SETI…Calling The Stars

ET Phone HomeET phone…us?  If you were to believe the assertions of science fiction TV and movies, communicating between the stars is as easy as connecting a child’s See & Say toy with an old school TV antenna and…KABLAM!  You’ve got a good old interstellar phone call on the go.

OK, maybe that’s a little simplistic (if not entirely unrealistic), but perhaps we can be forgiven, with the understanding that we grew up watching such classics as Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extraterrestrial with its long range cell phone call, and even Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek with its sub-space communication, enabling messages from between the stars.

Seems a fanciful thing really, but there just might be some real world applications for such technology.  In fact some people right here on Earth are using the principals employed in the above science fiction all in an effort to communicate with whoever might be out there.

SETI or the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence has been both searching for alien signals and sending their own signals to ET since November 1984.  The bulk of their efforts have been in receiving and analysing radio signals from all over the universe, most of which are caused by natural cosmic goings on, but over the years there have been a few surprises.

seti_logo_cmykAt the top of the list are two events that, in their time, garnered a great deal of attention:

Radio source SHGb02+14a

Discovered in March 2003 by SETI@home –an Internet-based public volunteer computing project employing the BOINC software platform, hosted by the Space Sciences Laboratory, at the University of California, Berkeley- SHGb02+14a is considered to be a candidate for an intelligent extraterrestrial signal, coming from an area located between the constellations Pisces and Aries.  This region is peculiar as it contains no visible stars within 250,000 light-years of Earth, but the signal has been detected three separate times from that location, the last of which being considerably stronger than any other.

The signal was observed at a frequency of 1420 MHz, considered to be a part of the waterhole region –an especially quiet section of the electromagnetic spectrum- which is theorized to be a good candidate for an extraterrestrial intelligence to broadcast a signal.

SHGb02+14a was announced through the science journal New Scientist in September of 2004, and as might be expected, mainstream science is sceptical of the nature and origin of the signal, citing the signals rapid drift and explaining that it could be an artefact of random chance, cosmic noise or a glitch in the technology.

Even though SETI@home leaders deny the likelihood of the signal being that of an alien civilization, many people see SHGb02+14a as a leading candidate for extant extraterrestrial contact.

300px-Wow_signalThe WOW! Signal

Detected August 15, 1977 by American astronomer Jerry B. Ehman, the Wow! Signal was a strong narrowband radio signal detected at  the Big Ear radio telescope of The Ohio State University then located at Ohio Wesleyan University’s Perkins Observatory, Delaware, Ohio.

While working on the SETI Project, Ehman was amazed to find the signal when going through a readout from the telescope.  Designated by the alphanumeric code 6EQUJ5, shown circled in the famous photograph associated with the find, Ehman was so astounded that he wrote “WOW!” in the margin of the document.

Originating from the region of the constellation Sagittarius, roughly 2.5 degrees south of the fifth-magnitude star group Chi Sagittarii, and about 3.5 degrees south of the plane of the ecliptic (Tau Sagittarii is the closest easily visible star), the signal lasted a whopping 72 seconds and was received at a frequency of 1420.356 MHz (again within the waterhole range). However, it was never detected again, despite the Big Ear radio telescope, as well as many others, targeting that particular region on many subsequent occasions.

As with SHGb02+14a, mainstream science is sceptical of the idea that the WOW! signal was that of an extraterrestrial intelligence, even though the UFOlogy community largely holds this signal as proof that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.

This communication is by no means a one way effort however, and SETI is just as active in the transmission of signals as it is in the detection of them.  Operating under the umbrella of the SETI Project, CETI or Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence has undertaken a number of experiments intended to put us that much closer to our potential ET neighbours, the most famous of which is the Arecibo Message.

arecibo messageThe Arecibo Message

The brain child of the late Dr. Carl Sagan and Dr. Frank Drake (creator of the famous Drake Equation, which you can read about here: The Drake Equation, Counting the Stars), the Arecibo Message was an attempt to broadcast a single FM radio signal into space at a ceremony marking the remodelling of the Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico on November 16, 1974.  The signal was directed at globular cluster M13, which is 25,000 light-years away, but where it was sent is less interesting than what was sent.

Dr. Frank Drake, then at Cornell University wrote the message, with help from Carl Sagan, among others.  The message consists of seven parts that encode the following (from the top down):

  1. The numbers one (1) to ten (10)
  2. The atomic numbers of the elements hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and phosphorus, which make up deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA)
  3. The formulas for the sugars and bases in the nucleotides of DNA
  4. The number of nucleotides in DNA, and a graphic of the double helix structure of DNA
  5. A graphic figure of a human, the dimension (physical height) of an average man, and the human population of Earth
  6. A graphic of the Solar System
  7. A graphic of the Arecibo radio telescope and the dimension (the physical diameter) of the transmitting antenna dish

The message, most often represented in its famous diagram form (the original without colour) was a binary code, and will take 25,000 years for the message to reach its intended destination of stars (and an additional 25,000 years for any reply), the Arecibo message was more a demonstration of human technological achievement than a real attempt to enter into a conversation with extraterrestrials. In fact, the stars of M13, that the message was aimed at, will no longer be in that location when the message arrives.

In spite of the apparent purpose of the message, much of the UFOlogical community is ardent in its belief that someday a response will be received, whether in the form of a return signal or even a visit from our first galactic neighbours.

Whatever your particular bent on the nature of these signals, are these efforts worthwhile, or are they a giant waste of time, money and resources?  Voice your opinion in the comments section below.

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Martin J. Clemens

I also blog at at Mysterious Universe!
Writer, Canadian, Fortean Addict...and lover of science and history. "As for me...I know only, that I know nothing..."
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