Hello! Is somebody out there in space?

On October 11, 2007, the Allen Telescope Array, with 42 antennas will start combing the universe for signals from settlements elsewhere. BR Srikanth tells us more about this unique space odyssey...

| Updated on: Sep 28 2007, 01:05 IST

Are we alone in the universe? The search for civilisations in outer space will get a boost next month when astronomers tune in through an array of radio telescopes near San Francisco, the United States.

On October 11, 2007, the Allen Telescope Array (ATA), with 42 antennas will start combing the universe for signals from settlements elsewhere.

Over the next couple of years, their number will swell to 350, making it the biggest effort in the uninterrupted Search for Extraterrestrial or Intelligence or simply "SETI" for scientists. "I don't worry about what message we get, but if a transmitter is on (somewhere in the galaxy), it means there's somebody out there and that nature has cooked up intelligence elsewhere as well," says

Dr Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer, SETI Institute from California will head the study at ATA. Interestingly, Dr Shostak has chosen to flag off the effort on the same date on which the United States-NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), called off a SETI project 15 years ago citing a resource crunch. He was a member of the team picked by NASA but had to abandon the equipment because the search was cancelled.

The new facility has been set up with $ 25 million donated by Microsoft's co-founder Paul Allen and Nathan Myhrvold, Microsoft's former chief technology officer.

The expansion of this "technological ear" to its ultimate size of 350 would require "tens of millions of dollars", which according to Dr. Shostak would come through from individuals and private organisations over the years.

"The romance involved in such a search will be appealing to many young professionals," he told this correspondent on the sidelines of the 58th International Astronautical Congress (IAC 2007), here.

Another reputed specialist, Prof. H. Paul Shuch, also known as Dr. SETI, an aerospace engineer credited with the design of the world's first commercial home satellite TV receiver, is piloting a worldwide mission, Project Argus, with a goal to install 5,000 radio telescopes.

"We are trying to spread a broad net to catch a rare fish in the cosmic pond. We have managed to get 130 of these up and searching, including one by Vishal Gujjar in his backyard in Pune. When we have 5,000 of them, we will search the entire sky all the time for proof of SETI. That (5,000 radio telescopes worldwide) could take a generation, but we are determined to have as many," says Dr. Shuch, Executive Director-Emeritus, The SETI League Inc, a non-profit educational and scientific organisation.

Both these experts are of the opinion that the "giggle factor" or scepticism about SETI has dwindled over the years because of various factors. For one, astronomers have discovered new stars and planets in the last decade, thus encouraging more efforts for new heavenly bodies in the Milky Way galaxy.

Second, over the last 50 years, the search for SETI has been limited to about one hundred stars and that too in a scattered manner (without scanning all radio frequencies). "This search will take more time because there are 400,000 million stars in the Milky Way galaxy and our galaxy is one of the 100,000 million galaxies in the universe," says Prof Paul Shuch.

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First Published Date: 28 Sep, 00:44 IST