Within sight of Mount Shasta’s snow-capped, 14,000-foot peak, sits one of the most futuristic projects on the planet—the Allen Telescope Array, the first radio observatory built expressly for the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence.
Thanks to the far-sighted investment of technologists Paul Allen (co-founder of Microsoft) and Nathan Myhrvold (former Chief Technology Officer for Microsoft), a new observatory has been constructed that will allow a targeted SETI search to proceed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
The new instrument, appropriately called the Allen Telescope Array, known formerly as the One Hectare Telescope, or 1hT, is a joint effort by the SETI Institute and the University of California, Berkeley. Because of its novel construction - an array of inexpensive antennas - it can be simultaneously used for both SETI and cutting-edge radio astronomy research. It is being built at the existing Hat Creek Observatory, run by the Radio Astronomy Lab at Berkeley, and located in the High Sierras just north of Lassen Peak.
Because of its ability to study many areas on the sky at once, with more channels and for 24 hours a day, the Allen Telescope Array will permit an expansion from Project Phoenix's stellar reconnaissance of 1,000 stars to 100 thousand or even 1 million nearby stars. For the first time in its forty-year history, SETI will be able to check out a truly significant sample of the cosmic haystack. This is not an incremental step forward: the Allen Telescope Array will increase the stellar reconnaissance by orders of magnitude.
The conceptual foundation for most of the SETI projects conducted in the past 35 years was established with the publication of a paper authored by the founding fathers of SETI, Manhattan project leader and MIT physicists Phillip Morrison and Guiseppi Cocconi, and the suggestion that electromagnetic signals were the most promising means for interstellar communications became the underlying assumption of all searches, including the optical SETI searches.
The assumption that any alien signal would exhibit a Doppler drift has also been incorporated into SETI projects, which check for signals at drifting frequencies. Perhaps most important was their theory that a "universal frequency" probably exists -- a frequency that extraterrestrials would most likely use for their transmissions -- which they suggested to be 1420 megahertz. Notably, that frequency has remained, to this day, the most popular frequency used by SETI projects.
The presence of an extraterrestrial signal from another intelligent civilization, Morrison and Cocconi argued, is consistent with all that is known about physics, communication via electromagnetic waves, and communication. "The probability of success is difficult to estimate," they concluded in the paper, "but if we never search, the probability of success is zero."
Morrison called the search “the archaeology of the future,” an attempt to learn whether civilizations more advanced than ours exist.
Posted by Casey Kazan
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