The Ultimate Fund-Raising Scheme: Transmit Adverts To Aliens


OK, so there have been some strange things going on between us Earthlings and aliens lately. The deep-space Pioneer and Voyager probes carried images and artefacts of our culture into the cosmos decades ago. This plan has now been upstaged by the Deep Space Network transmitting a Beatles tune in the direction of the star Polaris. Both are different methods in an attempt to achieve the same thing – to contact alien civilizations. Extraterrestrials might even be trying to communicate with us by playing around with stars or blasting neutrinos at us

But, in the next episode of this epic saga, as the human race feels more and more alone in a seemingly lifeless, but expanding universe… [breakthis programme will be continued after a message from our sponsors]

Advertising is everywhere. It comes in many shapes and sizes, and in many forms. I just deleted four pieces of spam in my email account (one trying to sell me non-prescription pain killers, one notifying me that I have won the Russian lotto and another two with subjects I’d rather not repeat), I can hear an ad on the radio chatter (something about double-glazed windows), on my desk I can count ten magazine ads, newspaper classified ads, business cards and logos, all set out to do pretty much the same thing: to sell a product and, ultimately, to make money. Advertising is so embedded into our commercial society, it can be difficult to work out what is advertising and what isn’t.

Now it seems there is another kind of advertising on the horizon: Space Spam.

As UK physics and astronomy researchers have experienced recently, the problem with scientific research is that it mainly depends on government funding. Government funding comes and goes and can depend on who is in power and who isn’t. To avoid this, many researchers leave academia in search of better pay in industry. There is nothing wrong with this choice, but often academic institutions and universities lose their top minds to better financial conditions elsewhere.

In an attempt to save the beleaguered astronomy community in the UK, astronomers have come up with an intriguing idea. To rescue the world famous Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire, astronomers intend to transmit adverts into space. This is truly the final frontier for terrestrial advertising, but is it possible that British scientists have finally lost their marbles? How can we expect alien races to pay attention to our attempts at selling them Nacho Cheese Doritos? If they did buy our products, I wouldn’t want to be in charge of the shipping department…

But there is a very serious reason for this off-beat plan. The UK is currently undergoing a funding crisis as the main funding body for UK physics and astronomy struggles to fill a £80 million ($160 million) hole in their finances. No help has been offered by the British government. This new fund-raising scheme is already attracting a lot of attention. The snack manufacturer Doritos has stepped in, donating an undisclosed sum in exchange for transmitting their ad. Many more companies are expected to follow suit. The publicity from helping out struggling observatories seems to be enough for big companies wanting to get involved (after all, they won’t be expecting extraterrestrial orders for at least 84 years).
The incoherent scatter radar facility (EISCAT) on Svalbard in 2002 (credit: Ian O'Neill)
The signal will be sent to the Ursa Major constellation some 42 light years away by the European Incoherent Scatter Radar System (EISCAT) in Svalbard, located in the High Arctic. EISCAT is more commonly used to measure emissions from the aurora and ionospheric dynamics. It can also be used in conjunction with other EISCAT installations in Sweden and mainland Norway to track the velocity and composition of the solar wind. Now, it seems, the powerful radar transmitter will be used to shoot commercials into space.

The first transmission will be 30 seconds long and members of the public will be invited to participate. TV advertising will also be aired in support of the project. If anyone thought UK researchers were going to stay quiet and accept the latest round of financial turmoil, they’d be wrong. Scientists and the public, backed up by advertising revenue, are about to make a very big noise.

If the Beatles tune didn’t agitate the aliens, an enforced ad break probably will, let’s just hope they are sympathetic to the UK funding crisis (and want to make a donation).

Source:, Jodrell Bank Observatory press release

Aliens Might Be Moving Stars to Communicate With Us


You’ve got to love the audacity of this idea. In a recent article at Discover Magazine, virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier (you know, the guy with the dreadlocks) proposes that we get working on repositioning nearby stars to form geometric patterns – or at least start looking for places that it’s already been done by aliens.

Move stars around into patterns? That’s pretty crazy stuff. Sure, but there isn’t any physical reason why it isn’t possible; it happens all the time when galaxies collide. Of course, a spray of stars hurled into intergalactic space at random is different from a great big peace sign.

