Success: SETI array back on track!

By Phil Plait | August 10, 2011 1:50 pm

Via Alan Boyle’s Cosmic Log blog, I am very pleased to find out that the mothballed SETI telescope array will soon be operating again!

As I reported here a few of months ago, the SETI Allen Telescope Array had to be shut down due to a lack of funds. It costs roughly $2.5M per year to keep it running, and the funding agencies were pulling back. The folks at SETI decided to create a public fund drive called SETIstars, hoping to raise the $200,000 needed to kickstart the project again.

As of a few days ago, that goal was reached! I was happy to see that people such as Jodie Foster (who played SETI astronomer Ellie Arroway in the movie "Contact") and science fiction author Larry Niven were among people who had contributed, as well as Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders.

The $200k donated is enough to get things started again, but not enough to continue operations, so it looks like there will be more fund (and awareness) raising soon by SETI. I think this is a pretty interesting endeavor; SETI has long been a political and scientific target, but they are doing good work in a variety of fields of astronomy and biology (for example, I recently wrote about a new meteor shower discovered that indicates there’s a previously-unknown near-Earth comet out there — this was funded in part by SETI). I don’t know how sustainable direct public funding of scientific projects can be, but SETI is making a pretty good stab at it. I’ll be very curious to see how this pans out.

Related posts:

E. T. call waiting
Carl Sagan on SETI
The cost of SETI: Infographic
You can help bring SETI’s ear back online

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff

Comments (53)

  1. Mejilan

    What a heartwarming turn of events! I hope that the initial wave of fund-raising and goodwill is not in vain! I recently caught a viewing of Contact (my first in around a decade), and felt strangely wistful about the early-ish SETI scenes. Because after all, if the array is left idle and derelict, “it’d be an awful waste of space…” 😀

  2. I can’t say I’m particularly fond of funding SETI. It’s a shot in the dark that isn’t really based on anything and that is highly unlikely to acheive any results. Granted, it isn’t that expensive to run, but neither are a lot of other astrophysics projects that actually stand a chance of acheiving something. I’d rather fund them.

    I’m a huge Sagan fan, but you can’t run the exact same project forever. Even Sagan would pull the plug eventually, I’d imagine.

    (FWIW, I am an astrophysics PhD student.)

  3. BJN

    It’s a worthwhile shot in the dark for me. I’ll be happy to kick in annually to support the effort. SETI is based on “something”. That “something” includes a number of assumptions for sure and those assumptions may prove to be wrong. Even if SETI fails to find any signal from an intelligence, we’ll have learned something valuable. FWIW, I think the question of whether there are other technological intelligences is more interesting than most astrophysical research topics.

  4. It may be true that it’s a more interesting *topic* than most other research *topics* but that doesn’t make it a more interesting *experiment.* I can use my naked eyes to stare at the sky until I see proof of ET, but that’s an awful experiment. I could also do something really boring like measuring a particular line width really well, but it might be a well conceived experiment that proves useful to many other experiments.

    It isn’t really based on assumptions so much as endless hope and desire. If anything, the “assumptions” are decidedly unlikely to lead to a detection. You say you’d fund it annually, but for how long? When is the null result sufficient to be taken as a null result? They’ve been doing roughly the same thing for ~40 years now (depending on how you define the beginning).

  5. Excellent!

    Since we’re enumerating the good things the SETI Institute does, the SETI Institute Channel on Youtube ( ) has a new talk every week, on astronomy, planetary science, and astrobiology. The ones I’ve watched have been very good.

  6. Wooooo hooooooo!

    How sweet it is to see this posted on bad astronomy :)

    I look forward to seeing the ways they engage and involve the public in their endeavors. If successful, it could be a model for other scientists to pursue. I’ll be a subscriber in their program.


  7. Daniel J. Andrews

    Phil posts a link to a cartoon about mind-controlling parasites and SETI, and within a few hours SETI is back up and running. Think I’ll stay inside. Underground. In a bunker. In the middle of nowhere. With 10 years of survival rations.

