SETI Institute Founded, Searches for Alien Life

SETI Institute Founded, Searches for Alien Life

“On this day in 1984, the SETI Institute, dedicated to the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, was founded by Thomas Pierson and its current director Dr Jill Tarter.

One question that has occupied the minds of mankind since the dawn of intelligent thought, is that of the existence of life beyond Earth. The idea that we may not be alone in the vastness of space, that there may be other intelligent life forms on other planets far away, has remained a fascination throughout human existence, across all corners of the globe.

During the 1950s and 1960s, as space exploration leapt from the realm of fantasy to reality, thoughts turned even more sharply towards the prospect of extra-terrestrial life, and concerted efforts were made to search for evidence that intelligent life was not the preserve of planet Earth alone. Communities of inquisitive amateur astronomers devoted their time to the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, looking in particular for radio signals from deep space, in many cases using rudimentary equipment housed in makeshift back-yard workshops. In early 1984, a disparate group of like-minded astronomers, professional and amateur alike, came together, keen to harness their collective expertise and pool their ideas. In November that year, the SETI Institute was founded, allowing the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence to flourish and develop.

The SETI Institute, based in Mountain View, California, is entirely self-funded, relying on donations and non-governmental grants to finance its research. It has grown steadily over the years and now employs over 150 staff, each working for the stated mission of the Institute, to “”explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe.”” A variety of teams are concentrated on different aspects of the mission, with some involved in developing data-gathering technology, while others are directly involved in running projects, and data analysis and interpretation.

One of the most important resources at the Institute’s disposal is a vast radio telescope, known as the Allen Telescope Array, situated 290 miles north of San Francisco. The ATA comprises a field of modest satellite dishes harnessed together that act as a giant signal-seeking probe used for a multitude of tasks. The signals received have thrown light on intergalactic gravitational fields, electro-magnetic currents, the properties of black holes, dark energy and dark matter, and has many other potential uses. The ATA remains an ongoing project that expands and develops as finances allow. In April 2011, ATA suspended operations because of lack of funding. Through valiant fundraising efforts, SETI was able to collect US$200,000 from 2,000 donors and reopen the facility. The site currently consists of 42 harnessed satellite dishes, but it is hoped that increased funding, through partnerships with bodies such as NASA, will allow for expansion to around 350 dishes, allowing the ATA to probe even deeper into space.

While the primary goal of the organisation remains the finding of concrete evidence of extra-terrestrial intelligent life, the SETI Institute also has more tangible objectives of expanding and exploring our knowledge of the universe. Much of the focus of the Institute has been on educating and promoting interest in space exploration, astronomy, intelligent life, and evolutionary processes. The Institute cultivates direct relationships with several academic bodies, in particular the University of California, Berkeley, with which it has collaborated in several projects. It also publishes textbooks for use in schools, and runs summer courses for those keen to further their knowledge in astrophysics.”

Credit: Image courtesy of Seth Shostak/SETI Institute
Caption: SETI hopes to gain more funding so that the Allen Telescope Array (ATA), currently comprised of 42 harnessed satellite dishes, will someday include up to 350 dishes.

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