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Project Argus: Finding a ‘Benford Beacon’

It’s heartening to see James and Gregory Benford’s work on extraterrestrial beacons receiving broader coverage. We’ve looked at the relevant papers in these pages [run a search on ‘Benford’ in our database and you’ll pull up articles by and about them], but news features like this one in TIME Magazine are pushing the Benford brothers’ work out to a much larger audience. That’s an important step, because right now the view of SETI most likely held by the average person relates to movies like Contact, in which huge dishes pointed at particular stars seem to be the way to proceed. The Benfords want to re-write that scenario in a big way.

We’ll have to leave as debatable the question about how far away our own television transmissions can be received. James Benford commented here not long ago that a civilization of approximately our technological level would not be able to receive broadcast signals as weak as those we’ve sent out carrying the likes of Milton Berle and I Love Lucy. Presumably, a far superior civilization could find those signals, but the question for our SETI search is, what kind of signal is feasible for us to receive today, and where do we look?

Economics of the ‘Short Burst’

I like the notion of applying economics to this issue, which is what the Benfords do in analyzing how cost-effective an interstellar transmission strategy would be for the civilization sending it. It turns out that short, powerful bursts sent out now and then are far more reasonable than continuous broadcasts, given the realities of energy usage on the interstellar level. We’re a lot less likely to find such ‘Benford beacons’ if we aren’t pointed at just the right place at just the right time. Could the 1970s-era ‘Wow’ signal have been a Benford beacon, one we lacked the resources to follow up on with sufficient rigor to track down its true nature?

Whatever it was, the ‘Wow’ signal stands as a reminder that there’s a lot we aren’t doing. Gregory Benford told TIME that adding up all the SETI observing time over the past half century yields only a few months of data. So what would the chances be of finding a sporadic burst given the listening time and strategies involved? All of which gets me to Project Argus, an inspiring attempt by the SETI League to enlist the service of amateurs in the cause of broadening SETI’s reach. The ambitious goal is to deploy 5,000 small radio telescopes around the globe, providing what the SETI League calls ‘the first ever continuous monitoring of the entire sky, in all directions in real time.’ From the SETI League:

Traditional research grade radio telescopes (the type which NASA used) can view only a small fraction of the sky at a given time, typically on the order of one part in a million. All-sky coverage with these instruments would thus require a million telescopes, properly aimed. At a cost of perhaps one hundred million US dollars apiece, such a network would exceed the Gross Planetary Product. Fortunately, there is another way.

Project Argus On the Case

That other way involves amateurs putting up to a few thousand dollars into an amateur radio telescope capable of the microwave coverage Project Argus demands. What you get with 5,000 small telescopes is full-sky coverage with the ability to pick up microwave radiation from a technologically advanced civilization out to several hundred light years. In a recent post on a mailing list of space professionals, writer David Brin noted that targeted signals like those sent to other stars from the Evpatoria radio telescope in the Crimea would probably not be detectable by an Allen Telescope Array, whereas a Project Argus at full strength would have found them.

Paul Shuch, executive director emeritus of the SETI League, is well aware that Project Argus will have to grow from its current 150 or so installations to the requisite 5000 to be truly operational, but perhaps this is where a philanthropist with a SETI bent could make a difference. In any event, what Project Argus is doing is of so fundamentally different a nature than the SETI Institute’s work that it’s deserving of our support. A combination of approaches is all to the good, and Project Argus adds a component than in Benford terms is more likely to succeed. Here’s Paul Shuch on the matter in a recent SETI League editorial:

Both the SETI League and the SETI Institute are committed to furthering SETI science. For the past several years, the SETI Institute has spearheaded the design, development, construction, and operation of the Allen Telescope Array, clearly the world’s most advanced SETI research instrument. The SETI League takes a different tack, encouraging the construction of hundreds of small, low-cost amateur radio telescopes around the world. In years past, the SETI Institute has conducted a powerful targeted search of nearby sun-like stars, while the SETI League has concentrated on a significantly less sensitive all-sky survey, in hopes of detecting those very powerful, yet highly intermittent, signals which might well evade a more sensitive, targeted search.

So on with the Allen Telescope Array, but kudos as well to the hard-working SETI League and its attempt to set up the kind of observational effort that just might detect the next ‘Wow’ signal. We should also keep in mind the other Benford caveats, that the obvious direction to look is toward the center of the Milky Way, where civilizations around older stars might have a more advanced technology and might have chosen to deploy a beacon along the galaxy’s radius. Short, powerful bursts are going to be tricky to catch, so the more eyes and ears on the case, the greater the chances of success. Project Argus is an apt name. The mythical Argus had 100 eyes and could see in all directions at once, perhaps just the ticket for finding another civilization.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • bigdan201 August 6, 2010, 13:17

    From what I’ve read about the Wow! signal, it lasted for 72 seconds, which is the length of time the Big Ear was listening to that particular point in the sky. Also, the signal rose, peaked, and declined in relation to how directly the signal was hitting the Big Ear.

