A Chinese telescope has not found an alien signal. The Search Continues.

It was a project that launched a thousand interstellar dreams.

Fifty years ago, NASA published a fat 253-page book titled “Project Cyclops”. He summarized the results of a NASA workshop on how to detect alien civilizations. What was needed, the assembled group of astronomers, engineers and biologists concluded, was Cyclops, a vast array of radio telescopes with up to a thousand antennas 100 meters in diameter. At the time, the project would have cost $10 billion. It could, astronomers said, detect alien signals as far as 1,000 light-years away.

The report began with a quote from astronomer Frank Drake, now professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz:

At this very minute, with almost absolute certainty, radio waves sent by other intelligent civilizations are falling on Earth. You can build a telescope that, pointed at the right place and tuned to the right frequency, can discover these waves. Someday, from somewhere among the stars, will come the answers to many of the oldest, most important and most exciting questions that humanity has asked.

The Cyclops report, long out of print but available online, would become a bible for a generation of astronomers drawn to the dream that science could answer existential questions.

“For the first time, we had technology where we could do an experiment instead of asking priests and philosophers,” Jill Tarter, who read the report as a graduate student and dedicated her life to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, said in an interview. a decade ago.


I was reminded of Cyclops and the work he inspired this week, when word went around the world that Chinese astronomers had detected a radio signal that had the characteristics of being from an extraterrestrial civilization – that is, it had a bandwidth very narrow at the frequency of 140.604. MHz, a precision nature usually does not achieve on its own.

They made the detection using a giant new telescope called the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope, or FAST. The telescope was pointed in the direction of an exoplanet called Kepler 438 b, a rocky planet about 1.5 times the size of Earth that orbits in the so-called habitable zone of Kepler 438, a red dwarf star hundreds of light-years away. in the constellation Lyra. It has an estimated surface temperature of 37 degrees Fahrenheit, making it a candidate for harboring life.

Just as quickly, however, an article in the state-run Science and Technology Daily reporting the discovery disappeared. And Chinese astronomers were throwing cold water on the result.

Zhang Tong-jie, the chief scientist of the China ET Civilization Research Group, was quoted by Andrew Jones, a journalist which tracks Chinese space and astronomical developments, saying: “The possibility that the suspicious signal is some sort of radio interference is also very high and needs to be confirmed or ruled out. This can be a long process.”

“These signals are radio interference; they are due to radio pollution from earthlings, not ETs,” he wrote in an email.

This became a familiar story. For half a century, SETI, or the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, has been a game of beating a mole, finding promising signals before tracking them to orbiting satellites, microwave ovens, and other terrestrial sources. Dr himself. Drake pointed a radio telescope at a pair of stars in 1960 and soon thought he had found gold, only to discover that the signal was lost radar.

More recently, a signal that appeared to come from the direction of the Sun’s closest stellar neighbor, Proxima Centauri, was tracked by radio interference in Australia.

Just as NASA’s announcement last week that it would make a modest investment in the scientific study of unidentified flying objects was intended to bring rigor and practicality to what many criticized as illusions, so was the agency’s Cyclops workshop held at Stanford for more than three years. . months in 1971. The conference was organized by John Billingham, an astrobiologist, and Bernard Oliver, who was the head of research at Hewlett-Packard. The men also edited the conference report.

In the introduction, Dr. Oliver wrote that if anything came from Cyclops, he would consider this the most important year of his life.

“Cyclops was indeed a milestone, largely in crafting a coherent SETI strategy and in the clear calculations and engineering design that followed,” said Paul Horowitz, a professor emeritus of physics at Harvard who went on to design and initiate your own listening. campaign called Project Meta, funded by the Planetary Society. Film director Steven Spielberg (“ET” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”) attended the official opening in 1985 at the Harvard-Smithsonian Agassiz Station in Harvard, Massachusetts.

“SETI was for real!” Dr. Horowitz added.

But what Dr. Oliver initially received was just a “Golden Fleece” award from Senator William Proxmire, a Wisconsin Democrat, who fought what he considered wasteful government.

“In my opinion, this project should be delayed by a few million light years,” he said.

On Columbus Day in 1992, NASA began a limited search; a year later, Congress canceled it at the request of Senator Richard Bryan, a Democrat from Nevada. Since then denied federal support, the SETI venture has continued to limp, supported by donations to a non-profit organization, the SETI Institute, in Mountain View, California. Recently, through a $100 million donation, Russian businessman Yuri Milner created a new effort called Listen to Revelation. Dr. Horowitz and others expanded the search to what they call “Optical SETI,” monitoring the sky for laser flashes from distant civilizations.

Cyclops was never built, which is good, Horowitz said, “because by today’s standards it would have been a huge, expensive monster.” Technological developments such as radio receivers that can listen to billions of radio frequencies at the same time have changed the game.

China’s new large FAST telescope, also dubbed the “Sky Eye,” was built in 2016 partially with SETI in mind. Its antenna occupies a sinkhole in Guizhou, southwest China. The size of the antenna eclipses what was once the iconic Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, which shamefully collapsed in December 2020.

Now, FAST and its observers have experienced their own false alarm judgment. There will be many more, SETI astronomers say.

Those who persevere profess not to be discouraged by the Great Silence, as it is called, out there. They’ve always been looking for the long term, they say.

“The Great Silence is not unexpected,” Horowitz said, not least because only a fraction of one percent of the Milky Way’s 200 million stars have been surveyed. No one ever said that detecting that shower of alien radio signals would be easy.

“It might not happen in my life, but it will happen,” said Dr. Werthimer.

“All the signals detected by SETI researchers so far are made by our own civilization, not another civilization,” grumbled Dr. Werthimer in a series of emails and phone conversations. Earthlings, he said, may have to build a telescope on the back of the moon to escape increasing radio pollution on Earth and interference from orbiting satellite constellations.

The present time, he said, may be a unique window to seek SETI from Earth.

“A hundred years ago, the sky was clear, but we didn’t know what to do,” he said. “A hundred years from now, there will be no more heaven.”

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