In order to actually move a star requires a gravitational tractor, and engineers are already planning this kind of a mission for a threat closer to home: asteroids. By flying a spacecraft near an asteroid, and fighting against the gravity pulling it down, you can actually pull the asteroid off course. Over a long period of time, you can move the asteroid enough in its orbit to prevent it from striking the Earth.

So scale that idea up. Send out a fleet of these spacecraft to tinker with the orbits of Kuiper Belt objects. These objects could rain into the inner Solar System and prod the Sun’s motion through the galaxy. Over a long period of time (a really really long period of time), you could impart enough of a velocity change to drive your star anywhere you wanted it to go.

With this technique, and a few million years to time to kill, you could line up stars into a formation that shows an intelligence was behind it. The more stars you put into formation, the better your message will be.

One interesting suggestion, made to Lanier by Piet Hut at the Institute for Advanced Study is a multiply nested binary system. Imagine binary systems, orbiting binary systems, orbiting binary systems. With 16 stars in formation, you’d have a shape that mother nature would never arrange on her own, but would be stable for long periods of time. From long distances, astronomers wouldn’t be able to resolve the individual stars, but they’d definitely know something strange was going on.

The advantage to this, of course, is that stars are visible for tremendous distances. Why bother sending out puny radio signals when you can harness the energy of an entire star.

Physicists predict that civilizations will eventually advance to the point that they master all the energy of their home planet, their star system, and eventually their entire galaxy. And if you’re harnessing every watt of energy pouring out of every star in the galaxy, who’d miss a little extra energy being used for communications.

So, uh… let’s get on that.

Original Source: Discover Magazine

Are we sending a bit too much information into the cosmos?


On Monday (February 4, 7 pm EST) NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) sent a transmission toward the North Star, Polaris. The transmission sent was the song “Across the Universe” by the Beatles intended for any sufficiently advanced extra terrestrial life to listen to. Although this is a nice gesture and may nurture Beatles fans beyond our solar system, some scientists have expressed concerns for advertising our planet’s location to the universe, just in case the aliens listening in aren’t that friendly after all…

Scientists attending the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) “Sound of Silence” meeting at Arizona State University in Tempe this week are worried. Their concern focuses on some aspects of the scientific community who want to advertise and educate sufficiently advanced lifeforms beyond Earth about our presence and location in the cosmos. Previous efforts have included information about our biology on the Voyager and Pioneer probes, and a broadcast by the Arecibo observatory in 1974. These attempts at communication plus accidental “leakage” of TV and radio signals can all travel vast distances through space and perhaps be received by aliens.

The main argument against trying to communicate with other civilizations is the possibility that if there are aliens out there listening in, then perhaps they might not be friendly. By giving away our location, critical facts about our society, biology and intelligence, we have already given possible alien aggressors a strategic advantage. This threat is obviously very far-fetched, but sending information about our current state of humanity will be inaccurate when signals are received in hundreds, thousands or millions of year’s time, perhaps putting our future generations in a negative light.

Before sending out even symbolic messages, we need an open discussion about the potential risks […] It’s very charitable to send out our encyclopedia, but that may short-change future generations.” – Douglas Vakoch of the SETI Institute, Mountain View, California.

Vakoch is not concerned that we are risking an alien invasion any time soon, but does highlight the need to discuss the implications of attempted extra-terrestrial communication in an open scientific forum before acting.

If there are any advanced alien beings out there however, they are keeping very quiet. The purpose of the “Sound of Silence” meeting is to discuss why the SETI project has, thus far, not found anything compelling to suggest there are any life forms transmitting their presence to the universe.

Have we been looking in the wrong place, at the wrong time, in the wrong way?” asks Prof Paul Davies of Arizona State University. “The purpose of this meeting is to brainstorm some radically new thinking on the subject.


SETI@home Needs You!


If your New Year’s resolutions include trying something new, expanding your horizons, or doing something to benefit humanity, this is for you: SETI@home needs more volunteers to help crunch data in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). And the easy part is that your desktop computer does all the work.

SETI uses radio telescopes to listen for narrow band-width radio signals from space. Since these signals don’t occur naturally, a detection of such a signal would indicate technology from an extraterrestrial source.

The SETI project at the University of California-Berkley gets data from world’s largest radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, which has recently been updated with seven new and more sensitive receivers. The improved frequency coverage for the telescope is now generating 500 times more data for the SETI project than before, and more volunteers are needed to handle the increase in data.

