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Technosearch: An Interactive Tool for SETI

Jill Tarter, an all but iconic figure in SETI, has just launched Technosearch, an Internet tool that includes all published SETI searches from 1960 to the present. A co-founder of the SETI Institute well known for her own research as well as her advocacy on behalf of the field, Tarter presents scientists with a way to track and update all SETI searches that have been conducted, allowing users to submit their own searches and keep the database current. The tool grows out of needs she identified in her own early research, as Tarter acknowledges:

“I started keeping this search archive when I was a graduate student. Some of the original papers were presented at conferences, or appear in obscure journals that are difficult for newcomers to the SETI field to access. I’m delighted that we now have a tool that can be used by the entire community and a methodology for keeping it current.”

Image: Screenshot of the Radio List on https://technosearch.seti.org/.

Among the materials included in Technosearch are:

  • Title of the search paper
  • Name(s) of observers
  • Search date
  • Objects observed
  • Facility where the search was conducted
  • Size and sensitivity of the telescope used
  • Resolving power of the instrument
  • Time spent observing each object
  • A link to the original published research paper
  • Comments that explain the search strategy
  • Observer notes

Technosearch currently contains 102 radio searches and 38 optical searches. The tool was presented yesterday at the 2019 winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle and will be maintained by the SETI Institute. The AAS meeting always produces interesting developments, including exoplanet investigations that I intend to discuss next week.

On Technosearch, a personal thought: No one who has not attempted a deep dive into the scholarship on SETI can know how frustrating it is to chase down lesser known investigations or details of major ones. The issue of ready availability extends to the broad field of interstellar flight research, as I learned when compiling materials for my Centauri Dreams book. The trail from conference presentation to published paper can be obscure, while materials relating to specific researchers can be scattered through library collections or spread over a range of journals, some of them with firewalls, or available only in expensive books..

I’ve long advocated for interstellar studies a return to what Robert Forward began with Eugene Mallove, a detailed bibliography whose last appearance was in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society in 1980. Putting such a resource online opens it worldwide and strengthens a field whose online databases are in many cases incomplete and often do not include older materials. All fields of scholarship will be following this essential path even as we continue to wrestle with academic publishers over questions of access to complete texts.

Technosearch is a step forward for SETI that helps scientists work with consolidated information while building a useful archive of contemporary work going forward. Tarter developed the tool in collaboration with graduate students working with Jason Wright (Penn State), a well-known figure in Dysonian SETI, which culls astronomical data looking for the possible physical artifacts of advanced civilizations. Also in the mix is Research Experience for Undergraduates, a program supporting students in areas of research funded by the National Science Foundation.

Image: Jill Tarter and Andrew Garcia presenting the Technosearch Tool.

SETI Institute REU student Andrew Garcia worked with Tarter in the summer of 2018:

“I started helping Dr. Tarter with this project as a research opportunity during the summer. I’ve become convinced that Technosearch will become an important instrument for astronomers and amateurs interested in exploring the cosmos for indications of other technological civilizations. We can’t know where to look for evidence tomorrow if we don’t know where we have already looked. Technosearch will help us chronicle where and how we’ve looked at the sky. I would like to thank the NSF REU program and the CAMPARE program for their encouragement and support throughout this project.”

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{ 20 comments… add one }
  • Alex Tolley January 10, 2019, 11:19

    Archivists and curators never lose usefulness.

  • Michael Spencer January 10, 2019, 13:26

    Our debt to Dr. Tarter ratchets up, once again, already beyond retiring. Standing firm in the face of often derisive criticism, she has almost singlehandedly lifted SETI to respectable – and respected – heights. Decade after decade she has demonstrated what it means to be a true believer. And a serious scientist.

    Indeed as a popularizer she has no peer (the tireless Seth Shostack standing at her side). Her analogy – that to date, SETI research matches a teaspoon taken from Earth’s oceans – is so vivid, repeated by me and countless others to the doubters, and wonderers, over the decades.

    We can never repay her. May she never stop

    • Andrei January 14, 2019, 16:39

      I fully agree Mr Spencer, she have done very important contributions, and advocated the search – while being confused/ derided for looking for ‘little green men’.
      Even as I disagree with most SETI scientists about the chance to find another civilization, it’s their job to be optimistic.
      We do agree that the search should continue, if there’s a ‘great filter’ that make civilizations disappear – we still have learned something, and need to take action. Or if intelligence is very rare, we still need to better care of ourselves and our planet.
      To me, both results would be an equally important finding.

