SETI's telescopes to go back online, resuming hunt for alien life

Aug 10, 2011 By Deborah Netburn

This week the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute announced that it had raised more than $200,000 from a crowd-sourced fundraising effort that launched earlier this spring. The money, which came from just over 2,000 people who want to keep the search for alien life alive, will help the institute put its Allen Telescope Array back online.

"We are so grateful to our donors," said Tom Pierson, who co-founded the with Jill Tarter (the inspiration for Jodie Foster's character in "Contact.") "We believe we will be back on the air in September."

On the website, where the call for donations was originally placed, large red type proclaims: "Thank You for Your Support to Resume the Search!"

The , or ATA, is a series of 42 linked radio-telescope dishes funded by a $30 million gift from Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen. Built at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory in a valley near , Calif., it is the first group of built from the ground up with the intention of being used full time to monitor the universe for that would indicate there is life on planets beyond our own.

The ATA has been monitoring the universe consistently since 2008, but in April of this year, SETI and its partner, the Radio Astronomy Lab of the University of California, Berkeley, ran out of money and had to put the ATA into hibernation mode.

That's when SETI turned to earthlings via their Internet, to see if they could help raise money to put the array back online.

So far, 2,276 of them have responded and the institute met its fundraising goal with days to spare. (Pierson notes that the institute is happy to collect additional donations).

Of course, $200,000 isn't enough to fund a project of this scope, and Pierson said SETI is in negotiations with the U.S. Air Force to continue to collect information on . By charging for that service, SETI may be able to earn enough money to keep listening for signs of life.

As to whether valuable time was lost in the four months that the ATA was offline, Pierson said it's hard to say. "You never know when or if a signal is going to be detected, so if you miss a few months, how important is that? It's impossible to know," he said. "We view this mission as one of profound importance, answering man's most fundamental questions - are we alone? Being off air is something we needed to fix."

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3.9 / 5 (7) Aug 10, 2011
Thank you for your efforts SETI and donors. Sorry about the American Conservative, a foul, unenlightened animal incapable of hope, dreams or education.
1.8 / 5 (6) Aug 10, 2011
That is great news.

Life beyond the Solar System neither proves or disproves religious or political views.

What is, is reality.

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel
Former NASA Principal
Investigator for Apollo
3 / 5 (2) Aug 10, 2011
Why not partner with Smartphone companies to make a REAL "SETI at Home" network.

Let me explain...

You could put an extra radio receiver in all smartphones, which the user could conditionaly activate, turning all "Willfully participating" smartphones into a SETI radio antenna!!!

This would turn the entire continental surface of the earth, along with a few boats and aircrafts, into a Radio Telescope for searching for signals!
not rated yet Aug 10, 2011

If they needed $200,000 in donations in order to keep their operation going, do you really think they'll be able to get millions of dollars in order to cut a deal like that with one of the biggest industries in the world?

However, that is an excellent idea and it is too bad that it can't be done
2 / 5 (4) Aug 10, 2011
Does anybody actually thing we are going to detect an advanced civilization with radio waves??

I mean if you take a space opera civilization in like Dune for instance, do you think they use radios??

No. Go back to Tesla and his reports of communication. Tesla was familiar with the aether. If I was a space faring civilization thats how I would communicate, faster than light using the aether.
not rated yet Aug 10, 2011
To be honest the odds are really against them, but just imagine if they were successful! We could watch et re-runs or some classical et music. it'd be great! wouldnt it suck though if we found a et plea for help because they were about to be destroyed somehow?
not rated yet Aug 11, 2011
Radio signals used for communication is not the only thing seti is looking for. Magnetic radiation is created by the flow of electrons which could occure in many technologies and create a signal we might recognize as artificial. It could be as unitentional as the RF interferance all of our electronics emit (but obviously it would have to be of a much greater magnitude)
not rated yet Aug 11, 2011
How long can it be up and running for $ 200,000 ?
not rated yet Aug 11, 2011
You could put an extra radio receiver in all smartphones, which the user could conditionaly activate, turning all "Willfully participating" smartphones into a SETI radio antenna!!!

