by Bruce Cornet, Ph.D.
7 August 2002
Microwave SETI was conceived in 1959. In over 40 years of searching for ETI radio signals far away, the SETI may have come full circle. In the late 50's era of satellite launches (e.g. Sputnik) before the microwave SETI started, visits from possible ET robotic probes were being considered. Now, after four decades of proclaiming that robotic probes can't get here, Dr. Jill Tarter of the SETI Institute is telling us that ET robotic probes may already be here! What's that, you say? Has SETI blinked? Is something being orchestrated by SETI in coordination with an upcoming technological development?
Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, recently gave the SETI-Institute a US$11.5 million grant to support construction of an array of more than 350, six-meter (20-foot) satellite dishes with a collecting area exceeding that of a 100-meter (338-foot) radio-telescope. This antenna farm, called the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) http://www.seti.org/science/ata.html, is scheduled to begin operations in 2005. The operational cost, presumably in addition to the construction cost, is projected to be US$26 million. The system will be capable of searching for very faint, narrow-band signals in the 1-10 GHz microwave frequency band from approximately 1 million star systems. The ATA is the first observing system dedicated to microwave SETI research.
The working assumption of the microwave SETI strategy is that technological ETI civilizations exist and can be found by searching the universe for their artificial microwave signals. The SETI has tested its microwave hypothesis now for more than 40 years without success. To deal with decades of noise, SETIzens (as they call themselves) have only questioned their experimental methods as not being good enough, or sensitive enough. They have been averse to questioning their original assumptions, and have resisted exploring the motives ETI might have for radiating beacon signals or launching probes. Furthermore, microwave SETI advocates skillfully beat-back, ridiculed and/or ignored legitimate alternative strategies like OSETI (Optical SETI) and SETA (Search for ET Artifacts), presumably to defend their assumptions and to keep getting the lion's share of funding.
In order to survive, microwave SETI could not play on a level playing field. But as public interest in the subject of UFO reports and Aliens has increased in the last decade, it could not have escaped the SETI scientists that some of the sightings might, at the very most, represent possible evidence for ET robotic probes. That possibility certainly has not escaped the attention of scientists not indoctrinated into the microwave SETI philosophy.
On June 25th, Jill Tarter of the SETI Institute talked about ET robotic probes possibly being here now (http://www.space.com/php/multimedia/spacetv/channel.php?channel=Deep). Is this a personal view which only Tarter holds inside the SETI Institute? This is the first time that we have heard of anyone from the Institute talk publicly about robotic probes in a positive light. If Tarter feels this way personally, then it suggests that debates about robotic spacecraft could be taking place at the Institute. SETI scientists may be talking about robotic probes very seriously with something in mind. Tarter's confession about robotic probes was probably planned for some strategic reason.
It would appear that the SETI Institute may be positioning itself to announce the use of the ATA to search for evidence of ETI probes in our own solar system!
Clearly, the ATA can search for artificial signals inside our solar system. It can perform targeted scans of every planet in the solar system to look for artificial signals. It can easily pick up all the 1-10 GHz signals from our own spacecraft, with enough spectral resolution to detect sideband subcarriers. It can also be used to search the asteroid belt, and the known orbiting asteroids and comets.
They would be negligent if they did not apply the ATA to solar system SETI (S3ETI). However, the only way to justify that application is to loosen up their assumptions and accept the possibility that ETI probes could be nearby. Obviously they can't openly search the solar system for artificial microwave emissions if they continue to proclaim that ETI can't get here! So, while Frank Drake proclaims: "Truly intelligent life would laugh at the idea...of going to other stars," (http://www.space.com/scienceastronomy/rare_earth_5_020729.html), and Seth Shostak continues to use the Fermi paradox and skeptical editorials to knock the concept of ET visitation, Jill Tarter is expressing optimism and opening the doors of opportunity a little. If they do use the ATA to search the solar system, then by definition they are performing a SETV (Search for ET visitation) experiment to find robotic probes.
In fact, this may have been the intent of building the ATA all along. SETI may have realized that continuing to search for ETI far away is of little value besides being able to say we are not alone. The prized gem is finding ETI probes locally. If we knew an active robotic probe was somewhere in the solar system then encouraging communication (via Active SETI) with it is the next logical step. Enter Bracewell's "messenger probes" (first proposed back in 1960). If a messenger probe is here and willing to communicate with us (using microwave or optical telecommunications methods we understand), that represents an enormous learning opportunity. Furthermore, using the ATA to search the solar system beyond our earth-moon system is relatively safe because the distances are a lot farther than the upper atmosphere. This also allows the Institute to further keep their distance from UFOs which are claimed to be hovering right overhead. While UFOlogy is not what SETI does, someone like UFOlogist Stan Friedman will ask "Hey SETI Specialists, if a robotic spacecraft is orbiting Neptune, why can't it get here?" If they decide there is merit to searching the solar system for probes then that question deserves an answer!
The SETI Institute has blinked after 40 years of denial. The light finally came on and it's almost blinding. Their eyes are opening up to the fantastic opportunity to search the solar system for ETI rather than exclude it in a vain attempt to prop up their obsolete assumptions. Let's keep watching and see if they blink again!