≡ Menu

Laser SETI in Context

I’ve been thinking about SETI all weekend, not only because I’m pulling material together for the Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop in October, but also because I’ve been keeping an eye on the Laser SETI campaign now running on Indiegogo. With five days to go, Laser SETI is four-fifths of the way to its goal. When I think about the effort in the context of SETI’s history, its significance becomes ever more clear. Please give this campaign a look and help if you can.

The context I’m talking about relates to how we do SETI in a tight budgetary environment. Although it is not involved today, NASA was once a player in early studies, funding the work that produced the proposal for Project Cyclops, an enormous radio telescope array that was never built, although the ensuing report, Project Cyclops: A Design Study of a System for Detecting Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life, had influence throughout the young SETI community.

But SETI has always been controversial in some quarters, and while NASA did fund a Microwave Observing Program using instruments at the Deep Space Network, Green Bank (WV) and Arecibo, the program was canceled after objections in Congress. It was up to The SETI Institute to take the program forward with private funding under the name Project Phoenix. Under Jill Tarter’s guidance, the project targeted 800 stars within a roughly 200 light year range.

The context for SETI, then, if you look at the 100 or so SETI projects around the world since Project Ozma, is that private contributions play a huge role in keeping efforts like the Allen Telescope Array alive, while universities like UC-Berkeley rather than government agencies are behind projects like SETI@Home. I should also mention Project SERENDIP, likewise run by UC-Berkeley, and the SETI Australia Centre, which uses SERENDIP technologies at the Parkes instrument in New South Wales. The ongoing Breakthrough Listen initiative is another example, drawing on private capital to do visionary things that government fails to support.

In that spirit, the Laser SETI campaign carries us forward in striking ways. Let me quote Jill Tarter’s thoughts from an email this morning:

In 1981, Martin Harwit published Cosmic Discovery / The Search, Scope & Heritage of Astronomy. In this book he argued (citing plentiful precedents), that while we make arguments to potential funders about the questions that a new telescope, operating in virgin regions of observational phase space, will answer – in fact, the most important result from such a telescope, when it is built, will be to discover something nobody had ever anticipated! He argued for a funding policy that heavily encouraged exploration; if a new technology offers the opportunity to open up hitherto unobserved phase space, then fund it.

This is precisely what Laser SETI is doing by giving us the first opportunity to observe all the sky all the time, in search of transient optical phenomena. While the Laser SETI search algorithms are currently finely tuned to the discovery of monochromatic laser pulses from extraterrestrial technological civilizations, other algorithms can be developed that remove some of the specific filters intended to exclude everything but potential SETI signals. Indeed, if the sort of ‘Class A phenomena’ that Harwit documented are sufficiently bright, they could be captured by Laser SETI, perhaps even in the daylight sky. I’ve no idea what these things might be, but I’m convinced that it’s worth exploring. I hope that the astronomical community will join in the exploration.

I’ve written up the basics of Laser SETI in Laser SETI: All Sky All the Time, and I’ll send you there for detail about the hardware that this fundraiser supports. The crucial point is that we have the opportunity to look for laser signals — be they intentional beacons or the random activities of a civilization at work — with an unblinking stare that can pick up transient signals and determine if they repeat. The technology involved makes transients stand out against the background sky and is not dependent on being pointed at the right place at the right time.

How many transients are out there? We don’t know, but consider how long we’ve been doing astronomy before we detected the phenomenon known as Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs). These millisecond radio pulses are thought to occur by the thousands each day. As we puzzle out what they are, we’re reminded that we can’t hope to catalog transients — whether astrophysical phenomena or evidence of an extraterrestrial civilization — unless we can observe continuously.

The point bears repeating: If ET is bright but intermittent, all previous and current searches very likely won’t find it.

The Laser SETI cameras this campaign supports will localize targets on the sky and help us find out whether some of them are repeating. Going from two cameras, the campaign’s target, to multiple sites at six locations around the world would ensure all sky coverage full-time. But step one is to get the first two cameras operational. Eliot Gillum, the institute’s director of the optical SETI Program, leads this campaign. Here’s his take, from a recent email:

Laser SETI will explore like never before, looking for sub-minute transients across large swaths of the night sky. Its spectroscopic capabilities enable high time-resolution meteor burn analysis, discovery of new phenomena, or just more about known but perhaps incompletely understood events. And if it doesn’t make the most important discovery of all time by providing overwhelming evidence of a extraterrestrial signal, it will nonetheless have advanced the state of the art towards that goal in a significant and cost efficient way.

I want to add to that the fact that we can’t compartmentalize SETI operations from other investigations into the universe. We are doubtless going to learn a great deal about presumably natural phenomena like FRBs, and we’re certainly going to make entirely new discoveries in astrophysics. I think Jill Tarter has it precisely right when she cites Martin Harwit. As Harwit says, whenever we begin operations with a new kind of instrument, we may have an idea of what we are looking for, but invariably we discover things we had not anticipated.

