(Investigator 29, 1993 March)

The National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) is throwing the latest technology into a new 10-year Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. (SETI).

In 1960 Frank Drake looked for signals from two nearby stars using the radio telescope at Greenbank, West Virginia. In 1974 he sent a 20 billion watt message with the Arecibo radio telescope (Puerto Rico) to the "Great Cluster" of stars in the Hercules constellation. The message will take 24,000 years to get there. Other attempts to send messages have also been made as well as about 40 attempts to listen for communication from other worlds – all without success. Such small-scale searches were funded by universities and/or private donations.

On October 12 1992, 500 years after Columbus found America, the most ambitious search for alien intelligence to date commenced.

A worldwide network of radio telescopes, including the Arecibo one, are being linked to supercomputers which are able to sort through millions of radio channels and sort out any signals suggestive of an intelligent sender. The radio telescopes look like a back yard satellite dish but are a hundred times bigger.

Radio waves from stars form irregular patterns on display monitors but waves used in communication form regular patterns. The software developed by the NASA scientists can analyse different kinds of signals such as continuous waves or pulses or permutations of these. SETI's continuous-wave-signal-detection-computer can make a billion tests each second for meaningful signals. In the first minutes of SETI more listening to the stars occurred than in the previous 30 years combined.

NASA began taking the idea of searching for alien life seriously in 1978 but could not at that time get funding since to most people the idea still seemed like nonsense.

Carl Sagan, famous for the COSMOS TV series, co-founded the Planetary Society in 1980 which soon passed 100,000 members. In 1982 the Society sought support for SETI via a petition which many famous scientists signed including Stephen Gould and Stephen Hawking.

In 1987 a preliminary version of NASA software was tested. A supercomputer linked with the Goldstone radio telescope (California) detected a 1-watt signal from Pioneer 10 (launched in 1972) 4 billion miles away!

The Apollos moon shots cost $24 billion from 1962-1973. Currently NASA's annual budget is $15 billion but the SETI budget is only about 1/1000 of this.

Radio waves have no mass and therefore their transmission requires little energy when compared to sending a spacecraft. Even a small craft travelling at 2/3 the speed of light to one of the nearest stars would use about 50,000 times as much energy as all the nations on planet Earth in a year! This fact alone is reason to doubt interpretations of "flying saucers" as coming from distant stars.

SETI began with two radio telescopes and will eventually include many others. Australia will be in the forefront next year when 10 million wavelengths from 172 stars visible only from the Southern Hemisphere are searched.

SETI scientists anticipate lots of false alarms mainly from satellites and even from microwave ovens.

What if aliens on distant planets do exist, are vastly ahead of us in technology, have energy sources to get here, and consider humans to be good for eating? That would indeed be awkward for us!

Does the Christian Bible say anything about the possible existence of life-forms superior to humans?

One approach might be to seek out what the Bible says about God's reasons for allowing evil and then analyse whether those reasons are compatible with there being intelligent life on other planets. The doctrine of "original sin" invites the question whether "original sin" would be needed on every planet and a "saviour" such as Jesus on every inhabited planet. Or would the doctrine imply that there are no other planets inhabited by intelligent life forms?

What, then, if SETI fails? What if decades go by and a vastly more powerful SETI supersedes the first one and also fails to detect alien intelligence? What if science confirms the existence of numerous planets but no signal suggestive of intelligence is ever received?


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