  8. Christiano

    I’m also an astrophysicist and I consider SETI to be a worthwhile investment. The cost is low and so are the odds of discovery, but the payout would be tremendous. Evan, while I respect your opinion and I am always in favor of more funding for astrophysics in general, this is not public funding. If people believe in this project and want to donate their own money, then let them.

  9. I’ve been out of the loop for a bit, but I thought SETI was a publically funded project to begin with?

  10. Awesome!

    Wait…. crap…. now they are going to want back the GPS our project is borrowing 😉

  11. VinceRN

    I just have to point out that to both Liven and Foster the 2.5 million needed would be less of a fraction of their fortune than the twenty bucks I sent was of mine. SETI needs the several plutocrats that believe in it to pony up.

  12. TC

    Hey I’m all for science but this project is just a waste. Looking for alien radio frequencies? Come on.

    Well at least this is another confirmation that all this recession talk is bunk. If people have money to spend on this AND doomsday cults I think there must be plenty of money and jobs out there.

  13. Naomi

    Ask my household. I just yelled, “YES!” out loud.

  14. Dwight

    Contact is my favorite movie of all time! Remember the poster in someone’s office that said: “Astronomy Is Looking Up”?

  15. Jimmy

    I’m glad to hear that so many individuals support the program and the ATA will come back online, if only for a little while = ) The world is full of causes, and this is clearly one that needs considerable private interest to stay alive. The design of the ATA is really smart — built from COTS equipment and constructed in stages with a few dozen antennae at a time. The computing work is done by commodity x86 servers and the whole thing can be scaled up with more/better servers over time. The SETI institute is the biggest critic of its own techniques, always seeking out better strategies to search than radio alone. The lecture series is an excellent place for communicating current scientific topics to the public. As long as I live, I will be fascinated by the work done at SETI and eager to for the day their work is vindicated, even if I don’t live to see it.

  16. Don

    This is about the only thing i will contribute to. They need to remove themselves from the political idiocy, because if they ever do find something, they will not be allowed to reveal it, under the governments laws, and restrictions. They need to be publicly funded, and if i was rich beyond reason, I’d just take the fracking thing over, and pay for it myself. Alas, I will never be rich, but i can still have hope for seti.

  17. Evidently many people don’t know much about the Allen telescope array, beyond the SETI function. I would suggest to them that they learn something about the valuable research conducted in magnetic fields, star formation, dark energy, and other data collection that is conducted with this wide field array.

  18. b

    if you guys support seti, you should also run the boinc project and give them a further hand.

  19. Grand Lunar

    Well, this is good news for a change.

    I hope this pans out for the positive.

  20. Tom

    I’m proud to have paid my very affordable share in this lottery ticket for the most mind-boggling prize our civilization could hope for. Cheap! Doubters: never ask somebody on a date who you thought you only had a small chance with?

  21. QuietDesperation

    Contact is my favorite movie of all time!


    Ok, movies are subjective, yes, but you saunter on past 2001, The Godfather, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Seven Samurai, Lawrence Of Arabia, The Incredibles, Nightmare Before Christmas, Life Of Brian, and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (to name just a tiny few) and arrive at Contact as your favorite film?


    Then again I hate The Day The Earth Stood Still (yeah, the old one… hated the new one, too), so what do I know?

  22. Joe

    I’d rather see the money spent finishing and coming up with new telescopes that can discover and image other planets.

  23. 2.5 mil/ year? I dunno, seems like a lot…
    Once the dishes are built, there should be a little maintenance on them, and bush hogging the site, the electric bill for the AC & receivers, then a few salaries for the operators & PI…
    Carry the 7… [Counts toes…]
    I bet it could be done for a million per year…
    But I whole heartedly support doing this research, don’t get me wrong. This is made of awesome.
    Now if they’re assuming continuing the build-out & adding dishes, well that’s another thang!

