The SETI Program and How Amateur and Crowd Sourced Projects have Helped the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence
The history of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Program from 1959 until 2016, describing the searches conducted and how the projects developed. We look at how the SETI program evolved and examine the history of crowd sourced or citizen science projects and the challenges that amaetur research projects face in comparison to professional scientific research. We discuss the successes and failures amongst the projects in the SETI program and take a look at what the future may hold.
This paper is based both on published papers and the sometimes limited amount of information that can be found about amaetur projects, often mentioned in passing in a published paper.
Keywords: SETI, citizen science, amateur astronomy, optical SETI
Since mankind has first looked at the stars, they have wondered if we are truly alone in the universe. It was only recently that technology has evolved to the point that it is possible to search for evidence of extra-terrestrial intelligent life. Evidence of intelligent life being much easier to detect at interstellar distances than detecting simple life forms such as microbial life.
It has been known from the beginning of the SETI program that it may take decades, even centuries to find evidence of an ETI (Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) and that most projects will not find this evidence. The finding of ETI is the holy grail, but most researchers know that the odds of finding this evidence is miniscule and that an absence of results is the most likely outcome.
The SETI program has grown from the early days of piggybacking on other telescopes time into having dedicated telescopes and resources. Similar to most scientific research projects that span decades, it has also struggled at times with both funding and public perception.
It is interesting to see how the SETI program has grown and evolved, both with new research methods and the use of technology and how SETI in turn has helped science and technology grow.
The main purpose of this paper is to examine how the SETI program grew from its early beginnings in the 1950’s into the large scale program of work it is today. This paper will also examine how amateur and crowd source/citizen science SETI projects grew out of this research area and how amateur research has either helped or hindered the SETI program.
The main questions to be explored in this paper are:
- What science and technology allowed the SETI program to start? What science and technology allows it to continue?
- Did the current level of science and technology limit what research could be made? Or did SETI improve current scientific knowledge and/or technology?
- How did amateur/crowd sourced SETI projects start, continue and evolve? Have they succeeded or failed? What is the criteria for success and failure?
- Have the amateur/crowd sourced SETI projects improved science, technology and research? Or have they benefited the other way? Which drives which?
- In the last decade how many predictions with SETI research proved true/false?
- Based on past trends, is there a future trend for amateur/crowd sourced SETI projects?
START OF THE SETI PROGRAM, 1960–1970
Cocconi & Morrison (1959) were the first to suggest searching the microwave spectrum to see if they could detect interstellar communication. Almost at the same time Frank Drake was actually preparing the experiment described in the Cocconi & Morrison paper (Shuch 2011). This method of search is now regarded as the blueprint for the modern Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program (Shuch 2011) and can be seen as the start of the science of SETI.
Drake’s Project Ozma (Shuch 2011) was the first experiment of the work outlined in the Cocconi & Morrison (1959) paper of searching the microwave spectrum to see if interstellar communication could be detected. It was interesting that although Drake’s project was based on solid math and calculations, Drake recognised as there was no published work on intelligent life outside the solar system that this research could be seen as controversial and consequently kept his idea quiet until the Cocconi & Morrison (1959) paper was published. It could also be inferred that Drake didn’t want full credit to be given to the Cornell professors as well (Ekers et al. 2002). While Project Ozma didn’t detect extra terrestrial intelligence, it did kick off the interest in new searches and helped refine the techniques for searching radio waves. Soon after the Green Bank conference was held, where the Drake Equation was first presented. This equation seeks to determine the specific factors that are required for intelligent life to develop to the point where it can communicate via interstellar space (SetiWeb).
Radio telescopes have formed the basis of the search for extraterrestrial intelligent life since the start of the search in the 1960’s and in the 40 years until the 21st century this continued to be the case. The point that arises from the birth of SETI is did the search along the microwave spectrum drive SETI research for the next 50 years versus other methods such as examining the optical spectrum, or is the microwave spectrum the most likely candidate for discovering evidence of ETI?
The Shklovskii & Sagan (1966) book “Intelligent Life in the Universe” was one of the first published books discussing both what life is, the likelihood of life in the universe and a definition of intelligent life. The book is made up of three separate sections. The first section deals with Cosmology and discusses the structure and composition of the universe. It discusses how the universe and star systems were created and evolved. The second section talks about the definition of life, how life originated on Earth and how life may form in an extraterrestrial environment, such as on another planet. It covers both the possibility of life within our Solar System apart from Earth, focussing mainly on Mars and in other Solar Systems. The third section covers extraterrestrial life and how to search for it.
One of the important points that drives a lot of later SETI investigation is brought up in Chapter 18 (Shklovskii & Sagan 1966), “Is There Life on Earth”. For even from a relatively small distance on the galactic scale as from Mars to Earth, how could the observer detect that there was advanced life on Earth? This forms the basis of a lot of future SETI research, as Earth is the only place that we know life exists and humanity is the only intelligent species that we know of, thus we use this as a basis for searching for other forms of life.
A lot of potential methods of detecting life are found to be be impossible to detect at any sort of distance, even within the same Solar System. For example could we look for night-time illumination of large cities? But that amount of man made light is not detectable at any sort of distance. An interesting idea was to spend a few decades observing the transformation of forestry areas, but could this be actually linked to intelligent life or not, it could be caused by natural phenomena. This questioning of methodology is a the hallmark of a good scientific method. In some of the later amateur scientific research amongst SETI in the late 20th/early 21st century there is little questioning of methods and theories.
The conclusion that is reached by Shklovskii & Sagan (1966) is that the best method for detecting life, especially intelligent life is that of a radio telescope. In the meter wave band the Earth radiates more than a million times more radiation than Venus or Mercury. This would be a very obvious sign that intelligent life exists. The theory behind this so far seems to have held true over 50 years later that the main source for evidence of ETI would need to come from analysing radio frequencies. But the question that does need to be investigated is, was this theory correct or did this statement that radio vs optical is a much better detection method guide research for the next 50 years?
