Searching for the Sounds of Life

We come from one noisy planet, don’t we?  Life, as we know it, is loud.

Remember the movie Contact?  A group of human astronomers and scientists hear an extraterrestrial signal coming from Vega.  That signal ends up being transmitted blueprints for a giant space-travelling contraption which proves we’re not alone in the universe.

Jodie Foster hears the message from the aliens for the first time in the movie Contact (Copyright Warner Brothers Entertainment)

Jodie Foster hears the message from the aliens for the first time in the movie “Contact”. (Copyright Warner Bros. Entertainment)

During her mystical flight through the cosmos, Jodie Foster’s character, Dr. Ellie Arroway, encounters a being who tells her that other species have reached out to each other in the same way.  They contacted us with sound, and that this encounter was “just a first step”.

It’s one of my favorite works of delightful fiction.

But what if I told you that the story was written with real science in mind?  Or that Dr. Arroway is based on a real person?

Her name is Dr. Jill Tarter, and, like her fictitious counterpart, she really does work for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) institute.  In fact, she was employee number one.  She helped to found SETI in 1984.  Over the years, SETI has become the research home for scientists interested in studying the question of life in the universe.

“That’s what I’ve been doing,” Dr. Tarter says.  “I’ve been looking at the sky, trying to figure out if we can see signs of anyone else’s technology.”

In order to do that Jill uses, amongst many other tools, the Allen Telescope Array, or ATA.  The ATA is a “Large Number of Small Dishes” (LNSD) array designed to be highly effective for simultaneous surveys undertaken for SETI projects at centimeter wavelengths.

In 2001 Paul Allen (co-founder of Microsoft) agreed to fund the technology development and first phase of implementation.  Later, the military stepped in. The funds given to them by the U.S. Naval Observatory helped them to build another 10.

“So we have 42 antennas, which is obviously the perfect number when you’re considering looking for life in the universe,” she says, and I quite agree.  However, they are hoping to grow that number to 350 eventually.

The Allen Telescope Array, located at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory in Mountain View, California.  (Photo from SETI/Released)

The Allen Telescope Array, located at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory in Mountain View, California. (Photo from SETI/Released)

The goal is, and continues to be, finding life in the universe using the noise it makes.  Which is kind of like looking for a needle in, well, a universe.  So, what happens if they find what they’re looking for?  What if/when SETI really does encounter an alien species?  Do they have a protocol for that kind of thing?

“Yes, actually, we do,” Jill says.  “We call it a Post Detection Protocol.  And of course we have one because SETI began as a NASA project.”

Ah.  The government’s love of multi-stage action plans transcends the military I see.  So how do you tell the world that life, as we know it, is about to get a lot less lonely?

“We worry a lot about a deliberate hoax,” she says.  “We have plans for how we can acquire an independent verification from another telescope with hardware we didn’t build, software we didn’t write.  Then we have various ideas of how to make sure that the scientific horsepower around the world gets engaged in following up in other ways, with other equipment.  There might be a lot more there than we’ve so far detected with our radio telescope.”

They also want to make sure that they have a “cadre very informed individuals” who understand the nature of the discovery and can help their local media understand and get it right. Simply put, they don’t want news outlets making up the facts on this one.

Which is fair enough, but if you have to sensationalize something as naturally sensational as the discovery of aliens you’re not really doing journalism at that point, are you?

For all the possibilities the ATA brings, it’s just another example of why space matters.  Besides, what better place to seek out new life than where all the building blocks exist?

“So space is our natural environment,” Dr. Tarter says.  “Our planet is part of a much larger cosmos.  As we study space we come to understand ourselves in this larger context.  We understand now that planets, in fact, like the Earth are common throughout the galaxy and presumably in other galaxies as well.”

We’re beginning to understand how they formed, she goes on to say.  By studying other planets we can see how our planet might evolve in the future.

