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Radio Astronomers Wait for ET's Call

So far, the search for extraterrestrial life has found no one out there. But the effort has gained new respect and new allies down here.

September 21, 2003|Andrew Bridges | Associated Press Writer

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — For the tiny cadre of scientists probing the cosmos for signs of alien life, the most difficult question isn't always, "Are we alone?"

Sometimes it's simply, "What do you do?" from a fellow airline passenger.

Jill Tarter generally doesn't like to answer that question when she first meets someone. She's director of the Center for SETI Research, as in Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

But after four decades of frequent ridicule, astronomers who seek signs of life in the universe are gaining some respect. Since 1960, when Tarter's colleague Frank Drake first pointed a radio telescope at a pair of nearby stars in hopes of dialing in an alien broadcast, there have been about 100 SETI searches for extraterrestrial signals.

No space aliens -- or messages from them -- have been found.

But new planets have. Astronomers have located more than 100 outside our solar system since the first was discovered in 1995.

Whether those distant worlds teem with life, much less intelligent life, remains unknown. But each discovery further energizes the search for ET.

Even NASA -- shaken from its second disaster during a manned space flight -- is getting back into the act. It's been a full decade since it cut off money for SETI amid cries in the halls of Congress that it was bankrolling a hunt for "little green men."

Some scientists are beginning to talk in terms of when, not if, they'll be able to answer a question that's vexed humankind probably since we first looked up at the night sky.

For Sir Martin Rees, a fellow of King's College at the University of Cambridge who holds the honorary title of Britain's astronomer royal, finding that answer represents the main exploratory challenge of the next half-century.

"Our cosmic importance depends on whether we are alone or not," Rees said in a telephone interview from England.

It's also worth answering simply because it is such a big question, Rees added: "The main aim of science is to take steps toward answering the big questions."

It's that sentiment that keeps the hunt going, even without positive results.

"It's a great goal. That is a lot of what sustains you -- the payoff," said Kent Cullers, director of SETI research and development. "That's why we keep the champagne on ice."

Even SETI skeptics, like UCLA astronomer Benjamin M. Zuckerman, concede that three things -- cosmology, black holes and the search for life in the universe -- drive public support for his field.

"And a substantial fraction of the funding comes from the third of those," Zuckerman said in a telephone interview from Hawaii's Keck Observatory atop Mauna Kea.So how do you carry out such a search?

Directly listening for a signal by far has been the most popular approach, at least judging from its appeal to the general public.

As of early August, 4.6 million people have signed on to one SETI project alone, run by UC Berkeley. The Web-based project enlists idle computer time and processing power to scan packets of data collected by the mammoth radio dish at Arecibo, Puerto Rico, for traces of alien signals.

But that level of interest is not matched by employment in the field or the modest private funding, merely in the millions of dollars.

The SETI Institute's Drake estimates that just 20 people work full-time on the hunt for extraterrestrial intelligence, with maybe 40 more working part-time.

"It's tiny," Drake said, quickly adding that the field has never been larger.

SETI is not likely to grow much bigger anytime soon, but it is about to get a whole lot stronger, faster and cheaper.

The SETI Institute and Berkeley together are building an array of 20-foot diameter radio telescopes in Northern California that should be capable of surveying 1 million stars over a decade.

Three of the dishes are in place now; it should bristle with 350 by 2006. Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen is bankrolling much of the cost.

And a slew of teams throughout the world are proposing building an array of telescopes 100 times larger. Tarter predicts that such advances will allow SETI to canvass much, if not all, of the Milky Way and its 100 billion-plus stars within several decades.

Drake, using an equation he devised that now bears his name, estimates there could be 10,000 technologically sophisticated civilizations in the galaxy. The implications of contact with just one are hard, if not impossible, to gauge.

"I think science fiction is our best guide," Rees says.

Some feared that a 1974 effort, the first of its kind, to deliberately broadcast a radio message to a cluster of 300,000 stars would do little more than alert hostile aliens to our presence.

But the message, sent from Arecibo, still has 25,000 years to go before it hits anyone's inbox.

"It's more like the dialogue you have right now with Shakespeare or the ancient Romans," Tarter said of the possibility of receiving an alien signal. "You can't necessarily ask them questions. You have to infer the knowledge that you want to gain from what it is they have told you."

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