by James Benford

Searching for the faintest of signals in hopes of detecting an extraterrestrial civilization demands that we understand the local environment and potential sources of spurious signals. But we’ve also got to consider how signals might be transmitted, the burden falling on SETI researchers to make sense out of the physics (and economics) that constrain distant beacon builders. James Benford, CEO of Microwave Sciences and a frequent Centauri Dreams contributor, now looks at the problem in light of recent transients and discusses how we should move forward.

Jim Benford

The recent activity on Perytons leads us to a major lesson. We have a vast microwave network all around us that can interfere with transient radio astronomy. Our cell phones, though not powerful, influence the stronger transmitters and antennas of the cell phone towers. Add to that the many Internet hubs, microwave ovens, wireless equipment and extensive communication webs. All these may have fast transients with features that are largely unreported.

Filtering out extraneous sources is very important in the broader context of radio telescope astronomy, especially for the growing field of transient radio astronomy. There are many types of possible astronomical transients: of course pulsars, but also magnetars, rotating radio transients (RRATs), gamma ray burst afterglow in radio, etc.

And there may be ETI beacons, which are likely to be transient as well. This may apply especially for the beacons I, and my coauthors Gregory and Dominic Benford, have explored in earlier papers. We argued on economic grounds (both capital costs and operating costs) that they are likely to be transient. [See SETI: Figuring Out the Beacon Builders and A Beacon-Oriented Strategy for SETI, as well as the citations listed at the end of this article].

Traditional SETI research takes the point of view of receivers, not transmitters. This neglects the implications of a simple fact: a receiver does not pay for the transmitter; the sender determines what to build.

But most radio astronomy observers are unfamiliar with the technologies and techniques of transmitters, whether it’s commercial electronic equipment, military equipment or SETI beacon builders.


Image: Magnetar SGR 0418+5729 with a magnetic loop. Magnetars, a potential source of transients, are peculiar pulsars – the spinning remnants of massive stars – that are characterized by unusually intense magnetic fields. Astronomers discovered them through their exceptional behavior at X-ray wavelengths, including sudden outbursts of radiation and occasional giant flares. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab.

A Missing Piece to the Puzzle

A specific example: Identifying the source of Perytons at the Parkes radio telescope – the microwave ovens – is incomplete. It misses identifying a cause for the observed frequencies received following a descending curve, flattening a little at later times. That’s approximately like the ‘dispersion measure’ (DM) due to interstellar plasma. [see Perytons: A Microwave Solution].

How can that happen in a microwave oven? A jerked-open oven door cuts off the voltage V to the magnetron. The frequency emitted from a magnetron scales as V/B, with the magnetic field B fixed by a permanent magnet. Voltage is proportional to frequency (f~V), so emitted frequency falls as the voltage declines and turns off. The magnetron passes through several lower frequency modes, which explains why the intensity of the radiation varies up and down as modes wax and wane.

Electron emission in the magnetron also declines as the cathode cools. The emitted frequency thus mimics a dispersion measure. (Note that amplifiers, such as the klystrons within transmitters used in the Deep Space Network and planetary radars, won’t show such behavior because of the way they operate. All oscillators, such as magnetrons, can behave this way.)

A Parallel

Therefore there is a parallel between what has now been found about Perytons and what we found about SETI beacons: Five years ago we looked at them from the point of view of those who would build beacons, as opposed to those observers who presume that beacons are all designed around the observers’ convenience or requirements. Similarly, the searchers after Perytons didn’t understand microwave sources – such as microwave ovens – and therefore missed that possibility for some years. People who are doing radio astronomy are usually not conversant with microwave radiating technologies. Alas, in the paper the Swinburne group just published, they still say that the cause of the emissions is “obscure.” It isn’t. Knowledge of how magnetrons work would have led to understanding their “dispersion measure.”

Because of the increasing emphasis in radio astronomy on searching for transients of many varieties, the point of view has to change. Radio astronomers had best study the transient background in detail, to eliminate false positives in their search for unusual astrophysical events. And the Peryton episode is a reminder for SETI that every possible alternative has to be explored before fingers are pointed at an extraterrestrial explanation.

This could be a bit tedious, but it’s essential. And it could avoid future embarrassments. If it’s any consolation, any transmitting aliens hailing us may have considered this as well. Possible implications for our search strategies should be explored.

For more on the Benfords’ papers on beacons, see James Benford, Gregory Benford and Dominic Benford, “Messaging with Cost-Optimized Interstellar Beacons,” Astrobiology Vol. 10, No. 5 (2010), pp. 475-490 (abstract / preprint), and the same authors’ “Searching for Cost-Optimized Interstellar Beacons,” Astrobiology Vol. 10, No. 5 (2010), pp. 491-498 (abstract / preprint).