Aliens in the Backyard: How Amateur Astronomers Will Help Find E.T.
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Aliens in the Backyard: How Amateur Astronomers Will Help Find E.T.

Last week, a Russian billionaire pledged $100 million toward the search for intelligent alien life. Has the movement's moment finally come?
July 27, 2015, 1:48pm

In 1991, Mike Fremont and Bob Lash set out to work on an ambitious project. They called it BAMBI, short for Bob and Mike's Big Investment, which doesn't describe what they were trying to do. Which is to say, Bob and Mike were looking for aliens.

Neither man had a background in astronomy or space science. They were graduates of the infamous Homebrew Computer Club, a collective of tinkerers and computer hobbyists in Silicon Valley, and the project appealed to their sensibilities as engineers.

SETI research has been going on since 1960, when Frank Drake turned an 85-foot telescope toward the star Tau Ceti and turned on a tape recorder. NASA's involvement began later that decade, with NASA biotech chief John Billingham taking an interest in astrobiology around 1965, slowly moving NASA toward its involvement later that decade. It began in earnest in 1975, with NASA taking a more active role. For this, it received criticism from Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wisc.), a NASA opponent who considered SETI a particular waste of taxpayer money. Efforts redoubled in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with a planned telescope array set to break ground in 1992.

After reading over the technical specs of the project, Mike and Bob realized that they could build something in their own backyards that would significantly contribute to the search—and they could do it for cheap.

"It dawned on us that by applying enough computing power in the back-end, one could achieve sensitivities close to NASA's without access to large parabolic dish antennas," Lash told Motherboard in an email.

Two sites were set up, BAMBI-A in California (run by Fremont and Lash), and BAMBI-B in Colorado, which was run by Mike Fox, who did satellite control work at Lockheed and NASA. BAMBI-A started out with an eight-foot-dish; BAMBI-B with a 10 foot.

They weren't looking for an alien craft, of course. They were looking for an alien radio signal.

***

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence has a long and storied history—one that has left it repeatedly at the brink of extinction before rebounding. While SETI was initially a project of NASA and public universities, it fell entirely into private hands in 1993; that planned array was never completed. Even at its height, it was a small part of a wider community of radio telescopes, competing for telescope time with other searches for "invisible" objects like black holes, distant quasars, and pulsars barely 10 miles across but unimaginably dense.

The thesis of SETI has been to find alien civilizations that are using technology roughly at our level, and thus its turned mostly to the lower end of the radio spectrum: radio and microwave, most frequently used for communication on Earth. It's been considered a fool's errand by some in the scientific community, but it's a subject of paramount importance to others, including people as luminary as the late Carl Sagan, who once remarked, "A single message from space will show that it is possible to live through technological adolescence. It is possible that the future of human civilization depends on the receipt of interstellar messages."

"Astronomy is one of the few sciences where amateurs make major contributions."

Earlier this month, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner pledged $100 million to the Breakthrough Listen initiative, which will supercharge the search. While much of the data will be gathered at large facilities, much of it will be processed by home users using Berkeley's SETI@home program, a distributed computing model that puts data packets on the machines of volunteers.

That's in line with the history of astronomy, which has never been just about the professional operations. Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto, was a Kansas farmboy who hadn't finished college. He started out making telescopes in his tool shed, before the Lowell Observatory took an interest in him and hired him on. By 1929, he was finding faint asteroids. By 1930s, he found an entire planet.

"Astronomy is one of the few sciences where amateurs make major contributions," Seth Shostak, senior scientist at the SETI Institute, says. "The amateurs find the comets. The amateurs measure variable stars."

Part of this is because of the relatively low cost of access. A 70mm beginner telescope can see Jupiter's moons and Saturn's rings for less than $200. Radio astronomy has a little bit more overhead, but was pioneered by amateurs. While Karl Jansky worked at Bell Labs when he made the first antenna for astronomical observation, the second antenna was built by Grote Reber, an amateur inspired by Jansky's work. Jansky's subsequent observations in the 1940s discovered a massive supernova remnant, Cassiopea A, and a distant radio galaxy, Cygnus A, in addition to performing a survey of a large portion of the sky in invisible light frequencies.

