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SETI's Search for ET Goes Exponential

Allen_radio_telescope_array SETI's hunt for ET is revving up to warp speed, thanks largely to an infusion of $25 million from Seattle's most famous science-fiction fan, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

Allen will join scientists from SETI — the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence — to unveil the Allen Telescope Array devoted to answering the question: Is anyone out there? The observatory consists of an array of 42 radio dishes perched atop a volcanic plateau in Hat Creek, 300 miles northeast of San Francisco.

"It's the longshot of longshots, but if we did hear a signal from another civilization, that would be world-changing," said Allen, in an interview with the Seattle Times. Allen's investment was half the $50 million price tag for the observatory in Hat Creek, Calif.

The first mission for the Allen Telescope Array will be to scan several billion stars across a vast swath of our own Milky Way galaxy, said astronomer Seth Shostak, of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. That broad-brush survey will be followed in the coming years by detailed examinations of a million stars — a quantum leap in coverage of celestial real estate. In the 45 years since scientists first started looking for signals from alien worlds, only about 750 stars have gotten such close scrutiny. Radio telescopes could detect the "leakage" from ordinary broadcasts, or pick up a signal beacon deliberately aimed into space by extraterrestrials.

"This is an exponential increase in speed," Shostak said. "And it covers much more of the radio dial, which is important because ET never told us where to look for his broadcasts."

The array will also help push the frontiers of conventional astronomy, said Leo Blitz, director of radio astronomy for the University of California, Berkeley, which helped foot the bill. Radio telescopes are a staple of astronomy. All hot gases emit radio waves, so scientists analyze the emissions to glean information about objects that can't be seen, like black holes and dark matter. Radio waves also allow astronomers to peer through dusty regions of space, and provide different views of stars and other galactic structures.

"We can see a larger piece of the sky at once than other radio telescopes — and we can make better images than anybody," he said. The telescope's power will enable more detailed study of pulsars, black holes, dark matter, gravity waves and phenomena not yet dreamed of, he said. "Throughout the history of astronomy, whenever you build an instrument with new capabilities, you make serendipitous discoveries."

Allen was first drawn into SETI by the late celebrity astronomer Carl Sagan, who persuaded the Seattle billionaire to keep the program going after federal money dried up.

Allen's interest in space goes back to his childhood and the Seattle library where he first came across "Rocket Ship Galileo," Robert Heinlein's sci-fi classic about whiz kids who build a moonship. As one of the world's wealthiest men, he has bankrolled a science-fiction museum in Seattle and backed the winning entry in the $10 million X-prize competition for manned flights to the edge of space.

The goal is to boost the telescope's power even more by expanding the array to 350 dishes, at a cost of an additional $41 million. Until that happens, the telescope won't break much new ground in conventional astronomy, said University of Washington astronomer Woody Sullivan.

As leader of the University of Washington's astrobiology program, Sullivan is a big believer in alien life forms, but says they're more likely to be microbes on Jupiter's moons or than intelligent beings.

Posted by Casey Kazan.

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How exactly would news of ET change out lives?

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