According to project scientist Eric Korpela, the new data amounts to 300 gigabytes per day, or 100 terabytes (100,000 gigabytes) per year, about the amount of data stored in the U.S. Library of Congress. “That’s why we need all the volunteers,” he said. “Everyone has a chance to be part of the largest public participation science project in history.”

The SETI@home premise is simple but brilliant: Instead of using a monstrously huge and expensive supercomputer to analyze all the data, it uses lots of small computers, all working simultaneously on different parts of the analysis. Participants download a special screensaver for their home computers, and when the computer is idle, the screensaver kicks in to grab data from UC Berkley, analyze the data and send back a report. SETI@home was launched in May of 1999.

The SETI@home software has now been upgraded to deal with all the new data generated by the updated Arecibo telescope. The telescope can now record radio signals from seven regions of the sky simultaneously instead of just one. It also has greater sensitivity and 40 times more frequency coverage.

So, if the phrase “to search out new life and new civilizations” inspires you, her’s your chance to be part of the largest community of dedicated users of any internet computing project. Currently SETI@home has 170,000 individuals donating time on 320,000 computers.

“Earthlings are just getting started looking at the frequencies in the sky; we’re looking only at the cosmically brightest sources, hoping we are scanning the right radio channels,” said project chief scientist Dan Werthimer. “The good news is, we’re entering an era when we will be able to scan billions of channels. Arecibo is now optimized for this kind of search, so if there are signals out there, we or our volunteers will find them.”

Check out SETI@home here.
Original News Source: UC Berkley Press Release

The Best Alien Hunter is Open for Business


The biggest and best tool ever developed to search for signs of extraterrestrial life is coming online in Northern California. No, it’s not an interstellar bounty hunter, it’s an array of radio dishes in Northern California. The Allen Array, located in an arid valley near the town of Hat Creek started gathering data with 42 radio dishes today. But that’s just the beginning; eventually there’ll be 350 dishes pointed to the heavens, listening for the faint communications from an extraterrestrial intelligence.

Partly funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, the Allen Telescope Array released its first test images today. These included a radio map of the nearby Andromeda Galaxy (M31) and the Pinwheel Galaxy (M33).

Although the array was used to capture radio images of galaxies, one of its primary roles will be to search for communications from extraterrestrial civilizations. It works on the idea that many smaller radio telescopes working together are more powerful and cheaper than a single large dish.

Over the next couple of decades, the Allen Array will gather 1,000 times as much radio data from distant stars as has already been accumulated in the 45 years of the SETI program. Astronomer Seth Shostak from the SETI Institute made a bold prediction, “I think we will find signals from intelligent civilizations by 2025.”

The total cost of the project to date is $50 million. The first phase of $25 million was funded by the Paul G Allen Family Foundation. Another group of donors contributed the additional $25 million. UC Berkeley and the SETI Institute are now working to raise the funding to complete the full 350-dish array.

The final 6-metre (20-foot) dish should be completed in approximately 3 years, bringing the full array online. The aliens won’t be able to hide from us much longer.

Original Source: UC Berkeley News Release

What is the biggest telescope in the world?

Paul Allen Funds Next Stage of SETI Project

Image credit: SETI Institute
Investor and philanthropist Paul G. Allen has committed $13.5 million to support the construction of the first and second phases of the Allen Telescope Array (the ATA-32 and ATA-206), the world’s newest multiple use radio telescope array. The ATA will eventually consist of 350 ? 6.1-meter dishes (ATA-350), when construction is completed late in the decade. The announcement was made today by Thomas Pierson, chief executive officer for the SETI Institute, a leading astrobiology institution with the mission of exploring the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe. The ATA is a partnership between the SETI Institute and the Radio Astronomy Laboratory of the University of California, Berkeley (RAL).

Today’s announcement follows the successful completion of a three-year research and development phase which was originally funded by an $11.5 million gift from the Allen Foundation. The R & D proved that one of the primary advantages of the array design ? its scalability ? makes it possible for the ATA to conduct scientific investigations as soon as the first 32 dishes are installed.

Pierson also announced that the ATA-32 is scheduled to begin conducting scientific investigations by the end of 2004, significantly earlier than the 350 element array can be completed.

The ATA will be a general-purpose radio telescope that will provide fundamentally new measurements and insights into the density of the very early universe, the formation of stars, the magnetic fields in the interstellar medium, and a host of other applications of deep interest to astronomers. At the same time, this 21 st Century radio telescope will also have the capability to search for possible signals from technologically advanced civilizations elsewhere in the galaxy.

