Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Coming to you - the search for ET

The radio telescope at Parkes is at the centre of the SETI operation. Getty Images © [Enlarge photo]

To some it's the ultimate prize in science - the discovery of life elsewhere in the universe.

Right now there are teams all around the world searching the skies in an effort to prove the existence of intelligent life beyond our planet.

In Australia, the team involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence - known as SETI - are about to ratchet up their capacity for analysing the data they collect with improved technology, while at the same time sharing the information with other institutions and the public.

"I think it's important because humankind is fascinated about origins of life," says Frank Stootman, who heads the team of scientists of SETI at the University of Western Sydney.

"There are different paradigms. One of the paradigms coming out of science is that perhaps life evolved in other places and if that's so is there any evidence for that. I think SETI and the Mars probes and looking for microbial life - all of these go to answering these kinds of questions," he says.

One of the benefits of this improved technology will be the ability to analyse data in real time.

"Rather than doing post-analysis which is slow and requires a lot of what we call 'eyeballing the data', this will allow us to do things in real time and that will be an immediate advantage," he says.

"Previously we logged data at the site and had to transfer the data back to the University of Western Sydney and this now will do something quite different.

"The data will come online back to us, but not only to us. The data will be available to other institutions like museums and if they have the right client software which we hope to provide them, they can actually see live what's happening and the client software will have an analysis part to it and so the people watching can actually see some of the analysis going on."

Dr Stootman is hoping the high-tech equipment will soon be back at the radio telescope at Parkes in central-western New South Wales, which is at the centre of their operation.

"We pulled the gear out in March and have taken it back to our laboratories to do upgrading. We are probably about halfway through," he says.

"Our hold-up at the moment is getting some of the low-level software to communicate correctly with the machine, but basically we hope we might have something back in Parkes probably by August."

While many people might think that searching the universe for signs of intelligent life might be tantamount to rocket science, Dr Stootman wants to make their job more accessible for the rest of us.

"We're going to try to make it so that people can access it and they can actually understand what's going on," he says.

"I think it's something that interests lots of people, whether there's life out there, particularly whether there's life that's radio-aware. I think that people will enjoy having greater access to it. It's kind of fun and it's important at the same time."

Original here

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