So as happens in both optical and radio astronomy, there are amateurs to fill in the gaps of SETI. The work is more daunting, the payoff more nebulous. A radio telescope in your backyard could, with the right equipment and the right sensitivity, find the same pulsars and black holes as the Big Ear in Ohio or the Morehead State University array in Kentucky.

But SETI work has a lot of investment and no guaranteed payout. Fermi's Paradox asks us: if there are other civilizations out there, why haven't we heard from them? Neither professional or amateur operations have found proof of aliens, though there have been a couple strange signals and some false alarms.

There are still some people who've stuck it out, though, guided by curiosity and technical know-how, who want to search for proof we're not alone—and do it in a scientifically sound way.

***

For 22 years, Fremont, Lash, and Fox used the radio telescopes to look in areas of the light spectrum that other SETI programs didn't.

Constrained by resources, NASA and partner's SETI program looked in the "hydrogen lines," an area around 1420 MhZ where signals pass through the atmosphere of an atmosphere, somewhere in the microwave band of light spectrum. NASA was only looking in the microwave spectrum—or at least it was up until 1993, when Senator Richard Bryan of Nevada cancelled a proposed array to look for alien intelligence and stripped out all funding for SETI under NASA's budget.

This left the search in the hands of a handful of outfits like the SETI Institute, the outfit founded in 1984 by Jill Tarter which emerged as the leading organization after NASA was defunded, or the Berkeley SETI Research Center, which manages SETI@home and a variety of SETI experiments at different observatories. It also left it up to more amateur SETI astronomers like the BAMBI crew.

"The biggest attraction for us was the chance, as amateurs, to break new ground in an area that was previously only open to professional observers," Lash says.

In its 22 years of existence, BAMBI didn't find the needle in the haystack of an alien signal. But the team was able to make observations of the intense energetic activity within the black hole at the center of the galaxy in Sagitarrius A, and hear distant quasars. BAMBI also contributed to the study of the Schumacher-Levy comet as it plunged into the atmosphere of Jupiter, joining a consortium of other observatories as the only amateur radio telescope to participate.

But by 2013, the project had drawn to an end. The work was done not through grant funding, but paid for personally by the three partners. So when a snowstorm took out BAMBI-B, it hit that observatory hard, shutting its doors. Then the electronics for BAMBI-A went down, and one of the key components—a DKD Instruments 810A, which served as the spectrum analyzer—was no longer produced. BAMBI-A shut its doors as well.

"Unfortunately all costs have come out of our own pockets," Lash says. "If we had sufficient funds, we could repair both systems and even upgrade their electronics to expand the number of channels we could search."

Even though the project is over, he hasn't lost his enthusiasm. "Even with all of the outstanding work being done by SETI@home at Arecibo, project SERENDIP at U.C. Berkeley, the SETI Institute's Allen Array at Hat Creek, and other SETI projects, only a small portion of the search space has been explored so far," he says. "There is plenty of opportunity to make new discoveries!"

***

BAMBI may have been one of the longest lasting efforts to dream big on small resources, but it certainly wasn't the only one.

The Columbus Optical Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (COSETI) observatory—run out of the home of Stuart Kingsley in Columbus, Ohio—searched not for alien radio signals, but for bright flashes of light that could be interstellar laser beacons from distant civilizations. Kinglsey moved to the UK in 2008 and dropped the habit, although he still toys with the idea of starting it back up again.

"I have been waiting for the opportunity to move again along the coast here for me to deploy my observatory, which is presently in storage here," Kingsley wrote in an email. "Even then, I do not know yet if my new place, when we locate a suitable property, will have the space to do this."

Mike Fremont holding the "copper box" oven built to house the BAMBI front-end Low Noise Amplifier (LNA). Changes in signal strength due to outside air temperature variations were mitigated by using a constant-temperature oven combined with additional insulation. Image courtesy Bob Lash

Another infamous amateur observatory was the SETI League. Though its members were unable to be contacted for this story, Seth Shostak, a SETI evangelist and the chief astronomer and director for the Center for SETI Research within the SETI Institute, was able to give some context for it.

The project was founded by Paul Shuch, an engineer who received funding from industrialist Richard Factor to create a network of small scale stations across the world. Shuch's job was to help people build the stations, by providing plans and engineering know-how to enable the repurposing of backyard satellite dishes.

