. 1 and 248 had enrolled in the website’s first two days.

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Oneplus 5 And 5T Pie Update Problems We Know So Far

Just like their devices, the OnePlus team too is super quick to roll out new updates for their devices. OnePlus 6 users were among the first to enjoy the latest Android 9 Pie update after Google Pixel users. Not long ago, the company released the Android 9 Pie beta update alongside its skin over Android, OxygenOS 9.0, for OnePlus 5/5T users.

If you’ve installed the Open Beta update on your OnePlus 5/5T or are on the edge thinking and are deciding whether or not to install the Android 9 Pie with OxygenOS 9.0 Open beta on your device, then you may want to know about the issues which you might encounter while on the Open beta 22/20 on your OnePlus 5/5T.

Since this is simply beta software, it’s normal for you to notice a few bugs and issues while using the device. So let’s check out the few issues and bugs that users have come across while on the Open beta 22/20 update on their OnePlus 5 or 5T and how to solve them as well.


1. Brightness too low

We’ve seen the same issue being reported by several users not only on the OnePlus 5 or 5T but from users who have recently updated their devices with the Android 9 Pie update. The same issue was reported by OnePlus 6 users as well after installing the Android 9 Pie update.

Well, it turns out that new auto brightness feature uses machine learning methods to figure out the optimum brightness levels for certain situations based on the users’ preference, hence, the brightness slider would adapt to the users’ preference over time. If you find the screen too dim for your eyes, we’d suggest to turn off the ‘auto brightness’ feature and manually set the brightness to your preference.

2. Fingerprint unlock stops working

A few users have been reporting that they are unable to unlock their OnePlus 5/5T using the fingerprint scanner. If you too are experiencing the same issue after updating to the Open beta 22/20 on your OnePlus 5 or 5T, then here are a couple of ways to work-around the issue.

Possible solutions:

You could also unlock the device by simply pressing the power key and then using the fingerprint scanner to unlock the device.

Since this is a known issue, we expect OnePlus to roll out an update in the near future to solve the problem.

3. Not receiving notifications

This does not seem to be a common issue since not many users have been reporting to have noticed the issue, however, a couple of users have reported that after installing the OxygenOS Open beta 22/20 build on their OnePlus 5/5T they aren’t receiving a few notifications.

Possible solutions:

We’d suggest turning off the ‘Do not disturb’ mode since this might prevent you from receiving notifications. To turn off the feature, pull down the notification panel and locate the do not disturb toggle and toggle it off.

Chances are that you might be using the ‘battery saver‘ feature on your device which is why you aren’t receiving the notifications. The ‘battery saver’ can be toggled off from the notification panel too.

‘OnePlus 6T McLaren Edition‘

4. Battery drain issue

Battery drain issues often affect many users after installing a new update on their device hence, this is not an uncommon issue. Several OnePlus 5/5T users have been claiming that they are experiencing battery drain issues after installing the Open beta 22/20 update on their device.

Possible solutions:

Note: Before you begin resetting your device, we’d suggest you take a backup of the files on the device since resetting your smartphone would wipe all data on the device.

5. Unable to make calls with wired earphones

This issue seems to be affecting several users after installing the Open beta 22/20 update on their OnePlus 5/5T. Currently, there does not seem to be an effective fix for the issue except for the issue, however, here are a few things to try to out.

Possible solutions: 

Reboot the device: Simply hold down the power key and then tap on Restart. Wait for the device to reboot and then go ahead and try calling a contact once again while keeping the earphones plugged in.

If none of the methods work for you, then, unfortunately, you might have to wait for OnePlus to roll out an update to fix the issue.

6. PUBG voice chat issue

A few OnePlus 5/5T users have reported that they aren’t able to use the PUBG voice chat feature after the update since other players cannot hear their voice while playing. Luckily, this issue isn’t OnePlus 5/5T specific instead is caused by a bug within the game itself.

