SETI - The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.

For thousands of years, mankind has cast their eyes to the stars, wondering what secrets they hold.

The big question is, 'could there be life out-there in the depth of space.


Most scientific discussions of alien life refer to the existence (or otherwise) of extra-terrestrial intelligence; for example the 'I' in SETI refers to 'intelligence'. The project employs radio telescopes around the world to 'eavesdrop' on thousands of target star systems in the hope of detecting the slightest of radio signals of artificial origin. Before such a large project be taking seriously, questions must be asked.


■  What evidence do we have that intelligent life is common in the universe?

■  Where might we look for extraterrestrial civilisations more advanced than we are?

■  What do we stand to gain from interstellar contact?

■  Which facts about ourselves do we want to communicate to extraterrestrials?

■  Who among us should undertake the task of searching / of sharing information?

■  Will extraterrestrials try to make contact with us / how and when?

■  Are we at any risk?

■  What would it mean if we could not find them?

■  How will we respond to a signal from an extraterrestrial civilisation?

■  Who should be nominated for first communication?


In fact this last question was seriously debated during the summer of 1996, and an outcome wasn't reached. Also how would we answer a signal. Taking into consideration that the nearest star systems would now be just about receiving our early television transmissions. I often wonder what extraterrestrials would make of our Bill and Ben the flower pot men. Even if they did respond, would we understand it or even know how to reply.


It was one such signal that was recorded in November of 1996. On January 20th 1997 astronomers at Parkes Observatory in Australia working on the so called (Search for Extraterrestrial Radio Emissions from Near-by Developed Intelligent Populations) Serendip 3 project for SETI were startled when they stumbled on an organised pulse, a repetitive signal 2.3 to 2.4 gigahertz.


The signal was so impressive that it prompted a further concentrated search of the area in question. Once again the signal was recorded. There was no mistake, an original signal was evident. Scientists were stunned to find a pattern to the pulse. It was being received around 5.00 pm on a daily basis. Not only is a signal from space impressive but to receive the signal periodically puts the icing on the cake. Unfortunately the scientists dreams were suddenly shattered when they found that the signal was emanating from the near-by microwave oven that was mostly used around tea time (5.00pm).


As is usual, scientists remain skeptical, saying that the chances that there is an intelligence behind any signals recorded is slim, obviously reinforced with the previous mistake regarding the microwave oven. Respective signals have been found and lost before, quickly stamping out any notions of an interstellar broadcast. Some signals are 'highly unusual' and the possibility remains that some could be ET related. To fully appreciate the immense construction of project SETI, one must first be aware of how it originated.


The Search of Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is not a new venture. During 1960, a scientific team of American radio astronomers led by Frank Drake, scanned the stars from the National Radio Observatory in Green Bank, Maryland. They monitored and listened closely to two neighbouring stars for intelligent radio transmissions, Epsilon Eridani and Tau Ceti. Both are a mere twelve light years distance from our home planet and have half the luminosity of our sun. To achieve this they used a 200 metre dish, a one million watt transformer and electronically sensitive computers. They scanned the stars at a wavelength of 21cm hydrogen for over 200 hours. Unfortunetly the result was not a positive one. Yet they had achieved something that had not be done before and became well known for demonstrating the basic principle of their idea. Sadly, this did not mark the start of a planned and well funded search. Drake later named the procedure project Oz, named after the magical land that was created by L. Frank Bum.    


Frank Drake's experiment was the first in modern SETI research and it served as a model for most if not all the SETI work that has followed. The years passed and in 1981 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) terminated their own search. Senator Proxmire released a statement that was to damage if not destroy the program for good.


He stated that 'Since we first gave funding to this program, we have never encountered any form of communication and with the growing interest and the total lack of developments, I find it no longer reasonable that this program be funded. I believe that it is an immense waste of tax payers money'. Many thought that this would be the end of SETI. Sure enough NASA pulled out all funding. Some believe that this was a convenient termination especially just after receiving a strange signal, one that for many years was claimed to be extraterrestrial in origin.


The signal, later named the 'WOW' signal was a distinct sharp transmission form space, which occurred only the one cycle. NASA have argued that the signal was in fact a pulsar star that emits a very high radio wave, like a lighthouse light emitting a positive beacon periodically. However, this doesn't quit add up. The signal was only recorded for the one cycle and if it was a pulsar surely the signal would of been periodic. The debate goes on to this date. What was the 'WOW' signal really. For those would consider a government cover up of information then it certainly fits the bill.


With NASA not funding the program any more the support had to come from else-where. An organisation of astronomers called the Planetary Society had recently been formed by a gentleman called Carl Sagar and other scientists interested in this form of research. Together they agreed to provide money to allow the construction of a computer systems that would be required for the measuring of transmissions.


In fact the funding wasn't much problem at all. Donations and sponsorship came from near and far. One of the largest donators was Packard Bell who well publicised their funding of the program. Eventually the computers were constructed using a little NASA help on design. This comprised of electronic circuits that would observe 131,000 radio channels. The equipment was taken to the 1000 metre Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto-Rico and checked. Everything ran well and the new system became known as Suitcase SETI.


