SETILive’s First Birthday

A year ago plus a few days, SETILive was launched, coinciding with the Science Channel’s “Are We Alone?” month.  They featured all things ET including SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and along with science, some mythology, fact, fiction, speculation and some stuff that’s simply beyond the rim. This wonderful range of material naturally revolves around this rich, inspiring and stimulating subject. It all rises from the fundamental question that the Science Channel used as their tag line: “Are We Alone?” and crosses interdisciplinary lines from science to religion, from investigative techniques to conspiracy theories, engineering to imaginative fantasy fiction.

Well, March 2013 is Science Channel’s second annual “Are We Alone?” month and they’re once again in partnership with the SETI Institute. Part of that partnership will be connecting viewers with SETILive through a link on the website and probably some on-air messages.  Discovery has a blog post about the event.

In the past year, 78,000 people have signed up to be “SETIzen scientists” at SETI Institute  / zooniverse’s SETILive project. Together they’ve viewed sets of waterfall images almost 4 million times, looking for ET signals and also dutifully marking earth-based radio interference signals. We went seven long months without a critical piece of the SETILive concept – follow-ups: The ability to command the telescope to re-check a particular habitable-zone star (usually in the Kepler field) immediately after finding potential ET signals in the data to see if the signal persists.

Shortly after getting follow-ups working, we re-vamped the site to give it a nicer look and made it a bit more efficient and friendly including an improved tutorial. We recently made the user’s task of marking live data much easier by not requiring the signal descriptions clicks that are now only needed for processing archived data, when time is not critical. When checking live data, we also encourage users to skip marking signals that they see are showing up in more than one beam and just look for ET candidates, which show up in one beam only. With live data, we only have about 2.5 minutes to check as many of the twelve sets of live data uploaded to us every 3 to 5 minutes when the telescope is active.

Since they became operational in October, we’ve triggered almost one thousand follow-up requests. Maybe about half of those arrived at the telescope in time to produce a follow-up measurement, but that percentage is improving with the marking improvements we’ve already made will improve further in the future as we get smarter in the marking analysis algorithm and how deal out the data to users. Other improvement to both the front- and back-ends are also coming in the next few weeks.

We’re looking forward to an influx of new and returning users this month and we welcome you all to join in this unique way of contributing to the grand endeavor of trying to answer the question: “Are We Alone?”

Lou Nigra

SETILive Project Scientist

Improved Site on its Way… Follow-Ups, New Look and More

UPDATE: We’re now LIVE! Check it out at www.setilive.org

The long saga of follow-ups has finally progressed to where we can say, as far as we’re able to test it, follow-ups now work and have already been quietly enabled on the SETILive site. We have also been working on how the site looks, how we deliver waterfall data to you and frankly, taking a hard look at what we’ve been asking you to do. So, within a few days, you’ll have what we think is a much-improved site; more responsive, higher waterfall quality, better tutorial and clearer about what’s going on and what’s expected of you. We deployed the changes to the site on today, Tuesday, November 13 at around noon Central Standard Time.

Follow-Ups

It is a fairly complex task to convert your clicks on a waterfall diagram to a collective decision that it either might be, or is definitely not ET and then send the correct parameters to the ATA so it knows exactly where to look for the signal several minutes later and do this within a deadline. That said, it has taken longer than anyone would have liked and we apologize for that. One part of the reason is that we’ve also been working on both the visible and internal workings of your primary experience, the “Classify” page, including some things specific to the follow-up process.

SETILive gets darker

The first thing you’ll notice is that the Classify page is darker – not in character like Darth Vader or the Dark Knight, but more along the lines of their style of dress. Read More…

ATA Scheduled Shutdown

Don’t be alarmed! This is a good shutdown of the Allen Telescope Array this time. For 2 weeks.

The last SETI observation at the ATA will end at 6:55am Tuesday September 4, 2012 Pacific time. We will be shutdown for approximately 2 weeks.

We are upgrading the air conditioning system in our Signal Processing Room (SPR), the room containing the bulk of the ATA computers and electronics. The amount of computing equipment in the SPR keeps increasing and the air conditioning system is having trouble keeping things cool. This upgrade will allow us to comfortably operate more computers and increase the bandwidth of the SETI observations. All good.

During this period without live data SETILive will be making some changes to the site’s appearance, it’s structure and how the classifying process works, especially when the telescope is active. This is in preparation for live follow-ups being activated shortly after the ATA is operational again. Watch for further details here and on the Talk forum. Thank you very much for your dedication and continued participation in SETILive. We think you’ll like the changes that are coming.

Exoplanet Atmospheres and SETI

Narrowing the Search: SETILive is a part of the much larger, much broader and rapidly advancing field of exoplanetary research. The “S” in SETI stands for “search” and these advances will directly benefit SETI by narrowing the search. The current explosion in exoplanet discoveries ignited by the Kepler project is providing great fundamental data for planetary and astrobiology scientists to begin figuring out exactly how planets form and develop and what the prospects for life on these planets could be. The more they learn, the narrower the search for ET can be.

The SETI Institute’s concentration on these Kepler planets, with SETILive as a part of it, is an early example of this more informed search, focusing for the first time on a large number of planets that have good evidence that they could be in the water-based habitable zone. The new wave of discoveries that will help narrow down this search even more is the analysis of exoplanet atmospheres – finding out what gases are present.  Some of these gases, if found, could be a strong indication that a planet hosts life at some level, and quite possibly intelligent  life.