Possible solutions: 

Simply closing the game and then relaunching PUBG should help solve the issue.

If by any chance you still aren’t audible while using the PUBG voice chat feature, then launch the game and while in the loading screen you would notice a repair option towards the right. Tap on repair and then launch the game once again and wait for the new updates to be downloaded.

7. Device lagging

This seems to be a bizarre issue since OnePlus is known for its snappy devices and easily competes with Google’s very own Pixel devices. Even though the OnePlus 5 and 5T are now a year old, both devices pack in the Snapdragon 835 chipset which is still fairly powerful even today and hence, the device should not lag especially while performing simple tasks.

A few users have been noticing seldom lag after installing the Open beta 22/20 update on their device.

Possible solutions:

If you’re using any third-party phone manager application, then we’d suggest uninstalling the app since most third-party phone managing applications run in the background constantly and use up more power rather than helping boost the performance of the device.

Close apps running in the background as several apps running in the background may lead to slowdowns and lags while using the device.

Restart your phone to get rid of the cached data in the system which could build-up if you don’t restart your device often. We recommend restarting your device once a week for the best performance.

Uninstall apps which you don’t use and deleting any images or videos which aren’t important to you. Clearing up the device storage and having sufficient free space allows the device to function smoothly and avoid any lag or stutter.

8. Google Play Store “uncertified” issue

Several users are reporting that after launching the Google Play Store, they are receiving an “uncertified” notice. OnePlus has already acknowledged the issue and have confirmed that users would receive the same message until the stable build rolls out with Android 9 Pie along with OxygenOS 9.0.

So until then, unfortunately, the “uncertified” warning would be visible in the Google Play Store.

9. Apps crashing

After every major Android version update, there are always a few applications which aren’t updated to support the latest Android version and tend to crash, however, some apps are updated to support the newer Android version yet still crash.

If you too are annoyed with apps crashing left and right on your OnePlus 5/5T after updating to the Open beta 22/20 build, then here are a few things to do to stop apps from crashing on your device.

Possible solutions:

If the app still isn’t stable, try uninstalling the app and then download it again from the Google Play Store.

If neither of these quick fixes works, we’d suggest waiting for the app developer to release an update to fix the issue or wait for OnePlus to roll out a quick fix.

10. Audio tuner issue

This seems to be a very common issue with users who have installed the latest Open beta 22/20 update on their OnePlus 5/5T. Users are reporting that the Audio tuner does not function properly and the sliders are broken as well as the device lags too while using the audio tuner feature.

Unfortunately, this bug might be baked into the software itself since there does not seem to be any fix available yet. However, you could try downloading the OnePlus 5/5T Open beta 22/20 ROM files and flashing the ROM on your device again. If you aren’t willing to go through the trouble once again, then we’d suggest waiting a bit for OnePlus to roll out an update to fix the issue.

11. Unable to watch videos on Netflix

Several users are left disappointed after the Open beta 22/20 update on their device since they aren’t able to watch videos on Netflix as the users claim that the screen goes black and the device becomes unresponsive.

We understand that thing might be a tad bit frustrating, so here are a few things to try out to help solve the problem.

Possible solutions: 

Reinstall Netflix: Try uninstalling the application and then download the latest version of the app via the Google Play Store.

12. Data connectivity problems

After updating to the Open beta 22/20, a few users are also facing issues while trying to use the mobile data on their device.

If you too are facing the same problem, then here’s what to do.

Possible solutions:

Turn on Airplane mode and leave it on for 15 seconds then, turn it off and wait for a few seconds. This should fix the issue and your mobile data should now be working.

13. Android Oreo styled recents menu

A few OnePlus 5/5T users have noticed that their recents menu hasn’t changed along with the Android 9 Pie update. OxygenOS 9 brings along the Android 9 Pie like recents menu which looks a lot more cleaner than the recents page on Android Oreo devices.

