So You Want to "Get Into" SETI
Commissioned for The
COSETI Observatory & The SETI League, Inc.
Copyright © 1998, 1999 by Larry Klaes (firstname.lastname@example.org)
COSETI Observatory Coordinator
SETI League Northeastern US Regional Coordinator
More Realities: Can You
The Professional Route
All Creatures Great and
Small: Becoming an Exobiologist
The Amateur Route
Amateur SETI Organizations
The Optical Approach
Beyond Radio and Lasers
Beyond the Observatory
The Choice is Yours
So you have spent your whole life hearing about,
reading about, and seeing humanity's numerous interpretations of alien life beyond Earth.
You look up at a clear night sky full of stars and wonder if someone else is also sitting
on some alien world around one of those suns, pondering the same thoughts as you.
Eventually, your intellectual curiosity builds to
the point where you must do more than just read and think about alien beings: You want to
see for yourself if they really are out there, somewhere in our vast Universe.
First you discover that, despite everything you
see and read about traveling to other star systems in science fiction, in reality we are a
long way off from reaching even the nearest of suns with any kind of actual vessel.
Besides, with over 400 billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy alone, searching their
countless worlds with star probes would take many generations of human lives to
One reason for this dramatically slow process --
in addition to the huge number of previously mentioned star systems -- is due, ironically
enough, to the fastest achievable velocity in existence: The speed of light and radio
waves. The universal speed limit is about 186,000 miles (300,000 kilometers) per second.
To go any faster than this would require more energy than exists in the entire
Universe, and that just is not feasible.
Granted, light speed is incredibly fast, but even
if you had a starship which could achieve 99 percent of that velocity, it would still take
you 100,000 years (measured in Earth time but not allowing for the accelerating and
decelerating phases of the trip) just to go from one end of the galaxy to the other.
As for the various faster-than-light (FTL) proposals, such as cosmic wormholes and
warp drives, they are still very much in the realm of theory.
Conversely, this also means that -- despite the
endless reports of alien spaceships landing on Earth with crews of strange beings who
slice up our cattle and abduct numerous members of our population for bizarre medical
experiments -- the sheer volume of Milky Way star systems and the incredible amounts of
space between them make the chances that so many alien races would construct large fleets
of starships, find Earth, journey many light years to our planet, and then spend so much
time here engaged in the aforementioned activities quite slim and even absurd.
Most often these reports of alien visitors turn
out to be hoaxes or misinterpretations of natural and human-made phenomenon. If
anything, UFOs and abduction stories tell us far more about human psychology and culture
than about anything or anyone from other worlds.
Then you learn that some genuine scientific
methods for finding extraterrestrial life actually exist. Some astronomers and
engineers are using giant radio telescopes (and in a few cases so far, optical ones) to
listen and look for signals from alien civilizations which may be trying to let the galaxy
know that they exist and want to make contact with their celestial neighbors. Other
scientists hope to find less advanced -- but no less interesting -- life forms on various
planets and moons in our own solar system.
You are overjoyed that not everything about the
Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is either just science fiction or destined
for some future era. You might actually be able to personally satisfy your desire to
know if We Are Not Alone. Maybe you can even be sitting at the controls of the
telescope when that first message from the stars reaches our blue planet, forever changing
the course of human history and our place in the Cosmos!
In an ideal world, the search for life beyond
Earth would be one of the highest priorities for humanity. To know if other beings
-- especially intelligent ones -- exist with us in the Cosmos, to contact them and
hopefully learn something of their perspectives on reality, and perhaps even more.
Large amounts of resources, time, and humanpower would be devoted to this ultimate quest
To anyone who knows how vast the Universe is in
terms of its size and quantities of celestial bodies, it should be the goal of every
intelligence such as ours to seek out others in space to learn from them and find our true
place in existence. To quote from Carl Sagan:
"In a very real sense this search for
extraterrestrial intelligence is a search for a cosmic context for mankind, a search for
who we are, where we have come from, and what possibilities there are for our future - in
a universe vaster both in extent and duration than our forefathers ever dreamed of."
(Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence
(CETI), Carl Sagan, Editor, 1973, MIT Press, "Introduction", pp. ix-x.)
