Search for extraterrestrial intelligence gets hearing on Hill

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, Media Relations May 20, 2014

ATTENTION: Reporters covering science, politics & higher education

WHAT: A full hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Science, Space, and Technology on the subject of astrobiology and the search for life in the universe, with presentations by astronomers from the University of California, Berkeley, and the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. UC Berkeley operates the longest-running search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) as well as the popular crowd-sourced computing project SETI@home.

WHEN: May 21, 2014, 10:00 a.m. EDT (7 a.m. PDT)

WHERE: 2318 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, D.C.

WHO:

• Dan Werthimer, director of the SETI Research Center at UC Berkeley

• Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute

DETAILS: At the invitation of committee chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), Werthimer and Shostak will describe current projects to find intelligent life on other planets and how NASA’s Kepler space observatory is contributing to this effort. They also will review the newest projects, such as “eavesdropping SETI,” and the latest tools, including the Allen Telescope Array in northern California now operated by the SETI Institute.

UC Berkeley has conducted SETI research since 1978, mostly using the Arecibo Telescope in Puerto Rico, the world’s largest radio telescope. Since 1999, that data has been funneled into SETI@home, which allows volunteers to use their idle computer time to search for patterns in extraterrestrial radio signals that might be an indication of intelligent life.

One limitation of this technique is that it relies on accidentally picking up signals leaked from other civilizations, whereas many advanced societies would probably limit such wasted energy, either sending signals via fiber or in tightly focused beams. If these civilizations have colonized other planets in their solar systems, however, they would still have to send signals between planets. Werthimer has embarked on a new project he calls “eavesdropping SETI,” where he listens only when two planets in a distant system are aligned with Earth, giving us a chance to intercept such targeted communications. Thanks to Kepler, he has enough information on exoplanets to attempt this.

He also has initiated what he calls the Panchromatic SETI Project, a more thorough survey of signals from other planets using eight different ground-based telescopes to observe distant planets in optical, infrared and radio wavelengths simultaneously and for more extended periods of time.

Werthimer notes in his remarks that while “SETI programs use the world’s largest radio and optical telescopes to search for evidence of advanced civilizations and their technology on distant extrasolar planets,” two of the best – the Arecibo telescope and the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank telescope in West Virginia – are in danger of losing federal funding.

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