Possible solution:

14. VoLTE issues

Some users are reporting that after updating their OnePlus 5/5T to Android 9 Pie are reporting that they aren’t able to activate the VoLte feature on their device.

Possible solutions:

Reboot your device: Try rebooting your device since this could fix any bug which might be preventing you from turning on the VoLTE feature.

If you still aren’t able to use the VoLTE feature on your device, then we’d suggest contacting your carrier support to have them help sort out the issue.

15. Horizontal recent apps menu revert

Google revamped its recents menu with the launch of Android 9 Pie and made it far more minimal and appealing, however, not all users are pleased with the redesign. Some OnePlus 5/5T users are asking the same question regarding whether or not they can switch back to the old recents menu instead of using the new recents page that comes along with Android 9 Pie.

Unfortunately, unless you roll back to Android 8.1 Oreo, you won’t be able to revert back to using the previous recents page.

16. Navigation bar issue

Some OnePlus 5/5T users are disappointed since the navigation bar issue faced while using the beta build of Android 9 Pie is still present in the stable version as well. Users are reporting that the navigation bar remains white even when using dark mode applications.

Generally, the navigation bar should automatically turn black when using dark mode applications; however, this does not seem to be the case for some users.

Possible solutions:

Reboot the device: Usually, rebooting the device helps in fixing most issues on a device. Press and hold the power key, then tap on restart. 

If you can’t stand the white navigation bar, you could use a navbar application app from the Play Store which overlays any color or image you’d like on the navigation bar. This would help you get rid of the white bar without having to sacrifice the functionality of the navigation bar.

In case you have disabled the stock OnePlus launcher, reactivate the launcher again and this should solve the concern for good.

If you’re not a fan of gesture-based navigation and reactivating the stock launcher didn’t solve the issue, factory resetting the device should definitely work but we’d suggest you try the other listed methods first. To perform a factory reset we’d suggest you follow our in-depth guide on how to factory reset your Android device.

17. Wipe cache option missing

Several OnePlus 5/5T have noticed that the option to clear all cache is now missing after updating to Android 9 Pie. If you too are wondering where to find the clear cache option, then, unfortunately, we have to inform you that the option would not be available after updating to Android 9 Pie.

We Finally Know What Happened To (Most Of) Mars’ Missing Atmosphere

Humans want to bring life to Mars, but in order to do that we need to figure out a way for life to survive there. Read our article on how to terraform Mars by warming it with super-greenhouse gases.

About four billion years ago, Mars was warm. Water flowed in lakes and rivers under a nice thick blanket of atmosphere. But then something cataclysmic happened. Mars’ insulating atmosphere all but disappeared. Exposed to the harsh elements of space, the red planet became the dry, frozen wasteland that it is today.

Until now, this missing atmosphere had baffled scientists; was it lost in space, or did the Martian crust reabsorb it? New data from NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission is settling the debate. Bruce Jakowski and others on the MAVEN team have calculated that most of Mars’ atmosphere blew away in the solar winds.

Scientists have known that even today Mars continues to lose some of its atmosphere to space, but these new findings are the first to put a number on how important this process has been over the course of the planet’s history.

“Our conclusion is that most of Mars’ atmosphere has been lost to space, rather than getting locked up on the planet,” says Jakowski. “It’s a major, if not the major cause, of atmospheric loss.”

MAVEN’s measurements of the noble gas argon were key to solving this mystery.

A charged issue

Streams of charged particles, called the solar wind, are constantly flowing from the sun. When these charged particles crash into molecules in an atmosphere, they can strip off some of the molecules’ electrons, creating ions. The solar wind easily picks up these new charged particles and drags them into space. Or the newly formed ions can blast into other molecules, like a break shot in a game of pool, sending the molecules hurtling every which-way. “Some get knocked off into space,” says Jakowski.

He and his team knew that the solar wind preferentially grabs and removes lighter molecules, because lighter molecules are more likely to float up high into the atmosphere where the solar wind strikes. By comparing the concentrations of argon-36 and argon-38 (atoms with 36 and 38 neutrons) at different heights in the atmosphere, the researchers were able to discern how much of the lighter argon-36 had been stripped away over time.