Are we alone?  Dr. Jill Tarter of the SETI institute continues to search for life signs using space sounds. (Photo from SETI/Released)

Well…are we? Dr. Jill Tarter of the SETI institute continues to search for life signs using space sounds. (Photo from SETI/Released)

“Giving people that sense that they are connected to a much larger environment, and allowing them to step back and see humans and humanity, in that context has to – it just has to – eventually help to trivialize the differences among humans that we find so contentious today.  That we are killing one another over today.  So I think this cosmic concept, this cosmic perspective, is just absolutely essential to our future survival.”

There are practical applications for military uses with this kind of technology as well.  The Air Force Space Command has mentioned in no uncertain terms that it is preparing for future threats in space.  An array of a large number of small telescopes is the ideal tool for space situational awareness, Dr. Tarter points out.

And speaking of threats, the greatest challenge here, much to my surprise, was to keep people believing in the importance of these programs.

“Well, we haven’t detected any evidence of extraterrestrial technologies, and some people would like me to conclude on that basis.  Well, you know, the SETI’s 50 years old and we haven’t found anything.  Therefore, we must be alone.  I think the most compelling thing that I’ve tried to do – and I hope I’ve been able to do – is to explain to people that they just really have no concept of how large the cosmos actually is and how little all of our combined telescopes looking at the sky have actually probed.”

Can you believe that? Fifty years and we want to pack it in?  That’s barely a breath in the cosmological sense!  So, SETI spends their time trying to thwart this “oh well, must be alone then” attitude by keeping people interested in space discovery.  Things like Seti@Home and SETI Live are a couple of the ways they’re doing that.

“We at the SETI Institute have tried to come up with an active participatory citizen science project for the globe and we call it SETI Live because we, in fact, are sending out data from the telescope as it’s taken.”

They’re asking citizen scientists to look at that data in real time.  Mark signals that they see.  Compare the data in the three different beams that they are observing at the same time to see if the signal is in more than one beam (because that’s a good clue that it’s actually our own local interference).  You can then send the the results back to the observatory within 90 seconds.

Why less than 2 minutes?  Well that’s because that’s the window that they have to find signals and decide whether there’s anything there.  Whether there is anything they want to look back at in the next observing cycle.

You can check out to join the conversation.  Hey, you never know what you might hear out there.

The Allen Telescope Array, searching the skies.  Mountain View, California.  (Photo from SETI/Released)

The Allen Telescope Array, searching the skies. Mountain View, California. (Photo from SETI/Released)

So what would it mean if they succeed in detecting a signal?  Suppose there’s no information?  Suppose it’s just the cosmic dial tone?

“We still learn something incredibly important for humanity and that is that it’s possible for a technological civilization to survive,” Dr. Tarter says.  “If were successful in detecting a signal, the only way that can happen is if technological civilizations survive for a long time.”

It means that we can make it.

Somebody else survived this technological adolescence.  We can, too.  Dr. Tarter says she is not expecting them to solve our problems for us, or for extraterrestrial salvation, but just the motivation that it’s possible will be extraordinarily beneficial.

The late physicist Philip Morrison used to say that “SETI is the archeology of the future”.  That’s because any information that’s traveling at light speed over large distances is going to come from the past.  It will be their history by the time we receive it (and vice versa).

The reception of the signal tells us that we can have a long future.  So are we alone in the universe?  Dr. Tarter says she doesn’t know.  And that is exactly what she has spent her life trying to find out.

“There’s an answer out there, and we should just go explore until we find out what it is.”

In the movie Contact, Dr. Arroway asks the alien why his race contacted humans.  “You contacted us,” the alien says.  “We were just listening.”

And, thanks to people like Dr. Jill Tarter, so are we.

Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed with Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for technology in the military.

Follow Armed with Science on Facebook and Twitter!


Disclaimer: The appearance of hyperlinks does not constitute endorsement by the Department of Defense of this website or the information, products or services contained therein. For other than authorized activities such as military exchanges and Morale, Welfare and Recreation sites, the Department of Defense does not exercise any editorial control over the information you may find at these locations. Such links are provided consistent with the stated purpose of this DOD website.