“I am very excited to be supporting one of the world’s most visionary efforts to seek basic answers to some of the fundamental question about our universe and what other civilizations may exist elsewhere,” said Paul G. Allen, primary funder of the ATA. “I am a big proponent of leveraging revolutionary technology and design and applying it to important problems in science. The developments taking place with this new instrument will not only enables us to realize a lot of bang for our research and development buck, but it will also change the landscape of how telescopes will be built in the future. An instrument of this magnitude, which will result in the expansion of our understanding of how the universe was formed, and how it has evolved, and our place therein, is the reason I am the primary supporter of its development, design and construction.”

Allen’s $13.5 million funding, structured as a challenge grant, will allow construction and operation of the first phase of 32-dishes by the end of the year. It will also support construction of the second phase of 174 additional dishes (the ATA-206), which is contingent upon fulfilling the Foundations’ challenge grant, in response to which the Institute will raise $16 million in additional support.

?It is especially thrilling to see the Allen Telescope Array approach its first significant milestone,? said SETI Institute CEO Tom Pierson. ?We are grateful for the additional support from the Allen Foundation that is making this new facility ? and further discovery ? possible. Mr. Allen and his Foundation have set the bar high. Mr. Allen’s support of this worthwhile project, when matched by other supporters of radio astronomy and SETI, will quickly bring this project to fruition.?

The ATA is the result of a multi-faceted private-public partnership between the SETI Institute and the RAL. It differs in practice, appearance, and cost from traditional radio telescopes currently in use. When completed, the ATA-350 will be among the world’s largest and fastest observing instruments.

Rather than a single enormous dish or several large dishes, the ATA will be constructed using hundreds of specially produced small dishes. The telescope will incorporate innovative technologies and modern, miniaturized electronics in concert with increasingly affordable computer processing. These new technologies, combined with the ability to conduct continuous observations, will increase SETI search speed by 300 times over previous efforts and simultaneously allow astronomers to conduct complex radio astronomy projects requiring long-term observations. And the instrument will achieve these goals at one-fifth the cost of traditional radio telescopes of comparable collecting area and complexity.

In its first phase, the ATA-32 will have more antennas than any of the world’s other centimeter-wavelength radio telescopes. The individual antennas will be linked by fiber optics. The fiber, power, and air distribution systems will be installed in ten-antenna ?nodes,? an efficient way to maintain the cool operating temperature required by the equipment.

The ATA-32 will observe in the direction of the galactic anti-center to detect primordial deuterium, study dark matter in nearby dwarf galaxies, generate maps of polyatomic molecules in molecular clouds, and conduct a SETI survey of the inner galaxy.

?I am eager to begin observing on the ATA,? commented Dr. Jill C. Tarter, ATA project leader and Director of the Center for SETI Research at the Institute. ?Conducting observations 24/7 is a dream come true for any astronomer, and it is particularly exciting for the Institute’s astronomers, who have been constrained by limited time on other large centimeter wavelength telescopes. Finally, our tools are becoming commensurate with the size of our task.?

Scientists believe that radio waves, such as those commonly produced by a variety of technologies on Earth and traveling at light-speed through interstellar space, may offer the easiest way to detect evidence of a technologically sophisticated civilization elsewhere in the galaxy. With sufficient collecting area, it is possible to detect signals from a distant technology that are no more powerful than those produced on Earth today.
Dr. Leo Blitz, professor of astronomy and director of the Radio Astronomy Laboratory at UC Berkley said, “The ATA will revolutionize radio astronomy, making it possible to provide answers to the two biggest questions in astronomy: How did we get here? Are we alone?” Blitz went on to say, “The ATA’s ability to make radio images over large swaths of sky, to make measurements over an unprecedented range of radio wavelengths, and its ability to do several kinds of observations at once, provide a power and flexibility that will allow astronomers to address whole areas of astronomy that are currently inaccessible. Because of the telescope’s unique capabilities, I expect that we’ll discover things we don’t even know are out there.”

Construction of the ATA is underway at the Hat Creek Observatory, 290 miles northeast of San Francisco on a site operated by the RAL. The Hat Creek Observatory is located in an area that is ?radio quiet,’ thereby reducing the level of interfering signals from man-made sources.

Original Source: SETI Institute News Release