  24. Denni Medlock

    As Phil Seymour writes, SETI’s ATA does a whole lot of “real” science, for those of you who think trying to find aliens is a waste of money. The telescopes are shared with other radio astronomy projects on a site which has been used for radio astronomy since the early ’70’s.
    However, the fact that SETI has remained alive for so many years is something to celebrate! (Politics and naysayers not withstanding!)

    Best of luck to SETI and HCRO!

  25. – would it be hard to debunk this with numbers? I mean to calculate that such thing would be impossible, and such ludicrious moutain couldn’t support it’s own weight?

  26. realta fuar

    2.5 million/year seems like quite a bit too much to run even a fully built ATA. That’s pretty much 50 post-doc salaries…….If they’re going to be publicly funded, I’d like to see them make their budget public, including salaries (they can remove names, if they want).

  27. Peter Davey

    I remember a short story by Ben Bova, in which it turned out that the Galaxy contained dozens of advanced civilisations, all of who were eagerly listening for signs of intelligent life beyond their own, but none of whom, for various economic and political reasons, were actually sending any signals.

    Nature imitating Art?

  28. Robin

    Excellent news for SETI.

    It’s hard to give any credence to arguments about how much it costs to run SETI when those arguments are made without facts in hand. No matter the cost, I hope the public is willing and able to step up and keep SETI running. Given the government’s recent tendencies toward decreased funding for science and science divisions in the government, it’s hard to envision a rosy future for government funding.

    It’s also hard to rationalize the idea that years of null results in terms of finding intelligent life elsewhere is reason enough to stop something like SETI. Already, SETI@home has added a new application, Astropulse to look for a different type of signals, in a different way. This app not only looks for ET but also looks for other short pulse phenomena (exploding black holes, rotating pulsars, and the like) using the same data sets that SETI@home uses. Also, let’s not forget how amazingly large, how incomprehensibly huge (think of the volume to search) the Universe is and how vanishingly small any world bearing intelligent life would be compared to the volume of the Universe. Imagine how weak any signal generated by sentient life might be by the time it reached Earth. Finding a needle in a haystack is child’s play compared to any such signals that we might look for.

  29. SkyGazer

    They should open a Paypal account were people can donate.

  30. Messier Tidy Upper

    Excellent news! :-)

  31. QuietDesperation

    Also, let’s not forget how amazingly large, how incomprehensibly huge (think of the volume to search) the Universe is

    Yes, let’s not forget.

    The problem is that with radio we can only look out to a certain radius before any signals are attenuated down into the noise, so there is a finite sphere that can be searched with any hope of finding a signal. You’re dealing with an inverse square law. Off the top of my head I’d say 100 LY max.

    You might also detect some sort of laser comm array within a star system, but the alignment requirements there are even tighter, and as far as I know SETI has never gone beyond the proposal stage for such a search. I don’t think you’d get past that 100 LY limit trying to pick out a laser emission against the output of a system’s star.

    Beyond that we’d need to be in the main lobe of a powerful and focused signal that was sent our way either deliberately or by luck of alignment.

    Outside of all that, I dunno… search for indications of Type II and III civilization activity, I suppose, that’s visible and obvious over interstellar distances..

  32. Mark

    SETI is receiving and analyzing signals from space… sure, they’re looking for patterns that would indicate some form of intelligence, but data is still data. Can’t they use that data for other research? It might give them a springboard to continue with better funding if they were doing other sciences as well.

    I’m not the sharpest crayon in the box, but it seems to me that when you have dozens of dishes scanning the sky, you’re bound to find a lot of neat stuff; even if it’s not what you’re looking for. Why not scan systems that have known planets, to try to determine the habitability of them? Or do some number-crunching for the Kepler project? Trying to find signals is all well and good, but there’s so much more in the realm of “extraterrestrial life” that falls under the less science-fictiony banners.