    I definitely agree that expanding coverage and monitoring all of the sky at once is the best solution for SETI searches as well as for observing the cosmos in general. If something like that had been in place during the Wow! signal, we would’ve seen its full extent. Some who have tried to discredit the Wow! signal pointed out how it has not been observed again, but the signal fits very well with a rotating beacon and/or a beacon with occasional bursts. We’re bound to miss tons of stuff if we only focus on certain parts of the sky. A combination of low-level observation everywhere, with stronger searches towards stars and the central part of the milky way would be very effective.

    As I mentioned before, the benefits aren’t limited to SETI. Wide windows of observation will show us all sorts of stuff.

  • andy August 6, 2010, 14:26

    Just a heads up here: you’ve got an illegal character in the source of this post, right after the tau zero foundation image at the end of the post, between the {br /} and the {/p} (I’ve converted the angle brackets converted to curly braces to prevent them from being treated as markup). It causes the RSS feed to fail to load in Mozilla Firefox.

  • NS August 6, 2010, 14:41

    There was an entirely different “Argus” project at Ohio State University, whose goal was to construct a “radio camera” that could monitor the entire sky continuously. As far as I can tell it’s not active now, and it would take advances in computer technology to fully implement, but it would be an additional step toward detecting intermittent or transient signals:

    http://www.ece.vt.edu/swe/argus/

  • Paul Gilster August 6, 2010, 15:32

    andy, thanks for the heads-up — thanks to your note, I found the problem and it should be fixed, but let me know if any problems persist. Much appreciated.

  • andy August 6, 2010, 16:44

    Yep, that fixed it. Thanks!

  • Carl Keller August 7, 2010, 10:14

    Big Ear was shut down and dismantled because the landowner wanted the site to add to his adjoining golf course. Insisting on the contract point that the radio reflectors be painted, the University did not have appropriated funds for fall-arrest gear to facilitate painting. A sad footnote.

    There have been amateur radio astronomers around for decades. The most notable group being http://www.radio-astronomy.org/ which performs real science.

    Why no signals have been positively identified has been discussed in Centauri Dreams a few times. It’s known that programmers who try to rectify the mistakes of other programmers have to “get inside the other guy’s head” while they scan the code for anomalies. I believe, in a similar fashion, we might have to emulate alien thought processes to find their signatures in radio spectra. Exobiology has no known examples, and only a few questionable fossil traces in some meteorites. Less is available with any discipline of exopsychology. But different models can be proposed that could fit another intelligent species. Besides this is always serendipity.

    Television signals use(d) frequencies which are attenuated or reflected earthward by D and E ionosphere layers. The radiation pattern of the transmitted signal is also engineered to favor regional reception. Lucy would be a grainy, noise-laden amusement for ET.

  • NS August 7, 2010, 14:38

    The Ohio State “Argus” project was subsequent to Big Ear. One of the main people involved in it (Steve Ellingson) is now a professor at Virginia Tech and is working on somewhat similar systems there, although for non-SETI purposes:

    http://www.ece.vt.edu/swe/

  • philw1776 August 7, 2010, 16:19

    Carl wites…”Television signals use(d) frequencies which are attenuated or reflected earthward by D and E ionosphere layers. The radiation pattern of the transmitted signal is also engineered to favor regional reception. Lucy would be a grainy, noise-laden amusement for ET”

    What is the probability that our 1st ET response message is, “Lucy! You got some splainin to do!”?

  • Mike August 7, 2010, 18:25

    I like the idea behind Project Argus. It seems as though it’s tough to recruit enough people with the land,money,technical ability or interest to fill the ranks. After 10 years there are only about 150 receivers in operation.
    Ofcourse you don’t need 5000 participants. If Project Argus members can field many of these low cost dishes then we start seeing more comprehensive sky coverage. But even for used dishes the cost does start to mount especially when you factor in all the other necessary equipment.
    But I still think it is a good idea and worth attempting. I would suggest to all readers here to visit the Project Argus website. Link is in the article above.

  • Procyan August 8, 2010, 0:21

    Further to Mikes comments, it concerns me that people have a general feeling that there is a lot of SETIng going on hence the often repeated rejoiner, “Where are they?” Without wishing to be unduly negative, I don’t see it. I’m sure something shows up in peer review, but why don’t they share their results? Moutain View? The SL? They seem to believe that unless they get an unequivocal, persistant, narrowband wow blast, its a null. Consider this…SETI@home is legit but they are getting zillions of hits. Either they are too sensitive or something really interesting is happening. Something is just really strange about all that, but they are not talking, at least not to their loyal base. We don’t subscribe to Icarus et al. I am happy to support as long as I’m included in the analysis. Do they make the data available to other competitent alien hunters?

    In this game a thorough analysis of “negative” results is vital to “success”. Besides, I consider the SETI@home results extremely interesting, and those multitudinous spikes and gausians need to be sus’d for the phenomenon that they are, regardless of their origin, natural or not. Its a new window, of course they are seeing new things.

    It seems to me these groups are all hanging out for another Paul A. to come along. That’s fine but we need to be clear about where we are before we start changing the paradigm. I am happy to be corrected on this. I submit there is not enough significant SETI effort from Earth to date to draw any conclusions about alien population density. In the same breath I enthsiastically add that any detection strategy is better than none.

