The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is 50 years old this year.  SETI’s latest scientific discovery was the detection of a human-made satellite in Earth orbit.  In a sense, this counts as a success: the detection of a signal of intelligent origin from an extra-terrestrial source (i.e., beyond terra firma).  The false alarm helped calibrate the instrumentation, but did little to garner support for the effort to find aliens.  The SETI Institute was all SETI-ready to party hardy at the 50th anniversary of Frank Drake’s first search, but instead, found itself struggling to keep its doors open after a severe shortfall of private funds, highlighting questions about the scientific status of the long-shot project.

A group of SETI astronomers at UC Berkeley thought they might cut to the chase in the needle-in-a-haystack search by focusing on potentially Earth-like planets detected by the Kepler spacecraft, code-named “Kepler Objects of Interest” (KOI).  Using the Green Bank Radio Telescope, they pointed to some of these objects and generated graphs of time vs. radio frequency.  Two of the objects, KOI-812 and KOI-817, showed traits predicted for intelligent signals: narrow bands that oscillated in intensity, so they published the graphs as “first candidates” (available here).  The news generated a very brief flutter of interest (see PhysOrg and Universe Today), even though the announcement was qualified with the statement, “it is most likely to be interference” from artificial satellites.  And it was; leading to a hasty “sorry” from the Berkeley team for the false alarm (Huntsville Times).

Jason Palmer at the BBC News paid a visit to the Allen Telescope Array of the SETI Institute, its facilities closed due to lack of funds.  He published two stories and video clips.  In the first on the BBC News he called it “array of hope.”  Because a successful detection of alien life is such a long shot, hope is needed in the best of times; but “it’s never been this bad,” SETI Institute principal astronomer Seth Shostak lamented.  With the Allen Array out of operations pending fund-raising efforts, hope is focused on other efforts like SETI@Home or signals other than radio.  For instance, Paul Davies thinks aliens may have left their imprint on our DNA.

The video clip gave Seth Shostak, Frank Drake, Paul Vakoch and Jill Tarter a moment to state some SETI selling points:

  • Signals might be coming through our bodies right now, if we were only detecting them (Shostak).
  • We might be on the verge of the biggest discovery in human history, and one that might be able to help humanity solve some of its largest problems (Palmer).
  • With the right technology, we could be within 20 years of detection (Vakoch).
  • Knowledge that an alien civilization has survived its own problems would assure us there are solutions to global warming and pollution (Tarter)….

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