TED Prize

SETI makes radio telescope data accessible: Join Jill Tarter's wish

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(Photo: TED / Asa Mathat)

SETI Institute, an interdisciplinary scientific organization that explores the nature of life throughout the universe, announced that starting today it will make large quantities of astronomical radio telescope data accessible to astronomers and other scientists as part of an effort to build a global community of searchers for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence.

Today’s announcement represents the latest milestone in SETI Institute’s mission to facilitate mass collaboration in the search for civilizations beyond earth. The radio telescope data will be released by setiQuest, a program formed in 2009 after SETI Institute director Dr. Jill Tarter was awarded the 2009 TED Prize, whose benefits included $100,000 and the assistance of the global TED community to help realize her “One Wish to Change the World.” Accepting the prize, Dr. Tarter asked the TED community to “empower Earthlings everywhere to become active participants in the ultimate search for cosmic company.”

After months in development, the setiQuest program has reached the point where it is able to invite the global scientific community to access radio signal data collected by SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array (ATA). Commissioned in 2007, the Allen array is operated jointly by SETI Institute and the University of California at Berkeley. It is a “Large Number of Small Dishes” (LNSD) telescope array designed to conduct surveys for both conventional radio astronomy by the university, as well as for SETI Institute’s research.

SETI Institute analyzes the ATA radio data in real time with special software to detect technological signals from a distant extraterrestrial civilization. The process is analogous to listening to one hundred million radios, each tuned to a different channel and attached to an antenna that is highly sensitive to just one millionth of the sky, to find faint signals.

To date, SETI Institute’s methods have focused on the search for what are called narrowband signals. One of the benefits of opening the ATA data to the global scientific community is to invite development of techniques to analyze broadband signals.

The radio telescope data will be made available through setiQuest’s website, www.setiquest.org, in the form of files containing streams of data samples from specific targets in space. Data can be accessed by registered participants in the setiQuest program. SETI Institute hopes that by making the ATA data widely available, scientists around the world will develop new and innovative ways to process the massive quantities of radio signals streaming from space every second.

SETI Institute search programs have processed data in real time and discarded it shortly after the observation. They are capturing these new data sets to invite the public to expand the search. Now, setiQuest will provide a day’s worth of ATA data each week, and will leave the data on its website for up to six months.

While astronomers and specialists with experience in digital signal processing (DSP) may be the likely initial population of scientists and technologists with an interest in setiQuest, the program welcomes scientists and technologists of all disciplines. Those interested in learning how they can be part of the setiQuest project can find more information at http://www.setiQuest.org.