Laser SETI should produce a similar result, becoming still more powerful as further sites come online. If SETI’s survival has always included scientists with enough passion for their work to surmount continuing budgetary constraints, then it’s good news that we live in an era when public participation can make a difference, playing a key role in getting new equipment online. Check the campaign and please help if you can as we try to get Laser SETI over the top.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • ljk August 14, 2017, 12:45

    The Planetary Society (TPS) has been conducting an Optical SETI observation project since 2006 at Harvard University’s Oak Ridge Station, but it is automated and apparently someone only checks the data every so many days. Even more concerning is that their official Web site on the program has not had a news update since 2014 and the last posting was on a Radio SETI event! See here:


    Does anyone know if the TPS Optical SETI project is still running? They let their Radio SETI program drift away without alerting anyone until well after it was reported that the large radio dish had fallen over in a windstorm in 1999 and they decided not to continue the effort or fix the historic dish, which was later scrapped.

    Also Harvard University has let the once venerable place at Oak Ridge Station with multiple optical observatories fall into disrepair and could not even be bothered to sell it to any interested parties who might have saved it. To say this is an outrage is putting it mildly. Where is the astronomy community both professional and amateur on this?

  • Tom Mazanec August 14, 2017, 13:21

    Are there transients at intermediate (optical) frequencies? There are transients at low frequencies (FRBs) and high frequencies (GRBs) so I would be surprised if there aren’t any.

  • ljk August 14, 2017, 14:40

    Quoting from the article:

    “But SETI has always been controversial in some quarters, and while NASA did fund a Microwave Observing Program using instruments at the Deep Space Network, Green Bank (WV) and Arecibo, the program was canceled after objections in Congress.”

    NASA even tried to “hide” the SETI program from Congress’ budget knives by calling it the High Resolution Microwave Survey (HRMS), but to no avail. It only lasted one year. Even Carl Sagan couldn’t save it like he did in the 1980s against Senator William Proxmire.

    Today’s politicians are showing a bit more positive interest in SETI and alien life than they used to, now that the stigma is finally starting to slough off. However that does not mean they are much smarter about the subject, so beware:



  • ljk August 14, 2017, 14:50

    The link to the Project Cyclops book appears to be broken or otherwise unavailable. I found these excerpts here:


    Cyclops may have actually hurt SETI more than it helped, for it gave the definite impression – especially with its artwork of the facility – that SETI would require a huge field of giant radio telescopes and a huge budget to go with it.

    Seeing as SETI has only recently been deemed worthy to fund properly (and for how long remains to be seen), that would only serve to scare off potential investors and other supporters. Not everyone is enamored with aliens or thinks they would pay off down the road.

    • Paul Gilster August 14, 2017, 15:00

      Thanks for telling me about the bad link, Larry. I’ve edited the piece to switch to the link you sent.

      • ljk August 14, 2017, 15:19

        You are welcome, Paul. It is unfortunate that such an important work in the history of SETI is not online in full for scholars and such. Not to mention so many other important documents.

      • H Paul Shuch August 15, 2017, 8:57

        The SETI League reprinted Project Cyclops about 20 years ago, and still has copies for sale. See the fourth book from the top at:


  • ljk August 14, 2017, 15:38

    Jill Tarter was quoted as saying the following from the main article:

    “In 1981, Martin Harwit published Cosmic Discovery / The Search, Scope & Heritage of Astronomy. In this book he argued (citing plentiful precedents), that while we make arguments to potential funders about the questions that a new telescope, operating in virgin regions of observational phase space, will answer – in fact, the most important result from such a telescope, when it is built, will be to discover something nobody had ever anticipated! He argued for a funding policy that heavily encouraged exploration; if a new technology offers the opportunity to open up hitherto unobserved phase space, then fund it.”

    These are wonderful and noble sentiments. My concern, however, is that in this age of even science having to show a practical and profitable value before any project is even started, will there be enough funding – or any funding – for these new discoveries? Tell me I am just being too cynical, please.

    Yes, SETI has been funded by a Russian billionaire. But once the 100 million dollars runs out, and it will, is there a plan in place to keep the funding coming? And if so, from where? I am not asking this question rhetorically.

  • J. Jason Wentworth August 15, 2017, 5:38

    In fairness, if the funding source is a government (whose money is taken at [potential] gunpoint from the taxpayers, even if it’s a constitutional republic whose leaders are elected by the people), it does have the right–indeed, the obligation–to ask what value a SETI project will bring for the money, and when. (This is no less true for private sources of funds, such as organizations and individuals.) In the early days of SETI, successful contact was hoped to be achievable–even with multiple civilizations–within a few decades at most (although other scientists did point out that a longer-term view was likely necessary for this).