Then they used that information to model the solar wind’s effects on other types of molecules in Mars’ atmosphere. They concluded that around 66 percent of Mars’ atmosphere has escaped into space over the past four billion years or so.

Terraforming trouble

Next, the MAVEN team hopes to take a closer look at how the other isotopes in the Martian atmosphere have changed over time. Carbon is of particular interest because of carbon dioxide’s insulating properties, as well as oxygen and hydrogen, which form other essential ingredients for life as we know it. Jakowski said the team chose to study argon first because it was the easiest one.

“Carbon is very complicated because so many things can affect it,” says Jakowski. Its concentration in the Martian atmosphere depends on the season, since it freezes into ice at the polar caps during the winter, and sublimates into a vapor in warmer months. It also reacts chemically to form a variety of molecules. “Argon is much simpler because once you put it in atmosphere, it’s non-reactive, it just sits there.”

Jakowski says that the mystery of Mars’ disappearing atmosphere is only mostly solved for now. Although the bulk of it is lost in space, crustal absorption and other processes may have still played minor roles in the atmosphere’s disappearance.

Unfortunately, the findings could make things difficult for folks (cough cough Elon Musk) who’ve suggested we make Mars warmer and more Earth-like by releasing a thick layer of CO2 and other greenhouse gases.

Terraforming Mars would be a lot easier if the carbon had just settled into the polar ice caps and Martian rocks, waiting patiently to be released by humans. But as it looks now, most of Mars’ carbon is gone for good. What remains isn’t enough to form a thick enough layer of atmosphere for humans to be comfortable, according to Jakowski.

“If the CO2 has been lost to space, then it’s no longer on the planet to mobilize and put back in the atmosphere,” says Jakowski. “What we’re saying is, using ingredients found on Mars, it’s not possible to terraform Mars.”

But don’t despair yet, Elon Musk. We can always bring our own carbon. Goodness knows, we’ve got enough of it here on Earth.

What We Know About The ‘Phoenix Ghost’ Drones Going To Ukraine

Last week, the Department of Defense announced that it was sending “121 Phoenix Ghost Tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems” to Ukraine. This release was part of a broader package of arms and aid for the country that has, since February 24, been fighting against invading Russian forces. It also came as a surprise: the Phoenix Ghost drone appeared to be a brand-new weapon system, one so far never reported or revealed to the public.

As reported by Breaking Defense, the Phoenix Ghost is a drone-missile similar to the Switchblade already fielded by Ukraine. The Pentagon initially claimed the Phoenix Ghost was developed for Ukraine after Russia’s February 24 invasion, but Pentagon Press Secretary Jack Kirby clarified the development timeline, saying instead that the Phoenix Ghost was created before the invasion, and was “developed for a set of requirements that very closely match what the Ukrainians need right now in Donbas,” as Breaking Defense reported.

While February 24 marks the start of the current war in Ukraine, Russia and Russian-backed separatists have occupied parts of the Donbas in eastern Ukraine since 2014, and Ukrainian forces had fought that war for eight years. While it is unlikely that a new drone requested by the Air Force was built specifically for the terrain of the Donbas, it is a conflict that military planners have long pointed to to justify new capabilities and weapons. 

What is known about the Phoenix Ghost is hauntingly limited. The Pentagon described it as a “one-way” drone that will “deliver a punch,” and said it would be similar to operate for anyone who has already trained on a Switchblade or other drone system.

[Related: Everything to know about Switchblades, the attack drones the US is giving Ukraine]

As The War Zone reports, Kirby told the press that Phoenix Ghost differs in scope of capability from the Switchblade, though it’s similar in scope.

