The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Is Put On Hold

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Funding cutbacks have forced the hibernation of the Allen Telescope Array—that's the series of dishes used to search for radio signals from alien life. The SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) Institute's Jill Tarter explains what the loss means for the search.

IRA FLATOW, host:

Up next, the search for intelligent life. Well, it's sort of been put on a respirator. Funding cutbacks have forced the University of California at Berkeley to halt operations at the Allen Telescope Array. You know, you've seen pictures of that. That's the cluster of radio telescope dishes out in the desert and used by researchers to search for radio signals from distant places, signals that might tell us that we are not alone in the universe. So what happens now?

Joining us to talk about it is Jill Tarter. She's the director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Tarter.

Dr. JILL TARTER (SETI Institute): Hello, Ira. How are you?

FLATOW: So tell us exactly what happened because there seems to be a lot of confusion about just what was shut down and turned off and what wasn't.

Dr. TARTER: Well, the Allen Telescope Array, in fact, is in need of a transfusion of cash actually, in this case, not blood. And we have had to take the telescopes and put them into safe mode, but we are no longer able to collect data from the sky because we and our partners, the University of California at Berkeley, have run out of funds to operate the telescope.

Now, the rest of the SETI Institute and all my astrobiology colleagues and their fantastic projects, those are not impacted, but it is actually the search for evidence of someone else's technology that's on hold right now.

FLATOW: And how much money does it take? Can you give us an idea?

Dr. TARTER: It takes a million and a half dollars to operate the telescope each year, and then about another million dollars for the scientific work that gets done by the researchers at the SETI Institute.

FLATOW: So it's the million and a half part then.

Dr. TARTER: Well, it's all of it.

FLATOW: All of it.

Dr. TARTER: Two and a half million dollars is what we are trying to raise annually. And so we're hoping that the public will not like the fact that we're no longer able to search for cosmic company, and we're also being very entrepreneurial and looking for other customers for using the array and paying for the operations.

FLATOW: That doesn't seem like a lot of money, you know, I mean, relatively speaking.

Dr. TARTER: When was the last time you had to raise two and a half million dollars?

FLATOW: Oh, I do it - yeah, I do it six days a week.

Dr. TARTER: Oh, well, then I can come to you for a check.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Well, we can both go look - you look for the telescope, I'll look for SCIENCE FRIDAY and we'll see what we can get. So you have - is there any other way to collect data on it, if you're not using those telescopes? I mean, do you have any, you know, data still on hand that can still be useful?

Dr. TARTER: Well, new data from the sky requires the telescopes, and we've just spent years modifying all of our signal detection equipment and expanding it to work precisely with this array.

We have, however, over the past year, 14 months, been spending Friday afternoon as we listen to you, directly recording data to disc and then uploading it into the cloud. Amazon Web Services has been providing storage for us. So we have about 10 terabytes of data that have not been analyzed. That was intended to be a working database that we could invite the world to come and help us develop new signal processing algorithms to look for new types of signals.

And we're developing a citizen science application that allows volunteers to work with us, using their eyes to help find patterns in the data. And so that stored database of 10 terabytes is what we're exploring right at the moment since we have no fresh data from the sky.

FLATOW: Last time you run the program, we talked about setiQuest. Is that still going?

Dr. TARTER: SetiQuest is actually the name that the activities I just spoke about comes under. It is an attempt to build a global community that participates actively with us in the search. We've open sourced our search code, our detection code since the last time we spoke. That's been published on GitHub. People can actually take pieces of that code and maybe take some of our clever algorithms and go do something else with them, or make them better.

And then this database, where we're trying to reach out to folks who are knowledgeable in digital signal processing and say, hey, come on in. We've been looking for years for one particular type of signal. It still makes a lot of sense. But maybe now that there's enough computing power, we can expand what we're doing. We'd love your help.

And then the final piece of setiQuest is a citizen scientist, who can use their brains their think-ons actually, to perhaps find things in this data that we haven't even yet thought about building algorithms for.

Ron Bracewell used to talk about the cartoon transform. Now, Ron, of course, was the master of the Fourier transform and was very interested in algorithms that could find patterns in noise. But he always said that this elusive cartoon transform was something he couldn't come up with but nature had hundreds of thousands of years ago with the human brain.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255, talking with Jill Tarter. In these times of tight money, Jill, how do you get people to understand this is an important project?

Dr. TARTER: I think that SETI is even more important today, perhaps, than it ever was, because we are at one time understanding how connected we are across the world, and the news that ties us to our neighbors are often conflicts or tragedies. And if we get people involved in SETI, we can actually then have them step back and encompass the world and encompass their part of it in a different way. So we can get people to -we can hold up a mirror. That's what SETI does so well. It holds up a mirror to all humans and shows them a new perspective on themselves as being all earthlings, all the same, when compared to a potential extraterrestrial technological civilization.