    But today, after decades of listening to many targets with zero confirmed intelligent signals, it’s not surprising that SETI looks more like a financial rat hole to those with funding, while more “orthodox” optical astronomy (including at light wavelengths beyond the visible) and radio astronomy looks much more attractive to potential funders. Even exoplanet searches, which could eventually detect local life (although probably not intelligent life) spectroscopically, already has a better–and proven–“return on investment” than SETI, and:

    With the seemingly ever-expanding list of supporting criteria that are needed to make life possible (and which make technological intelligent life seem less likely), it’s no surprise that this knowledge, coupled with the “SETI silence” we’ve detected so far, doesn’t attract dollars or enthusiasm as the SETI field once did. The imaginary conversation (in Congressional testimony) between a SETI scientist and a legislator, in Ronald N. Bracewell’s book “The Galactic Club: Intelligent Life in Outer Space,” illustrates the ‘money versus time for results–if any–problem’ perfectly.

    • NS August 16, 2017, 1:40

      Well, I wish the government (and the taxpayers) would ask the same questions about stuff like this:


      • ljk August 16, 2017, 13:46

        Aliens cannot vote and they don’t fund bloated defense contracts. Therefore they make much easier cutting targets, even when a jet fighter that isn’t even ready for combat yet has already cost well over one trillion dollars with no end in sight.

        • J. Jason Wentworth August 17, 2017, 6:56

          Hopefully our governments will never have to vote for funds to defend ourselves from hostile aliens. John W. Macvey’s book “Space Weapons/Space War” is unnerving to read, especially late at night under a star-powdered sky, as he covers numerous motivations, methods, and tactics that aliens might have and use (as well as what we might do to repel such extrasolar invaders), and:

          While I’m strongly inclined to believe that humanity is the only intelligent race in the galaxy (at *this* moment of galactic history), or is at most one of two such races, I realize that John Macvey could be right. (The U.S. government has even formulated a plan for how to respond to an apparently non-hostile arrival by aliens; it’s almost laughably inadequate, but I’m glad that they have at least seriously considered such an event.)

          • ljk August 17, 2017, 9:32

            As I have written in a two-part article in this blog, marauding ETI will have the ultimate high ground and can use that to take out humanity, which at the moment are all stuck on Earth with the exception of just 6 people in LEO. Just drop a cluster of well-aimed space rocks and iceballs on our planet and wait for the dust to settle. Troops and missiles will be useless and the aliens won’t need them.

            You are correct that we are woefully unprepared for such an attack. We aren’t even ready for a random space rock impact let alone a coordinated military strike by a superior species.

      • J. Jason Wentworth August 17, 2017, 6:05

        I tell everyone who will listen that the F-35 is a turkey (airplanes–and any vehicles, for that matter–which are designed to do several things seldom do any of them well; in this venue’s context, it’s like trying to use an Orion starship engine for traveling to the Moon and back, efficiently…).

        • ljk August 17, 2017, 9:27

          The military doesn’t want to give up its pilots, who if you think about it are the last vestiges of the medieval knights. Machines are getting better, more efficient, and cheaper at doing all sorts of thing every day. We keep humans in the loop now largely to give them something to do and so they don’t feel obsolete. However, once robotics and AI become cheap enough, corporations will gladly turn things over to them because it is all about the bottom line. Are governments ready to handle millions of people without work? Of course not.

          • J. Jason Wentworth August 18, 2017, 2:16

            *Nods* While this is a sociological effect, it might affect–perhaps positively–SETI and other citizen-funded scientific projects. In a world where automata can do the work, and do it better than human beings, the concept of the guaranteed basic annual income makes sense, and:

            While many people would just become idle and lazy, or drink away their money (like many “trust fund babies”), many other people would pursue their interests and passions–including in the arts and the sciences–using their money and their freed-up time and energy. Crowd-funded SETI projects, and projects such as “McMoon’s” Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery and ISEE-3 Reboot projects, could greatly benefit from this state of affairs.

    • Joe H. August 16, 2017, 13:40

      You make some excellent points, Jason. Perhaps money for SETI would be better spent looking for life on exo planets. If we were to discover solid evidence of even primitive life on exo planets, it might help us better calculate the probability of intelligent life in our galaxy.

      • ljk August 16, 2017, 22:02

        Except for that recent donation from that Russian billionaire, the vast majority of SETI projects have had to work on shoestring budgets. Taking money away from SETI isn’t going to benefit other science projects, it’s only going to make even more certain that we miss a signal.

      • J. Jason Wentworth August 17, 2017, 6:31

        Thank you. I’m not against SETI (or METI, which is often–especially in Eastern Europe–even a money-making activity), but SETI is becoming less alluring (including to those with, or in control of, large sums of money) as more time goes by with nothing except the natural hissing of the stars and nebulae to show for the effort. It’s human nature. Lately I’ve been thinking that intelligent life may be so rare that only one–or maybe two–technological civilizations exist in the galaxy at any given time. Also:

        If no spectroscopic signatures of exoplanetary biospheres turn up, that would give us pause–and it would also be the best argument against war and indifference to *our* biosphere, if it proved to likely be unique in our galaxy…which would, in turn, be a strong incentive to colonize other star systems, in order to preserve what might be the only life anywhere. That would be ironic, since a positive incentive, “meeting our neighbors and superiors, face to face,” has always been the driving motivation for traveling to the stars, especially in person.

