The Next Copernican Revolution

Nicolaus Copernicus bronze statue in front of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) pioneered the realization that the planets move around the Sun and ushered in a Scientific Revolution, disrupting the notion that Earth is at the center of the Universe. Copernicus’ heliocentric idea was very controversial; nevertheless, it was the start of a change in the way the world was viewed. We later discovered that our Sun is one of hundreds of billions of stars in our Milky Way galaxy, out of which many billions host a habitable Earth-size planet. Our solar system orbits around the Galactic center and the Milky Way moves through the cosmos like trillions of other galaxies in the observable volume of the Universe. These insights represent extensions of the original Copernican revolution.

What would the next Copernican revolution entail? Most fittingly, the discovery of extraterrestrial life. I detailed the significance of this future revolution in the two books that I published in 2021: “Extraterrestrial” and “Life in the Cosmos”, as well as the forthcoming book: “Interstellar”, to be published on August 29, 2023.

The resulting two thousand interviews and podcasts to which I was invited on this topic brought a visionary visitor to the porch of my home. Physicist Frank Laukien, CEO of the scientific instruments company Bruker and also a Visiting Scholar at Harvard’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology and Harvard’s Origins of Life initiative, was inspired by my writings and encouraged me to establish collaboratively a related research project. A month later we publicly announced the Galileo Project, a scientific search program for potential astro-archeological remnants, or active equipment made by extraterrestrial technological civilizations (ETCs), if they exist and their remnants can be detected by state-of-the-art scientific instrumentation. The name of this non-profit project was inspired by Galileo Galilei’s legacy of finding answers to fundamental questions by looking through new telescopes. The project is agnostic to the outcome. It represents a scientifically rigorous search for ETC artifacts, remnants, space trash or active equipment in the form of ETC-manufactured interstellar objects (ISOs) even if these ETCs may be extinct by now, as well as a study of anomalous Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP). The Galileo Project has three branches of activity: (1) Constructing new sensor systems to infer the nature of UAP; (2) Mining high-quality telescope data, e.g. from the Vera C. Rubin Observatory or from the Webb telescope, to discover anomalous ISOs, and designing intercept or rendezvous space missions that will identify the nature of anomalous ISOs that do not resemble familiar comets or asteroids, like ‘Oumuamua; and (3) Coordinating expeditions to study the nature of interstellar meteors with unusual properties, like CNEOS 2014–01–08.

But there is a parallel aspect to the next Copernican revolution which involves what humanity does. So far, space exploration has been based on a small number, typically one of a kind, large, expensive and often crewed missions. Alternatively, space can be explored by swarms of numerous small, cheap, autonomous, potentially artificially-intelligent (AI) probes. A swarm of mini-probes could visit many interesting sites in the atmosphere, and on or below the surface of planets or moons in retrieving important scientific information, and in searching for extraterrestrial life in the solar system, and later in our galactic neighborhood. Eventually, the merging of nanotechnology and synthetic biology will enable us to consider seeding terrestrial life in our galaxy, as well as carrying Earth’s and our human legacy to space for preservation over billions of years.

This approach represents a seismic shift in how we approach space. Hence, a year later, this was the second initiative that Frank and I founded as the Copernicus Space Corporation, pioneering multiple paradigm shifts in space exploration, away from single space crafts to numerous autonomous swarms of miniaturized probes in the solar system, including later phases of nanotechnology, AI and synthetic biology-enabled interstellar space exploration with millions, billions or trillions of picoprobes, as envisioned recently by George Church of the Harvard Medical School. The Copernicus website is expected to be launched prior to the holidays, at the end of this week.

Personally, I get no particular gratification from disrupting traditions but a bold stand is required when common sense is not commonplace. Frank argued wisely: “If you wanted to explore Earth, would you send one probe here? No. Because you’d only learn a little bit about a small part of it, and reveal very little about all of its forests, deserts, mountains and oceans.” And so, we agreed to establish a novel kind of space exploration company to advance the next Copernican revolution of finding clear evidence, and not just inconclusive ‘biosignatures’ of extraterrestrial life, first in our solar system and later in our galaxy.

Our space venture plans to launch a swarm of probes to desired destinations, serving as our eyes and ears wherever we point them, be it the Moon, Mars, Venus, Enceladus, Europa, Titan, Ceres, and eventually interstellar space. As it turns out, “Interstellar” happens to be the title of my next book, scheduled to be published in August 2023. We plan to use swarms of sensors that communicate with each other locally, and then with Earth via higher-powered orbiting hubs, like CubeSats.

Our platform of probes will have a broad range of scientific and commercial applications. First, it could provide the means for the Cislunar Infrastructure for positioning, navigation, timing and communications, which was envisioned in a recent strategic White House report, allowing communication with the lunar poles and far side of the Moon — which are unreachable with current communication platforms. The probes could also provide a foundation for a lunar Global Positioning System (GPS) of the type that exists around Earth. Near asteroids, the probes would allow identification of novel materials and serve partners interested in mining or replicating them.

Miniaturized, semi-autonomous mini-crafts with AI could be a powerful tool in the search for extraterrestrial microbes, or the relics of technological civilizations beyond Earth, if they exist.

The Copernicus team includes visionaries and innovators with broad expertise, ranging from astrophysics to life sciences, robotics and AI. Its core senior members include George Church — Professor of Genetics at the Harvard Medical School; France Córdova — President of the Science Philanthropy Alliance and former Director of NSF; Paul Davies — Professor and Director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University; Giovanni Fazio — Senior Physicist, Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian; Zac Manchester — Assistant Professor of Robotics at Carnegie Mellon University and pioneer of gram-scale ChipSat spacecraft as founder of KickSat project; Garry Nolan — Professor at Stanford University School of Medicine; Dimitar Sasselov — founding director of Harvard’s Origins of Life Initiative; Cumrun Vafa — Professor in the Harvard Physics Department; Chris Voigt — former SVP of the International Olympic Committee; Stephen Wolfram — Creator of Mathematica and CEO of Wolfram; and Pete Worden — executive director of the Breakthrough Prize Foundation and former director of NASA Ames.

Driven by rigorous curiosity, our platform will deploy thousands, eventually millions of miniaturized craft that push the boundaries of what is possible to discover in space. Our technologies will democratize space exploration, giving partners, governments, and citizens answers to the universe’s most important questions. We will not invest in rocket, launch or LEO technologies, but instead partner with launch and other space-mission organizations.

In the coming years the Copernicus Space Corporation plans to explore the Solar system with thousands of miniaturized electro-mechanical devices and then augment their content with nanotechnology, synthetic biology and AI for interstellar exploration and potential galaxy-wide, ultra-long range panspermia.

The sky’s the limit. Lack of curiosity and imagination will not limit us. Ad Astra!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Avi Loeb is the head of the Galileo Project, founding director of Harvard University’s — Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011–2020). He chairs the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project, and is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and a co-author of the textbook “Life in the Cosmos”, both published in 2021. His new book, titled “Interstellar”, is scheduled for publication in August 2023.

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Avi Loeb

Avi Loeb is the Frank B. Baird Jr Professor of Science and Institute director at Harvard University and is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial”.