Image: SETIcam
Researchers gather around computer terminals at the Arecibo Observatory while SETIcam takes it all in. Click here for the current view from SETIcam.
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msnbc.com

Project Phoenix’s researchers returned this week to the world’s largest radio ear, listening for word from alien civilizations. But the biggest changes in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, have more to do with how researchers get out the word here on Earth. After a 40-year quest, SETI is sexy.

Image: Alan Boyle
Science Editor Alan Boyle explains the sounds of SETI.Audio courtesy of SETI@home
THE QUESTION of whether life exists beyond Earth has long intrigued humans, from ancient times to the days of “The X-Files.” But last year’s rapid rise of SETI@home software, which has engaged more than 2.3 million Internet users in the SETI quest, marked a new level in public involvement.

“It is absolutely the coolest project that I’ve ever heard of,” said Ann Druyan, chief executive officer of Cosmos Studios and the widow of popular astronomer Carl Sagan.

Druyan is a co-founder of OneCosmos, one of the major ventures supporting SETI research and science education. Another venture, linking the SETI Institute and Space.com, was unveiled Wednesday.

“We’re excited about it,” said Tom Pierson, chief executive officer of the 16-year-old SETI Institute. “One of the things that I find most exciting about it is that in the long run it will draw more people’s attention to the work that we do.”

Project Phoenix is perhaps the most visible part of that work: For the past two years, the institute has conducted twice-yearly observing sessions at the Arecibo Observatory’s 1,000-foot radio dish in Puerto Rico, the biggest single antenna in the world. This fall’s session began Tuesday night and is due to run until Oct. 24.

SETI researchers look for signals from distant stars in various wavelengths — ranging from radio to optical pulses — that might hint at an intelligently designed message.

Project Phoenix is a targeted search, meaning that researchers check 1,000 to 2,000 sunlike stars relatively close to Earth for promising radio patterns. The world can literally watch over the researchers’ shoulders via Web cameras that monitor the computer room, the Arecibo radio receiver and other targets.

Project Phoenix researcher Peter Backus told MSNBC.com from Arecibo that he tries not to think about the electronic eavesdropper.

“I don’t like being on camera, so I just try to ignore it,” he said Wednesday.

Backus and his colleagues could be in for more exposure, however, thanks to the new collaboration involving Space.com.

The 15-month-old media venture has set up a new SETI Channel featuring content from the institute, and will also manage the back-end operations for the institute’s Web site. Space.com also plans to present journals, Web videos and chats featuring the institute’s researchers.

Pierson said the site would focus not only on the radio search for alien signals, but also on other aspects of the inquiry into cosmic origins — such as the exploration of Mars and Europa, the hunt for planets orbiting distant stars and the study of the chemical origins of terrestrial life.

The SETI Channel is just the latest joint venture for Space.com, which also numbers MSNBC.com among its partners.

“This is important science for our audience and our community, and I couldn’t be more thrilled,” said Lou Dobbs, Space.com’s chairman and chief executive officer. “It gives us an opportunity to support science, which is part of our mission as well.”

Dobbs, well-known for his former role as CNN business anchor, said the SETI venture had “no relationship whatsoever” to Space.com’s recent reorganization and layoffs. He declined to discuss financial details. However, Pierson acknowledged that the institute could receive “modest financial support” from a share of advertising revenue, as well as the benefit of Space.com’s Web hosting services.

“Nobody’s making millions of dollars over this deal,” Pierson said.

Millions of dollars are involved in other ventures, however. For example, the SETI Institute is about halfway to its $26 million fund-raising goal for the Allen Telescope Array, a phalanx of linked radio telescopes that would dwarf the Arecibo operation.

“When we go to the Allen Telescope Array, we’ll probably need a list of 100,000 stars,” Backus said.

The institute’s partner in the telescope array project is the University of California at Berkeley, which also provides the scientific firepower behind SETI@home. The raw data for SETI@home’s millions of users come from Berkeley’s Project Serendip, which collects full-sky radio data using a second receiver at the Arecibo telescope.

InsertArt(752619)The interconnections between SETI’s supporters are getting even more complex: SETI@home is receiving millions of dollars from OneCosmos, a $23 million venture that was founded this year by Druyan and Silicon Valley entrepreneur Joe Firmage. OneCosmos’ contributions are being funneled through the Planetary Society, a nonprofit space advocacy group that has backed SETI@home since its beginnings.

The new funding should power SETI@home to the next level, extending the signal search to the Southern Hemisphere and broadening the range of radio bandwidth available for analysis, said project scientist Dan Wertheimer.

OneCosmos is working on several other projects as well: The first items on the agenda include a DVD release of Sagan’s “Cosmos” TV series and a two-hour “Best of Cosmos” documentary scheduled for broadcast on PBS during the Thanksgiving weekend.

Druyan hinted that there was much more to come.

“Cosmos Studios has six projects that I think will astonish you,” she told MSNBC.com, “three new series that we think will really make some headlines, as well as three other projects that can’t so easily be described.”

All this activity might lead some to wonder whether SETI researchers will choose up sides in a multimillion-dollar media competition. But the folks at SETI@home and the SETI Institute say they’re firmly focused on cooperation, not competition.

“We help them out, and they help us out, and we steal from each other,” SETI@home’s Werthimer said.

“I don’t see it as competitiveness at all,” the SETI Institute’s Pierson said. “Both organizations are doing things that are important just for their own existence and what they’re trying to do.”

OneCosmos’ Druyan, meanwhile, says she’s “thrilled” to hear of the institute’s latest venture with Space.com.

“If there is anything we can do to inspire people to feel that soaring high about what science is telling us, our oneness with the universe, I’m for it,” she said.

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