There is the assumption that intelligent life will have at least in part evolved on the same way that humanity has and that any technically advanced civilisation will use radio transmission and reception for long-distance communication. Shklovskii & Sagan (1966) outline the current state of radio telescopes in the 60’s. The detection of a low powered radio frequency is achievable, even in 1963 the Mariner II sent readable signals over 89 million kilometres of interplanetary space, operating on just 3 watts of power (barely enough energy to turn on a light bulb). Even in the 1960’s it was understood that you could both improve sensitivity by increasing the size of the radio telescope or that technological improvements could do the same. Big was not necessarily better, but a larger telescope would perform better than a smaller one with the same technology levels. The other point that is outlined, is more than the searching for life is done with these telescopes, the information returned also enables us to analyze the composition of stars and planets.
Analysing the atmosphere could show life, such that Tikhov (Shklovskii & Sagan 1966) proposed that the methane on Jupiter has the same source as from Earth, via bacterial life. Detecting this at an interstellar distance versus within the same Solar System is difficult.
Some of the questions asked in this book have been answered with more recent research. Chapter 20 (Shklovskii & Sagan 1966) discusses in part the existence of canals on Mars. The Mariner 4 flyby photos (Mariner4Web) showed that the canals were nowhere near as straight as could be seen from Earth. Current research also indicates these are formed by liquid water (MarsWaterWeb). This theory was based on the research and observational data available at the time and thus we can see how later research can prove theories incorrect. There is a highly applicable quote within this chapter, “Although the information taken may indicate the presence of life on Mars, we will have a rigorous answer only when new observational techniques are developed” (Shklovskii & Sagan 1966). This also indicates that Shklosvkii & Sagan both had the important realisation that for the search of life these would only prove to be indicators. It would take significant more research and observation to prove that life, let alone intelligent life had been found.
A similar later to be proven wrong theory is in Chapter 25 where Shklovskii & Sagan (1966) discuss if the moons of Mars are artificial satellites. The main reasoning behind this was Phobos’s extremely small size, close orbit to Mars and acceleration. This lead to the conclusion that Phobos was actually hollow. Which in turns led to a few believing that it was a space station or space ship of some sort. Even until the late 20th century there were those who believed this due in part to the failed Russian probes Phobos 1 and Phobos 2. Current observational data (NASAPhobosFallingWeb, SpacePhobosWeb) show that it is made of Type I or II carbonaceous chondrites, what makes up asteroids. This suggests it is a small asteroid that was captured by Mars at some point in the formation of the Solar System. What this also indicates is going back to Shklovskii & Sagan (1966) suggestion, analysis of radio waves is the main wave to prove intelligent life without doing close observational work, which is difficult to do at interstellar distances.
SETI DURING THE 1970’s AND 1980’s
Project Cyclops was a 1972 report put together by NASA that outlined how SETI research should be done (Ekers et al. 2002). The team put together a proposal to link together a large amount of radio telescopes to be able to search for radio signals . This work seems to have become the basis of the next few decades of SETI research, focussing on radio signals. Stuart Kingsley (COSETIWeb), one of the pioneers in optical SETI research, sees the paper as defining the path SETI research would take, but the question that needs to be answered were the other methods of detecting life more difficult versus using radio telescopes.
A few of the main conclusions from the report (NASACyclopsReportWeb) can be seen to have driven research for the next decades. It could be seen that it was much cheaper to search for signals than to attempt to send signals or contact by spaceships or probes. Another interesting point is that the search could be seen to take years, decades or even centuries, and thus would need a long term funding commitment.
Ekers et al. (2002), approximately 30 years later analysed some of the conclusions of the Cyclops Report. Most of the conclusions were still valid, but there were some differences. Originally the Cyclops Report suggested that the beacons would be highly monochromatic and that spectral widths of 1 Hz or less are more likely. Technology had moved towards more spread spectrum signals. Technology had also improved, thus optical processing would no longer be needed, as digital signal processing would achieve the same results in a much faster time. Beacons would also be more likely to be pointed and not omnidirectional as original thought, as modern hardware processing power makes this much more energy efficient. What this shows is that even on a relatively short time frame of 30 years (vs the age of humanity), technology rapidly improves and changes. Thus the communication methods we may be searching for may only be used by civilisations for a brief period of their history. Also that as computational power and new methods become cheaper and easier to use, this also improves the search methods.
Project Cyclops is revisited here (Dixon 2011) and interestingly one of the reasons it failed to be taken up was the report was misunderstood to be an all or nothing approach. Only some of the projects in the paper needed to be implemented. Again going back to the theory that most SETI researchers design their research to be modular, thus new components can be added or upgraded during the years of the project. But by reading the original paper this was not outlined that only parts of it could be funded versus everything.
One of the longest running SETI programs was Big Ear, running from 1973 to 1995 at the Ohio State University using the Big Ear Radio Observatory to search for ETI. Apart from the detection of the famous “Wow!” signal on 1977 August 15, the project used both volunteers and professional astronomers to conduct the research (McConnell 2001). The site that the radio telescope was built on was leased and not renewed in 1998. Amateur astronomers, all volunteers, took over the running of the radio telescope during the last few years before it was dismantled (BigEarFaqWeb). Finding people who have the time to volunteer to help with research does not seem to be the major issue with amateur research, it’s the cost of the equipment that seems to be the bigger barrier for amateurs. And with any large amateur project, professional scientists are needed to help guide the research and efforts.
