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IT IS BOTH TIMELY AND FEASIBLE TO BEGIN A SERIOUS
SEARCH FOR EXTRATERRESTRIAL INTELLIGENCE
IT IS BOTH TIMELY AND FEASIBLE TO BEGIN A SERIOUS
Only a few decades ago most astronomers believed that planetary systems were extremely rare, that the solar system and the habitat for life that Earth provides might well be unique in the Galaxy. At the same time so little was known about the chemical basis for the origin of life that this event appeared to many to verge on the miraculous. No serious program for detecting extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) could arise in such an intellectual climate. Since then numerous advances in a number of apparently diverse sciences have eroded the reasons for expecting planetary systems and biogenesis on suitable planets to be unlikely. Indeed, theory today suggests that planetary systems may be the rule around solar type stars, and that the Universe, far from being barren, may be teeming with life, much of it highly evolved. (See Section II-1 and II-3.)
During the latter half of the last and the first part of this century, the slow rotation of the Sun stood as a formidable objection to the nebular hypothesis of Kant and Laplace, which proposed that planetary systems formed out of the same condensing cloud that produced the primary star. An initial rotation rapid enough to produce the Sun's planets should have produced a Sun spinning a thousand times faster too fast to become a spherical star. As a result, various "catastrophic" theories of the origin of the solar system were proposed, all of which depended on events so rare as to make the solar system virtually unique.
Then, in the late 1930's, Spitzer showed that starstuff torn out by tidal or concussive forces would explode into space rather than condense into planets. Shortly thereafter research into plasma physics, and observations of solar prominences, revealed the magnetohydrodynamic coupling of ionized matter to magnetic fields, a mechanism whereby stars in the process of formation can slow their rotation. As a result, the theory in which planets condense out of the whirling lens of gas and dust that will become a star has regained wide acceptance. Planetary systems are now believed to exist around a substantial fraction of stars. (See Section II-3.)
Meanwhile the discoveries that the organic building blocks for DNA and proteins can be formed by natural processes out of molecules comprising the early atmosphere of Earth, and that many organic molecules are even formed in the depths of interstellar space, have made the spontaneous origin of life on suitable planets seem far more probable. Life appears to have developed on Earth almost as soon as seas had formed and chemical evolution had provided the building blocks. Earth has been lifeless for only a small fraction of its age. This leads many exobiologists today to look upon life as a very likely development, given a suitable planet. (See Section II-1.)
The present climate of belief makes it timely to consider a search for extraterrestrial life, but is such a search feasible? It is certainly out of the question, at our present level of technology or, indeed, at any level we can foresee, to mount an interstellar search by spaceship. On the other hand, we believe it is feasible to begin a search for signals radiated by other civilizations having technologies at least as advanced as ours. We can expect, with considerable confidence, that such
signals will consist of electromagnetic waves; no other known particle approaches the photon in ease of generation, direction and detection. None flies faster, none has less energy and is therefore cheaper than the radio frequency photon. It has long been argued that signals of extraterrestrial origin will be most apt to be detected in the so-called microwave window: wavelengths from about 0.5 to 30 cm. Natural noise sources rise to great height on either side of this window, making it the quietest part of the spectrum for everyone in the Galaxy. We concur with these arguments. (See Section II-4.)
Existing radio telescopes are capable of receiving signals from our interstellar neighbors, if of high power or if beamed at us by similar telescopes used as transmitters. The large antenna at Arecibo could detect its counterpart thousands of light years away. Indeed, it could detect transmissions from nearby stars less powerful but similar to our own television and radars.
Terrestrial UHF and microwave emanations now fill a sphere some twenty light years in radius. This unintended announcement of our technological prowess is growing stronger each year and is expanding into space at the speed of light. The same phenomenon may well denote the presence of any technological society. In fact, our own radar leakage may have already been detected by a nearby civilization. In addition, advanced societies may radiate beacons for a variety of reasons, possibly merely to bring emerging societies into contact with a long established intelligent community of advanced societies throughout the Galaxy. A search begun today could detect signals of either type.
We propose a search for signals in the microwave part of the radio spectrum, but not at this time the sending of signals. Even though we expect our society to continue to radiate TV and radar signals we do not propose to increase our detectability by, say, intentionally beaming signals at likely stars. There is an immediate payoff if we receive a signal; transmission requires that we wait out the round trip light time before we can hope for any results. Transmission should be considered only in response to a received signal or after a prolonged listening program has failed to detect any signals. (See Section II-5.)
Not only is the technology for discovering ETI already at hand, but every passing year will see the radio frequency interference (RFI) problem grow worse while only modest improvements in technology can occur. (See Sections III-8 and III-9.) Perfect receivers would not double the sensitivity of a search system over that which we can already achieve. Given optimum data processing, large increases in sensitivity are to be had only by increasing collecting area. It is true that data processing technology is improving rapidly, but presently achievable data processing technology is adequate and inexpensive. Further, the techniques need to be developed in association with existing facilities and comprehensive searches made before it becomes evident that a more sensitive system is needed. Great discoveries are often the result more of courage and determination than of the ultimate in equipment. The Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria were not jet airliners, but they did the job.
Portion of output scan from 1024 channel ( of 1 KHz each) analyzer at Arecibo Observatory showing an ETI search, centered on HI line, with a-Ophiuchi as the target. Structure shown is due to interstellar hydrogen clouds at various drift velocities. Bar indicates strength of hypothetical signal that could be received from a transmitter with the EIRP of Arecibo, located at the 60 ly distance of a-Ophiuchi.