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Monday, June 2, 2008

Ready, Set, Contact? SETI Goes Wide

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SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence which has long suffered from a lack of resources with which to carry out its mission of looking for signals from the stars is getting a major shot in the arm over the next few years. According to this story Microsoft's Paul Allen has given SETI a $30 million gift which will,

...will enable researchers to search a million stars over 10 billion radio channels.

"The cosmic haystack is about to get enormously bigger,"
said Jill Tarter, director of SETI's research department.

She declined to estimate the odds that this new pitchfork will actually uncover an alien civilization. But she has a growing sense of excitement as the new telescope prepares to sweep the heavens for beeps and burps that could signal alien intelligence.

"It's hard to imagine how stupendous it would feel to find
something," Tarter said in an interview at SETI's Mountain View headquarters.

A plain-spoken woman with a shock of silver hair cut short, Tarter was
the model for the Jodie Foster character of Ellie Arroway in the 1997 movie "Contact," about the discovery of an alien broadcast. She has spent more than four decades -- her entire career -- trying to answer the are-we-alone question.

Now 64, she still hopes that, like Arroway, she will get her eureka
moment. If humans do find something, everything we think we know about our place in the universe will be in for serious rewriting, she says. Human beings would no longer be creation's crowning achievement. In fact, we might not even make honorable mention.

"If we find a second technological civilization, we
will know there are many," Tarter said. Earth would be transformed from an outpost to just another commuter station on a nearly infinite railroad line.

But Tarter is trying to keep her expectations low.

"It's also possible we are unique," she said.

Contrary to decades of bad science fiction movies and other odd stories, aliens are unlikely to show up at our doorstep and are far more likely to be detected remotely, not that this will be especially easy.

To catch a signal from an alien race, you either have to build an
enormous dish, like the 1,000-foot-diameter Arecibo facility in Puerto Rico, or connect many smaller dishes together, like New Mexico's Very Large Array, which has 27 dishes, each 82 feet across.

At Hat Creek, computers will combine
data from its 350 dishes to produce, in effect, one giant telescope. "What we're doing is creating a big dish, 90 acres across," Forster said.

Even with this level of technology, the SETI scientists acknowledge it's a quixotic quest.

On a recent afternoon, senior astronomer Seth Shostak, 64, was showing a visitor around SETI's headquarters when a harried-looking white-haired man rushed by.

"This is Frank Drake," Shostak said reverentially.

The stocky, distracted man extended his meaty hand, shook quickly and sped off, a little like the White Rabbit from "Alice in Wonderland."

Drake disappeared down the rabbit hole of alien research decades ago. He not only mounted what many people count as the first serious experiment to search for aliens, he also created the landmark Drake Equation, a set of mathematical assumptions that attempts to predict how many advanced civilizations might exist in the Milky Way galaxy.

The equation is N = R* x fp x ne x fe x fi x fc x L. It says that the number of civilizations we might communicate with (denoted by N) equals the rate of star formation (R*) multiplied by the fraction of stars that have planets (fp) multiplied by the average number of planets around a star that can support life (ne) multiplied by the number of those planets that actually develop life (fe) multiplied by the fraction that develop intelligent life (fi) multiplied by the fraction that develop technology that can be detected from Earth (fc).

All this is then multiplied by the length of time a technological civilization can exist (L). Remember, our world entered the broadcast age only a century ago, and has already come close at least once -- the Cuban missile crisis -- to snuffing itself out.

Some researchers have suggested that the answer could be up to 1 million alien civilizations in the Milky Way. Drake's solution? Ten thousand alien civilizations, in a galaxy of 100 billion stars.

If any signal is detected the likelihood is that it will be from a civilization at least thousands of years older than we are. If such a signal could be translated (a big "if") it may hold answers to questions that mankind has wondered about from the beginning of history: How was the universe formed? Why? Is there a purpose to existence?

Its the possibility of answers to questions like that keep the scientists who are working at SETI involved and fires their imaginations. And keep many of the rest of us out here rooting for their success.

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