Funding was always a constant battle and the 1983 SETI study changed the search parameters slightly. They would do a Targeted Search and a Sky Survey. The Sky Survey would be 3 orders of magnitude less sensitive than the Sky Survey, but would make no assumptions on which stars would be most likely to host alien life. Where the Targeted Search would attempt to examine those stars thought to be the most likely to host alien life. Again partially because of funding, this would use existing antennas and not new telescopes. But because of the new two-pronged approach, it would represent a 10 million fold improvement over the previous search volume (Ekers et al. 2002). The targeted spectrum again was the low end of the microwave band as being the most likely to succeed in a SETI search. By 2002, the Targeted Search had examined approximately 400 targets (Ekers et al. 2002). This use of existing antennas and the modular approach was also something the amateur project Argus later tried to accomplish, which will be discussed later in this paper.
One of biggest takeaways from looking at the historical projects, is that as technology continues to improve, the power of equipment to detect signals exponentially grows, but also the power to analyse the data also grows exponentially. This also allows for novel search strategies and detection methods to be attempted. What 10 years ago might have been extremely expensive to accomplish, can now be done on a home computer and using off the shelf electronics.
Image 1: The cover of the first Cosmic Search magazine, the first SETI magazine (BigEarWeb)
Cosmic Search magazine was published between 1979 to 1982 and consisted of 13 issues, focussing on the Search for Extraterrestrial life (BigEarWeb). What is highly interesting about this is it collated detailed scientific papers from the leaders in the field and presented it in a format that could be read and understood by the amateur. Dr. Kraus, the editor said that the purpose was to “present all aspects of the search for intelligent life in space in a popular but responsible manner” (BigEarWeb). Sales weren’t enough to allow more than 13 issues, but it’s an interesting point that sometimes the timing is not right. In the present day there are numerous amateur SETI projects, helped in part by the ease in the Internet age of being able to easily access information and SETI frequently is mentioned in popular newspapers and websites. In the 1980’s, it was much difficult to even let a potential audience know about a source of information like this. The articles were mainly extracts of longer scientific papers but some interesting thought pieces also are included. Notably Morrison discussing what had happened in the twenty years following his and Cocconi’s paper (Morrison 1979) and Drake reminiscing about Project Ozma (Drake 1979). Both articles are interesting as they continue to emphasis that most scientists recognise that technology and scientific methods will improve rapidly, especially in regards to a project such as SETI, which may take centuries to succeed. Thus underpinning an important goal that any SETI project should be designed to be modular enough to be able to improve hardware every few years. And that further finetuning of search methods is always required.
SETI DURING 1980–2000
Moore’s Law is the observation that computing power doubles approximately every 18 months (IntelWeb). An interesting result of this Law is that for projects that can last decades, there is a need to factor in the cost of replacing the hardware, otherwise systems will soon be obsolete. This also leads to the need to design systems that are modular in nature, so that based on budget and time, only part of the system needs to be updated instead of everything. This is an interesting application of the knowledge that technology (in regards to hardware computing power) will greatly improve and thus needs to be planned into any long term research project.
An example of using Moore’s law to predict when hardware has developed to the point of being able to support new methods can be taken with electronic beamforming. This was using electronic processing to filter signals. In 2002 (Ekers 2002), this was highly computationally intensive, but it was predicted that within 2 decades computation power would have advanced enough and presently this is much less of a problem and is being used in SETI research. This again is an example of planning for component upgrades.
A 1988 SETI report chaired by Phillip Morrison suggested a more restrained approach, which also would require less funding (Ekers et al. 2002). Again the main suggested strategy was targeted at those nearby skies focussing on the low end of the microwave window. During this time period, the existence of exoplanets still had not been confirmed, which would also lead to further targeting of searches during the 1980’s onwards. Most of the existing hardware could be used again for this, thus not requiring a lot of additional funding. Technology had also evolved to the point where a million-channel, all digital Fourier analyser could be built, removing the need for optical analysis and starting to automate the SETI search.
In 1997, the SETI Institute got together to consider the SETI mission and objectives, considering what the advances in technology and science could mean in both how life could be detected, but also how an advanced civilisation could communicate across vast distances. The group was named SSTWG — SETI Science and Technology Working Group. This group helped drive the direction of the SETI Programme during the early 21st century..
The Ekers et al. (2002) book is a good comparison on the research from 1970 and how it evolved over the decades. It also highlights what was found incorrect in previous research, based on new understanding of science and technology such as analysing the Cyclops Report. The research at the time was correct based on the current understanding of the science, but the important point is that scientific knowledge always continues to grow.
The funding of SETI is discussed (Billingham 2011) and that in 1994, NASA SETI research was closed. But the start of other projects started due to this, the Targeted Search was taken over by the SETI Institute with funding by private source, and Project Argus, which was a new All Sky Survey was started by the nonprofit SETI League.
SETI IN THE 21ST CENTURY
Funding has always been an issue with research and this is a common theme across most research projects. The programmes described in Ekers et al. (2002) were estimated to cost annually $US8 million a year, which would make a total of $US169 million until 2020. A relatively small amount. Historically the US Congress had approved $US78 million for SETI during the years 1975 to 1992. Also in regards to most of the research projects for SETI, it both provides a platform for searching for intelligent life as well as for other observational science. There are numerous historical incidents of this happening in other areas, for example the Cambridge Array was built to investigate Interplanetary Scintillation and discovered Pulsars, the Vela Satellite Array was to detect nuclear tests on Earth, but found Gamma Bursters and the Arecibo Observatory was searching for Ionospheric Backscatter and discovered Gravitational Radiation (Ekers et al. 2002).
SERENDIP, the Berkeley SETI Program (Bowyer 2011) used a search strategy of piggybacking on other observations. So while data is acquired as part of other observations, this data is then analyzed offline. This surprisingly does have a few advantages. Since no-one is actually completely sure which systems could host intelligent life it allows for a search of the entire galaxy and it uses existing data.