“I’m gonna be loath to get into much more detail about the system at this point for classification purposes, but you can safely assume that, in general, it works,” Kirby told reporters. “It provides the same sort of tactical capability that a Switchblade does. Switchblade is a one-way drone if you will, and it clearly is designed to deliver a punch. It’s a tactical UAS, and Phoenix ghost is of that same category.”

If the Phoenix Ghost retains the tube-launched form of a Switchblade, it will likely offer the same kind of flexibility as a weapon that can be mounted on vehicles or carried by soldiers into combat. (Switchblades are fired from tubes and then can be guided or assigned to hit a target from a remote control station, letting the weapon fly and explode like a missile that can make sharp turns.) Areas to improve on Switchblade capabilities would likely be in the form of greater range, explosive payload, or flight time, any of which could enhance the ability of the drone to find and crash into enemy soldiers or vehicles.

[Related: The US is looking for a new anti-air missile]

While AEVEX’s website is silent on the Phoenix Ghost, instead it shows off other services and components for sale like sensors and image processing. This includes tools that use drone cameras to map the surrounding terrain and navigational sensors. It’s the latter that might make an appearance in the Phoenix Ghost, as better navigation could lead to more accurate attacks, especially when the weapon is small enough that exact placement on the top armor of a vehicle matters. That, plus the ability to fly longer than existing Switchblades, could make the Phoenix Ghost useful in the kind of counter-offensive pushes currently undertaken by the Ukrainian military.

While the Phoenix Ghost’s design reportedly predates the start of the invasion, and just happens to have coincidentally matched the conditions of the war, the Pentagon is asking companies that make weapons if they have anything else that might be useful to deliver to the fight. 

Are We Going Too Far With Our Tech Obsession?

Are We Going Too Far With Our Tech Obsession?

I’ll be the first person here to admit it: I’m obsessed with technology. Whether it’s a smartphone, gaming console, or digital camera, if it has a chip in it and can do something special, I’m there.There was a time not long ago when having that obsession wasn’t so common. We had conventions and shows in our towns where we could go, marvel at the latest and greatest computers, and talk with those of us who shared that love. It was a small but proud group.

Nowadays, though, it appears nearly everyone is as tech-obsessed as we once were. Everywhere I turn, someone is typing away on a laptop while sipping a coffee, chatting with a friend on their iPhone, or hoping auto-correct is working well as they type out an e-mail on their tablet. Those old computer shows are long gone now; today’s tech industry has hit the mainstream.

But now I’m starting to wonder if that’s really a good thing. Nearly every month, we’re inundated with studies claiming our use of mobile phones could be causing cancer. There’s even some concern that if children play too many violent video games, they can become violent themselves.

As someone who has followed these topics — and the countless other health-related studies surrounding the tech industry — I’m not so quick to jump on the bandwagon and say that something might be true or not. The fact is, one study will link tech to something concerning and another will come out to refute it. At this point, there’s no telling what’s true and what isn’t.

[aquote]There was a time when everyone thought it was fine to smoke[/aquote]

Still, I can’t help but wonder if our tech obsession might eventually hurt us. After all, there was a time when everyone thought it was just fine to smoke cigarettes. After studies revealed that might not have been the case, there was an immediate reaction of denial. Soon after, as the studies proved true, people changed their lifestyles.

I’m not here to link technology usage to cigarette smoking — far from it — but it does help to illustrate a point. We are using products and engaging in activities that seem innocuous enough. But we’re also experiencing what amounts to the beginning phases of technology adoption. There’s no telling what the future holds and how we might be impacted.

So, that kind of tech obsession is something we should at least think about. Like so many others, I can’t imagine a world where I’m not spending the majority of my time using some kind of technology to be entertained or get work done. But I also fully appreciate those moments when I can disconnect and realize that there might be a big, fun, and exciting world out there that doesn’t require the use of an iPhone or iPad.

So, keep that in mind the next time you power on that laptop or start recording shows on the DVR. Has our obsession with technology become as much of an issue as a blessing?