        • ljk August 17, 2017, 9:24

          It is much too early to know if we are alone in the Universe or not. Most of our SETI efforts have only shown that the galaxy isn’t full of aliens broadcasting at the top of their lungs, which is an outmoded view now anyway. We have barely begun to search, people need to realize this.

          • J. Jason Wentworth August 18, 2017, 1:57

            That is why I also support Bracewell probes, which could eventually find societies that don’t “do SETI or METI,” and they could also send back data and images on/of uninhabited worlds, as well as data on phenomena investigated while they’re en route to their target star systems. This continuous data return would make the probes (when reasonably fast ones become feasible) more attractive to potential funders.

  • J. Jason Wentworth August 15, 2017, 6:20

    One possible “spin-off” of laser SETI searches–if our ability to detect the signatures is sufficiently advanced–might be the detection of natural “lasershine” (laser emissions) from the atmospheres of some exoplanets (or even from nebulae whose atoms or molecules are excited to laser emission by nearby stars). Mars’ surface was found to be bathed in Sun-pumped lasershine, with its atmosphere functioning as a carbon dioxide laser, and:

    Incidentally, a Japanese planetarium projector designer demonstrated that a 1 mW laser pointer (that’s 1 *milliwatt*–even keychain laser pointers are often more powerful than that, being < 5 mW) can, when shone through a modest amateur astronomy telescope, be seen from up to 20 km (12.4 miles) away at night with just the naked eye (see: http://kotaku.com/one-mans-quest-to-prove-how-far-laser-pointers-reach-1464275649 ). He also wrote that even such a feeble laser should be able to carry a gigabit-level embedded signal that far (and 20 km was by no means its maximum range). If anyone out there is sending much more powerful message-carrying laser beams our way (or if the METI folks send out such laser beams), they should be demodulate-able, not just detectable, at respectable interstellar ranges.

  • ljk August 15, 2017, 9:01

    Project Cyclops did one good thing for SETI: It converted Jill Tarter to the field. :^)

    See here:


    The quote:

    It was there where Tarter became involved in SETI. A professor asked her to read the final report of Project Cyclops, a study that proposed developing a dedicated radio observatory for SETI at the cost of several billion dollars. NASA never funded the concept, of course, but the report became a guiding document for SETI in its early years. Tarter read the report and was hooked. Scoles compared it to a religious conversion, describing how, decades later, Tarter still had new students read the report. “She’s like a zealous convert, passing along the scripture that first inspired her.”

  • ljk August 15, 2017, 9:12
  • neutrino78x August 15, 2017, 10:17

    Paul Glister, minor correction: UC Berkeley is a government entity. It is funded by the state of California and the United States Federal Government, and the employees are State of California employees. :)

  • DJ Kaplan August 15, 2017, 12:13

    Okay, we’ve gotten more information about Titan’s chemistry, Tau Ceti’s planets, and Cassini is making its final approach. Let’s move on.

  • philw1776 August 15, 2017, 18:30

    Really sad to read about the neglect at Harvard University’s Oak Ridge Station. I was a contributor and was there touring the META (I think, from memory) array in the 90s. I’ve soured on SETI enthusiasm since, but I’ve long felt that OSETI could be a fertile endeavor. The mention of serendipity for scientific discovery makes it a far more worthwhile effort than just a search for beacons that probably don’t exist.

  • Tom Mazanec August 17, 2017, 12:28

    From the site:
    The SETI Institute is a private, nonprofit, scientific research organization, where more than 70 scientists study the origin and nature of life in the universe.

    Since there is over $18,000 left to go with only 2 days remaining, could the scientists each contribute a few hundred dollars to make up the difference? Or could the program observe 82% of the sky or time?

  • ljk August 25, 2017, 10:56


    The Impact of the Temporal Distribution of Communicating Civilizations on their Detectability

    Amedeo Balbi

    (Submitted on 24 Aug 2017)

    We use a statistical model to investigate the detectability (defined by the requirement that they are in causal contact with us) of communicating civilizations within a volume of the universe surrounding our location. If the civilizations are located in our Galaxy, the detectability requirement imposes a strict constraint on their epoch of appearance and their communicating lifespan. This, in turn, implies that the fraction of civilizations of which we can find any empirical evidence strongly depends on the specific features of their temporal distribution.

    Our approach shed light on aspects of the problem that can escape the standard treatment based on the Drake equation. Therefore, it might provide the appropriate framework for future studies dealing with the evolutionary aspects of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI).

    Comments: 17 pages, 1 figure. Accepted for publication in Astrobiology

    Subjects: Instrumentation and Methods for Astrophysics (astro-ph.IM); Popular Physics (physics.pop-ph)

    Cite as: arXiv:1708.07433 [astro-ph.IM]
    (or arXiv:1708.07433v1 [astro-ph.IM] for this version)

    Submission history

    From: Amedeo Balbi [view email]

    [v1] Thu, 24 Aug 2017 14:18:14 GMT (2005kb)


  • ljk August 28, 2017, 20:33


    Interview: Dr. Jill Tarter

    Posted on August 26, 2017 by Chuck Tomasi

    Jill Tarter holds the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI Research at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California and serves as a member of the Board of Trustees for that institution. She received her Bachelor of Engineering Physics Degree with Distinction from Cornell University and her Master’s Degree and a Ph.D. in Astronomy from the University of California, Berkeley.

