SETI Enlists Citizen Scientists in Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

Jill Tarter has never been accused of being a small thinker. The astronomer and director of the Center for SETI Research, one of three non-profit organizations that make up the SETI Institute. The purpose as the acronym implies is to search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Astronomer Jill Tarter Makes Her TED Prize Wish, 2009.

Astronomer Jill Tarter Makes Her TED Prize Wish, 2009.

In winning the 2009 TED Prize, Dr. Tarter made her wish: “I wish that you would empower Earthlings everywhere to become active participants in the ultimate search for cosmic company.”

Now three years later her wish is coming true in the form of SETI Live, a new public project that enlists citizen scientists to sift through radio telescope data, separating terrestrial noise from any extraterrestrial signal.

TED Prize Director Amy Novogratz says, “This landmark step empowers people around the globe to meaningfully contribute to this important scientific endeavor and work towards answering the ultimate question, ‘are we alone?’”

SETI Live was created in collaboration with Zooniverse at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium where Dr. Chris Lintott is the principal investigator. He says, “Over the last few years, we have learned about the incredible desire of hundreds of thousands of people to take part in scientific research as they’ve used Zooniverse to classify galaxies, explore the Moon and even to discover planets.”

Allen Telescope Array, SETI

Allen Telescope Array, SETI

For the first time SETI supporters — many of whom donated excess computer processing time in the search for aliens in the SETI@home program — now can look through data streaming live from the Kepler Space Telescope that is trained on a group of stars in the Kepler field where over 1,000 planets have been discovered.

But SETI Live almost didn’t go live. And the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) almost shut down last year after deep budget cuts and the loss of a key funder. But the Air Force stepped up and gave the search for extraterrestrials a new chance for success. They will fund a project that will keep the radio telescopes listening for signals from out of this world for the next five years. And a crowdfunded project helped raise $200,000 to dust off the telescopes and get them back online after they began the process of shutting down for good.

For the last 70 years we have been transmitting radio waves into space, beyond our ionosphere in hopes of reaching some other intelligent life in the universe.

The nearest star that astronomers know to have a planet is Epsilon Eridani, which is 10 light-years away. That means it would take ten years to travel there racing at the speed of light. And sound waves travel much slower. The distance that sound can travel in 70 years is our current radiosphere.

Our signals haven’t had time to reach planets outside our radiosphere, so there’s no chance they could detect them…yet. Another problem is that radio waves spread out over space, so the signal weakens as it travels, requiring an intelligent civilization to have powerful antennas to detect our signal.

The radiosphere works in reverse as well, but we don’t know of any extraterrestrial civilization so we can’t figure out the radiosphere if it started producing signals that could escape their ionosphere. But that is what SETI Live is all about. The project will scan the mountains of radio signal data, looking for signals that other-worldly civilizations are producing.

Until now, there were entire areas of the SETI project that were impossible to sort because of overlapping signals in crowded radio frequency bands. That’s where Tarter and her team decided it would be worthwhile getting human eyes on the data instead of relying on computer algorithms.

SETI LiveShe says, “There are frequencies that our automated signal detection systems now ignore, because there are too many signals there. Most are created by Earth’s communication and entertainment technologies, but buried within this noise, there may be a signal from a distant technology.”

She hopes that by recruiting a global army of volunteers the scientists can overcome the crowded frequency bands that confuse the computers. And, it’s all being done live. So if several volunteers mark the same data repeatedly the ATA can be stopped and go back for a second look.

Tarter says, “By doing this in real-time, we will have an opportunity to follow up immediately on what our volunteers discover.”

Lintott says, “This is what real alien hunting looks like. The pictures aren’t as pretty and it’s not as exciting as a flying saucer landing at your gate, but it is real science.”

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