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Location: UFOUpDatesList.Com > 2007 > Oct > Oct 14

Stretching The Search For Signs Of Life

From: UFO UpDates - Toronto <ufoupdates.nul>
Date: Sun, 14 Oct 2007 11:58:28 -0400
Archived: Sun, 14 Oct 2007 11:58:28 -0400
Subject: Stretching The Search For Signs Of Life

Source: The New York Times - New York, USA


October 11, 2007

Stretching The Search For Signs Of Life
by Dennis Overbye


Call it a small step for E.T., a leap for radio astronomy.

Astronomers in Hat Creek, Calif., are planning today to switch
on the first elements of a giant new array of radio telescopes
that they say will greatly extend the investigation of natural
and unnatural phenomena in the universe.

When the Allen Telescope Array, as it is known, is complete, it
will consist of 350 antennas, each 20 feet in diameter. Using
the separate antennas as if they were one giant dish, radio
astronomers will be able to map vast swaths of the sky cheaply
and efficiently.

The array will help search for new phenomena like black holes
eating each other and so-called dark galaxies without stars, as
well as extend the search for extraterrestrial radio signals a
thousandfold, to include a million nearby stars over the next
two decades.

Today, 42 of the antennas, mass-produced from molds and
employing inexpensive telecommunications technology, will go
into operation. "It's like cutting the ribbon on the Nina, the
Pinta and the Santa Maria," said Seth Shostak, an astronomer at
the Seti Institute, in Mountain View, Calif., who pointed out
that this was the first radio telescope ever designed
specifically for the extraterrestrial quest.

The telescope, named for Paul G. Allen, who provided $25 million
in seed money, is a joint project of the Radio Astronomy
Laboratory of the University of California, Berkeley, and the
Seti Institute. "If they do find something, they're going to
call me up first and say we have a signal," Mr. Allen said in an
interview, adding, "So far the phone hasn't rung."

Describing himself as "a child of the 50s, the golden age of
space exploration and science fiction," Mr. Allen, a founder of
Microsoft, said he first got interested in supporting the search
for extraterrestrial intelligence after a conversation 12 years
ago with Carl Sagan, the Cornell astronomer and exuberant
proponent of cosmic wonder.

When the idea later arose to build a telescope array on the
cheap, using off-the-shelf satellite dish technology and
advanced digital signal processing, Mr. Allen was intrigued. "If
you know anything about me," he said, "you know I'm a real
enthusiast for new unconventional approaches to things."

Telescopes, including radio telescopes, have traditionally been
custom-built one-of-a-kind items. The antennas for the Allen
array are stamped from a mold. Mr. Allen's family foundation put
up the money to get the first part of the array built, with
other contributions from Nathan Myhrvold, formerly of Microsoft
and the chief executive of Intellectual Ventures in Bellevue,
Wash., among others.

Leo Blitz, director of the Radio Astronomy Laboratory, estimated
that it would take three years and $41 million more, depending
on the price of aluminum, to complete the array. The full array,
astronomers say, will be useful not just for science, but also
as practice for a truly giant telescope known as the Square
Kilometer Array, which would have a combined receiving area of a
square kilometer and which astronomers hope to build in
Australia or South Africa in 10 or 20 years.

Dr. Blitz said the main advantage of the Allen array for regular
radio astronomy was the ability to obtain images of large swaths
of the sky, several times the size of the full moon, in a single
pointing. At low frequencies, he said, the full array could map
the entire sky in a day and night and do it again the next

"This has not been possible before," he said.

In its partial form, Dr. Blitz said, the array is already almost
as fast, and much cheaper to run, than larger telescopes.

The speed should make it possible to catch transient events,
like radio bursts from colliding black holes, that might last
only a few hours, while the mapping ability should enable
astronomers to search for lumps of gas without stars, the so-
called dark galaxies predicted by the prevailing models of

The search for extraterrestrial intelligence has lived on the
kindness of strangers since Congress canceled a NASA-sponsored
search using existing radio telescopes in 1993, only a year
after it had begun. The Seti Institute, which was to have
conducted a search of nearby stars under contract to NASA,
raised money from Silicon Valley and revived the search as
Project Phoenix, using existing radio telescopes.

Project Phoenix was finished three years ago, having checked
some 750 stars for signals, Dr. Shostak said. While that might
sound like a lot, he said, "it doesn't impress anybody who knows
how many stars there are in the galaxy."

There are some 200 billion stars in the galaxy, and a
significant fraction of them have planets. Estimates of the
number of intelligent civilizations in the galaxy have ranged
from one (or none, if you are particularly discouraged about
human affairs) into the millions.

Dr. Shostak calculated that the full Allen array would be able
to detect a signal from as far as 500 light years that is only a
few times more powerful than what can now be sent by the Arecibo
radio telescope, a 1,000-foot-diameter dish in Puerto Rico that
is the world's largest (although it is in danger of being shut
down to save money). That translates to about a million stars,
which he said was getting into a promising number. Dr. Shostak
described the expanded search as looking for the needle in the
proverbial haystack with a shovel instead of a spoon.

Anyone out there and broadcasting, for whatever wacky alien
reason, would also have to be broadcasting right at Earth. But
advanced civilizations, Dr. Shostak said, would be able to tell
there was life on Earth because of the oxygen in our atmosphere.

"We've been broadcasting that for 2.5 billion years," he said.

The first thing Dr. Shostak and his colleagues plan to do with
the newly operational 42-antenna array is to survey a strip
across the center of the galaxy. There will be several billion
stars in the field of view, but they will be very far away,
10,000 to 50,000 light years, so any signal would have to be
huge to be detected. But who is to say that among galactic
civilizations there are not a rare few with tremendous

"I've never begrudged aliens any power in their transmitter,"
Dr. Shostak said.

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