Volunteers keep an ear on skies Listening for aliens: With the government getting out of the search for intelligent extraterrestrial life, civilian astronomy and amateur radio buffs are organizing to pick up the torch.


The plan is to divide up the sky, then have a different volunteer monitor each patch for radio broadcasts from distant planets as part of the search for alien life.

After all, the federal government won't do it anymore. So Paul Shuch, a professor of electrical engineering, is persuading citizens around the country to turn their TV satellite dishes heavenward in search of cosmic company.

His plan is to pick up part of the NASA project known as the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI. The space agency spent more than $50 million on SETI before Congress canceled it in 1993.

"Maybe I'm wrong," says Mr. Shuch, who teaches at Penn State. "But there's only one way we'll know, and that's to search."

So far, Mr. Shuch has rounded up about 150 volunteers -- mostly astronomy or ham-radio buffs -- to the amateur SETI effort, also known as SETI League and ham SETI.

"What we are hoping for is a couple thousand satellite dishes from 3 to 5 meters in diameter," Mr. Shuch says.

"With 5,000 dishes, we could pretty much cover the whole sky."

NASA spent 15 years gearing up a worldwide detection system, one that functioned only one year before the necessary money disappeared.

Some NASA scientists left to continue a portion of the original project using private donations.

The part of the search known as the "all-sky survey" was dropped: That's what Mr. Shuch and his amateur team are trying to pick up.

Although mankind has long speculated that others exist in the universe, the advent of radio early this century brought the hope that beings on other planets might have stumbled on the same discovery.

The electromagnetic waves that carry radio and TV programs travel outward at the speed of light, reaching the very closest stars within a few years and still more distant ones over a period of decades.

Any civilization as intelligent as ours living within 40 light years could, in theory, be decoding original broadcasts of "I Love Lucy" or "Mr. Ed."

If creatures up there were generating radio waves, or perhaps microwaves, their transmissions could be reaching us -- if only we listened.

It's unlikely we could understand alien broadcasts, but there are telltale signs -- such as a narrow band of frequencies -- that earthly observers could use to distinguish an artificially created signal from the natural electromagnetic static that comes from stars.

The whole concept of an amateur-run search is so new, says Mr. Shuch, that he has not yet finished setting up his own extraterrestrial search equipment at the spartan SETI League headquarters in Little Ferry, N.J.

He flies his single-engine plane two or three times a week from his home near Penn State to the headquarters, with its 25-foot-diameter dish, still unassembled in a storeroom near the headquarters of Eventide Electronics, which belongs to Richard Factor, Mr. Shuch's partner.

Mr. Factor donated a building and some seed money, thus launching the SETI League, and collected enough in private donations to hire Mr. Shuch and start a newsletter and a World Wide Web page.

Mr. Factor says he has no financial stake: His company will not be selling equipment to the SETI amateurs.

One of the SETI League's early recruits is Alan Katz, who teaches electrical engineering at Trenton State College. Mr. Katz, like Mr. Factor and Mr. Shuch, is the kind of guy who enjoys bouncing radio signals off the moon and using ham radio to make contact with astronauts aboard the space shuttle.

In his back yard is a 28-foot-diameter dish that he salvaged from AT&T; Bell Labs. "They were just going to scrap it," Mr. Katz says.

He had used it to receive signals from pulsars and other radio-emitting heavenly bodies.

But with his new SETI equipment, a steady stream of radio static will be fed through his computer, where a program will signal him if anything auspicious comes up.

Nearly all of the necessary parts are available from electronics dealers. For a non-radio buff without even a satellite dish, getting involved in SETI would cost $500 to $1,000.

Mr. Katz acknowledges that the SETI venture is a long shot. "I suppose the prospect of making contact is unlikely," he says. "But it's a challenge with the possibility of a big payoff -- it's why people play the lottery."

The amateur SETI operation runs on a shoestring compared to the professionally run remnants of NASA's program.

Known as the SETI Institute and based in Mountain View, Calif., the group has received about $7 million in private donations from people such as computer tycoons David Packard and William Hewlett.

The institute has bought time on a huge professional radio telescope in Australia, the better to continue a portion of NASA's defunct program known as the "targeted search."

The idea, explains SETI Institute scientist Seth Shostak, is to aim telescopes at a limited number of stars -- sun-like ones they deem most likely to support life. So far, the institute scientists have not found any beings up there.

The SETI League's part of the project -- the all-sky survey -- is a wider-ranging but more cursory scan of the sky.

"I think amateur SETI is a good idea," says Mr. Shostak. Though the homemade detectors can't match the sensitivity of the ones NASA would have used, the amateurs stand a chance of catching signals that are powerful or ones that would be sent from relatively nearby stars.

And amateurs have an advantage: flexibility. While big telescopes and radio receivers can monitor only tiny patches of sky at a time, amateurs often find it easier to scan vast swaths. Mr. Shostak notes that amateurs often beat professionals when it comes to sighting fleeting phenomena: fast-moving comets and suddenly exploding supernovae.

Mr. Shostak's biggest concern with the amateurs, he said, is that they won't be able to sort a real signal from the cacophony of crackling radio noise that comes from our own planet and from radio-emitting bodies among the stars. "I'm not sure they could tell a real signal from an undergraduate's prank," he says.

Mr. Shuch, however, has taken steps to make sure SETI Leaguers will not cry wolf. They will be using software programs to process the signals they receive, sorting earthly sources from celestial ones, and naturally occurring radiation from potential alien transmissions.

Members also have instructions to share any promising signals so others can either verify or dismiss them.

Mr. Shuch says he hopes the project will grow as television-watchers switch to newer, less cumbersome 18-inch-diameter dishes, leaving a windfall of bigger dishes for SETI.

So, what happens if ET calls home?

Mr. Shostak says he imagines that if someone picks up transmissions from intelligent life, it will be hard to keep the secret. He predicts that Earth would beam a flood of information back -- religious sermons, political propaganda, underwear advertisements.

There won't be much of a dialogue, however, because it takes years or decades for radio transmissions to reach even the bTC closest stars. The earthly senders of information are therefore unlikely to be around to hear the response.

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