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A Universe of Sounds

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is helping fund a SETI project that will distill space noise, better search for alien life, and help understand the cosmos.
February 23, 2005

A new radio telescope array has been developed by the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute and the University of California at Berkeley that will shed some cosmic noise, and give scientists a better view of one million stars scattered throughout the universe.

A new radio telescope array has been developed by the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute and the University of California at Berkeley that will shed some cosmic noise, and give scientists a better view of one million stars scattered throughout the universe.

Named after the principle initial donor of the project, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) consists of 350 20-foot antennas and will allow SETI scientists and radio astronomers to study stars twenty-four hours a day across multiple channels.

This new array – which gathers smaller telescopes in large bunches –  will allow scientists to study more stars at one time than was previously possible with larger telescopes that focused on one, narrow region of space at any given time.

The Allen Foundation has already laid out $11.5 million, with the promise of another $13.5 million in the future. While that covers less than half of the $52 million price tag, the project is still under way. There are currently 32 antennas running in the Hat Creek region of Northern California and SETI hopes to have construction of the total array finished by 2007.

It gives us access to the sky to search deeper for fainter levels and broader types of signals, says SETI director Jill Tarter. Well be looking at more frequency with more sensitivity and sophistication.

The ATA’s development comes on the heels of the news that NASA’s most well-known telescope, Hubble, will be brought down in the near future due to budget constraints and resource reallocations that have forced the space agency to examine where it should spend its money.

That has turned attention back to earth-bound telescopes. Although SETI has only been around since1984, scientists have been using radio telescopes to learn more about the heavens since the 1940s.

Radio telescopes are comprised of three components. The most visible is the parabolic dish (called an antenna) that collects the faint radio signals from the cosmos. The next is a type of recording device – nowadays, a digital memory disc – and complex software used to collect, analyze and process the data.

The last is the receiver and amplifier used to boost the extremely weak signal to a measurable level of noise. It’s here, with receivers and amplifiers, where the primary technology developments over the past two decades have come in the form of low-noise receivers, or electronics, that make up the back-end of the telescope.

Much effort has gone into reducing the internal static of the electronics in an effort to detect the weak signals of celestial interest. Radio astronomers, like those at SETI, are using this advanced technology to refine their analysis of signals from space.

According to Tarter, SETI is looking for signals that are very narrowband (compressed in frequency) and are continuous or pulsed. SETI picks these signals up by using a 100 million narrowband channels and pattern recognition software.

After the signals are picked up, the detected signals are automatically checked against a database of known interference, and potentially significant candidates are immediately examined.

With the ATA, this process will move ten times more quickly because multiple searches of the universe can occur simultaneously.

SETI hopes to use the Allen Telescope Array not only for its own research, but also to grant access to radio astronomers, making it a shared technology resource for astronomers around the world who want to study how planets are formed, why stars die, and what the outer regions of the cosmos look like.

“For the first time in our history, we have the ability to pursue a scientifically and technologically sophisticated search for intelligent life beyond Earth at the same time we are doing traditional radio astronomy,” Allen, a long-time supporter of SETI, says in a written release.

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