But noble intentions and plans do not always
occur as hoped for in reality. The concept of extraterrestrial life and the
quest for it has been on a long and obstacle-laden road ever since the idea first appeared
among a few brilliant thinkers in ancient Greece over two thousand years ago. For
millennia after, however, even thinking that intelligent beings could exist beyond Earth
was considered blasphemy! After all, we appeared to be at the Center of the
Universe, where everything literally revolved around us. Existence was made just for
humanity by the gods: To think that it could be shared by anyone else was considered an
Once we began to enlighten ourselves with
science, philosophy, and technology, such attitudes began to shed away in favor of freely
thinking about such possibilities. We were no longer the Center of Everything, but
rather Earth was just one of several planets orbiting what turns out to be an average
yellow star among hundreds of billions of other suns in what turns out to be an average
spiral galaxy in a Universe with hundreds of billions of such star islands scattered
throughout the vastness.
Of course with this freedom of thought and
expression, some people went too far with the idea of extraterrestrial life and
intelligence. Percival Lowell stands out as a prime example here. In the
1890s, Lowell considered the straight lines perceived on the planet Mars to be a huge
system of canals constructed by an advanced race of Martians to bring water from the
planet's polar caps to their great cities along the equator. The only evidence
Lowell had for this was his imaginative speculation.
Lowell supported and promoted this idea with
great gusto and publicity. Many astronomers, however, felt Lowell was assuming a
great deal from such scant and uncertain evidence. When it finally became generally
accepted that the "canals" were really just optical illusions created by the
human eye and mind trying to make patterns out of the indistinct natural surface features
on Mars, professional attitudes towards alien life turned negative.
Add to this the growing popularity of science
fiction with its bug-eyed monster portrayals of ravenous, conquering aliens, and then the
business of Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) as alien spaceships doing all sorts of
strange things to the populace, and astrobiology was given a major setback from which it
is still recovering today.
It has taken a long time, but we are finally at a
stage where searching for extraterrestrial intelligence is no longer completely considered
a crazy or foolish idea. The human race is finally beginning to grow up and expand
its mental and physical horizons. SETI is becoming accepted, especially once the
scientist pioneers showed that it could be done, even though no definite signal of alien
origin has yet been proven.
Now that you are riding in the wake of those who
paved the way for you to make even considering doing SETI possible, which route do you
want to take? And what do you need to follow your plans?
Before we go any further here, the first item I
want to make clear is that at present, almost no one who is conducting professional SETI
started out doing SETI in their careers. Very few places conduct professional SETI
-- The SETI Institute (http://www.seti.org) being among
the most notable exceptions -- and the majority of their employees came from careers in
astronomy and engineering. Most other SETI projects, such as BETA (http://mc.harvard.edu/seti/) and SERENDIP (http://seti.ssl.berkeley.edu/), are run primarily
by skilled volunteers with donated funds.
So if you want to hunt for aliens, you have to
learn more than just how to sit at a monitor and wait for a needle to jump. And
don't expect to get paid as much as other professions in terms of financial rewards, if at
all. But usually one does not get into this field just for the material benefits.
Getting a degree in astronomy is my first
recommendation. You have to understand the fundamentals of the Universe before you
can truly begin to comprehend what life forms might be out there and why. If you
don't even have an idea of where to look for them, the search will be essentially a waste
of time for you and everyone else. The same applies to my recommendation of studying
Knowledge of computers and radio technology is
highly recommended, as conducting SETI takes up massive amounts of computer data crunching
power. SETI sifts through literally millions and billions of data bits per second,
and trying to find some faint artificial signals in a Universe full of very noisy natural
objects is a job for nothing less than advanced computers which can work fast and handle
lots of information at once. Knowing how to work with such machines will be a big
plus in SETI.
I would also recommend learning biology.
The beings you hope to pursue may be quite different from anything you might find on
Earth, but understanding the fundamentals of how life forms on this planet exist and
function will give you a good base to work from.
Since you will be searching for intelligent
beings who will have some form of advanced technological civilization (otherwise we won't
be able to detect ETI from Earth with our current radio and optical telescopes), I would
suggest studying sociology to learn about how cultures develop and function with
themselves and others. There certainly are a wide variety of human societies to
study which will give you at least some ideas for what alien cultures just might be like
and their motivations and methods for reaching out to the galaxy at large.
Plus all of this is good for you to know for your
own intellectual benefit and personal growth. Yes, this is my "it builds
Of course the alien life you can search for does
not necessarily have to be intelligent, at least on the technological civilization level.