Are We Alone? Have We Always Been? How Do We Know?

ST. LOUIS — It’s the loneliest question in the cosmos: Are we, creative and intelligent and flawed as we are, really all there is? Are we alone, and have we always been? Is there anybody else out there?

Leave it to the people of DARPA to think not only of answers, but of completely new ways to ask this question.

We might not be alone at all, but we probably won’t find out by doing what we’ve been doing for the past few decades, said Lucianne Walkowicz, an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago who works on the Kepler Space Telescope. Walkowicz spoke on a panel Friday on the last day of Wait, What? — a future technology forum sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon’s blue-sky wing.

“We haven’t really looked,” she said. “Astrobiology is a wonderful hot new thing in astronomy, but to say that you’re looking for intelligent life in the universe is still actually a pretty fringe-y thing to do. We have this image that we’ve been listening for radio signals, that we’ve been searching for life in the universe, but actually we’ve been resource poor in that area.”

We assume that other intelligent civilizations would broadcast radio signals like we do, she said — but we’ve been radio-loud for a short time, and we’re actually getting quieter as our technology improves. And it’s more complex than that anyway. We assume other intelligent civilizations would want to talk to us at all, or that they would even know to look. But what if other planets play host to hyper-intelligent space dolphins, who, in an attempt to evade dangerous stellar radiation, never left the sheltering waters of their world? They wouldn’t even know there were other stars, Walkowicz said. Our interest in whether life is out there stems from our ability to see the stars, and recognize that we are a planet orbiting just one of them.

“There is a lot of leeway to understand what kinds of life may be out there, and what other biosignatures might we be looking for,” she said. “Pressing that frontier forward, understanding what other signatures might be out there, is something we could potentially do experimentally.”

Lucianne Walkowicz, left, describes new ways we might want to look for aliens at a DARPA future technology forum in St. Louis Sept. 11. Rebecca Boyle

Jeff Gore, a physicist at MIT, and Mark Norell, a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History, joined Walkowicz in chatting about the Fermi paradox, the Great Filter, and other cosmic condundrums. The Great Filter is the concept that something, which we can’t understand yet, may prevent life from expanding into the universe; the Fermi paradox is the contradiction between the apparently great likelihood of finding alien life and the fact that we haven’t.

It may be that we’re not listening properly, as Walkowicz said. Or it may be that everyone else is just too far away, Gore suggested.

“Maybe it’s just not practical to get to neighboring planets,” he said.

Closer to home, many scientists think if life still exists elsewhere in our solar system, or if it ever did, there’s a very good chance it was on Mars. So how should we treat the fourth planet? If it’s barren, we might feel less hesitation to terraform or colonize it, Gore said. But Walkowicz said it should be protected if for no other reason than to help us understand life’s possible origins.

“The way we should default to thinking about Mars is thinking about it as a nature preserve,” she said. “It is our most reachable target for understanding the possible independent origin of life, or the independent evolution of life. …If we were to go to Mars and terraform it, we lose the ability to answer the question of whether there is an independent origin of life.”

“The way we should default to thinking about Mars is as a nature preserve.”

Although nobody has found life elsewhere yet, there’s not necessarily reason to despair, said Norell. Mass extinctions have wiped out vast majorities of species in our planet’s 5-billion-year history, yet here we are.

“The one thing replicating DNA seems to have in common on this planet is it is very resilient. The rebound has been fast,” he said, adding that this resilience may be true for alien worlds, too. “You would be pretty hard-pressed to go to a place on another planet and only find fossil life, and find everting on the entire planet totally exterminated.”

Why talk about all these things at the Defense Department’s research wing? Moderator Geoff Ling of DARPA said thinking about distant civilizations fits into the agency’s mandate: “To go and think of things that others really don’t.”

“You won’t find unless you explore,” he said. “Biology is a very rich discipline, and is a place where, I would argue, surprise is waiting for us. If somebody is going to do it, let it be DARPA.”

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