And you expect those phones to be able to detect a weak signal from deep space when they get into trouble connecting to a base station located more than just a few miles away? Also, how do you find the direction of the deep space source?
not rated yet Aug 11, 2011
Many people do not realize that a RF-based civilization would not benefit the inverse square law thus fading away at distances that are not interstellar.If we picked them up, then they would definitely be more advanced than us due to the level of power they can put out as a whole. However, what if they were travelers closing the gap, and we were not paying attention to stellar communications ( RF would be an efficient candidate)-- did we not talk to our people on the moon with less power than a typical portable radio? Mother nature extends beyond the clouds; maybe we could look for dying stars where colonies are forced to relocate. Just so everyone knows; there is something special about listening to the sounds of space. where radio signals seem to lose ground to technology, they should become mainstream to the masses. Hey if you guys ever want to lose a few telescopes, I will take them off your hands for free.
not rated yet Aug 11, 2011
I mean if you take a space opera civilization in like Dune for instance,

Bad example because in the Dune universe computers are banned and everything is analog. But generally I agree with you.

Listening for alien radio communications is pointless:
1) If they use radio then it will be directed (i.e. earth antennas will not pick it up). Using omnidirectional broadcasts is extremely wasteful. To get any information anywhere that way you'd need the power output of a sun.
2) If aliens figure out how to go near (or beyond) speed of light then sending a probe packed with the data is much more efficient (and secure) than sending radiowaves . (Driving a van packed with Bluray DVDs from New York to LA has a higher data transfer rate than sending the same data accross the internet)
3) Sending an 'I am here' beacon borderline is moronic because you never know who is listening. Aliens who can send a beacon of that strength are, probably, not that stupid.
3 / 5 (2) Aug 11, 2011
You could put an extra radio receiver in all smartphones, which the user could conditionaly activate, turning all "Willfully participating" smartphones into a SETI radio antenna!!!

@Techno1: Great out-of-the-box thinking! But to make your idea work, you're going to have to solve a VERY tough problem.

Interferometry only works when the location of your receivers is known with precision equal to a small fraction of your wavelength of interest. If we just restrict our search to "water-hole" frequencies (centered around 1,420 MHz) then we're talking about a small fraction of around 21 cm... say, real-time localization with precision on the order of millimeters.

Cell phones can't do that yet.
5 / 5 (1) Aug 11, 2011
You could put an extra radio receiver in all smartphones,

Oh my...I don't even know where to begin to explain why this won't work.

Gain, directionality, frequency band, ...

This is a horrible, horrible idea.

There's a reason why the Allen Telescopes look the way they do (and why they are as big as they are)
1 / 5 (1) Aug 12, 2011
@antialias_physorg: To play devil's advocate, you could probably overcome the three issues you mentioned (gain, directionality, frequency band) if only you had an infinite number of suboptimal receivers. Failing that, a LARGE number might suffice... and there is in fact a LARGE number of cell phones out there.

The issue I raised is fundamentally different, because unless you solve the precision-of-localization problem, you won't even get to a point where you can effectively COMPLAIN about that other stuff, because interferometry DEPENDS on knowing where your receivers are!

Solve it, and here's how the other stuff breaks down:

- GAIN. Add more receivers. Cell phone adoption rates will do that for you.

- DIRECTIONALITY. You're already doing interferometry, so computational beam-forming is an obvious step.

- FREQ BAND. Really the same problem as gain. Sub-optimal antennae (because they're too small) reduce your gain. So you add more receivers.
not rated yet Aug 12, 2011
And don't forget SNR (signal-to-noise). With receivers in cell phones trying for signals many orders of magnitude smaller than what e.g. the viking probes are still sending (look it up)? Forget about it.
1 / 5 (1) Aug 15, 2011
SNR is also a function of gain. When you add more receivers (and successfully correct for differences in location, which means you have to KNOW their locations), the signals add up and the noise cancels out, giving you a better SNR.