NASA and many universities are developing very nice programs on searching for
extraterrestrials of the much simpler kind. Our latest journeys into the solar
system with planetary probes have shown that some of our neighboring worlds might not be
as hostile as once thought to microbes and other hardy and relatively
For example, NASA is quite interested in finding
either fossils of Mars life that lived there several billion years ago, or microbial life
that still thrives on the Red Planet, perhaps dwelling under the surface where conditions
are a bit wetter, warmer, and safer than above ground. Jupiter's smallest Galilean
moon, Europa, appears to have a liquid ocean underneath its incredible ice crust.
Some scientists are speculating that conditions in those alien seas might be just
right for harboring some aquatic Europans.
These are just two possibilities you could end up
researching if you decide to become an exobiologist -- a career that didn't even exist in
any true form until well after the advent of the Space Age. Much of the learning
tools which applied to professional SETI also apply here, though with added emphasis on
biology and chemistry.
You may initially think that finding an alien
microbe won't be as thrilling as detecting a whole civilization of very intelligent
beings: But just look at the wonder and excitement generated by the possible microfossils
found in Martian meteorite ALH84001 when their discovery was announced in 1996.
It is most important to realize that finding any
kind of life form that did not originate on planet Earth will be the key evidence humanity
needs to let us know that we are not alone in the Universe. And finding organisms in
our solar system could happen long before we come upon beings from other planetary
For a comprehensive look at the many
possibilities within exobiology also know as astrobiology be sure to explore
Keith Cowings Astrobiology Web site at this URL: http://www.reston.com/astro/index.html
While you probably won't make a living at doing
SETI the amateur way, the wonderful thing about living in this era is that the search
technology has reached the point where any serious amateur astronomer (non-Ph.D.) with a
few hundred to a few thousand dollars (or equivalent currency) for the right equipment to
attach to their existing satellite dish or optical telescope, can actually conduct a
serious search for other galactic civilizations. You can actually possess the
technological ability to scan the skies with devices that would have been the envy of most
professional institutions just a decade or two ago.
The extra beauty of doing your own SETI project
is that you can essentially be your own boss as to how things are run. SETI does not
have to belong only to the "big" boys and girls. Naturally, to conduct
amateur SETI, it will help to have a more than casual interest in astronomy, a
working knowledge of telescopes -- radio and optical, depending on which type of amateur
SETI you want to pursue (more on that later) -- a working knowledge of computers, a
good place to set up your observatory, plenty of free time, and some extra spending cash.
Yes, if you want to do serious astronomy and/or SETI, it can't be done
properly as a weekend hobby.
Of course you can do this any way you want, but
since we do not know who may be sending signals from out there by what methods or when, a
near-constant vigilance is the only way to be sure of catching their call when it comes.
And since it is likely that such signals will not be very powerful, especially to
amateur equipment, it will also make a major difference as to how "serious" your
equipment is as well.
Another nice thing in this era of computers and
the Internet is that you don't have to be alone in pursuing your personal SETI dream.
There are some actual amateur SETI organizations which can help you with all
aspects of your search plans.
If you want to find alien intelligences in the
microwave (radio) realm, the most common pursuit at present, check in with The SETI
League. The SETI League, Inc. was founded by Richard Factor in 1994, in response to
the United States' Government cutting all funds for NASA's SETI program, called the High
Resolution Microwave Survey (HRMS) in October, 1993. It was later resurrected with
private funds as Project Phoenix and managed by The SETI Institute.
Dr. H. Paul Shuch, The SETI League's executive
director, felt that between the advancements in computer technology and the vast numbers
of actual and potential radio astronomers around the world, a serious amateur effort could
be mounted to have a constant global coverage of the sky, free from the budget-cutting
politicians and scant time on the professionals' giant radio telescopes.
The SETI League's Web site (http://www.setileague.org) contains just about everything you need to know about
setting up your own radio telescope for the search. They can also postal mail you
the same information if need be. You will find loads of information on SETI in general.
There is another way one can look for ETI
transmissions that briefly gained prominence in the early 1960s, only to be overshadowed
by the microwave field until just recently: The optical spectrum. While not as
popular or well known to those with a casual knowledge of SETI due to microwave's
dominance for the past three decades, Optical SETI seeks to detect pulsed and continuous
wave laser beacons signals in the visible and infrared spectrum. To truly
advanced societies, laser communications offer a way to transmit large amounts of
audiovisual information and data over vast distances. Seeing as we do not exactly
know how ETI might communicate, looking for them in the microwave and optical spectrums
seems the only logical way to cover all the bases.