    Dr. Tarter has spent the majority of her professional career attempting to answer the age old human question “Are we alone?” by searching for evidence of technological civilizations beyond Earth.

    She served as Project Scientist for NASA’s SETI program, the High Resolution Microwave Survey and has conducted numerous observational programs at radio observatories worldwide. She is a Fellow of the AAAS, the California Academy of Sciences, and the Explorers Club, she was named one of the Time 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2004, and one of the Time 25 in Space in 2012, received a TED prize in 2009, two public service awards from NASA, multiple awards for communicating science to the public, and has been honored as a woman in technology.

    She was the 2014 Jansky Lecturer. In 2015-16 she served as President of the California Academy of Sciences. There’s even an asteroid – 74824 Tarter (1999 TJ16) named in her honor.

    Since the termination of funding for NASA’s SETI program in 1993, she has served in a leadership role to design and build the Allen Telescope Array and to secure private funding to continue the exploratory science of SETI. Many people are now familiar with her work as portrayed by Jodie Foster in the movie Contact.

  • ljk August 30, 2017, 9:31

    Perhaps SETI folks should invest in some electron microscopes as well:


  • ljk September 3, 2017, 13:57

    Saturday Night Science: Making Contact

    Contributor John Walker

    September 2, 2017


    To quote:

    The Cyclops report arrived at a time when NASA was downsizing and scaling back its ambitions: the final three planned lunar landing missions had been cancelled in 1970, and production of additional Saturn V launch vehicles had been terminated the previous year. The budget climate wasn’t hospitable to Apollo-scale projects of any description, especially those which wouldn’t support lots of civil service and contractor jobs in the districts and states of NASA’s patrons in congress. Unsurprisingly, Project Cyclops simply landed on the pile of ambitious NASA studies that went nowhere. But to some who read it, it was an inspiration. Tarter thought, “This is the first time in history when we don’t just have to believe or not believe. Instead of just asking the priests and philosophers, we can try to find an answer.

    This is an old and important question, and I have the opportunity to change how we try to answer it.” While some might consider searching the sky for “little green men” frivolous and/or absurd, to Tarter this, not the arcana of brown dwarfs, was something worthy of support, and of her time and intellectual effort, “something that could impact people’s lives profoundly in a short period of time.”

    This article kindly has a link to the full Cyclops document in PDF format here, thanks to NASA NTRS:


  • ljk September 6, 2017, 21:25


    All-sky Radio SETI

    Michael Garrett (JBCA/Leiden), Andrew Siemion (Berkeley), Wim van Cappellen (ASTRON)

    (Submitted on 5 Sep 2017)

    Over the last decade, Aperture Arrays (AA) have successfully replaced parabolic dishes as the technology of choice at low radio frequencies – good examples are the MWA, LWA and LOFAR. Aperture Array based telescopes present several advantages, including sensitivity to the sky over a very wide field-of-view. As digital and data processing systems continue to advance, an all-sky capability is set to emerge, even at GHz frequencies.

    We argue that assuming SETI events are both rare and transitory in nature, an instrument with a large field-of-view, operating around the so-called water-hole (1-2 GHz), might offer several advantages over contemporary searches.

    Sir Arthur C. Clarke was the first to recognise the potential importance of an all-sky radio SETI capability, as presented in his book, Imperial Earth.

    As part of the global SKA (Square Kilometre Array) project, a Mid-Frequency Aperture Array (MFAA) prototype known as MANTIS (Mid- Frequency Aperture Array Transient and Intensity-Mapping System) is now being considered as a precursor for SKA-2. MANTIS can be seen as a first step towards an all-sky radio SETI capability at GHz frequencies. This development has the potential to transform the field of SETI research, in addition to several other scientific programmes.

    Comments: 7 pages, 4 figures, accepted for publication, Proceedings of Science, workshop on “MeerKAT Science: On the Pathway to the SKA”, held in Stellenbosch 25-27 May 2016. Comments welcome

    Subjects: Instrumentation and Methods for Astrophysics (astro-ph.IM)

    Cite as: arXiv:1709.01338 [astro-ph.IM]
    (or arXiv:1709.01338v1 [astro-ph.IM] for this version)

    Submission history

    From: Mike Garrett [view email]

    [v1] Tue, 5 Sep 2017 11:38:14 GMT (632kb)


  • ljk September 19, 2017, 11:36

    Want to find ETI? Aim our SETI instruments at dying exoplanets and suns:


    This idea is not new, but these concepts seem to need repeating every so many years.

  • ljk October 13, 2017, 11:15

    Using Artificial Intelligence to Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

    G. Adam Cox

    October 11, 2017

    Deep Neural Networks have been trained to classify simulated radio-telescope signals with 95% accuracy.