  33. Tom (H. Type)

    I like SETI.
    I guess I like what they represent; determination, optimism, maybe even a little Crazed Scientific Insanity. (That’s a good thing, in small doses)

    From my limited point view, I don’t even know if is possible to find an alien intelligence or recognize them for what they are, if you did.

    Would it be possible, given our current technology, to detect us (Earth), from lets say a distance of 50 light-years or so? What kind of signals are we sending into space?

  34. Jesse

    Evan– FWIW, a “comprehensive” SETI search hasn’t been done. It would be like ditching the search for the Higgs back in 1980 because we hadn’t seen anything like it in the then-current generation of particle accelerators.

    Right now we’ve looked at only a tiny fraction of the sky and in a relatively narrow band. If we look at half the sky and see nothing over a wider bandwidth that’s one thing, but we’re nowhere near that yet. Arecibo can only see a tiny bit at one time. The early searches, we know now, wouldn’t have seen anything. I had the opportunity to talk to Gregory Benford about it, and he mentioned that part of the problem is that leaky TV transmissions (from us) wouldn’t go all that far before the signal fuzzed out. Same is true for ET.

    Really, to do it right you’d want a small-ish dish on the lunar farside. That isn’t going to happen right now, so you make do and try to cover as much ground as possible.

  35. Etienne

    To escape the axe, SETI needs a name change and to hide their mission among more standard astrobiological endeavours. They can jargon up the SETI component so nobody understands what it is – scientists are good at that right?

  36. QuietDesperation

    From my limited point view, I don’t even know if is possible to find an alien intelligence or recognize them for what they are, if you did.

    At a basic level, artificial signals tend to be relatively narrowband versus signals of natural origin. The fundamental nature of information leads to this, so even signals from a completely alien civilization should follow suit.

    Information Theory has many concepts should allow very smeared, complicated artificial signals to be differentiated from random noise.

    On the other hand, things like data compression and spread spectrum and other advancements in comm theory cause signals to become more noise like to an observer without knowledge of the data structures, modulation format, etc. The whole *point* of spread spectrum techniques is *not* to be detected by an outsider.

    Would it be possible, given our current technology, to detect us (Earth), from lets say a distance of 50 light-years or so? What kind of signals are we sending into space?

    Other than a few directed signals, like the one sent out at Arecibo, most of what we broadcast is not intentionally directed at space. Satcom uplinks would be the exception, I suppose, but they are actually pretty low power relative to a terrestrial broadcast station.

    Honestly, I wouldn’t expect to pick up much past the nearest stars using SETI level equipment, if that, and I’m assuming a Manhattan Project level attempt with huge resources. We need the Deep Space Network and some of the most powerful error correcting codes ever devised just to get signals back from our interplanetary probes that are deliberately aiming at the Earth.

    This is why I don’t put much stock in the Fermi paradox.

  37. QuietDesperation

    It would be like ditching the search for the Higgs back in 1980 because we hadn’t seen anything like it in the then-current generation of particle accelerators.

    Not really. We had precise math to predict its existence, and knew we could build equipment to directly search for the Higgs. We knew we could get an answer, and gain important knowledge from both a positive and negative outcome. Winning.

    With SETI we have the ridiculous Drake Equation (with several variables that cannot be given remotely accurate values) and no clue in the world what aliens might be using for communication signals, or what equipment and frequencies are best to use. Kinda derp.

  38. QuietDesperation summed up what I would have said. The Higgs analogy is hugely misleading.

    I know that there is still lots of unexplored parameter space left for SETI. But that was part of my point. You have no reason to suspect that these passbands would be used by aliens. You have no directional information. The physical range that they could look for signals in is highly limited. And why would an omnidirectional signal be used anyway? The power requirements would be stupidly huge. And a directional one has even worse odds.

