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Spore.com Astronomer Interview: Seth Shostak

Posted by ballightning on January 28, 2009

Recently Maxis opened the floor for the community to ask questions of Seth about astronomy and the SETI pursuit. Here are his responses to thier questions.

10heattj: What exactly does SETI look for?

 

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is just that: a scientific hunt for proof that thinking beings exist elsewhere in the cosmos.

 

Most SETI experiments are efforts to pick up signals from advanced civilizations – radio, or flashes of light. It’s also conceivable that we might find evidence for aliens by tripping across some mammoth engineering projects – structures that a highly sophisticated society might build and that might be visible in our telescopes.

 

LuckyPierre: Besides listening or watching for E.T.’s signal, what else does the SETI Institute do?

 

The Institute has a broad research program in a subject called “astrobiology”. This sounds as if it’s about life around other stars, which of course is treu. But a lot of astrobiology research concerns life on Earth: how did it get started, and when?

 

Other research areas include learning where could life survive, and how might we find hidden biology on Mars or some of the moons of the outer solar system. So the SETI Institute is about more than just looking for communicating aliens — it’s also about extraterrestrial critters that might not be clever, but whose existence would tell us a lot about whether life is extremely rare or very common. The Institute also has extensive programs for education and outreach, including a weekly science radio program, “Are We Alone?”

 

Falthron: Could you elaborate on the Wow signal?

 

The celebrated Wow Signal was picked up in 1977 with the Ohio State Radio Observatory’s large antenna. Ohio State’s “Big Ear” was being used in an automatic mode to search for signals, and one morning, when astronomer Jerry Ehman arrived at the scope to look over the printer output, he saw a big spike of radio noise. He wrote “Wow” next to it, hence the signal’s famous name.

 

But it wasn’t seen again, even though the telescope was set up to look at the same piece of sky only about a minute later. The signal’s not been seen since, either. Most likely it was just some earthly radio interference, although it’s possible it was ET sending us a very short ping. If we don’t find it again, we’ll never know.

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