    The Machine Learning 4 SETI Code Challenge (ML4SETI), created by the SETI Institute and IBM, was completed on July 31st 2017. Nearly 75 participants, with a wide range of backgrounds from industry and academia, worked in teams on the project. The top team achieved a signal classification accuracy of 95%. The code challenge was sponsored by IBM, Nimbix Cloud, Skymind, Galvanize, and The SETI League.

    The ML4SETI project challenged participants to build a machine-learning model to classify different signal types observed in radio-telescope data for the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI). Seven classes of signals were simulated (and thus, labeled), with which citizen scientists trained their models. We then measured the performance of these models with tests sets in order to determine a winner of the code challenge. The results were remarkably accurate signal classification models. The models from the top teams, using deep learning techniques, attained nearly 95% accuracy in signals from the test set, which included some signals with very low amplitudes. These models may soon be used in daily SETI radio signal research.


  • ljk October 25, 2017, 10:49

    Nice, in-depth, and honest article about SETI past, present, and future:


  • ljk November 7, 2017, 12:02

    ‘Making Contact’ Profiles Pioneering Alien Hunter Jill Tarter

    By Nola Taylor Redd, Space.com Contributor | November 6, 2017 05:21 pm ET

    A new book by science writer Sarah Scoles profiles radio astronomer Jill Tarter, a pioneer in the search for intelligent life beyond Earth. Even if you haven’t heard of Tarter, you might know the fictional alien hunter she inspired — Ellie Arroway, from the movie “Contact,” which was based on the book by Carl Sagan. The character was based on Tarter, who was a driving force in what became known as SETI, or the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Tarter helped transform SETI from a somewhat dubious field in the 1970s to a more organized effort that is accepted by the mainstream scientific community today.

    “She kind of fell into SETI work,” Scoles told Space.com. Scoles’ book, “Making Contact: Jill Tarter and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence” (Pegasus Books), was published earlier this year.

    Scoles said early SETI efforts faced serious scientific, political and financial challenges, causing the field to move forward in fits and spurts. Although Scoles acknowledges that scientists work together to build up and establish their fields, she said Tarter served a unique and perhaps irreplaceable figure.

    “I’m not confident that there would have been another person who would have picked up the pieces and started over,” Scoles said. “[Tarter’s] willingness and ability to persevere in the face of all that is not something that a lot of people would have done.”

    Full article here:


  • ljk November 7, 2017, 12:10

    Pioneer in the search for ET looks back, ahead in talk

    By Linda B. Glaser

    November 1, 2017

    Frank Drake ’51 has been searching for evidence of intelligent life in the universe for 57 years. In an astronomy colloquium talk Oct. 19, “New Frontiers in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence,” Drake described the search efforts made so far and new opportunities provided by recent technological – and philanthropic – advances.

    As Cornell’s director of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, Drake sent the first directed message to extraterrestrials into space, using radio waves, in 1974. He is also the creator of the Drake Equation, which estimates the number of active, communicative extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy.

    Full article here:


    To quote:

    Back when SETI began, lasers were too weak to transmit even to the nearest star, so the search concentrated on detecting radio waves. “The development of super powerful lasers has changed all that,” said Drake. Lasers developed for nuclear fusion purposes can outshine star light by 3,000 times, and even though the beam lasts only for a nanosecond, it is still easier to detect such a signal than a radio wave. And because they are so definitively of intelligent origin, there are fewer problems with the interference and false positives that plague radio searches. Radio interference has only increased as the number of spacecraft orbiting Earth has increased.

    “We’re now looking for artificial pulsed laser emissions in our galaxy,” said Drake. “We suspect that there are brief signals because we detect brief pulses, but they don’t repeat. They could, in fact, be other civilizations sending us brief signals with information coded on them we can’t detect. Or maybe they’re sending a signal from one star to another, but only once in our direction, so we can only detect them once, and we can’t be sure the signal was of intelligent origin.”

    When asked during the Q&A why there has been nothing conclusively detected after 57 years of searching, Drake said “we’ve been looking at one star at a time for 10 minutes. That’s just a drop in the bucket … if signals are only there for a fraction of a second, we haven’t looked long enough at enough stars to see them.”

    The solution, said Drake, is the proposed Pulsed All-Sky Near-Infrared Optical SETI (PANOramic SETI). It is designed to look at all the sky all the time, as Earth rotates. “We have a design and a prototype, and we have a detector that fits the bill,” said Drake. “On-site tests will be performed soon. We’re coming to a new era in SETI when there won’t be problems of false positives.”

  • ljk November 8, 2017, 17:14

    What Happens If China Makes First Contact?

    As America has turned away from searching for extraterrestrial intelligence, China has built the world’s largest radio dish for precisely that purpose.

    Ross Andersen

    December 2017 Issue

    Last January, the Chinese Academy of Sciences invited Liu Cixin, China’s preeminent science-fiction writer, to visit its new state-of-the-art radio dish in the country’s southwest. Almost twice as wide as the dish at America’s Arecibo Observatory, in the Puerto Rican jungle, the new Chinese dish is the largest in the world, if not the universe.

