First prototype of revolutionary SETI telescope unveiled at 40th anniversary of the world's first scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence


University of California-Berkeley
 
Contacts:
Greg Klerkx, SETI Institute
Office (650) 961-6633, Mobile (415) 816-2310, gklerkx@seti.org
 
Robert Sanders, UC Berkeley
(510) 643-6998, rls@pa.urel.berkeley.edu
 
Lafayette -- In a tree preserve a dozen miles from the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, astronomers today unveiled a prototype telescope that will lead to the development of the world's most powerful instrument for finding signals from extraterrestrial civilizations.
 
On Wednesday, April 19, representatives of the SETI Institute and UC Berkeley introduced the first in a series of prototypes for the One Hectare Telescope, or 1hT. So named because of its total signal 'collecting' area (one hectare is 10,000 square meters or 2.47 acres), the 1hT is a partnership between the university and the institute, the world's largest private research organization devoted to the comprehensive search for life beyond Earth.
 
The seven-dish prototype is a precursor to what will eventually be an array of hundreds, perhaps thousands of small backyard-type satellite dishes linked by sophisticated electronics to create an unparalleled SETI observing instrument. The 1hT also will be a premium instrument for conducting more traditional research in radio astronomy, such as examining the formation of stars.
 
"This prototype launches the next generation of SETI research in a bold way," said Dr. Jill Tarter, director of SETI research at the institute. "There is also tremendous potential for other radio astronomy. The 1hT is a fundamentally new way to build radio telescopes, and it's not an overstatement to say that the world astronomy community is paying very close attention to this project."
 
Leo Blitz, director of UC Berkeley's Radio Astronomy Laboratory and a professor of astronomy, said the 1hT draws on the laboratory's success in designing, building and operating arrays. "The 1hT is a natural for us. It will be a wonderful tool for discovery."
 
The instrument unveiled today is a prototype and is not intended to conduct SETI or even more traditional radio astronomy. Instead, it will serve as a testbed for solving a variety of scientific and technical challenges associated with the so-called 'back end' of the telescope, including the development of signal processing methods for dealing with interference, especially interference from telecommunications satellites. At the same time, scientists will study the feasibility of using those very same satellites to calibrate the array, which would improve the performance of the full 1hT.
 
Using the prototype, scientists will also analyze inexpensive drives and mounts under field conditions and develop a variety of hardware and software for the final array. Included among items to be tested are the array control software and early versions of the digital beamformer, which will allow the 1hT to observe multiple SETI target stars and other radio astronomical sources at the same time.
 
With lessons learned from the first prototype, a second and larger prototype will be built in 2002. That prototype will allow testing of the 'front ends' of the 1hT which are derived from a number of innovative consumer technologies still under development. The final version of the 1hT will be constructed at UC Berkeley's Hat Creek Observatory, located about 290 miles northeast of San Francisco. The Hat Creek Observatory is currently the site of the ten-telescope array now operated by the university, called the BIMA (Berkeley-Illinois-Maryland Association) Millimeter Array. The 1hT is scheduled to be completed and operational in 2005.
 
Once completed, the 1hT will be the world's largest telescope devoted to SETI and among the largest radio telescopes in the world for any purpose. It will be comparable in signal 'collecting' area to the Very Large Array in New Mexico, the premier imaging instrument in the world for radio astronomy. The largest radio telescope in the world is the 1,000-foot telescope at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, which is currently used on a limited basis by the SETI Institute's Project Phoenix, the world's most powerful and well-known SETI search. Project Phoenix and its scientists are widely held to be the models for much of the 1997 film "Contact," starring Jodie Foster.
 
For SETI observations, dedicated time on large radio telescopes like Arecibo is scarce. The result for SETI is less than optimal; at best, SETI scientists are able to scan only a few hundred star systems per year. The 1hT would expand observations at least a hundred-fold.
 
SETI observations require not only a large collecting area (to find the weak signals expected from a transmitter many light years away) but also highly sophisticated digital receivers to scrutinize billions of radio channels.
 
Unlike conventional radio telescopes, the 1hT is also expandable. By adding new dishes to the array, the 1hT could be made larger at relatively low cost. The 1hT's expandability gives it the potential to grow into the largest radio telescope in the world. The 1hT team will begin the search with 1,000 nearby sun-like stars and gradually move outward to encompass 100,000 and then one million candidate stars in our galaxy. In the Milky Way Galaxy alone, there are an estimated 400 billion stars.
 
The team will search for weak continuous-wave signals -- each like radar or radio broadcasts from Earth -- at millions of individual frequencies, as well as narrow-band pulsed signals. The SETI computer system will conduct a real-time analysis designed to automatically check out all candidate signals and then alert researchers immediately to signals of interest. At the same time, the pulsar processor and radio astronomy correlator will provide observational data on traditional astronomical sources.
 
Among those participating in the development of the 1hT is Dr. Frank Drake, whose Project Ozma -- conducted in April 1960 using an 85-foot radio telescope in Green Bank, West Virginia -- was the world's first scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
 
The following year, Drake was asked by the National Academy of Sciences to prepare an agenda for the first scientific meeting to discuss SETI (participants in that meeting included the young Carl Sagan and the late UC Berkeley Nobel laureate Melvin Calvin). The resulting agenda is the now-famous Drake Equation, which continues to be a widely used
framework for estimating the possible prevalence of communicating civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy.
 
Drake also proposed the idea for what became the 1hT, sketching out the concept over a series of meetings convened by the SETI Institute in the late 1990s. These meetings featured an international blue-ribbon panel of scientists and technologists charged with mapping out strategies for future SETI science and technology.
 
"This is an exciting day for SETI," said Drake, who is currently president of the SETI Institute Board of Directors and research professor of astronomy at UC Santa Cruz. "In the years since Project Ozma, SETI has evolved from a set of theories into a science that is practiced by eminent astronomers throughout the world. The 1hT is the next logical step in the advancement of that science."
 
Construction of the final 1hT is estimated to cost about $25 million, much less than the cost of building a comparably sized radio telescope using conventional design and methods. Funds for the 1hT are being raised from private sources by the SETI Institute. The Institute's Project Phoenix is currently the world's largest privately supported radio astronomy program, with an annual budget of more than $3 million.
 
The 1hT prototype is located at the Russell Reservation, a 283-acre research station for wildland resource research and teaching owned by the University of California. The site, located in Lafayette, Calif., is also home to Leuschner Observatory, which consists of two automated optical telescopes sitting atop hills above the main reservation.
 
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NOTE: Images and further information on the One Hectare Telescope (1hT), Project Ozma, Project Phoenix, and other SETI programs are available at the SETI Institute Web site. A detailed explanation of the Drake Equation also can be found at this site: http://www.seti.org
 
Information about the University of California-Berkeley Radio Astronomy Laboratory and the Hat Creek Observatory can be found at
http://www.berkeley.edu

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