Only in the past few decades has optical SETI been used with any significant research projects. One of the reasons is that it has, was that lasers, or pulsed lasers could be used for communication on Earth. (Ross & Kingsley 2011). Some of the theories on why this would be more used that radio communication is that it is easier to not have signal degradation over interstellar distances. Townes and Schwartz first suggested the idea of searching for optical signals in 1961 (Ross & Kingsley 2011). The other reason is that a laser can outshine a host star for only a few nanoseconds and then flash at relatively slow rate. Currently there are lasers used in nuclear fusion and for military applications that would be able to do this. But one of the reasons that it wasn’t investigated was that humanity was mainly using radio-frequency for communication and that laser technology wasn’t mature enough in the 1960’s. Now in the 21st century the idea of optical SETI has became more well known and also more likely to be used by other civilizations. Microwave detectors have almost reached the fundamental limit in terms of noise, but there is still significant room to improve laser detection systems (Ross & Kingsley 2011). Due the directed nature of a laser as well, it would need to be assumed that the ETI is directing the communication directly at our Solar System. Although we can also take the assumption that an ETI would have more advanced detection methods than our own, and may have detected that advance life is on Earth, and thus is attempting to send a single to us that our technology can detect.
Multiple research on the same equipment, using the same data is the most beneficial to all. The Low Frequency Array in Europe is also being used to search for ETI (LOFARWeb). Unlike other radio telescopes, this array looks at low energy wavelengths, unlike other telescopes looking for high frequencies. As the field of radio astronomy is relatively young and the field for SETI the same, this also shows that new and unusual methods of detection may prove invaluable. The project is still being constructed, but enough stations are in operation to conduct observations.
SETI@Home was the first to use distributed computing to solve the problems of performing a sensitive search for narrow band radio signals. It is also one of the most successful crowd sourced research projects in humanity’s history This project had a few goals at the start, one of which apart from discovering evidence of intelligent extraterrestrial life, was “be the first time ordinary computer users will be able to participate in a major scientific experiment” and “provide for each participant the slight but captivating possibility that his or her computer may be instrumental in the detection of another technical civilization in the Milky Way.” (SETI@HomeWeb1). SETI@Home was one of the first publically available distributed scientific computing projects. And the only way to get a lot of people to sign up to use the program was by both explaining why it was valuable and how their contribution could lead to the discovery of a generation. It also pioneered the use of using idle computing time to conduct research, as most personal computers are idle most of the time and while each computer alone doesn’t provide that much computing power, combined it outweighed even the most powerful supercomputer at the time.
The program uses a screensaver in visual format to allow users to see how much data is being processed and any spikes found. This is a novel way to show progress instead of simply showing figures, cpu processing time is lost by creating the graphical view, but the benefits of capture the end users imagination to keep the program installed and running on their systems outweigh this minor loss of CPU cycles.
Image 2: Seti@Home screensaver with data from the Breakthrough Listen Initiative (SETI@HomeYouTubeWeb)
The SETI@Home program works on processing raw data collected by radio telescopes. Thus it can use raw data collected by other projects, by piggy backing on them and using the same data (as dedicated telescope time is rare). What the SETI@Home program looks for is for spikes fitting into a Gaussian curve of around 12 seconds. Thus indicting it’s not a terrestrial source and thus requires further analysis (McConnell 2001).
SETI@Home also contributed to the advances in using distributed computing, such as the development of the BOINC platform.
Another clever way that SETI@Home kept public interest was by giving users a score of how much computing power they had contributed. As well as leaderboards. This allowed users to group together to compete against each other. People do like to compete and to show off their high scores, and get achievements. The basis of many free-to-play computer games have tapped into this desire. SETI@Home was an early predecessor of this model. Certificate were available to be printed out by users as they cleared milestones. This method of reward and allowing users to see how much they were contributing, provided a positive feedback loop which encouraged users to continue to donate their computing time to the project.
This method of positive feedback and goals has been attempted in numerous other citizen research projects to various degrees of success. At the very least social network sharing of a users achievements does promote knowledge of the projects.
SETI and the Amateur Astronomer
Analysing data on the results obtained by some amateur projects does prove to be difficult due to the lack of published data and papers. This section will attempt to go over those that have at least some peer reviewed papers published.
Bob Stevens established one of the first amateur projects in 1985 (Anonymous 1990). This project became Project TARGET (Telescope Antenna Researching Galactic Extraterrestrial Transmissions) and ran from 1988–1991. In 2012 he discovered a signal was discovered that could be an extraterrestrial communication method (MysteryWeb). Finding details of what was discovered is extremely difficult, the only piece of information apart from the Shuch paper is a youtube video (StevensYouTubeWeb). So while we can determine that Bob Stevens believes that he found something, the lack of being able to independently validate the data means it must be discounted. It does highlight that in the current digital age, that some amateur astronomers may also be more interested in pageviews or “likes” versus contributing to improving scientific knowledge. It is also extremely frustrating that there is no data that has been published in the last 4 years on this find, even to discount it.
Project Argus is a project from the non-profit SETI League and seeks to achieve continuous microwave monitoring of space in real time. The goal was to use amaetur radio astronomers to build microwave receivers. Although prototype stations were introduced in 1996, and new generation stations in 2000, full sky coverage has yet to be deployed (Shuch 2011). The most difficult part of finding information about Project Argus, is that the historical data of up to around 2010 can easily be found, but finding information about current state of the research, number of receivers, etc proved to be difficult. There was also thoughts to use this technology with schools to allow them to build a functional radio telescope cheaply, thus introducing radio astronomy to secondary schools (McConnell 2001). But even though it is relatively cheap for a radio telescope, it was still out of budget for most schools.
Image 3: Amateur SETI Station Annotated Block Diagram (SetiLeagueBlockDiagramWeb)
One of the reasons that it may not have had such a large takeup, is even though the radio telescopes were relatively cheap to build, there was still a degree of engineering knowledge and knowhow needed to put them together. This in addition to the time it would take to run the station may have hindered the take up. It seemed there were less than 400 stations that ever came online for Project Argus (SetiLeagueArgusProgressWeb). In the above block diagram web page (SetiLeagueBlockDiagramWeb), the statement is made that “no two amateur SETI stations are exactly alike”. This is sometimes daunting for the complete amaetur who has no background knowledge to be able to build a functioning system.
