SETI – What are we looking for?


To frame the content of this article SETI is an acronym for the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. It is generally agreed the modern SETI era began began in 1959 when Cornell physicists Giuseppi Cocconi and Philip Morrison published an article in Nature in which they pointed out the potential for using microwave radio to communicate between the stars. The following year SETI pioneer Frank Drake flipped a switch and started listening to the stars which began Project Ozma – the first ever SETI search.

The mission of the modern day SETI Institute is to explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe.

What kinds of signals are scientists looking for?

  1. The first is intentional signals which are analogous to a lighthouse beacon. Emissions intentionally designed to alert other intelligent life to their existence.
  2. The second is leakage signals which are analogous to radio and TV broadcasts. Signals like these would have to be very powerful as our ability to detect them is at best 1 light year out.

Many in the SETI community believe the first signals we detect will not be leakage but intentional signals designed to notify others of their presence.

It hasn’t been Smooth Sailing

In the early 1980′s, Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire ridiculed the whole idea of looking for ET and forced NASA to stop funding the project. In the end, a personal visit by Carl Sagan persuaded him to reverse his decision. But then in 1993, Nevada Sen. Richard Bryan did it again, pointing out “not a single Martian has yet been found.” Since then SETI searches have relied mostly on private money. The most notable donation of nearly $25 million was made by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen to help build the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) on the grounds of the University of California’s Hat Creek Observatory.

In 2011 the ATA project was put into “hibernation” because of a lack of operational funds. Rescued by donations from the public which included celebrities like Jodie Foster, the SETI Institute is now looking for additional funding sources to keep the doors open.

Charged by a resurgence of interest in SETI, other programs are beginning to appear. British astronomers launched a new effort to boost the United Kingdom’s search for extraterrestrial intelligence. The English Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, will act as patron.

The group is asking funding agencies for a small sum of money (about £1m a year) to support listening time on radio telescopes and for data analysis.

NASA Kepler Mission

Obviously there are other players who share the vision and one such effort which has a direct benefit to SETI is Kepler. NASA’s Kepler Mission is specifically designed to survey a portion of our galaxy to discover Earth-size planets in or near the habitable zone and determine how many of the billions of stars in our galaxy have habitable planets. So far Kepler has identified more than 2,700 planets which have the potential to support life.

My Thoughts

In the spirit of disclosure I am not a scientist with advanced degrees in this subject. My comments are made from the perspective of someone sitting on the side lines. I am amazed at the magnitude of this effort, the resources being applied, and the fact the SETI mission after many years (54) is mostly unfilled.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the SETI vision and I firmly believe we are not alone in the Universe.

The last statement would likely solicit the following question; on what do you base your belief?

The Simple Answer

1. My belief is based on the assumption the laws of nature are universal.

What does this mean? It means standing on planet earth I am exposed to the laws of gravity. Standing on the moon I am exposed to the laws of gravity. Standing on a planet a million light years away I am exposed to the laws of gravity. Exploring this premise further, if a hydrogen atom exists here, it has the potential to exist elsewhere. Likewise for the other elements of the periodic table.

2. Nature is repetitive and iterative.

Stating the obvious nature is all about birth and death. We may not think about it, but this beginning and end spans all levels of life including stars and subatomic particles. The iterations foster evolution.

If the laws of nature are universal and nature is repetitive why wouldn’t there be countless other planets capable of sustaining life? Remember Kepler identified more than 2,700 possibilities.

Why no Discovery?

The evolution of civilizations is not a straight line. In fact some may characterize it as mix of highs and lows, hits and misses. On an evolutionary scale our cosmic neighbors may be less developed, the same as us, or more advanced. A few hundred years (a blink of a cosmic eye) can make a big difference. We are not just looking for a neighbor, but a neighbor who has the ability to communicate across space.

Considering the enormous distances at play, here are some options I considered.

1. Stop looking for leakage

Assuming a stray signal could make the trip the quality would likely be so poor as to make it very difficult to distinguish from random cosmic noise.

2. Solve the Equation

If communication is occurring, it is from neighbors who have solved the challenges of distances we measure in light years. To participate we will need to do the same.

3. Beacon Dilemma

Admit we are not there yet and deploy beacon devices encouraging others to communicate with us. An idea which carries its own challenges, risks, and fears.

4. Keep the status quo

An argument can be made the span of fifty four years is very short when put into perspective. The additional argument can be made the evidence we seek may be in transit and stopping now would be disastrous.

5. Be satisfied with the possibility

No matter how much we may want it, there is also the possibility it simply won’t happen.

Wrap Up

Kepler-62e: 1,200 light years away in the constellation of Lyra

The science of astronomy and astrophysics is very exciting and important work as it helps us better understand the Universe in which we live. Exploration helps us discover and fill gaps in our understanding or validate our assumptions.

For me the Kepler Mission further validates my assumption the laws of nature are universal as it documents the existence of other potentially habitable planets.

So what is the probability of two disparate worlds arriving at a place in their evolutionary path which would allow them to have the knowledge and ability to reach out to each other?

I don’t know the probability, but the possibility is very exciting.

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