And if we can get that perspective into the minds and hearts of more humans, perhaps we can trivialize the differences among us that are causing all these conflicts.

FLATOW: I remember it was Carl Sagan's little Pale Blue Dot you're sort of reminding us about...

Dr. TARTER: Exactly. Exactly. The larger perspective, the cosmic connection that we all have.

FLATOW: Does SETI actually send out signals or did it just listen to signals?

Dr. TARTER: Our SETI Institute Project has always been about listening. And the optical searches that are ongoing in this country and other places are about listening. We haven't undertaken deliberate transmissions. We're actually leaving that up to you and your radio show.

FLATOW: That's because these things, you know, are going all - lord knows, they could be in Alpha Centauri by now or...

Dr. TARTER: If it was your 4-year-old broadcast, that's what the Alpha Centaurians are listening to this Friday.

FLATOW: 1-900-989-8255. David in Pennsylvania. Hi, David.

DAVID (Caller): Hi. Great show.

FLATOW: Go ahead.

DAVID: I've got a question about - you had your SETI@home project where people could use - I guess it was distributive processing of the data you've collected. We have several computers that I have been giving you guys computing time, I guess. And I was wondering if that process is still going to be going? And, you know, generally, I've also wondered has that yielded you guys results? Is that - does it work?

Dr. TARTER: Well, SETI@home does work. It's actually a project that's run by UC Berkeley and not the SETI Institute. People are reducing data on their home computers that have been collected and recorded at Arecibo. That is still ongoing.

We're actually trying to take that to the next level by getting you involved in the process and giving you an opportunity to think more about what SETI is and how you fit in to the larger picture of the cosmos. But SETI@home is still ongoing.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Talking with Jill Tarter on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. She is the director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute in Mountain View. And if you saw the movie "Contact," you know the work the work of Jill Tarter, was played by Jodie Foster in the movie, so, now, you can connect a little bit more.

Let's see if we can another phone call in here before we have to go. Stanley(ph) in Royal Oak, Michigan. Hi, Stanley.

STANLEY (Caller): Hi. How are you?

FLATOW: Hi there.

STANLEY: I have a very complicated question about SETI. It's going to take you a while to answer it. And here it is: Where do I call or write or get on the computer to donate money to you?

Dr. TARTER: S-E-T-I.org.

STANLEY: S-E-T-I.org. All right. Thank you.

Dr. TARTER: We'd love to have your donation in any amount, and thank you for the support.

STANLEY: All right. Thank you.

FLATOW: I feel like we're doing a telethon today.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: What would be the - let's say you get back up and running, and we're hoping that you do, is there a new technology, is there ongoing research that we haven't thought about that you might be able to do, new ways of listening?

Dr. TARTER: Well, actually there are new places to look. On the 1st of February, the Kepler mission announced 1,235 exoplanet candidates. These Kepler worlds are what we were planning to spend the next two years exploring. It's marvelous to finally have this incredible bounty of worlds out there - planetary worlds that we actually know about.

We've been, historically, pointing our telescope in the direction of stars that we thought might host planets, but now we've got this richness of planetary worlds to explore. And it's somewhat ironic that just as we were starting this new search, we lost our access to the sky.

FLATOW: Because there hundreds of these things (unintelligible)

Dr. TARTER: There are 1,235 from Kepler and 500 more from radial velocity or gravitational lensing detections, yes.

FLATOW: Are you able to actually pinpoint a direction that precisely?

Dr. TARTER: We actually don't separate the planet from the star, so it's definitely the star's coordinates that we're pointing at. But now we know which stars are higher priority because we know they have planetary systems.

FLATOW: Do they call you up and say, hey Jill, you know, we just found all these new exoplanets?

Dr. TARTER: Well, I have the privilege of being on the Kepler science working group, so I actually had a little bit of advance knowledge about this new set of released data. And actually, 54 of those are thought to be at just the right distance from their star that they might have liquid water on the surface. So even among the 1,235, there are 54 with higher priority.

FLATOW: Any way of getting money from abroad, from people who believe in your work?

Dr. TARTER: I am very happy with taking foreign currency.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. TARTER: SETI.org does not discriminate. We can make it happen for you.

FLATOW: Well, we wish you luck. You know, you're right, just as we're discovering all these exoplanets and that - even ones that might be more like us, you're not there to help listen for them so.

Dr. TARTER: Well, we hope that we can get this back on the air very soon. And we certainly thank any of your listeners who choose to come and support us.

FLATOW: Thank you, Jill. And good luck to you.

Dr. TARTER: Thank you.

FLATOW: Jill Tarter is director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California.

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I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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