    It is difficult for me to fault SETI in any form. I find the notion that day by day, photons sent by alien minds are imping on the surface of Earth compelling. I suppose thats why I keep coming back here to meet like minds. Its my watering hole, so to speak.

  • Mike August 8, 2010, 14:05

    To clarify my earlier comments regarding Project Argus, they require about 5000 small parabolic antennas to provide 24 hour all sky coverage. This dooesn’t mean they need 5000 participants if some participants can deploy many antennas each. They would have to be well motivated and well off.
    Constant sky coverage faces another hurdle considering how to avoid a big gap in coverage over the Pacific Ocean.There will have to be participants in Hawaii, Fiji, Tahiti, hey! this sounds better all the time!

  • Paul Gilster August 8, 2010, 14:31

    Tell you what, Mike — I’ll take the Tahiti shift!

  • NS August 8, 2010, 16:33

    Re what Procyan said, it would be interesting to know how many SETI signals have met all the criteria for a “hit” except repeatability.

    I’ve heard that some SETI researchers intend to make raw signal data available for downloading by anyone who’s interested. It may be a low priority though. When you look at the SETI@Home or the ATA sites they seem to have their hands full just keeping everything going.

  • Procyan August 9, 2010, 4:58

    It was very early in the morning when I wrote that. I was trying to say:
    1. Precious little SETI has been done
    2. The little bit that has been done has turned up some very interesting results.
    3. SETI needs learned critique else it will continue to lanquish
    4. I am nobody, yet I must object to the idea that Argus is workable on any level.
    a. it is not possible to detect realistically costed-alien beacons using tvro gear.
    b. Amateur SETI in not a hobby in the sense that model rail is a hobby. It is high level ham radio science at its most sublime and technical.
    c. a grass roots effort will not succeed until there is more transparency and inclusion for all concerned, both on the front end collecting data and on the results and discussion of this embryonic science.

    This is not to say amateurs cannot contribute, but they must be lead, competently, to cooperate internationally, standardize there methods and establish rigor within ranks fit to purpose. Sans academia, we have passion. Passion is no substitute for discipline.

    If you really care about advancing SETI, it is time to think beyone SETI dogma, your one stop shop for all your seti needs. The question is not “Where are they?” but rather “When are we going to pull finger?”

  • Mike August 9, 2010, 15:44

    To Procyan, when you wrote,” When are we going to pull finger?”,perhaps you really meant,”When are we going to pull the finger out?”
    Because you make a very good point about how the whole SETI effort could be improved. However the way things stand right now is exactly what one would expect in a field starved for funding,operating on the proverbial shoestring. After all,why should it be funded adequately? It would only be the most importand discovery in Human history.

  • Procyan August 11, 2010, 4:09

    Mike, some bit of thinking leads to the following:

    the sidereal anniversary of the WoW signal is 16 August 2010. Using the Kepler telescope method, the space monsters would have known the length of our year and perhaps, timed the beacon to arrive when the Earth was in transit, from their point of view. If so we know the direction and time to reobserve. Calling all passionate scientists! Initiate temporal digital extraction procedures forthwith! Please report your positive results to Centauri Dreams post haste :)

  • inquire August 16, 2010, 0:20

    Has this news reached CD yet? I’d love to hear more discussion about it:

    AFTER you’ve spent more than 20 years hunting for an alien signal, you think you’d be celebrating if you noticed a mysterious pulse suddenly rising up on your computer readouts. A regular pulse, amid the random clatter of the cosmos, suggests that someone very smart at the other end is sending a message.

    But when Ragbir Bhathal, an astrophysicist at the University of Western Sydney, who teaches the only university-based course on SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) in Australia, detected the suspicious signal on a clear night last December, he knew better than to crack open the special bottle of champagne he has tucked away for the history-making occasion.

    Instead, he’s spent the past few months meticulously investigating whether the unrecognised signature was caused by a glitch in his instrumentation, a rogue astrophysical phenomenon, or some unknown random noise.

    Source: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/health-science/watch-this-space/story-e6frg8gf-1225710664198

    A lower quality, but more recent article can
    be found here: http://www.motherboard.tv/2010/1/29/q-a-ragbir-bhathal-australia-s-leading-alien-hunter–2

    Just about a year ago Ragbir Bhathal was scanning the night sky for alien activity, just as he does every night. Except, on this December eve Ragbir Bhathal found a strong, regular, repeating signal.

    …So the signal is inside the noise. What you have to do is use another program to extract that signal out of that noise. Well, after we did that, we found this very sharp signal, sort of a laser lookalike thing which is the sort of thing we’re looking for, a very sharp spike. And that is what we found…to make a claim that you found something you have to then reproduce it again and again. That was the problem that stumped us. We went back to the same position and we still haven’t found it. So what I did then was get all my data and I gave it to another chap who does what we call signal processing. You know, give it to someone else to take a fresh look at the whole thing and tell me whether there is a signal there or not. So he did that, and he came back and said that there is a signal there. It’s confirmed, there is a signal there. But the problem is, what is that signal, you see? And that is the problem we have now. We need to search some more space.

    Very exciting news, I’d say!