Also, SETI algos apply a lot of time-averaging, which improves SNR as long as the signal in question is periodic (and so long as you're averaging on the right period). Searching that solution space is the reason why SETI@Home exists.

I don't mean to dismiss your concerns. They're real engineering problems that absolutely have to be solved before @Techno1's idea is workable. My only point is that there's a more fundamental problem--receiver localization--that must be solved before these other issues can even be ADDRESSED.
not rated yet Aug 15, 2011
Time averaging in itself is a real problem. If we're talking about something other than an omnidirectional beacon (which would require ridiculous amounts of power to be detectable - even comeing from our nearest neighboring star)

If we're talking about an information-carrying signal then any time averaging will just smooth over the signal to the point of benig completely undetectable (heck, even digital terrestrial signals would bet completley undetectable by SETI)
We're assuming that aliens will remain analog and sloooow when icomes to putting out signals. This seems incongruous to a civilization advanced enough to dump millions of exawatts into a signal.

Mobile devices You'd get a constantly change in the noise characteristics for each device (different noise in cities than in rural areas..different noise near traffic lights or in the diner). Simply averaging to reduce SNR will not be effective. There's a reason why the Allen telescopes are out in the sticks.
1 / 5 (1) Aug 16, 2011
Simply averaging to reduce SNR will not be effective.

Haha that's a good argument against doing it "simply." :)

Look, I hate repeating myself. I've already acknowledged that every single one of your concerns is perfectly valid. We don't have an argument about that.

My point... my ONLY point... is simply that, among the list of problems with the idea, the one that must be solved FIRST is precision localization of your receivers. Because otherwise the rest of the issues you raise don't MATTER, since there will be no signal in the noise to detect.

I'm not just talking out my you-know-what. A few years ago I led a project in which we attempted to leverage microwave-band pulsar signals to create a mobile terrestrial navigation system as a functional replacement for GPS. We failed--the minimum antenna size turned out to be unworkably large, despite our whiz-bang new signal processing techniques--but the problems we addressed were closely related to the ones under discussion here.
1 / 5 (1) Aug 16, 2011
P.S. You are correct that signal averaging will not recover the information content of a signal. It will, however, recover the FRAME of a signal, so long as that frame is "sufficiently" periodic. Detect the frame, and then you can pour additional resources into recovering the signal.

In the project I mentioned, we managed a similar feat--in real time to a 0.1 second resolution, using a patch antenna the size of your hand--on a pulsed signal with an SNR of -50dB. That won't solve Techno1's problem, but it DOES stand--to my mind, anyway--as an intriguing illustration of future possibilities.

At the end of the day, I agree that Techno1's suggestion probably won't work. But it isn't a completely nutty idea, either.
not rated yet Aug 16, 2011
is simply that, among the list of problems with the idea, the one that must be solved FIRST is precision localization of your receivers.

While I agree that localization would be an abslute must for this I just don't see it working for a whole slew of other reasons. Analog parabolic antennae of several meters diameter with high-end receivers/amplifiers are just entirely different critters from what you can cram into tiny (digital) mobile devices.

I just see it the other way around: localization doesn't matter because even if you have sub-nanometer accuracy it won't work.

Basically we're on the same page here: It's a bad idea. I do think it was a nutty idea because it, like so many other 'bright' ideas in the comment sections, never bothers to take into account the realities of the problem (in this case expected signal strength, signal characteristic, ...) .
1 / 5 (1) Aug 16, 2011
Analog parabolic antennae of several meters diameter with high-end receivers/amplifiers are just entirely different critters from what you can cram into tiny (digital) mobile devices.

Yah you'd have to accept a major reduction in gain to cram your antenna into a phone chassis.

Just consider this: given that you solve the localization problem, is there a number of receivers that WOULD enable the scheme to work? Back-of-the-envelope, I would say YES... but a very LARGE number. (And let's not even get into the processing requirements...)

Larger than the population of the Earth? I would guess not. Larger than the number of cell phones out there? Maybe, I dunno. The point is that this is not a question of POSSIBILITY, but of economics and clever resource allocation.