    And I know that “real science” is done at ATA as well. It was, for example, kinda a SKA test case, which is good and important. But it really doesn’t do *that* much compared to other facilities at this point.

    I’m not saying that it’s *bad* to have SETI going, I’m just saying it’s probably not an efficient use of funds or talent compared to any of a myriad of other projects.

    If anything, I think the most important point of this story is that maybe scientists, if their project is of the right sort, need to get better at leveraging private funds directly, and that this mode of funding may be more feasible in this day and age as compared to a couple decades ago. Maybe scientists should be using in addition to writing grant proposals.

  39. Jesse

    I’d still say that for instance, half the sky — which we are nowhere near yet — is a pretty good barometer. That is, I’d agree with Evan and QuietDesperation more if we had already covered that, even given the limited bands.

    I wouldn’t call the Drake Equation ridiculous, as it is helpful in narrowing down the problem. And we do have accurate — or at least reasonable — values for the number of stars in the galaxy, and for the fraction of those with planets, and the average numbers with planets in the habitable zone. So that’s three so far. With the rest you can set your parameters. Since we know of at least one planet that has life on it, that’s a start. I’d say it’s no more daunting than discovering comets. There’s no directional information on where those come from either and you basically have to look at random for an object that appears for a few weeks.

    And honestly, running a Deep Space Network-like set of radio dishes for a 10-year stretch covering the whole sky costs less than some individual companies spend on R&D in the same period. And in this case a null result would tell us a lot.

    Of course, it could very well be that the average distance between civilizations is far enough that there is no possibility of detection or communication. But I would find it highly unlikely that there is no life whatsoever on any other planet, given the sheer number of stars. Intelligent creatures? Dunno. Maybe the path to mind is really wonky. Maybe the cultures that are like us (with an urge to explore and use up resources) kill themselves off. (I doubt the latter tho would have applied to *every* civilization).

    I spoke to a few radio astronomers about it a while back. One thing they did say SETI is good for is training future people in the field. So in terms of efficiency you at least have that, along with the other real science that gets done in any case. And I admit a lot of what I think depends on what the exoplanet guys find int he next few years.

  40. I agree that another plus of SETI is training – I believe that they do REUs and similar programs. But again, so could nearly any astronomical institution.

    You say a null result tells you a lot. I’d argue that it tells you nothing at all, because you have no reason to suspect that a civilization would transmit what you are looking for. And why half the sky? What does that tell you if your other search parameters are arbitrary?

  41. andy

    I’ve always been somewhat sceptical of SETI, something about it sets off the same kind of alarm bells in me that religion does…

    As for searching for alien beacons, I figure that if you were going to set one up you want to make it sufficiently similar to a natural phenomenon that other people would be likely to have set up equipment that studies the right kind of thing, and you choose a natural phenomenon that requires rapid measurements to get better bandwidth. Forget the water hole, I reckon alien beacons are more likely to resemble millisecond pulsars…

  42. the_Butcher

    Money spent on …nothing.

  43. andy

    Now if someone could get SIM-Lite funded and launched that would be something…

  44. Jesse

    Evan — it tells you the same thing that, for instance, when talking about the origin of life, that NOT finding life forms on Earth based on say, germanium compounds does. It narrows the problem considerably.

    We have a whole lot of evidence built up over how life started, and we can rule out a load of mechanisms as we have developed reasonable ideas of what the Earth was like and the laws of chemistry. If we find in half the sky no signals from an alien civilization it means the following: if they exist they are rare and beyond our radio horizon at those frequencies. They aren’t transmitting in something we listen for if they aren’t. Just those two things tell you that a) intelligent life is likely rarer than we’d like and b) nobody out of millions of possibilities uses radio, so IF we accept the Copernican principle that we aren’t special, and that *someone* out there would discover radio (the laws of physics being the same and all) it puts a lot of lower and upper bounds on the frequency and technological development of civilizations — certainly it tells you that there IS something special about using radio.

