3.14.2011

Making Contact

In Twelve Years or Less

Just for a moment, imagine that all along the SETI researchers and astronomers were right. For years, signals of extra-terrestrial origin have been streaming through space, just waiting for us to discover them. The ET’s version of I Love Lucy has really been out there all along. Then, finally, after constructing an improved listening array, the SETI team at last proved its skeptics wrong, and the world now stands in awe of of perhaps the greatest discovery of all time: that we are not alone.

According to SETI lead astronomer Seth Shostak, we are likely on the verge of just such a moment. SETI has in fact been constructing a vastly imporved radio telescope, called the Allen Array (largely funded by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen.) The project is located in Hat Creek, California, 290 miles northeast of San Francisco, and is in the early stages of operation.

Thanks to the Allen Array, along with the unrelenting pace of development in computer processing power, SETI believes it is now embarking on an entirely new phase of its mission.

“I will bet all of you a cup of Starbucks that we will discover ET within ten to twelve years,” Shostak boldly proclaimed during a recent lecture at the Rochester Planetarium and Science Center.

Until now, the search has largely relied on data gathered at the Arecibo Observatory, the giant dish collector familiar to SETI@home users. Operated by Cornell University, in cooperation with the National Science Foundation, the observatory was designed as a general science instrument, not an alien detector, and SETI has only been able to “borrow” it when it isn’t being used for other studies. In recent years, the observatory has struggled to secure sufficient funding to remain operational.

Funding is always an issue for a project like SETI, which receives no government support. There is an argument to be made that Shostak’s “twelve years or less” claim is really an attention ploy meant to garner funding for the new listening array — but the presentation he makes to back up this claim is persuasive.

Shostak likens the task of finding ET to searching for a particular grain of sand hidden somewhere amongst all the grains of sand contained in all the beaches on Earth. Now imagine trying to carry out that task using a tool that was never designed for that purpose – say, a special sand shovel – but the shovel is getting old, there isn’t money to repair it, and you have to share it with other groups who are mainly focused on tasks unrelated to yours.

That time is over, Shostak believes, and the new tools at SETI’s disposal now move the project into a vastly different phase of it operation. “It’s really quite remarkable that only one hundred years after the development of radio we can do an experiment like this. And it is an experiment. Up till now we haven’t found anything. We haven’t found pond scum.”

And Shostak points out that another extraordinary instrument is coming on line to aid in the search, namely the Kepler Observatory. Kepler is a spacecraft specifically designed by NASA to find small planets (Earth-sized worlds, for example, rather than Jupiter-sized ones) which up until recently had been a virtually impossible task.

During his lecture, Shostak rightly predicted that NASA would soon be making an announcement about Kepler's discovery of any number of small planets over the coming months.

To date, Kepler has in fact recorded the discovery of 1,235 planets, 54 of which may be in "habitable zone" of their star systems. It is a tantalizing prospect that just one of those 54 could be a life-bearing world.

Sometime within the next decade or so, just maybe one of these new discoveries will be giving us all something to listen to.

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