My bottom line is that it might be POSSIBLE--maybe--but would just be too expensive to be PRACTICAL.

Still an interesting idea, though. Gets the juices flowing.
not rated yet Aug 16, 2011
You can do all kinds of neat things with distributed mobile architecture.
One thing you can do is localize stealth aircraft (by measuring the dip in the EM field of your transmission stations and tracking that dip from cell to cell and some triangulation)

given that you solve the localization problem, is there a number of receivers that WOULD enable the scheme to work?

How would you account for differing situations? Put the mobile in a pocket, in the trunk of your car, ... anywhere where it doesn't have a clear shot at the sky (which is 99.9% of the time) and all you get is noise. The few that actually would be in a position to get a signal would be drowned out. Badly.

To get some numbers - here is a link to the characteristics of the voyager craft (which uses a *highly directed* transmission *much* closer than any alien signal we're looking for. Think you could do SETI with mobiles? No way.)
1 / 5 (1) Aug 16, 2011
How would you account for differing situations? Put the mobile in a pocket, in the trunk of your car...

That's another facet of your localization problem. Serendipitously, mobiles without a small enough localization sigma will ALSO be poor SETI receivers... so you ignore those until they get a better signal.

See, this is what I'm talking about. You can engineer AROUND a lot of problems, as long as you give yourself a "sufficiently" large number of available receivers. What you CAN'T engineer around is the fundamental model, which requires knowing where all those receivers are in order to build a larger, more directed, higher gain, virtual receiver via interferometry.

Once again, for the record: I am NOT asserting conclusively that it CAN be done. What I am asserting is that the non-localization objections you have raised aren't NECESSARILY deal-killers.

Besides... how many extraterrestrial signals have existing SETI receivers found? How do we know THEY work well enough?
5 / 5 (1) Aug 17, 2011
Well, the only time mobiles will not be is pockets is when

A) They are in use (at which point the signal they send/receive is about 20 orders of magnitude greater than anything else it might be looking for


B) The user is out in the open

Even with billions of mobile devices that's far too low a percentage at a time to merit eqipping them all with ridiculously sensitive receiving antennas - even if you could do the localization.

There's more to the merit of an idea than whether it can be done (which I'm still convinced it can't - even with perfect localization). It also has to make *sense*.

This idea makes no sense on so many levels.
- technological
- economical
- the very idea that aliens communicate via EM in the first place (and if they do: that they should do so omnidirectionally and at such ridiculous power levels so that we can receive it)
- ...

This just triggers my super power:
1 / 5 (1) Aug 17, 2011
You: It won't work.

Me: Yah, it probably won't work, but it's an interesting idea.

You: But it won't work!

Me: True, but it's a useful exercise to identify exactly WHERE the impediments are, and which are primary vs. secondary.

You: But it won't work, damn it!

Me: Probably, but sifting impossibility from impracticality is the distinction between analysis and mere naysaying.

You: I have super powers. They say it won't work.

Me: Ok fine. It won't work, and apparently it's pointless even to think about how it MIGHT work. NOW what?
not rated yet Aug 17, 2011
Now what? Think about sensible ideas for detecting life.

- looking for life in our own back yard (Probes to Titan, Europa, and a manned mission to Mars should be top priorities)

- Spectroscopy of exoplanet atmospheres seems like a good place to start for passive indications

- If we want to think really big then looking at anomalous supernovae could be worth a go.

But this all is dicking about: We'll eventually have to go out there and have a look.

This will require:
1) A reactionless drive (if there is such a thing as the Higgs field then that may provide a means. Maybe we can even abuse the vacuum fluctuations. I have no clue how such a drive would work but we surely should start looking for one).
2) Something that can survive the time it takes to get anywhere and then have a look (which probably means some form of AI)
1 / 5 (1) Aug 17, 2011
Haha I love the idea of "abusing" vacuum fluctuations. Because you know they won't do any useful work if you just ASK them.

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