    That’s a lot right there and someone with real radio data could tell more. I picked half the sky because that covers enough to know with reasonable certainty if anyone remotely like us is out there since they are just as likely to be in one direction as another. Just like if you look for a certain phenomenon and didn’t see it searching half the sky you would say your chances of finding it in the other half are reduced. Either way your problem is that much easier to solve, right? The parameter space for technological civilizations is huge, but it isn’t infinite. There are some things we can say for sure would be evidence. Find nothing, and that means that maybe life doesn’t form as easily as we thought, or at a minimum that it doesn’t develop interstellar-visible technology that often.

  45. Quoting Jill Tarter, SETI director, in an undated interview (possibly obsolete, but, even so, good to order of magnitude), their horizon for the signals they are looking for is only 155 lightyears. That’s about 4e-7 of the galaxy. So our radio horizon is tiny, and that’s only if they’re using the bands we’re looking it, at the time we’re looking, with the signals we’d find, in the directions we look. Unlike chemical combinations for life, those parameters are pretty close to infinite. There aren’t millions of possibilities in a radius of hundreds of lightyears – within 155 ly, there are ~100,000 objects in listed in SIMBAD. Many of these are actually in the same system, which about cuts that in half. Many of these could not have stable planetary orbits, and many, even if they did, could only hold planets with wildly varying extreme conditions due to highly eccentric orbits, because they are certain types of multistar systems. Others are just brown dwarfs or are, for other reasons, unsuitable. I start having to guess now, but I’d imagine that only a thousand or so have even a remote hope of having anything on them (and that’s a generous “hope”). In any case, the constraints a null result imposes are almost nonexistent. Further, just because someone “discovers radio” does not mean that they are broadcasting in it, much less in our direction. (It’s easy to come up with a bunch of reasons why that might be. Even if they decided to try to contact other races with radio waves with a signal we’d detect, they likely wouldn’t, I’d imagine, do it omnidirectionally because that would consume lots of power but fall off very quickly with distance. It makes more sense to target the beam, which further reduces the chances of it coming toward us. That’s just one example.)

    There’s literally dozens of other arguments for why it isn’t likely that we’d find anything; I don’t have time to list them all. For example, my rough estimates of the number of stars in a searchable radius failed to account for the fact that those objects are all in different stages of evolution. Presumably, a star’s age and spectral type affect the chance of it harboring life, so it’s not unreasonable to assume that those stars do not all have an equal chance of harboring life.

    In short, I still maintain that no useful information is obtained.

  46. jennyxyzzy

    One of the arguments used against SETI is that it is so unlikely that we will ever discover anything. I want to know how people arrive at that conclusion without having done the research that SETI is currently doing? We *don’t* know the likelihood of life arising on other planets. We *don’t* know what the going rate of exoplanet creation is, we *don’t* know how extraterrestrials might try to communicate, but it seems pretty obvious that if we aren’t trying to listen for them, we won’t hear them!

    Furthermore, SETI has beneficial side-effects, such as providing employment for professional astronomers, it’s good PR for science in general (how many other scientific research projects could have pulled off what SETIStars just managed?) , and it helps fund infrastructure that can be used for other scientific research.

  47. QuietDesperation

    With the rest you can set your parameters.

    OK. Should I use 6 or 20 sided dice? 😉

  48. NASA and SETI Sucks

    I honestly could care less if SETI or NASA get shut down. Why even keep them running when they do nothing but lie to us anyway. Anyone with even so much as a pea-sized brain could tell that there is obviously a lot that they are hiding from us about the moon, Mars, Titan and other planets and moons in our solar sytem as well as other planets out there such as the Gliese 581 system. Time to defund NASA and SETI and get asome real non-government ran programs that won’t lie and hide stuff from us when it comes to life elsewhere. Hell sometimes I wonder if NASA , SETI and mainstream so-called science is actually ran by religious idiots seeing as how much they seem to have in common with the religious community.


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