It is also hard to find hard information, for example information about interesting “hits” doesn’t list the year of when these were found, just the day and month (SetiLeagueHitsWeb). A paper by Shuch that was given in a conference in 2008 seems to indicate why the information available on Project Argus is so lacking (SetiLeagueArgusProgressWeb). Due to take up amongst amateur astronomers being so low there may have been a lack of interest in publishing data. What this also shows is in some amateur projects, the publishing of data seems to be much more limited. In research taken by research grants, even failed data is published.
The Boonah Space Centre is an amateur radio observatory set up about 95 kms south of Brisbane (BoonahSpaceWeb). While mentioned in passing in articles about amateur SETI research in Australia (AustralianWeb), finding exact details on the setup, research done, current state of research is difficult. Going through the website of the Boonah Space Centre, there are pictures of works in progress, updates of new equipment. It does seem that the Boonah Space Centre is searching for ETI, and there are explanations of technically how they are doing it. But finding hard data from the searches they are doing is difficult.
Finding any information on amateur optical SETI programs proved to be frustrating. Most again seem to be around failed projects that did not continue to get the take up that they required. Also the information presented is not peer reviewed and normally buried amongst personal websites.
Edwards (2009) has put forward the idea that a weak optical signal can be detected by an amaetur asstronomer. The way to do this would be to observe transitioning exoplanets from nearby stars using narrow band filters, this might detect communications that are being sent directly to Earth. But while this is a valid proposal, there has been no noticeable take up by the amateur community on using the method to attempt to detect ETI. Even with amatuer telescopes, telescope time is highly valuable. This leads to the the idea of needing to piggyback again off other projects that have telescope time.
The CATNIP SETI Device is currently in use at the Owl Observatory that performs a search with Optical SETI methods (Howard 2015). It splits the light by using two beam splitters into three detectors. These detectors are looking for a brief pulsed laser beam that would be greater by many orders of magnitude than the host star. This detection method could be adapated by many amaetur astronmers onto their existing telescopes, the Owl observatory being a 16 inch telescope. And this has been put into practice with the Boquete Optical Seti Observatory.
The Boquete Optical Seti Observatory has been built by one person, Ben Schuetz (BoqueteWeb). It’s using a 20 inch optical telescope and everything in the observatory was built by Ben, the telescope, components and electrical components to operate the telescope (SETIBoqueteWeb). The search method is to examine nearby stars, those within 300 light years and look for the laser light pulsations which could indicate a beacon. During the dry season Schuetz manages to on average observe 20 stars a night during the 2.5–3 hour viewing window (METIBoqueteWeb). While no successful detection has occurred, Schuetz freely shares the data of his observations on the observatory’s website. Also all the information required to build both the telescope and detectors are freely available. This is an example that shows how just one amateur astronomer can contribute greatly to the search for ETI. Even on the small scale, it allows amateur astronomers to attempt new methods of detection. But while the cost of such an endeavour is relatively cheap (compare the cost of setting up an amaetur observatory to that of a new sports car), it is still an expensive hobby, both with equipment cost and the time needed to conduct observations and analyze data. This may be one reason why the field of amateur SETI hunters is fairly small.
Project BAMBI (Bob and Mike’s Big Investment) was started in 1991. The team had realised that by putting enough computing power at the results from a small satellite dish, 2.5–3 metres in diameter the sensitivity would be close to what NASA was currently achieving (ViceWeb). There were two sites set up, BAMBI-A with a 2.5 metre dish and BAMBI-B with a 3 metre dish (BambiWeb). For 22 years the team of Fremont, Lash and Fox at Project BAMBI used the two radio telescopes to examine areas of the light spectrum that out SETI projects weren’t. Project BAMBI didn’t find ETI, but they did make observations of the black hole in the centre of the galaxy in Sagittarius A and was the only amateur radio telescope to participate in the a consortium of observatories watching as the Schumacher-Levy comet crashed into Jupiter (Schumacher-LevyWeb). Unfortunately the project closed in 2013, the team were funding it out of their own pockets. A snowstorm destroyed the observatory at BAMBI-B and a key component of the BAMBI-A broke down, with the spectrum analyzer no longer being produced.
METI International are an organisation that seeks to actively send messages out into Space — also known as Active SETI versus SETI (METIWeb). In 2013 a company called Lone Signal aimed to have the general public via crowdsourcing pay to send messages to a star 17 years away, Gliese 526 (CNNWeb). This was to allow anyone to send a 144 character message for free, but pay to send more information. The goal was to allow the paid users to help support the scientific project of actively sending messages, by raising $US100 million to be able to build a series of transmitting dishes across the Earth to be able to send messages to nearby stars. The project didn’t capture the public’s imagination and the project was shut down shortly after it started. It seems that a project needs to have feedback available to the user to allow people to becoming invested both emotionally and financially in the project. Sending a message to the stars without a response did not seem to fulfil this requirement.
SETIQuest Explorer was a web and mobile application that allowed the general public to view radio telescope data and detect patterns. The end goal of the test was to have enough users to be analyze live data within 4 minutes (SETIQuestExplorer). The project did have take up from users, but there was not enough support to validate data returned by the users or enough support to keep the technical side of things running. The project ran for a little over a year, with the goal afterwards to create a new SETI project on the Zooinverse site. The Zooinverse site is a collection of citizen science projects.