    Though it is sensitive enough to detect spy satellites even when they’re not broadcasting, its main uses will be scientific, including an unusual one: The dish is Earth’s first flagship observatory custom-built to listen for a message from an extraterrestrial intelligence. If such a sign comes down from the heavens during the next decade, China may well hear it first.

    Full article here:


  • ljk November 9, 2017, 10:45

    Scoles holds book signing at GBO

    November 8, 2017

    Suzanne Stewart, Staff Writer

    Returning to her former stomping grounds, first-time author Sarah Scoles led a discussion and book signing Thursday at the Green Bank Observatory.

    Scoles released her first book, Making Contact: Jill Tarter and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, in July and organized a program about the book and the “miss-hits” of SETI – The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence – for her visit.

    “I’m very excited that the book is out in the world,” she said. “It’s a biography of an astronomer named Jill Tarter, who is the inspiration for the main character in Contact, but I’m not just going to tell you about her life because you should read the book I wrote because it took a long time. Instead, I’m going to talk to you about some of SETI’s history. Specifically, I’m going to talk about all the times SETI has done it wrong and why I – as a wise person – think they may have done it wrong.”

    Full article here:


    To quote:

    “SETI scientists are looking for technology an alien civilization may have built in order to communicate with us or to communicate with each other,” she said. “If they don’t have technology, if they like to keep quite – if they like that they’re a Bronze Age or Stone Age just fine and don’t see any need to develop radio transmitting technology, or if they are dolphins on planets that are full of oceans, that’s not something SETI is going to find.”

    While is can be discouraging to have false alarms, or “non-hits” as Scoles calls them, SETI continues the search because among those miss-hits may be a real transmission from intelligent life.

    Of the several “non-hits” Scoles discussed, two took place at the Green Bank Observatory – one in its early days as part of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and another in the 1990s.

    “The first false alarm I’m going to talk about, kind of interestingly, happened during the very first SETI search that ever happened,” Scoles said. “It’s called Project Ozma and it happened right here in Green Bank at the 85-foot telescope. Frank Drake – he was twenty-nine years old when it started, and I was just told that he celebrated his thirtieth birthday while he was doing this first SETI project.”

    Drake was observing two stars, looking for radio signals.

    “It turns out it did actually find something, but obviously this is SETI’s greatest non-hits, so you know it’s not real,” Scoles said. “Something [Drake] said in an interview for a book called SETI Pioneers, is ‘whenever you search for extraterrestrial intelligent radio signals, you always feel at the beginning that the signal might pop up right away.’”

    Of course, the signal didn’t pop up right away and it was not, in fact, aliens.

    “It was not aliens, and I think Frank Drake knew that was likely the case,” Scoles said. “It was his life project at the moment, and we all want to interpret something we see as perhaps the thing that we’ve been looking for even though there’s not evidence of that yet. Pretty soon after they saw this signal – I think very soon – they discovered it was actually probably just a plane flying over.”

    The search continued and in the 1990s, Jill Tarter came to Green Bank to work on the SETI Institute Project Phoenix where scientists took what Drake did – observing two stars – and multiplied it by a hundred. The experiment used the 140-foot telescope and a second telescope in Georgia.

    “They had a second telescope in Woodbury, Georgia, where if this telescope saw something interesting that seemed like it might be from aliens, they would alert that other telescope so that it could go follow-up on it and see if it saw the same thing and hopefully confirm something about whether it was real or not,” Scoles said.

    Scoles read an excerpt from her book about Project Phoenix and described what Tarter and the other scientists were thinking and wondering as they tried to confirm if there were any signals made by extraterrestrials.

    After studying more than 800 stars, the project ended with no alien made signals.

    With decades of false alarms behind it, SETI scientists continue to search for signals from extraterrestrials.

    Those who believe the answer to the question “Are we alone?” is no, like Scoles, have found evidence on Earth that gives them hope that there will be a definitive answer one day.

    The first kinds of discovery that made it seem like it could be likely there’s life out there are the discoveries of extreme life on Earth,” Scoles said. “This is an extreme life on Earth – a tardigrade or water bear. It’s a micro organism and it can survive a lot of radiation in the vacuum of space without water and without food for thirty years. That’s longer than people used to live a long time ago. That’s pretty crazy. You don’t have to believe in them because they exist. You can see them with microscopes.

    “There are other examples of extreme life that we’ve found in very iron rich deposits in mines and very acidic lakes or very salty seas and even in the radioactive pools around nuclear plants,” she continued. “Just basically anywhere that is on Earth there is some life that has found some kind of way to survive there which suggests to me and to some scientists that there are a lot more places in the universe – not just on Earth – that might be habitable that we thought as super unfriendly in the past.”

    Along with extreme life, there is the discovery of hundreds of planets outside the solar system in the universe which would possibly support life.

