SETI to Resume Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence; Will Target Kepler Data

After being shut down for over six months due to financial problems, The Allen Telescope Array (ATA) is once again searching other planetary systems for radio signals, looking for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence.

Some of the first targets in SETI’s renewed search will be a selection of recently discovered exoplanet candidates by NASA’s Kepler mission.

“This is a superb opportunity for SETI observations,” said Dr. Jill Tarter, the Director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute. “For the first time, we can point our telescopes at stars, and know that those stars actually host planetary systems – including at least one that begins to approximate an Earth analog in the habitable zone around its host star. That’s the type of world that might be home to a civilization capable of building radio transmitters.”

What other studies will SETI be performing with the array, and how were they able to restart the Allen Telescope Array?

This past April, SETI was forced to place the ATA into hibernation mode, due to budget cuts of SETI’s former partner, U.C Berkeley. Since Berkeley operated Hat Creek Observatory where the ATA is located, their withdrawal from the program left SETI without a way to operate the ATA.

SETI has since acquired new funding to operate the ATA and can now resume observations where they left off – examining planetary candidates detected by the Kepler mission. The planetary candidates SETI will examine first will be those that are thought to be in their star’s habitable zone (the range of orbital distance from a planet’s host star which may allow for surface water). Many astrobiologists theorize that liquid water is essential for life to exist on a planet.

“In SETI, as with all research, preconceived notions such as habitable zones could be barriers to discovery.” Tarter added. “So, with sufficient future funding from our donors, it’s our intention to examine all of the planetary systems found by Kepler.”

SETI will spend the next two years observing the planetary systems detected by Kepler in the naturally-quiet 1 to 10 GHz terrestrial microwave window. Part of what makes this comprehensive study possible is that the ATA can provide ready access to tens of millions of channels at any one time.

Resuming ATA operations was made possible due to tremendous public support via SETI’s www.SETIStars.org web site. In addition to the funds raised by the public, the United States Air Force has also provided funding to SETI in order to assess the ATA’s capabilities for space situational awareness.

Tarter notes, “Kepler’s success has created an amazing opportunity to focus SETI research. While discovery of new exoplanets via Kepler is backed with government monies, the search for evidence that some of these worlds might be home to intelligence falls to SETI alone. And our SETI exploration depends entirely on private donations, for which we are deeply grateful to our donors.”

“The year-in and year-out fundraising challenge we tackle in order to conduct SETI research is an absolute human and organizational struggle,” said Tom Pierson, CEO of the SETI Institute, “yet it is well worth the hard work to help Jill’s team address what is one of humanity’s most profound research questions.”

Dr. Tarter will be presenting during the first Kepler Science Conference (at NASA Ames Research Center) from December 5 to 9, 2011. You can view the agenda for the meeting, along with the abstract for her talk on Earth analogs at: http://kepler.nasa.gov/Science/ForScientists/keplerconference/sessions/.

If you’d like to learn more about SETI, or would like to make a donation to help fund their efforts, visit: https://setistars.org/donations/new

Read more about SETI’s partnership with the United States Air Force at: http://www.seti.org/afspc

Source: SETI Institute press release

Ray Sanders

In addition to being a published astronomer specializing in variable stars, Ray Sanders has blogged for Universe Today, and The Planetary Society blog, among others.

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