SETI Live was the follow up project, launched in 2002 February 12 (SETILiveWeb). This was to allow users to analyze live data from radio telescopes. The project succeeded, with users contributing to analyze the data returned. The project had funding for a little over a year, and the cost to continue the project was estimated at $US400k and when funding wasn’t achieved the project was shutdown. The project incorporated a series of badges for achieving certain contribution levels, which were then able to be shared on social media, to help build awareness and encourage contribution and competition.
Where government research funding may have failed, a private investor, Yuri Milner has pledged to give Berkley $US100 million for SETI research as part of the Breakthrough Listen project. (BerkelyWeb). For the next 10 years, the initiative will greatly expand the scope of the SETI program. This is more funding that has been pledged to SETI for decades. The 10 year project will use open data and open software working with teams at the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia in the United States and the Parkes Telescope in Australia. It will be the biggest and most well funded search for ETI undertaken (BreakThroughWeb). It will be 50 times more sensitive than previous programs and cover 10 times more of the sky than previous programs. The aim of the program is to conduct a survey of the 1,000,000 closest star to Earth, but beyond the Milky Way it will also scan the 100 closest galaxies.
The program itself will generate a massive amount of data and it will all be open to the public. This will most likely the largest amount of scientific data ever made available (BreakThroughWeb). And the software used to analyse this data will be open source, meaning that any amateur astronomy or even programmer will be able to help contribute. The goal is also to make the software and hardware used by the project as generic as possible, thus any other telescopes could join the program. And like how SERENDIP and SETI@home works together, the data could be shared. One of the goals of the project is for members of the public to write their own programs to analyze the data collected (BreakThroughWeb). The first batch of data was released in 2016 April, 4 months after the project officially started in 2016 January and is available at http://breakthroughinitiatives.org/OpenDataSearch. The data will also be available to the SETI@Home project, with the first batch of data being sent across in 2016 April. To put into perspective it is expected that the project will generate in one day more data than all the rest of the SETI projects generated in a year (NatureWeb).
This is the biggest game changer in SETI research since the start of the program. The funding will allow SETI research to continue for over a decade. As mentioned the main challenge now is building the computing structure, whether distributed or a supercomputer, to be able to process the vast amount of data generated. The availability of the data to anyone, and the software to process the data being opensource (Opensource software allows anyone to contribute to the code), allows the amateur astronomy to either analyze data or work on the processing of the data.
While researching this paper, it became apparent finding information about amateur projects was going to be difficult. This is mainly in regards to those small projects consisting of a few amateur scientists, larger projects, even when unsuccessful, publish information about their data and methods. There seems to be a few reasons for this. Unlike in the professional scientific community, amateurs don’t need to constantly publish papers to either keep existing funding or gain additional funding. Nor do they seem to share all their data. Amongst amateur SETI researchers, there seems to be a trend with a few of them that they want to be the one to find the holy grail of evidence of an ETI. It also could be that the time it takes to publish results takes away from the limited time that an amaetur has to dedicate to what is their hobby. It can also be theorised that amateurs tend to communicate within their own communities and directly to each other without publishing these contents.
What this does highlight is while organisations like the SETI League try to help amateurs with their research, it takes both dedicated resources to help organise this group and that a group of loosely aligned people tend to do the research and experimentation that they are interested in.
From the very beginning of the SETI program everyone has understood that the search for ETI will take decades or even centuries before any evidence is found. It has also been understood that there is also the very real possibility that we are completely alone in the universe. So it is understandable that funding into SETI has proven to be problematic in the past. Research that will require decades of funding and may never reach a conclusion is a difficult sell amongst the other projects that will deliver results in a much shorter period of time.
Based on this restriction and difficulty of historical obtaining telescope time SETI researchers did start piggybacking on existing projects. While based on our understanding of what life needs to live, mainly water and where exoplanets are located, a targeted search may be more fruitful, this understanding of what life needs is based on the very small set of life on Earth, a random search may stumble across something that we haven’t thought of before.
As discussed previously, Moore’s law around computing power and the gains in technology alongside the long period of most projects meant that each project needed to be designed to be modular in nature to be upgraded as time when on. It is interesting when examining proposals from the 1960’s versus those in the 1990’s, that this wasn’t emphasised in the 60’s, but is emphasised much more in the last few decades. This could also be attributed to while aiming to get 100% funding, designing a project that could start on partial funding may result in more successfully funded projects.
Examining the original questions of this paper:
“What science and technology allowed the SETI program to start? What science and technology allows it to continue?”
The use of radio waves by humanity to communicate was what lead to scientists to thinking that we could examine the microwave spectrum of waves from extraterrestrial sources. This has continued to be the main focus of SETI for the the past 50 years. There have been some experiments amongst Optical SETI. Computing advances as well have allowed SETI data to be processed at an exponential rate over the decades. For example with the SETI@Home project, computing power increased so much that there was a brief period of time where there was no data available for processing.
“Did the current level of science and technology limit what research could be made? Or did SETI improve current scientific knowledge and/or technology?”
For the most part SETI research used existing technology and adapted methods to help conduct the search. There are a few exceptions, the most notably how SETI@Home help drive distributed computing, particularly amongst the use of donated computer time.
“How did amateur/crowd sourced SETI projects start, continue and evolve? Have they succeeded or failed? What is the criteria for success and failure?”
Apart from SETI@Home, no other large scale amaetur project has succeeded. SETI@Home started with the clear goal of getting participation from the general public and designed the project around this. Most of the other projects have the assumption that people will jump on board, even when there are barriers to entry, such as building a radio receiver. SETI@Home worked as it was simple, captured the public’s imagination and required relatively little participation from the end user. It also solved a problem that could not have easily be done without the use of the donated CPU cycles. The other option was to build a supercomputer. Some of the other SETI programs can’t be run without amateurs (such as Project Argus). It could also be that SETI@Home was one of the first and it will be difficult for a project to gain as much traction as SETI@Home did.
