The S.E.T.I League
The Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence
As our metal eyes awake
to absolute night
where whispers fly
from the beginning of time,
We cup our ears to the heavens
avid we are listening.
We are listening for a sound,
Beyond us, beyond sound,
Searching for a lighthouse
in the breakwaters of our uncertainty,
An electronic murmur,
A bright, fragile I am
This is an excerpt from a poem by Diane Ackerson reflecting on the radio telescopes which are now scanning the skies in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence ( SETI ). They surely arouse a sense of awe in anybody who ponders the impact on our consciousness, if the moment ever comes when we hear that electronic murmur that tells us that we are not alone.
Some dream of being tapped on the shoulder by a little green man who extends an invitation for a spin in his executive flying saucer. But those of sounder minds know that the real hope of making contact with extraterrestrial intelligence is by listening for signals, the search for them now commencing in earnest around the world. The SETI Institute's Project Phoenix which has a 56 million channel system is one. Project SERENDIP IV with 168 million channels has been launched at the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico. At Harvard University, Project BETA with 250 million channels and supported by the Planetary Society began in 1995. The Planetary Society also support a southern sky survey ( META II ) at the Argentine Institute of Radio Astronomy. Ohio State University conducts the OSU sky survey, now 60% complete. Other SETI projects are in hand or being planned.
Yet even though many may have been aware that the search has commenced, they would have assumed that they could not be involved. Others would be participating in the exciting endeavour of looking for the first positive sign that we are not alone. The assumption that amateurs cannot participate in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is not true. The good news is that anybody can join the SETI League in Project ARGUS , a search for extraterrestrial intelligence using amateur built and controlled SETI stations. Argus was an all seeing Greek guard-being with a 100 eyes. The SETI League have an ambitious plan to deploy and coordinate 5000 small radio telescopes around the world, by getting amateurs to build them using 3-5 metre satellite dishes, and appropriate electronic equipment, and use it to survey a small designated fraction of the sky. The SETI league will allocate their area of the sky, assist with advice and support and coordinate the work. The bad news is that these small radio telescopes are to be built at each person s own expense. Should you decide to invest, your financial adviser will definitely disapprove, since by normal investment criteria, money spent on SETI will not bring a good return, certainly in financial terms. In spite of the fact that even though the chances of any one individual search being successful are minimal, the reward for being the first to hear that all important electronic whisper from the sky that says: 'I am' justifies the expense.
Those doubting Thomases who consider searching for intelligent signals from planets around other stars a waste of time, not to mention money, should bear in mind that not alone is there now definite if indirect evidence that there are planets around nearby stars, but also scientific thinking suggests that such planets are probably a common phenomena, if not the norm . At the cutting edge of current research, over seven hundred extra solar planets are now known to exist. Three planets are now known to orbit the star Upsilon Andromedae. There is also indirect evidence of three planets, including two small ones, orbiting a star which is only eight light years away - the star Lalande 21185. Beta Pictoris, a 4th . magnitude star shows how modern telescopes are sensitive enough to see a disc of dust around a star, the disc most likely being a planetary system in formation. And recently a large planet around a sun-like star was directly observed. For every planetary system in formation there must be many more already formed, these planets just waiting to be discovered, as telescopes become more powerful.
Disc around Beta Pictoris Planet around Star: 1RXS J160929.1-210524
Indeed while some stars may not have accompanying planets, others like our sun, may have several, so that it is estimated that the number of planets in the Universe could correspond to the number of stars in the Universe. Although the Hubble Space Telescope could probably see many more if it were devoted to this end, to the limits of our ground based telescopes we can see 1,000,000,000 galaxies. And there are at least 400,000,000,000 stars in our galaxy alone so there are approximately 400,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars in the known Universe give or take one or two. That is a big number by anybody s reckoning. Even those drawing up national budgets would be impressed. And roughly 10% of those stars are probably similar to our sun. And this approximation is based on ground based telescopes. The Hubble Space telescope could come up with an even larger estimate.
Spiral Galaxy - Teeming with life ?
Of course, besides proving the presence of other planetary systems, there are other factors to be taken into account before we can either assume that the Universe is either teeming with life, or the other extreme i.e. we are alone, or the more likely in between assumption that there is some life out there. We see the components of life everywhere in the Universe and although we have not yet succeeded in recreating the initiation of life in organic but non living matter, planets with a similar history to the Earth and where life also evolved have to exist. A good portent for this is the discovery that there may once have been primitive life forms on our neighbouring planet Mars.
Martian Life ?
But no matter how tiny the chances of life elsewhere, the numbers of possible stars which could be suitable candidates for planets with life existing on them is so immense that life has to be there somewhere. A follow on consequence of the existence of life elsewhere, is of course that a there has also to be the rarer intelligent life. Somewhere, someplace, someone else is also wondering if they too are alone. The real question in SETI work is the possibility that they like us are just listening with nobody actually broadcasting to the rest of the Universe. Another concern even if they are broadcasting, is whether signal strength and distance considerations will allow us to sense any message being broadcast. In spite of these worries, the SETI League's quest to use amateurs to seek proof that we are not alone in this vast cosmos is not only exciting, but a worthwhile venture that could indeed succeed. And like many astronomical discoveries it is possible that an amateur may be the one to record the first intelligent signal from elsewhere in the Universe.