"He put together the plans for receivers and other equipment so that if you had a backyard satellite dish that you weren't using for television, you could re-configure it to do radio SETI," Shostak said in a phone interview. "His hope was to get 5000 amateurs to do that around the world, because that would be an interesting experiment. If you could get 5,000 of them and they're all looking in different directions, you might cover a fair amount of the sky that way."

But it ran into a snag.

"Unfortunately, he didn't get 5,000. He got more like 50 and then the money ran out."

***

With the Breakthrough Listen project, professional SETI research suddenly finds itself with a lot of money. The project has drawn support from a who's-who of the field, including SETI researchers Jill Tarter, Frank Drake, and Shostak; Ann Druyan, who put together the Golden Record aboard the Voyager crafts, documents of humanity's history meant to be found by other civilizations (here's the obligatory mention that she's the widow of Carl Sagan as well); physicists Stephen Hawking and Kip Thorne; cosmonaut Alexei Leonov and astronaut Mark Kelly; and more.

The official observations will be made at professional observatories, but amateurs will play a strong role in data analysis. There will be an unprecedented amount of data coming in, with SETI@home handling a good amount of the analysis. The Berkeley SETI Research Center will make the tools more robust so users can focus on particular parts of the radio spectrum, or which part of the sky. It will give them the ability to interact with the data in a way that more concretely involves the home users who've devoted a portion of their technological resources to the project for 16 years.

"It's a project that is very very popular, but we've been struggling in recent years to keep the project going," Andrew Siemions, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center, said of SETI@home in an interview for another Motherboard article.

The team, previously constrained by resources, will be able to make vast improvements on SETI@home, which will bring in amateurs and enthusiasts to work alongside other researchers in the hunt for signals from distant planets.

***

Professional astronomers have frequently relied on amateurs to supplement their research. In the same spirit, the professional SETI community, a small group of researchers, have sought ways to incorporate amateurs into the work they do, beyond simply asking them for help with data processing. The SETI Institute at one point even considered procuring rigs for amateur optical astronomers to use at home, but decided the expense to the consumer wouldn't be worth something that might not get a dedicated following.

"You might be really gung ho the first week, but after a while, if you don't find anything, you might go back to taking pictures of Saturn or nebulae," Shostak says. "The thing about SETI is that you can spend a long time doing it without seeing any data, and that requires the right kind of mindset."

But for would-be SETI amateurs, Shostak says it's not out of reach—though adding that they should look in the areas other SETI projects aren't looking, as not to simply replicate something Arecibo is doing at a fraction of the size. But that leaves lots of open room.

"The entire field, if you add up all the people working on seti as their day job, not as something that's a part time effort, that number is maybe 10. MAYBE it's 10," Shostak says. "So there's obviously plenty of room for somebody who's gung ho and has some technical ability to put some equipment together to do something."

"You might be really gung ho the first week, but after a while, if you don't find anything, you might go back to taking pictures of Saturn or nebulae."

With the Breakthrough Listen initiative, there will be more people working on SETI than there have been in previous decades, opening up big opportunities for researchers who've never had the resources before. But the amateur SETI community still has a big role to play, whether by supplementing the other research with a home telescope, or using programming skills to make data processing more robust.

But all of it will require time, concentration, and patience. After all, barring some grand cover-up, there has never been a verified alien signal.

There was one strong candidate in the 1970s called the

Wow! Signal

, which was 72 seconds of seemingly perfect communication … that never repeated itself, one of the key things needed to further determine if it's coming from intelligent life. (In fact, as

The Atlantic

detailed, one amateur SETI researcher, Robert Gray, has devoted himself wholly to the Wow! Signal.)

But it may not be because nothing is out there. It may be that we're not looking in the right places, wherever that may be on the radio spectrum. There aren't enough satellites tuning in for the kinds of signals SETI researchers look for. As Shostak even specifically points out, for instance, since some operations in Australia have shut down, there aren't even near enough in the southern hemisphere.

That will likely change with Breakthrough Listen (the interviews with Shostak were conducted prior to the announcement.) Just as exoplanet researchers keep finding new Earth-like worlds, it could open the doors for amateurs and professionals to find new Wow! like signals. It will take a lot of listening, and a lot of patience with the Great Silence. The answer may come in the next 10 years. It could be 20 years off. But across the world, people will be listening. Hopefully, new backyard researchers will use technical skills and old satellite dishes to join in the hunt.