Home > Newsletter Archive > Newsletter #11
April 29, 2003
Searching for ETI in New Jersey: A Report from SETICon03
Where can you meet a bunch of the brightest known minds in the Galaxy talking about innovative strategies to make contact with intelligence "out there?" The answer is at the annual conference of the SETI League which, this year, as in the previous two years, was held at the College of New Jersey in Ewing. This was my first time at the event – and what a pleasure it proved to be. Allen Tough (founder and coordinator of the Welcome to ETI project of which I'm a member) and W. Paul Shuch (a.k.a Dr. SETI, executive director of the SETI League) had kindly invited me to give the Banquet Speech on "Astrobiology and SETI: A Promising New Partnership" on Saturday (April 26) evening.
The SETI League was founded in 1994 as a grassroots international organization dedicated to searching for signals from intelligent races beyond Earth. Its main goal at present is to develop and expand Project Argus – a collection of amateur radio dishes built and operated by individual SETI League members all across the globe. Currently some 120 dishes are operational across 22 countries. The ultimate goal is to deploy several thousand instruments to provide continuous monitoring of the whole sky at microwave frequencies. I'd urge anyone with an interest in electronics, radio astronomy, communications technology, ham radio, or practical SETI to join the League and considering setting up their own Argus station. Step-by-step instructions are available on-line at the SETI League's website. This gets you into real science and engineering – a huge leap beyond the popular SETI@home screensaver. Imagine being the first person to pick up THE message! Of course, many people join simply to be part of the enterprise and cheer from the sidelines. What I can tell you is that the people at the heart of the group are among the friendliest, most talented, and most open-minded folk you could wish to meet.
Topics discussed at this year's conference included the need to extend the search for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) from outside the Solar System (the traditional focus) to within our own planetary system. There's a growing recognition among SETI scientists and engineers that we haven't spent enough time looking for traces of ETI on our own cosmic doorstep. These traces could take the form of alien robotic spacecraft in the vicinity of the Earth-Moon system, in the asteroid belt, or in some other convenient orbit around the Sun. Or they might take the form of beacons or other artifacts on or below the surface of Solar System bodies, including planets or their moons. We have the capability to look for such probes and artifacts or to try to trigger a response from them. Yet, for no particularly good reason other than that it's become an established paradigm, virtually all our efforts have been channeled into searching for microwave signals across interstellar distances.
A number of panel discussions at SETICon03 were brainstorming sessions where everyone had a chance to put forward an innovative idea for a new way of searching for ETI or of triggering a response from a nearby probe. One of my suggestions was to organize an "Open Earth Day" where, over a 24-hour period, we'd send out a huge calling card in the form of radio and TV broadcasts, laser pulses, artistic and musical greetings, school and college SETI projects, etc, to say to ETI, across many frequencies and registers, "Here we are, come and meet us!" My idea is that perhaps ETI needs to hear such a greeting on a global, species-wide basis, rather than simply from special interest groups. Others proposed extending our listening range to include gamma-ray frequencies, affixing holographic messages to space probes, building a SETI receiver on the farside of the Moon to avoid radio interference, and looking for von Neumann probes (self-replicating spacecraft that may have populated the Galaxy).
For me, the climax of the event was the Awards Banquet held at the Campus Center of the college on Saturday night. In my talk I tried to show how astrobiology (the study of the life in the universe) and SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence), which have grown up side by side over the past century and more, will come closer and closer together in the years ahead. In fact, SETI is really part of astrobiology and stands to learn a great deal from it. The more we know about life and its occurrence throughout the Galaxy, the better we can target our SETI projects to find signs of alien intelligence and technology. Personally, I think we have a good chance of finding life on both Mars and Europa. But I think we may get our first almost-uncontestable evidence of life beyond Earth from instruments, such as the Terrestrial Planet Finder, that will be able to analyze the spectra of extrasolar planets, sometime between 2010 and 2020. Similar, but vastly more powerful, devices are probably being pointed at us from planets hundreds or thousands of light-years away, informing other intelligences of our presence. We're on the brink of discovering that we're not alone. I can hardly imagine a more exciting time in which to live. My talk and Q&A session ended at 8 p.m. in time for an inspirational phone call to the audience from one of the father's of SETI and co-author of the seminal paper on the subject in 1959, Philip Morrison, now aged 87.
check out the SETI League's website and consider becoming part of cutting-edge
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