UC Berkeley press release


UC Berkeley researchers begin new search for signs of intelligent life in the universe

by Robert Sanders

Berkeley -- UC Berkeley researchers have begun a new era in their ongoing search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

This week they are installing a new search instrument, some 40 times more powerful than their previous machine, at the newly upgraded Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico -- the world's largest radio telescope.

The new machine, dubbed SERENDIP IV, is the fourth-generation machine in their 20-year-long program.

"We've been searching the sky for signs of extraterrestrials with continuously increasing capability," said Stuart Bowyer, professor in the graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley and principal investigator of the SERENDIP program, a project he began some 20 years ago. "So far -- nothing. But we're not giving up."

Dan Werthimer, codirector and principal designer of the SERENDIP IV machine, points out that "the machine has the equivalent power of 200 of the world's largest supercomputers working together on this task."

The Arecibo telescope has just completed a five-year, $27 million upgrade with funds provided by the National Science Foundation and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The telescope upgrade is to be inaugurated Saturday, June 14, at a ceremony in Puerto Rico.

This upgrade will substantially increase the telescope's capabilities for research in radio astronomy. Mike Davis, project scientist for the Arecibo upgrade project and a co-investigator on the SERENDIP project, says the upgrade will significantly enhance the SERENDIP search effort.

SERENDIP stands for Search for Extraterrestrial Radio Emissions from Nearby Developed Intelligent Populations.

Jeff Cobb, the UC Berkeley researcher in charge of dealing with the huge amount of data produced by the SERENDIP IV machine, has developed extensive computer programs to sort through these data to identify promising candidate signals among the false alarms produced by human activities. These false alarms are produced by a variety of sources including airplanes and artificial satellites.

"We detect intelligent signals all of the time," says Cobb. "Unfortunately, they have all been from Earthlings ... thus far."

SERENDIP IV will scan the Arecibo sky with very high sensitivity.

"We are trying to make as few assumptions as possible about the character of the signals, and just cover a large area of sky and a large range of frequencies," Bowyer says.

With specially designed computer circuitry and software, SERENDIP IV will simultaneously examine 168 million frequency channels every 1.7 seconds. Each channel is 0.6 Hertz wide (one Hertz equals one cycle per second). The 168 million signals are analyzed immediately for radio intensities above background levels. Those found are immediately transmitted to UC Berkeley, where they are analyzed to eliminate the ones caused by interference from Earth-based or near-space radio sources. Those that remain will be studied more closely.

The SERENDIP project is entirely supported by private funds. Especially noteworthy is the support of the Planetary Society (founded by the late Carl Sagan), whose 100,000 members have contributed both to the development of the SERENDIP IV machine and to the ongoing operating costs. Toshiba America was a major contributor to the development of the machine, with additional contributions by the Friends of SERENDIP, Xilinx and Intel Corp. The data processing system was developed with a major contribution from Sun Microsystems. The SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute provides major support for the operating costs of the program.

SERENDIP was started in 1978 by Bowyer and astronomer Michael Lampton on a UC Berkeley telescope located in Hat Creek, Calif. SERENDIP II followed with two years of observations (1986-88) at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, W. Va., using a 300-foot telescope that collapsed several years ago. SERENDIP III has been running for the last five years at the Arecibo Observatory.

Others involved in the project are Michael Lampton of UC Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory; David Ng, who received an MS in electrical engineering for his work on the project; plus David Anderson, Charles Donnelly, Watson Alberts and a number of students and volunteers.

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