Thursday, June 17, 1999
You want to be a real-life Agent Fox Mulder or Dana Sculley? Here''s your chance to join in the hunt for extraterrestrial life. You won''t get an FBI badge, and you won''t be jetting to the four corners of the Earth, and you''ll have to supply your own flashlight. On the other hand, you probably won''t be attacked by black slime aliens that get into your body and swim around in your eyes like crazed amoeba.
And you can get some pretty cool computer software for free.
In fact, almost 500,000 people signed up in three weeks to download the SETI Institute''s (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) colorfully interactive data screen, an analysis program that lets you potentially eavesdrop on E.T., waiting for the elusive signal to confirm that we are not alone.
As the primary scientist at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Dr. Jill Tarter has been working to set up a user-friendly interface to connect budding astronomers to her Project Phoenix. She''s been researching the possibility of life on other planets since 1984 and studied astronomy throughout her college career at U.C. Berkeley and Cornell University.
Hosted by the Monterey Institute for Research in Astronomy (MIRA), Tarter will present a free lecture at Monterey Peninsula College this Saturday at 7:30pm on the latest findings of the SETI Institute''s comprehensive research.
"I''ll talk about our current searches and the plans to build a dedicated telescope array with new consumer technology," she says. "We''re partnering with U.C. Berkeley to build 3- to 5-foot ''TV satellite dishes,'' about 500 to 1,000 of them. We''ll put the signal on fiber optics. The new technology coming out now is making more things possible."
Started in 1992, Project Phoenix, the SETI Institute''s largest effort, uses two of the largest radio telescopes in the world to listen for continuous wave and pulsed signals from extraterrestrial life or technology on 1,000 nearby stars and 28 billion radio frequency channels, primarily 1,000 to 3,000MHz. The trick of it is to distinguish between the noisy din of Earth''s man-made interference and authentic signals from space.
"Natural emissions spread over a wider [frequency] band," Tarter explains. "To get a high signal to noise ratio, we compress the range and look for a smaller region. At first, we were searching wide regions, and still are. We''ve begun thinking to look for optical, pulsing signals also, that are bright, quick flashes for a billionth of a second. That might indicate extraterrestrial technology. Basically, we look for things that don''t occur naturally."
If all this sounds vaguely familiar, you may have seen a similar search in the movie Contact, starring Jodie Foster, loosely based on the work of Jill Tarter.
And if you''d like to try it yourself without journeying to SETI''s telescope headquarters in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, visit their Web site and sign up for the newly launched SETI at Home.
"About 2 percent of the data is sent to U.C. Berkeley and downloaded for home users," says Tarter. "We''re just looking for patterns. We''ve been developing the program for about three years and beta tested it late last year. We only started about three weeks ago and already we have about 500,000 people."
Just through early advertising, 300,000 people signed up even before the start date, claiming to be interested in the program. A local participant says "their server is swamped. I just want to find the alien equivalent of the ''I Love Lucy Show''." And Tarter agrees. "It''s really popular."
Science fiction has often pondered the idea that extraterrestrial civilizations already have more advanced technologies than ours and are simply waiting for us to catch up and communicate. SETI research began in the late 1950s, and sophisticated equipment was developed in the 1970s. Joint projects conducted by NASA Ames Research Center (the Targeted Search) and Jet Propulsion Labs (the All-Sky Search), both in California and funded by NASA, served as the foundation for Tarter''s Phoenix Project, until funding was cut by Congress in 1992.
The latest data from Phoenix''s findings can also be found on the SETI Web site: "March 1999, Arecibo: Phoenix uses Arecibo in September and March, during the equinoxes, spending 12 hours a night in its hunt. The Phoenix team has opted to observe without the Sun''s noisy presence during the day [although the telescope can work then]. We avoid within 60 degrees of the sun because solar wind destroys any signals. If nothing is found after about four minutes, the receiver is reset 20MHz higher in frequency. Only frequencies between 1,200 and 1,750MHz are currently being examined and it takes several hours to cover these for each star. Observations at Arecibo will continue in November 1999."
Tarter often hears the common questions of why pursue the search for intelligent life outside of our galaxy, and what makes her so sure it exists. She presents the facts that our Milky Way is a spiral galaxy containing several hundred billion stars, and that the galaxy contains a tremendous number of planets on which life could start and evolve. She suggests the basic processes of stellar, chemical, biological and cultural evolution are universal and can lead to technologies that must have close similarities to ours.
"By pursuing the search now, Phoenix can take advantage of an historical window of opportunity," explains the institute''s newsletter. "Within a decade, radio interference from terrestrial sources will grow significantly, compromising our ability to detect weak signals. The successful attainment of an elusive goal requires nothing less than a systematic and thorough effort."
Although astronomers at the SETI Institute don''t expect to have a lengthy conversation directly with aliens, they are confident that an unusual signal or "blip" on the screen will be detected to even indicate the presence of "little green men."
Tarter got interested in astronomy and the possibility of other life in the galaxy as a graduate student at U.C. Berkeley. A professor asked her if she could program an old computer for research. "I was very excited by the idea that scientists could be researching and answering the big questions that philosophers have been studying for hundreds of years. I''m still excited. We''ve just reached the technology level where it may be easier. We may never find anything, but I''d be surprised. I think someday we''ll detect an extraterrestrial technology."
Tarter speaks in the MPC Lecture Forum 103 at 7:30pm Saturday, June 12. Read more about the SETI Institute''s research and other projects online at www.seti-inst.edu.