SETI Ramps Up

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence is entering an exciting new phase.

The SETI Institute is about to fire up the 42 antennas of the Allen Telescope Array. “We’ll be doing SETI within a couple of months,” said Seth Shostak, the institute’s senior astronomer.

The antennas are the first group of what the institute hopes will become a set of 350 radio ears, each 20 feet in diameter. When all are linked together as an interferometer, they will perform as if they were a single antenna 328 feet in diameter, listening to great swaths of the sky for signals from an otherworldly civilization. Meanwhile, the 42 already connected at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory are a powerful new instrument.

The project, located near the town of Burney, Calif., is operated by the SETI Institute of Mountain View, Calif., and the Radio Astronomy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley.

In 2001, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation donated $11.5 million to begin the project. Research and development were carried out in 2001-2004, says an institute fact sheet. After the first three dishes were built, the Allen Family Foundation provided another $13.5 million. With other contributions, including a NASA grant and private donations, the project has spent $50 million so far.

Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft, switched on the antennas in October 2007. Since then, radio astronomers at Berkeley have been using the array for their studies. When the unit begins SETI work, Shostak told Nightly News, its targets will include “star systems that have planets and the center of our galaxy.”

Earlier SETI research — such as Project Phoenix, which used the giant Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico — checked out around 750 star systems without detecting any alien signals. There were plenty of possibilities but all turned out to be interference. Eventually, using the Allen Telescope Array, researchers “can look at maybe a million star systems,” he said.

“That’s a very big improvement and it’ll take place over the next couple of decades.”

Does Shostak feel discouraged about the lack of success until now?

“No, I don’t, because so little of the sky has actually been looked at very carefully,” he said. “That’s all going to change in the next 10 or 20 years because the Allen Telescope Array is much, much faster.”

With the new array and its improved signal processing, chances of finding that epoch-making signal are greatly improved.

“When SETI was first tried in 1960, nobody knew if there were any planets beyond those around our own sun.” Now scientists have detected more than 300 exoplanets. “A very high percentage of stars seem to have planets,” he added.

“And some of them are likely to be good” places for life. With possibly hundreds of billions of planets in our galaxy, Shostak said, “they all can’t be terrible for life.”

Although the present set of radio telescopes and their signal processors will be able to conduct amazing research, the completed project would be far better. The SETI Institute needs contributions to finish the array. For those who would like to join what the institute calls “the most profound search in human history,” cruise over to the SETI Institute [CLICK HERE] and sign up with the SETI Team. Your $50 contribution could go a long, long way.

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