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New radio telescope begins search for alien signals

News Team

Publicat Duminică, 14 Octombrie 2007, ora 09:13

      The first radio telescope dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) has formally started operations.
      The first phase of the Allen Telescope Array, a collection of radio telescopes being built near Hat Creek, California, US, has begun functioning with 42 radio antennas. When complete, the ATA will have 350 dishes, each about 6 metres wide.
      Until now, the SETI project has relied on time borrowed from instruments like the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, and has had little control over the extent and nature of the observations.
      The Allen Telescope Array, however, named for Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who donated seed money for the project, will allow SETI astronomers to survey the skies for signs of alien intelligence 24 hours a day, seven days a week. "This will be the first time that we can actually have a telescope [with] the characteristics we can determine," says Jill Tarter, director of the Center for SETI Research in Mountain View, California.
      The ATA will look for radio signals in frequencies ranging from about 1 to 10 gigahertz. This range is mostly free of interference from other radio sources, such as emission from electrons spiralling around galactic magnetic fields. "The only source of noise is the cosmic microwave background," says Tarter, referring to remnant radiation from the big bang, whose signal has been well studied.
      But the ATA will do more than hunt for alien transmissions. The telescope has a large field of view, making it well suited for conducting large-scale surveys of the sky. It will be able to image a circle on the sky as wide as about five Full Moons.
      Exclusive use
      This makes it the radio analogue of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which uses a wide-field 2.5-metre telescope in New Mexico, US, to image large swathes of the sky at visible wavelengths and create 3D maps of millions of galaxies. "The ATA will do for radio astronomy what Sloan has done for optical astronomy," says Tarter.
      The ATA will conduct the surveys while simultaneously searching for SETI signals from a few stars in the same regions of the sky. "The telescope is built so that both projects can go on simultaneously," says Jack Welch, a former professor at the University of California in Berkeley who designed the ATA's receiver electronics.
      Crucially, SETI astronomers will be able to commandeer the telescope for their own exclusive use when necessary. "I'll also have some time when I can say, all right, now SETI is going to decide where to point the telescope," says Tarter.
      The SETI Institute and UC Berkeley are still raising funds to complete the telescope. "You can buy one for $100,000 and have your name put on it," says Welch. "The ideal thing would be to make [the remaining dishes] in, say, two 150 lots, over successive years. We can do 150 a year. It would be nice to have it done in a couple of years."

© Copyright News Team
Sursa :   NewScientist.com
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