  • Jason Wright January 10, 2019, 14:09

    Notes:
    1) I’m at Penn State
    2) The collaboration was actually with students of my class, Will Bowman and Caleb Cañas, not with me directly:
    https://sites.psu.edu/seticourse/final-projects/observational-seti-programs-through-the-decades/

    • Paul Gilster January 10, 2019, 14:13

      Yipes! What a typo. Have just fixed it.

  • Daniel Suggs January 10, 2019, 15:28

    I enjoyed your input to the Space dot com article on a possible interstellar probe. Well done.

    • Paul Gilster January 10, 2019, 15:33

      Thanks, Daniel. It’s always good to talk to Leonard David, who did his usual excellent job on that article.

  • Laintal January 10, 2019, 16:04

    A very good update Paul

    It was amazing to attend one of Jill’s talks

  • Gary Wilson January 10, 2019, 18:12

    Thanks to Jill Tarter and the students of Jason Wright. A brilliant idea.

  • Robin Datta January 10, 2019, 20:48

    “When the student is ready, the teacher appears”, the saying goes in some Eastern traditions. Let’s hope that that is also applicable to SETI as well: when the observer is ready, the evidence appears.

  • Dmitry Novoseltsev January 10, 2019, 23:46

    In addition to proposed database, I would suggest a separate section that includes data on the possible chemical and biochemical technosignatures, detectable in spectrometric and other observations.
    A number of papers (Adam Stevens, Duncan Forgan and Jack O’Malley. Signatures of Self¬-Destructive Civilisations. International Journal of Astrobiology 07/2015; -1(4)) have already considered some options.
    Thus, I suppose that the areas of increased concentration of complex organic compounds, up to DNA, RNA and their fragments, in protoplanetary disks of young stable stars, especially localized in certain areas of protoplanetary disks (Dmitry Novoseltsev. Engineering New Worlds: Creating the Future. Principium. Issue 17, May 2017), can be considered as potential technosignatures. This can be interpreted as the result of targeted activities for the dissemination of biological life, the most adapted to local conditions (analogue of the project “Catalysis”, the first stage). The results of recent experiments on the synthesis of complex sugars (Michel Nuevo, George Cooper, Scott A. Sandford. Deoxyribose and deoxysugar derivatives from photoprocessed astrophysical ice analogues and comparison to meteorites. Nature communications (2018) 9:5276.) generally confirm the technical feasibility of such a project.
    Another option may be an analogue of the project “Genesis” (Claudius Gros. Developing ecospheres on transiently habitable planets: the genesis project. Astrophys Space Sci (2016) 361:324), which may be manifested in observations as the detection of complex groups of biomarkers, presumably characteristic of the developed biosphere, in the atmospheres of fairly young exoplanets.

  • Michael C. Fidler January 11, 2019, 9:42

    Good article on Barnard’s star b at GeekWire but the best part is the link to the poster presentation from the AAS 23 meeting.

    https://www.geekwire.com/2019/barnards-star-harbor-icy-home-life-astronomers-weigh-options/

    http://clusty.ast.villanova.edu/gallery/Barnard_Poster_AAS2019.pdf

    Now bear with me for there may be a relation to Technosignatures.
    If life did develop on a planet like b in the early higher intensity youth of Barnard’s star what interest me is the comparison to our snowball earth. If geothermal activity may of helped complex life develop around hotspots in the snowball earth could it already have advanced enough that the cambrian explosion was not an explosion but an outcome of those pockets of life. Since the ice destroyed all fossil evidence in that period we do not know what happened. “Researchers suggest missing crust layer can be blamed on ‘Snowball Earth.’ ” https://phys.org/news/2019-01-crust-layer-blamed-snowball-earth.html
    Neoproterozoic glacial origin of the Great Unconformity.
    https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2019/01/07/1804350116

    So life may have developed on Barnard’s star b and Proxima b dark side, so these two nearby planets and stars should be observed carefully at all frequencies for signs of technosignatures and the other possibility of other ET’s colonizing them. This is where we can look at the type of devices or structures that may exist and also look for unusual signatures that may not have been considered in the normal SETI. Barnard’s star is an especially good target because it is only 4 degrees north and can be observed from all places on earth. A program of permanent observations 24 hours a day with smaller instruments could be justified.

  • AlexT January 12, 2019, 4:34

    I suppose that good database that dedicated to SETI efforts and results, add the good ground for “Fermi paradox” and “negative SETI results “. Scientists need only to decide when to stop and there was well enough SETI to conclude that present (seti) methodology gave only negative results… and this “negative” – it is real scientific fact that have to be scientifically explained and further research methodology have to be coordinally changed.