Defining success is difficult, as the ultimate aim of any SETI project is evidence of ETI. But the best way to define success is if the original project aims were accomplished. SETI@Home accomplished their original aims of analysing the data from the Arecibo so quickly that data from other observatories needed to be added into the project. And the project is still running, now analysing data from the Breakthough Initiatives. Other projects failed to get the take up amongst amateurs that were required, or failed to produce data.
The smaller one to five person groups of amateur projects tends to work. This tends to be a group of likeminded individuals contributing to the success of the project and thus seem to be highly invested in working with it. As it’s also a hobby amongst most of the amaetur astronomers that were examined in this paper.
“In the last decade how many predictions with SETI research proved true/false?”
The main prediction that it would take decades if not centuries to find evidence of ETI seems to have proven true so far. The other goal of designing systems to be modular and upgradeable has also proven true. The main focus of research from the start was along examining the microwave band and this has proven to be the most likely area that evidence of an ETI will be found.
But with the vast majority of the scientific community, new research does come along that proves past theories incorrect (for extremes the Mars Canals and Martian satellites) and the community learns, adapts and pushes forward. SETI research is still at such an early stage of development, that theories and experiments can be conducted by the amaetur astronomer as has been discussed in this paper.
“Based on past trends, is there a future trend for amateur/crowd sourced SETI projects?”
The new organisation Breakthrough Initiatives will be the major focus of any amateur/crowd sourced projects. Both the data and analysis of the data is available for anyone to contribute to. The barriers to entry needs to be relatively small for crowd sourced projects with a professional staff that are also overseeing the work and the projects where this has happened have succeeded.
There is still always going to be room for the lone amaetur astronomer to trial new and unusual ways of searching for ETI, such as with optical searches. The danger is that the only time we will see the results is when possible evidence of ETI’s is found. From most research, sharing of data does have other avenues of research that can be explored.
The field of SETI research is still an extremely young field which has captured the imagination of the public both in the research and also in media. As has been previously discussed, the lone amateur can test new and novel methods of detection.
Projects need to be designed to be potentially operational for decades and this philosophy is in place in most SETI projects, to design the projects to be easily upgradeable where possible.
The difficulty in the getting larger projects funded has sometimes been the knowledge that no evidence of an ETI may be detected. The project may work perfectly and be successfully in the goals it wanted to achieve, but that “Eureaka!” moment may never happen as we may be alone in the universe.
Citizen science or crowdsourced projects have both succeeded and failed. Based on the successful projects, it both needs to capture the public’s imagination and provide meaningful scientific value.
And only in 2015 it seemed that funding was again going to prove to difficult for SETI, but the donation of $US100 million by the Russian billionaire Yuri Milner looks to suddenly usher in a golden age of SETI research, actual dedicated telescope time to SETI projects, new citizen science projects will all the data publically available. It may take another 50 years, or even 500, but if there is intelligent life somewhere else in the universe, humanity will find it.
Anonymous. 1990, Astronomy, 18(4),18
AustralianWeb: Matthew Bailes’ $100 million SETI challenge: find the aliens, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/life/weekend-australian-magazine/matthew-bailes-100-million-seti-challenge-find-the-aliens/news-story/34156f081d44bcf9452ad4ad0c37c5a2, (accessed 8 May 2016)
BambiWeb: Amateur SETI — Project BAMBI, http://www.bambi.net/, (accessed 2 May 2016)
BerkelyWeb: Internet investor Yuri Milner joins with Berkeley in $100 million search for extraterrestrial intelligence, http://news.berkeley.edu/2015/07/20/breakthrough-search-for-extraterrestrial-intelligence/, (accessed 2 May 2016)
Billingham, J. 2011 in 2011 in Searching for Extraterrestrial Intelligence: SETI Past, Present, and Future, ed. H. P. Shuch. (Berlin: Springer), 65
Billings, L. 2013, Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Live Among the Stars (New York: Penguin Group)
BigEarFaqWeb: Big Ear Radio Observatory, http://www.bigear.org/faq.htm, (access 8 May 2016)
BigEarWeb: CosmicSearchWeb, http://www.bigear.org/CSMO/HTML/CSIntro.htm, (accessed 18 Apr 2016)
BoqueteWeb: Optical SETI Observatory at Boquete Panama, (accessed 8 May 2016)
Bowyer, S. 2011 in Searching for Extraterrestrial Intelligence: SETI Past, Present, and Future, ed. H. P. Shuch. (Berlin: Springer), 99
BoonahSpaceWeb: Boonah Space Centre, http://www.seti.org.au/boonahspacecentre.htm (accessed 8 May 2016)
BreakThroughWeb: 10-year, Multi-disciplinary Search Effort Will Harness World’s Largest Telescopes to Mine Data from Nearest Million Stars, Milky Way and 100 Galaxies, http://breakthroughinitiatives.org/News/1, (accessed 2 May 2016)
Clark, S. 2000, Life on Other Worlds and How to Find It (Cornwall, UK: MPG Books Ltd)
