Today’s Top Space Headline –“U.S. Congress Spurs NASA to Search for Aliens”


The space agency hasn't funded the search for extraterrestrial intelligence for 25 years. Could that soon change? “Seti is not the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. We can’t define intelligence, and we sure as hell don’t know how to detect it remotely,” said astronomer Jill Tarter, SETI project scientist. SETI “is searching for evidence of someone else’s technology. We use technology as a proxy for intelligence.”

In October 1992, astronomers kicked off an ambitious project years in the making. Two radio telescopes, one in Puerto Rico and the other in California, started scouring the night sky for potential signals from alien civilizations somewhere deep in the cosmos.

“We began the search,” declared Tarter, the project scientist, as the telescopes started listening around glimmering stars many light-years from Earth continues Marina Koren in today's Atlantic. A year later, the search was suddenly over. A senator from Nevada wiped out all funding for any efforts in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, in NASA’s budget, including this new project.

“The Great Martian Chase may finally come to an end,” declared Senator Richard Bryan, after Congress approved a nasa funding bill with zero mention of seti. “As of today, millions have been spent and we have yet to bag a single little green fellow. Not a single Martian has said take me to your leader, and not a single flying saucer has applied for FAA approval.”

The search for extraterrestrial life, in general, would continue, of course, carried out by academic institutions around the world, by people like Tarter, one of the field’s best-known seti researchers (and the inspiration for Ellie Arroway, the protagonist in Contact, Carl Sagan’s 1985 classic science-fiction novel). But they wouldn’t get any help from the feds.



“[Bryan] made it clear to the administration that if they came back with SETI in their budget again, it wouldn’t be good for the NASA budget,” Tarter says now. “So we instantly became the four-letter S-word that you couldn’t say at headquarters anymore, and that has stuck for quite a while.”

That could soon change. Lawmakers in the House of Representatives recently proposed legislation for nasa’s future that includes some intriguing language. The space agency, the bill recommends, should spend $10 million on the “search for technosignatures, such as radio transmissions” per year, for the next two fiscal years.

The House bill—should it survive a vote in the House and passage in the Senate—can only make recommendations for how agencies should use federal funding. But for seti researchers like Tarter, the fact that it even exists is thrilling. It’s the first time congressional lawmakers have proposed using federal cash to fund seti in 25 years.

Since seti research emerged in the United States in the 1960s, astronomers have targeted one particular signature of technology: communication signals, especially those that span a narrow range of radio frequencies. Astronomers suspect such narrow-band signals are produced, as they are here on Earth, by artificial means, and would stand out among the universe’s natural radio sources, which are mostly broadband. The hope is to detect radio signals broadcast by another civilization to attract the attention of cosmic neighbors, or maybe even eavesdrop on radio communications between two spacefaring civilizations.

Beyond that, technosignatures refer to a wide assortment of potential markers of advanced beings that could conceivably be spotted by telescopes, on the ground or in space. Perhaps other technologically advanced civilizations use laser transmissions to communicate. Maybe they have forged blast shields to protect themselves from invaders, or built enormous spheres to harness their star’s light and power their operations. Maybe, like us, they’ve lit their surfaces with shimmering city lights or padded their atmosphere with pollutants. Their worlds may be coated in layers of radioactive ash and smoke after a destructive nuclear war. With power and precise instruments, humans could someday detect these types of technosignatures—if they’re out there, of course.

In 1971, nasa asked astronomers, including Carl Sagan, to brainstorm techniques for surveying the sky for seti signals. They came up with an ambitious plan: the construction of a giant array of 1,000 radio telescopes. By the end of that decade, they hit a snag. Bill Proxmire, a Democratic senator from Wisconsin, gave the space agency one of his made-up Golden Fleece awards, reserved for federally funded projects he thought were useless. Proxmire then tried to terminate seti funding altogether, but Sagan convinced him to back down.

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