    • Andrei January 15, 2019, 6:49

      We are very far from that yet.
      Current instruments can only detect general radio noise up to a few hundred lightyears. Dedicated transmissions up to about ten thousand lightyears – unless the civilization have an incredibly powerful transmitter. But we do not monitor all the sky at all times either, a species who send a blip every few thousand years to all stars that is promising, calling for our attention – with a general broadcast that need a much more sensitive radio telescope to be received – easily could have been missed.
      A likely scenario is that once we have the instruments to really scan the sky efficiently, we pick up a signal from a civilization that broadcasted long ago, and who no longer exist.
      There were an interesting paper published about that some years ago, I do not remember the title, but now with Dr Tarter’s database I guess I can find it again. :)

      • AlexT January 16, 2019, 5:10

        It was retiric question – I am sure that SETI activists will never conclude that their efforts brought negative results. It only proves my statement that SETI’s fan argument that “negative SETI result is also good scientific result” – is hoax, no more, because it will be always possible to use contr-arguments like you use :-) Universe in huge – it is fact.
        But I mean that there should be some limit, when scientific community that methods used by SETI are wrong, it is mostly gambling than making science and all further SETI activity should be left for professional gamblers, i.e. private funding only, no any government funds allowed anymore.
        In addition I am in doubt that SETI science, because it leave no posdibility and chance to get negative result. Negative redult in SETI is same operation like divide number by ZERO.
        In same time – discussed database creation – is good deeds, because it solidifying fruiltess “success” of SETI efforts.

        • Andrei January 16, 2019, 11:33

          Yes I guessed it was.
          But you pointed at a thinking I have noted, and that is:
          We have not found anything when listening to radio signals so far – so perhaps we need to look for other wavelengths, laser, exotic massive and- or high energy particles etc.
          So my reply were also rhetoric, radio make sense for a first contact ‘hello’ and that we have not even started to look yet – as the sensitivity and around the clock monitoring of at least a large part of the sky is not currently done.
          Radio telescopes have a wide field, so such a system is possible, also the technology to shift trough million of frequencies in a short time, what is missing is the sensitivity.
          To make an equally good system for some exotic way of communication, might be more expensive and take an even larger effort. So aliens, if they broadcast right now, will know that also.
          So far we agree, but I am against the idea of privately funded science in any form, as such do not only demand results, but also ask for control over how the research is carried out, and there will not be the same double check with peer review etc as in academia.
          This is a long term project, and also blue sky research – such never have done well in the hands of private funders.

          • AlexT January 16, 2019, 16:38

            …exotic way of communication..

            I am sure any communication that is limited by speed of light on the distances more than ~50 light years is practically impossible, too slow exchange rate.

            …I am against the idea of privately funded science in any form…

            After some close look at SETI history and modern SETI community, I am sure now – SETI is not the science, may be on some higher levels it is good engineering hobby and science fiction dreams. SETI’s methods – are mostly gambling.
            Widely advertised outcomes of SETI positive result – many order overestimated, if positive SETI efforts can give as only answer to one scientific question – “we are not alone”, but in same case SETI methodology do not allows negative result in any way.
            So in the case we are alone (or we are fist intelligent life in he Universe) – SETI approach does not allow to confirm this fact, analyzing modern sources I see no way , how SETI can do that.
            So I am sure it will be better to spend SETI funds to real science and engineering (astronomy, space exploration and colonization, biology, novel propulsion engines etc.).
            SETI it is branch of HAM radio hobby, with difference that it does not allow duplex communication in reasonable time scale :-)

  • Michelangelo January 15, 2019, 12:41

    Is there any database similar to this but for METI? It would be interesting to know the power and frequency range of each radio message sent to space (with a minimal power threshold just to avoid considering each TV transmission a METI message).

    In that way we could map the number of stars that could receive those messages with a fixed size for the receiver antenna and establish which time is more probable to receive a response considering two-way paths.

    • ljk January 16, 2019, 12:06

      That is an excellent idea. Know anyone who can handle this? The SETI Institute, if they are not afraid to touch the subject? Breakthrough Listen, where METI is supposed to be one of their objectives?

      Here is a start:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Active_SETI

    • ljk January 16, 2019, 12:25

      Note that METI can also be physical, not just electromagnetic transmissions:

      Keeping Track of the Weird Stuff We Send Into Space?

      A new catalogue attempts to figure out what we’re telling the rest of the universe about ourselves.

      by Sarah Laskow

      November 19, 2018

      https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/weird-stuff-sent-to-space

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