For the past nine years, Dr. Stuart Kingsley of
Ohio, who has often referred to himself as a "frustrated astronaut", has led the
effort to promote Optical SETI for both amateurs and professionals. He has designed
his own system called the Columbus Optical SETI Observatory. At first glance, it
looks like the typical kind of observatory you would find in a serious amateur
astronomer's back yard. But Dr. Kingsley's choice of targets goes beyond planets and
stars to beings which may dwell in other star systems.
Seeing as more amateurs have optical telescopes
than radio ones, it can be relatively easy to adapt your system to conduct SETI. Dr.
Kingsley has provided a great deal of information on how to do this in his Web site at: http://www.coseti.org.
As with microwave, while you won't need a large
radio dish, you will still require a dedication and seriousness to astronomy, a working
knowledge of optical telescopes and computers, a good place to set up your observatory,
plenty of free time, and some extra spending cash.
There is also "Retrospective Optical
SETI" which doesn't require the availability of a telescope but seeks to search
through the existing historical record and database of stellar spectrographic plates that
have accumulated over the past century, looking for anomalous spectral lines.
Such lines might indicate the presence of a laser beacon signal but had not previously
been noted or had been dismissed by an astronomer as a "glitch" in his or
The professional SETI sector has also begun to
get into the Optical SETI arena, most notably with Paul Horowitzs
Harvard/Smithsonian group (http://mc.harvard.edu/oseti/index.html)
and Dan Werthimers Optical SETI group at the University of California at Berkeley ( http://sag-www.ssl.berkeley.edu/opticalseti/). Dr. Horowitz is also involved with Project BETA,
while Dr. Werthimer is involved with SERENDIP.
Of course ETI might be sending messages through
the Milky Way using techniques which are neither radio nor optical, but most of these
methods are far beyond current amateur -- and in some cases professional -- capabilities.
Thus they will remain out of the main scope of this article. You can read about these
alternate signaling methods for your own intellectual curiosity in the following article
at this Web site URL: http://www.setiquest.com/lemav/lemav0n0.htm
If you prefer or decide not to become an active
SETI scientist, but still want to make some kind of a living in the field, you can always
pursue other avenues that while they may not allow you to find ETI in person, they can go
a long way towards making those discoveries possible.
One avenue is to write about extraterrestrial
life for periodicals and Web sites. Though it sometimes helps, you do not have to be
a professional exobiologist to get published on the subject matter in the popular science
magazines. Your research into alien life and its possible ways of being could go far
in making breakthroughs in a field that still has so many unknowns to answer.
You can also write about astrobiology and SETI to
explain its intricacies to the general public, a valuable service in its own right. Just
think, your works could inspire others to become scientists in the SETI field and
elsewhere, just as you were probably once inspired by similar circumstances. I can
personally attest to the validity and fulfillment of this route, as I was the first editor
of SETIQuest magazine, which ran from 1994 until 1998, when it could
no longer be supported financially.
Most importantly, don't ever forget in your
pursuit of alien life to enjoy what you are doing. SETI and its related fields
should always retain at least some of the wonder and excitement which drew you to it in
the first place. Never forget to keep reading, thinking, and speculating
about life out there, whether you pursue this as a profession or just an
"armchair" enthusiast. You will do yourself and the field a great deal of
good with this one basic point.
Despite how it might seem at first glance, my
goal with this article is not to discourage you from "doing" SETI. Rather,
I am presenting to you up front the realities of what is involved as the field stands now.
It would be worse for you to get all worked up and make elaborate plans about SETI,
only to be shot down in midstream. If exploring the stars is your dream, learn how
to do it realistically, rather than be defeated out of lack of knowledge on the subject.
If you discover that you do not really want to
pursue SETI beyond reading and thinking about it, then at least I hope I saved you some
time and energy on the matter so that you can still enjoy the subject. Remember, you
do not have to make your own SETI station to participate in this great endeavor.
Thoughtful speculation can be just as helpful with so many unknown factors out there which
have yet to be found.
However, if everything I have said has made you
still determined to pursue either a professional career or serious amateur goal to do
SETI, then more power to you! At the very least, you will be well rewarded in terms
of what you will discover about yourself and the Universe as a whole.
And who knows, maybe someday you will be the one
sitting at the observatory controls when the signal of a lifetime comes drifting in from
deep space. With a Cosmos as large as ours, the possibilities are truly
May 9, 1999
Back to Top