Where do I Start ?. What do I Buy ?. What must I build ? How do I Search ?
That's the spirit !. Nothing like enthusiasm. Indeed what the amateur lacks in expertise he/she can make up for with enthusiasm. So if you are seriously interested in Project Argus why not, first of all, join the SETI League. Their address is:
SETI League Inc., 433 Liberty Street, PO Box 555, Little Ferry NJ 07643, U.S.A.
You can also look up their comprehensive Web pages via their Home Page:
An application form for membership is also available on-line and you can also order the technical manual and other items of interest. The technical manual ( which is also on-line ) appropriately answers a lot of the technical questions, a few of which will be dealt with below.
If living in the Republic of Ireland, please contact :
Brian Rogers S.E.T.I. League Regional Coordinator:Tel :( 01 ) 8370530
The equipment required for an amateur SETI station ( see below ) typically includes a 3 - 5 metre satellite dish, a suitable feedhorn, low noise preamplifier, microwave receiver, personal computer with sound card for analog to digital conversion, and appropriate signal to digital processing software. Perhaps thinking about this equipment will result in some ham radio enthusiasts relishing the thought of expanding their installations to include SETI stations. The SETI League s technical manual discusses the equipment required in detail. They built a demonstration station and it is documented in the manual.
The SETI League also give assistance by providing plans, software and coordination. They can provide hardware kits for those who wish to assemble parts of their own systems. Alternatively they can recommend reasonably priced commercial manufacturers for those who wish to purchase it. Of course at this stage the emphasis is on U.S. manufacturers. Once you have installed the equipment, the SETI League will recommend specific antenna aiming coordinates based on geography, local interference constraints etc. designed so as to maximize sky coverage for the whole SETI League endeavour. As regards frequencies to use in the search, current thinking is that the most logical range of frequencies to search are those around the Hydrogen Line frequency i.e. from 1420 to 1660 MHz, the so-called Water Hole .
What if I get a signal ?
First of all, if you then get a pain in your chest call a doctor. The excitement has given you a heart attack. If not, pour yourself a stiff drink and check. And double check and quadruple check. Indeed verification, particularly by checking that the signal repeats and is not a once off phenomenon is crucial in SETI signal detection. If you feel you have passed the tests then you can let go ( scream, dance up and down, kiss the cat etc. ). Though if the signal is in the form of a booming voice speaking English and chastising you for your sins, do not get down on your knees and pray. Instead check what the giggles from next door are all about. It is important of course to take proper safeguards to reduce or eliminate terrestrial or even satellite interference in SETI work. But if you are convinced this is the one, then don t forget about the rest of us. We wish to share your moment of triumph. Do not run out on the street shouting Hooray etc. If you get knocked down we will never know of your discovery. In order to know what to do should you be the one, the SETI League Web pages include a declaration of principles concerning activities following the detection of extraterrestrial intelligence, which was adopted by the International Academy of Astronautics in 1989. Putting it another way - proper procedures have to be followed even on this momentous occasion.
Of course if you balk at the expense and effort in setting up your own SETI station they also serve who give moral support by joining and paying their subscription. The SETI League is a non-profit educational and scientific corporation and by joining you can keep in touch with progress via their Quarterly Newsletter SearchLites or by looking up their excellent Web Pages. Soon perhaps, whether you have your own SETI station or whether like most, you just follow progress in the search, you could be one of the first to know when that exciting moment comes and we know we are not alone. The knowledge that there is intelligent life out there will have a profound impact on the human psyche, changing forever our perception of who and what we are, and maybe driving us on to our destiny to overcome the huge obstacles to going out to those faraway worlds awaiting us .
Maybe someday in the far future, mankind will finally meet the extraterrestrial friends that you played your role in establishing the first handshake as we responded to their electronic whisper from the sky that said : ....................I am
Links to Internet World Wide Web Pages
SETI League Home Page:..................................An international grass-roots organization dedicated to privatizing the electromagnetic Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.
Planetary Society Home Page............................Dedicated to inspiring the public with the adventure and mystery of space exploration.
The Columbus Optical SETI Observatory..........The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) in the Optical Spectrum.
Paul Allen Array.................................................A major telescope that can be dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
Kepler Mission ..................................................NASA's first mission capable of finding Earth-size and smaller planets around other stars.
SETI@home......................................................A scientific experiment that uses Internet-connected computers in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).
Of Irish Interest:
Paddy's in Space..................................................The website for Ireland's largest SETI@home team and information about Irish SETI and the search for other life in the Universe.
Irish Amateur Radio Transmitter Society...............IRTS is the national society for radio experimenters in Ireland.
The Irish Astronomical Society.............................The society is open to all interested in Astronomy
Astronomy Ireland.................................................It's aim is to promote astronomy and space interest and education in Ireland