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A false alarm for SETI searchers

SETI astronomer Seth Shostak describes the hope and the letdowns behind the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
/ Source: Special to MSNBC

Command Central for Project Phoenix is pretty unimpressive. There’s a low shelf on which three computer workstations are perched like a short row of ducks. That’s it. No flashing lights. No eerie synthesizer sounds. No knife switches on the wall. Booooring. The observing can be boring, too. But there’s a reason for that.

The reason is that humans are fallible. Their attention wanders. They are lured from their chairs by the thought of a tuna fish sandwich or the call of nature. Consequently, the search for cosmic company is highly automated. Computers do the listening and decide whether a signal is worthy of the astronomer’s attention. When I’m observing for Project Phoenix, I spend a lot of time catching up on my reading or writing e-mail. I don’t have to squint endlessly at the computer screens. Come to think of it, Chris Columbus probably didn’t spend a lot of time squinting across the bow of the Santa Maria either.

Fortunately, the computers don’t get bored. They search without complaint through the Phoenix data stream, trying to find narrow-band spikes poking up out of a noisy sea of 28 million channels. On the night of Sept. 15, around midnight, they found something. It was a signal picked up in Arecibo, and verified at the 250-foot telescope in Jodrell Bank. The star was an unremarkable M dwarf with the moniker EQ Pegasi, 22 light-years from Earth.

Project scientist Jill Tarter and I watched in fascination as a thin, white line began to appear on a display screen. We had picked up a narrow-band, rapidly drifting signal, the very kind of thing that would be the hallmark of alien intelligence. I stood up out of my chair.

The excitement was short-lived. Within 10 minutes, we noticed that the signal, whatever it was, could also be seen when the telescope was pointed away from the star. It was probably a telecommunications satellite – a sign of intelligence, all right, but not alien intelligence.

Such false alarms are frequent in Arecibo. The island is crawling with radar and telecommunications installations, all of which present a formidable challenge to those trying to tune in the cosmos. This fish got away. In fact, it wasn’t really a fish. So Jill and I sat back down in our chairs, and starting writing in the log books.

The computers, neither disappointed nor interested, continued their search, looking for the big one, the signal that would result in the most important news story of all time. The faint radio squeal that will someday end 4 billion years of isolation.

Seth Shostak is senior astronomer at the SETI Institute.

More dispatches from the SETI search:

Sept. 17, 1998: Front line in the search for E.T.
Sept. 20, 1998: Free time and false alarmsMarch 18, 1999: The alien hunters are back at it
March 22, 1999: SETI sleuths track down the glitchesMarch 26, 1999: Expansive musings on a dwarf star
March 31, 1999: SETI's waiting game: Deal with it