CNNWeb: Lone Signal aims to send “hello!” tweets to extraterrestrials, http://money.cnn.com/2013/06/17/technology/enterprise/lone-signal/index.html (accessed 8 May 2016)
Cocconi, G., & Morrison, P. 1959, Nature, 184(4690), 844
COSETIWeb: Project Cyclops, http://www.coseti.org/cyclops.htm, (accessed 16 Apr 2016)
COSETIOpticalSETI: Introduction to the COSETI Web Site, http://www.coseti.org/soyuseti.htm, accessed 20 Apr 2016)
Davies, P. 2010, The Eerie Silence: Searching for Ourselves in the Universe (London: Penguin Group)
Dixon, R. 2011 in Searching for Extraterrestrial Intelligence: SETI Past, Present, and Future, ed. H. P. Shuch. (Berlin: Springer), 19
Drake, F. 1979, Cosmic Search, 1, 10
Edwards, J. 2009, The Society for Astronomical Sciences 28th Annual Symposium on Telescope Science (Big Bear Lake, CA: Society for Astronomical Sciences), 67
Ekers, Ronald D., Cullers, D. Kent., Billingham, J., & Scheffer, Louis, K. 2002, SETI 2020: A Roadmap for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (Mountain View, CA: SETI Press)
Howard, B. 2015, The Society for Astronomical Sciences 28th Annual Symposium on Telescope Science (Big Bear Lake, CA: Society for Astronomical Sciences), 79
IntelWeb: 50 years of Moore’s law, http://www.intel.com/content/www/us/en/silicon-innovations/moores-law-technology.html (accessed 22 Apr 2016)
Kaufman, M. 2011, First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Hunt of Life Beyond Earth (New York: Simon & Schuster)
LOFARWeb: LOFAR Opens up Low-Frequency Universe and Starts New SETI Search, https://www.astron.nl/about-astron/press-public/news/lofar-opens-low-frequency-universe-and-starts-new-seti-search/lofar-o, (accessed 8 May 2016)
Mariner4Web: NSSDC Image Catalog, http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/imgcat/html/mission_page/MR_Mariner_4_page1.html (accessed 20 Apr 2016)
MarsWaterWeb: NASA Confirms Evidence That Liquid Water Flows on Today’s Mars, https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-confirms-evidence-that-liquid-water-flows-on-today-s-mars (accessed 20 Apr 2016)
METIBoqueteWeb: Update from Boquete Optical SETI Observatory, http://www.metiinternational.com/blog/update-boquete-optical-seti-observatory, (accessed 8 May 2016)
METIWeb: The primary objects and purpose of METI International, http://www.metiinternational.com/, (accessed 8 May 2016)
McConnell, B. 2001, Beyond Contact: A Guide to SETI and Communicating with Alien Civilizations (Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly & Associates, Inc.)
Morrison, P. 1979, Cosmic Search, 1, 7
MysteryWeb: Analyzing the Stephens Mystery Signal, http://avsport.org/IAA/abst2013/bcel.pdf (accessed 12 Mar 2016)
NASACyclopsReportWeb: Project Cyclops — a Design Study of a System for Detecting Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life, http://ntrs.nasa.gov/search.jsp?R=19730010095 (accessed 16 Apr 2016)
NASAPhobosFallingWeb: Mars’ Moon Phobos is Slowly Falling Apart, http://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/phobos-is-falling-apart (accessed 16 Apr 2016)
NatureWeb, Search for extraterrestrial intelligence gets a $100-million boost, http://www.nature.com/news/search-for-extraterrestrial-intelligence-gets-a-100-million-boost-1.18016?WT.mc_id=TWT_NatureNews, (accessed 16 Apr 2016)
Ross, M. & Kingsley, S. 2011 in Searching for Extraterrestrial Intelligence: SETI Past, Present, and Future, ed. H. P. Shuch. (Berlin: Springer), 147
Schumacher-LevyWeb: Comet Shoemaker-Levy Collision with Jupiter, http://www2.jpl.nasa.gov/sl9/, (accessed 2 May 2016)
SETIBoqueteWeb: The Boquete Optical SETI Observatory, https://mebeinpanama.wordpress.com/2016/04/05/seti-en-boquete/, (access 8 May 2016)
SetiLeagueWeb: A Brief SETI Chronology, http://www.setileague.org/general/history.htm (accessed 12 Mar 2016)
SetiLeagueHitsWeb: Project Argus — What we’ve heard so far, http://www.setileague.org/photos/hits.htm (accessed 20 Apr 2016)
SetiLeagueArgusProgressWeb: Project Argus Progress Report: t plus Twelve Years and Holding, http://www.setileague.org/articles/IAA-S8-0202.pdf (accessed 20 Apr 2016)
SetiLeagueBlockDiagramWeb: Amateur SETI Station Annotated Block Diagram, http://www.setileague.org/hardware/blkdiag.htm, (accessed 19 May 2016)
SETIQuestExplorer: SETI Quest Explorer, http://setiquest.org/wiki/index.php/SetiQuest_Explorer, (accessed 8 May 2016)
SETILiveWeb: SETI Live, http://setiquest.org/wiki/index.php/SETI_Live, (accessed 8 May 2016)
SetiWeb: The Drake Equation, http://www.seti.org/Page.aspx?pid=336, (accessed 31 May 2010)
SETI@HomeWeb1: A new major SETI project based on Project Serendip data and 100,000 personal computers, http://setiathome.berkeley.edu/sah_papers/woody.php, (accessed 18 Apr 2016)
SETI@HomeYouTubeWeb, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QBxQGBXur_M, (access 19 May 2016)
Shklovskii, I.S., & Sagan, C. 1966, Intelligent Life in the Universe (New York: Dell Publishing), Twelfth Printing
Shostak, S. 2001, Sky and Telescope, 101(4), 42
Shuch, H. 2005, QST, 89(9), 43
Shuch, H. 2010, Sky and Telescope, 120(5), 29
Shuch, H. P. 2011 in Searching for Extraterrestrial Intelligence: SETI Past, Present, and Future, ed. H. P. Shuch. (Berlin: Springer), 3
SpacePhobosWeb: NASA Eyes ‘Hedgehog’ Invasion of Mars Moon Phobos, http://www.space.com/19342-space-hedgehogs-mars-moon-phobos.html (accessed 20 Apr 2016)
StevensYouTubeWeb: SETI Search Succeeds, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x8onRdu8DUs, (accessed 18 Apr 2016)
Waldrop, M. M. 2011, Nature, 475(7357), 442
ViceWeb: Aliens in the Backyard: How Amateur Astronomers Will Help Find E.T., http://motherboard.vice.com/read/aliens-in-the-backyard-how-amateur-astronomers-will-help-find-et, (Access 2 May 2016)