Then suddenly a lucky breakthrough. The Planetary society found out that a small 26 metre dish as to be decommissioned. This was located just outside the town of Harvard in Massachusetts. With a little help 'Suitcase SETI' was installed there permanently and was named project Sentinal. The antenna was locked into position for 24 hours while the Earth rotated, in this way a strip of the sky, typically one half of a degree wide, would be scanned. A favourite choice of frequency is hydrogen atoms, 1420 megahertz, often called by its wavelength, 21 centimetres.


Then in 1985 another breakthrough. Steven Speilberg, director of the hit movie E.T. gave the Planetary Society 100, 000 dollars to help turn project Sentinal into the eight million channel receiver of today. The new system was named the Megachannel Extra-Terrestrial Assay (META). In Buenos Aries, Argentina, on Columbus Day 1990, Argentinean astronomers began the first long term search for extraterrestrial intelligent signals in the Southern Hemisphere.


The Argentineans had permission to construct and duplicate the SETI system from the Planetary Society and to use two 98 feet dishes in its attempt to receive transmissions from space. Most of this search consisted of scanning primarily in the Northern Hemisphere. The Argenteans scanned the centre of the Milky Way in the Southern Hemisphere, and two galaxies named the 'Megellanic Clouds', the closest being (M31) and named their system (META II). This system is still operative to date.


On the 8th of October 1992 a NASA 34 metre dish was purchased and launched an all sky survey, working with the other radio telescopes around the world. These systems are involved in operation 'SkyWatch which finished recently. SETI scientists stated during November 1998 that they had in fact received over 108 signals that could be extraterrestrial in origin. SETI will now conduct a more thorough analysis of each radio source which is said to take at least two years. If SETI don't find extraterrestrial signals there's a good chance of obtaining new astronomical data, remember the sky has never been so thoroughly searched before. Any signals obtained may have unknown astronomical conclusions.


In 1994 the Goldstone California dish joined the search which was given the name 'Deep Space Network' (DSN) and then known as project Columbus. 1995 brought the new worldwide name of project Phoenix.


When we glance back through the years of serious debate we can see that extraterrestrial contact has been considered professionally. Frank Drake often states that it is almost impossible that intelligent life doesn't exist out-there somewhere. If we look at the famous Drake equation we could possibly calculate this for ourselves.


■  Nc=Nk1k2p1p2(tc).


■  Where Nc=Number of civilisations in our galaxy co-existing in time with our own.


■  Where N=Total number of stars in our galaxy.


■  Where k1=A factor that specifies the presence of planetary systems (therefore, Nk1 is the number of

    planetary systems in the galaxy).


■  Where p1=A probability that life will begin on a planet with suitable conditions.


■  Where p2=A probability that in the process of evolution of living matter on a given planet intelligent

    beings will develop, that are capable on congregating into a society and creating their own civilisation.


■  Where tc=A lifetime of technologically developed civilisations.


Linda Salzman Sagan, then Carl Sagan's wife, was the artist who actually drew the picture depicting earthlings and our planet which was placed on board of Pioneer 10 and 11. Her finished drawing etched in gold - anodized aluminum showed a nude man with his hand raised in greeting and a nude woman by his side. Linda depicted them as average height and intentionally made their features a blend of various racial characteristics. The couple stand with a pulsar map behind them and our sun and planets below them. None of us were prepared for the reception the message got on Earth when news of its existence was realised at launch time in March 1972.


The trouble began the moment print and television news services showed the message, which depicted - weak! - naked people. The Chicago Sun Times tried to airbrush out the offending organs.


I cannot help thinking that we are not ready for ET contact.


In January 1996, Geoffrey Marcy and Paul Butler, two American astronomers who had begun a program of collating data from the Lick Observatory in California, made some amazing discoveries. They discovered to planets at first and then a third, which was truly enormous which was later named HD 114762 and approximately nine times the size of Jupiter.


Some scientists still argue that SETI is not a good idea and could be potentially dangerous. Professor Robert Road and his associates from Harvard state 'The civilisation that blurts out it's existence on interstellar beacons at first opportunity may be like some hominid descending from the trees calling 'here kitty', to some Sabre Toothed Tiger'.


If alien abduction and UFOs are not convincing enough proof of extraterrestrial existence, then SETI's revelations may just be the final truth. For no all we can do it sit tight and wait for the SETI scientists to analayse all the possible extraterrestrial signals obtained.


More recently with the launch of the internet program [email protected] which allows anybody throughout the world to participate in the search has assisted the SETI program in a huge way. One year after the launch of [email protected], SETI announced that with the help from thousands worldwide, ten years of searching data has been done. SETI also announced, its just a matter of time.


If your interested in joining the search from your own desktop computer, then simply check out our links for the [email protected] web page and follow the on screen instructions. SETI is reanalysing data and will inform participants of any unusual findings. We await their rersonse....


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