    “They orbit basically every star,” Scoles said. “There’s a lot of planets with ground, we might call them rocky planets, so somewhere an alien being wouldn’t have to be floating in Jupiter-style gas. It could build a house or whatever aliens have. Given that life here can survive any number of places that seem very bad to us, and that there are all of these planets out there where there could be all kinds of conditions that we might have thought of as bad, but maybe a tardigrade or an alien like tardigrade would like just fine.”

  • ljk November 13, 2017, 11:26

    Puerto Rico’s Massive Telescope Is Still Running on Generators

    The Arecibo Observatory is facing months of costly repairs after Hurricane Maria struck in September.

    Marina Koren

    November 10, 2017


  • ljk November 28, 2017, 12:07

    SETI vs. METI? One cannot exist without the other…


    To quote:

    SETI scientists like Werthimer would prefer not to transmit anything to anyone. But they want people to give them millions of dollars to listen for transmissions from other intelligent species. If alien intelligences are similar to us i.e. afraid of other letting civilizations know where they are then they are not going to be transmitting either. If that is true then Werthimer et al are wasting a lot of money listening for signals that are not going to be there – if you follow their self-canceling logic, that is.

    Also, Wetheimer claims his statements are shared by “Ninety-eight percent of astronomers and SETI researchers”. Really – he has polled all astronomers and SETI researchers – everywhere? Reference, please. We have been announcing our presence to alien civilizations in one form or another for nearly a century via radio. The bulk of these transmissions have not been done by governments. As such the 2010 statement by IAA (which is also utterly non-binding) would have little effect on stoping anyone with money and a big dish from saying “hello”.

    We have far more to fear from actual members of our own species than any hypothetical aliens dwelling on some distant world separated by many light years. Humans need all the enlightenment they can get.

  • ljk December 1, 2017, 10:47

    How scientists’ search for aliens is getting more advanced than ever

    The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence is bigger than ever, thanks to a big cash infusion from Russian billionaire Yuri Milner. That $100 million, decade-long Breakthrough Listen initiative could put us on the cusp of finding out if we’re alone in the universe.

    For Margaret Turnbull of the SETI Institute, it’s a welcome breath of fresh air for SETI.

    “I’m anxious to see the SETI search become more methodical in conducting and publishing well-designed search programs,” she says. “Breakthrough Listen will help enormously with that.”

    Full article here:


    To quote:

    In some ways, though, it’s a fairly traditional search. They’re looking in specific areas of the radio spectrum for hints of stray alien signals, kind of like what’s seen in Contact. But there are other ways to hunt for aliens, some of which have yet to be explored.

    Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center, says that a wider radio search beyond the so-called “hydrogen line” (which is where the most abundant element in the universe “broadcasts,” and is a smart bet for finding stray radio signals) will require more computing power. Once that’s in place, a radio telescope might be able to tune into radio signals across the entire broadcast spectrum.

    He also says that at the end of the Breakthrough Listen initiative in 2025, the Square Kilometer Array will open up shop in South Africa. This will be the widest radio telescope array when it opens and one of the most precise when it begins operation in 2020, combining 250 dishes while leaning on other facilities for a little extra oomph. It will also have the computing power to match. It will make spying on other planets easier than ever.

    “This next-generation facility will be the first telescope capable of detecting Earth-level leakage from nearby stars,” Siemion says.

    He also mentions another type of SETI research still in its infancy: optical SETI. This involves looking for light beacons from other civilizations. A paper published last year in Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific identified more than 200 possible candidates, but the claims weren’t taken very seriously.

  • ljk December 1, 2017, 10:49

    Former SETI director Jill Tarter: ‘An alien signal isn’t coming to the US, it’s coming to planet Earth’


  • ljk December 4, 2017, 11:52
  • ljk December 19, 2017, 10:53

    Soviet Armenian Observatory That Held First Conference on Alien Communication Transformed into Art Space

    By Dalita Khoury on December 18, 2017


    The year was 1971. The Cold War was in its full, frigid swing, and tensions between the United States and Soviet Union were riding on thin ice. But in the sunny little village of Byurakan, located in the Soviet Union’s smallest republic, none of that seemed to matter.

    The Byurakan Astrophysical Observatory (BAO) was founded in 1946 by Soviet Armenian scientist and a founder of theoretical astrophysics Victor Ambartsumian, but it raised to international prominence in 1971, when 44 of the world’s most renowned scientists from the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., including Nobel Prize winners Carl Sagan and Frank Drake, convened there for an international conference with a title that reads curiously like a science fiction novel: “Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence (CETI): The First International Conference on Extraterrestrial Civilizations and Problems of Contact with Them.”

    CETI was the first conference of its kind, and it ended up being a pivotal moment for the history of global interest in extraterrestrials. Organizers of the conference shaped their discussions around philosophical questions and the Drake Equation, a formula that operates on a number of hypothetical variables to estimate the number of active, communicative extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy. The results of the conference yielded a scientific research method that laid the groundwork for the field of astrophysics.

    The six-day conference was an important moment for Armenia and the international scientific community, but as with many remnants of the Soviet era… the story of the conference and the BAO’s contributions to the development of astrophysics has faded into the background of history.