New Techniques: A sign of the progress being made in the study of exoplanet atmospheres is this work done through the European Southern Observatory also reported on spacedaily.com. Here, they are directly measuring the very weak “rainbow” of colors from the planet’s faint infrared glow produced by its own heat. This new technique is different than the method of seeing how the planet’s atmosphere affects the rainbow spectrum of the starlight behind it during a transit. It is based on that fact that, like a star, a planet’s own rainbow spectrum is affected by gases that surround it. The difference is that the planet’s rainbow light is very much weaker than a star’s and it’s concentrated in infrared wavelengths that are far out of the range visible to our eyes.

On the Horizon: So far, exoplanet atmospheric measurements are only feasible for large planets like this Jupiter-class one in a nearby star system. Measurements for smaller (earth-class), and more distant planets will come along in the coming decades as new instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope and the new giant ground-based telescopes come into play.

I feel that we’re at the beginning of a very exciting few decades in the search for extraterrestrial life in general and SETI in particular.

SETIcon II This Weekend, Lots of Prime Telescope Time

SETIcon II Event: This weekend the SETI Institute presents SETIcon II, in Santa Clara, California, US. It’s billed as ” a unique, entertaining and enlightening public event where science and imagination meet” on the event website. It looks to me like it will fill that bill and I wish I could have attended. If I lived anywhere near the Bay Area… road-trip, most definitely. It will feature SETILive in one of the many interesting exhibits. Other than it being of general interest to “SETIzen scientists” here at SETILive, it also means our “Telescope Active” time is going a bit off the normal routine for about a week, but there’s a good reason…

Lots of Prime Weekend Telescope Time: We normally observe the Kepler star field, looking for signals from specific stars determined by the Kepler project to have planets likely in the liquid water-based habitable zone. That star field is currently only above the horizon and visible from the ATA from late evening to mid-morning US time, and the other time is filled by other observing projects looking at different parts of the sky. By lending some SETILive active time from late evening and morning sessions during weekdays this week and next  to other ATA projects, the SETI Institute can give it back to SETILive this weekend for a pretty full daytime schedule in the Americas and from late afternoon to early morning east of the Atlantic. They’re filling the US daytime schedule this weekend by feeding us data from other exoplanet candidates outside the Kepler field when it’s below the horizon. So,  SETIcon II attendees will be able to see it work and work with it themselves using live data and of course, you can get on and classify  live data this weekend at times you aren’t normally be able to.

You can see the upcoming schedule along with the current status, as always, at  setiquest.info.

BTW: Telescope Active Window Slowly Shifts: By the way, and speaking of active telescope windows, six months from now the Kepler viewing window, and therefore our “Telescope Active” times, will have shifted by 12 hours and will be pretty much all during daytime hours in US . The apparent motions of Kepler field stars in the sky, like all extra-solar objects are due to  the true rotation period of the Earth, the sidereal day which is about 4 minutes shorter than our solar day. In six months, this small shift accumulates to half of a day, or 12 hours.

Follow-ups Progress

Over the past weekend, we were working behind the scenes on “closing the loop” between SETILive and the ATA so that when enough of you mark a potential ET signal, a followup measurement is triggered. You produced a number of follow-up triggers, but the basic problem is that they arrive too late at the ATA. There’s a limited time, for a variety of reasons, between when the data is sent to us and when we have to ask the ATA to interrupt it’s normal sequence. We’re looking at a variety of steps in the process at the SETILive end, some of which we know are contributing and some that could be. These include the time we keep waterfalls available for marking prior to analysis, processor priority for the “workers” that process the marking analysis and the speed of image rendering. We’ll also look at waterfall data rendering and follow-up messaging at the SETI Institute end as well.

When we make some progress on the timing, we’ll be ready for some more testing and may schedule another follow-up testing party in the coming days, we’ll let you know by email if we do. We’ll also give you an update here and in Talk  on any further followups progress made.

Again, thanks very much for your participation and support for the project.

Thanks! Made Some Good Progress on Follow-ups

All that activity you brought to SETILive during our second testing session allowed us to find and fix a few bugs lurking in the machinery. We ended up getting a reasonable number of follow-up allowing us to track down and clean up a couple issues at SETILive’s end preventing the ATA from getting our requests for follow-ups.  This was not quite soon enough to catch the tail end of today’s ATA’s active window, which ended at 11:55 EDT. So, the telescope never had a chance to respond to the ET-like signals you found (Murphy’s Law again?).

Although we didn’t trigger any actual telescope follow-ups, we’re in good shape to start doing that sometime tomorrow when we test again. We don’t think we’ll need  any help at any particular time tomorrow, but we’ll let you know if that changes and we’ll let you know how it went.

We’re getting there. Thanks again!

Followups Test Party #2 Starts Late, but We’ll Keep Going! (also, more testing next week)

You can now login to SETILive and help with the Follow-ups Testing. The 2nd test window almost came and went, but the final login server problem was solved about 30 minutes ago! So, the ATA staff is game to keep this party going until the Kepler Field “leaves the house” and starts to set below the horizon at 11:55AM EDT. So if you can, get on and classify anytime up until then to help us keep the healthy classification rate we have now going or maybe make it even higher!

We’ve got 30+ people classifying right now and that is amazing considering the frustrations and disappointment many probably experienced trying to log in. That rate should be enough to give us some follow-ups but more certainly wouldn’t hurt.

We will also be scheduling some more sessions in the next week and if things go well, we’ll soon be doing follow-ups all the time the ATA is active and giving you some live feedback on it in some form.

We don’t have the live notification protocol set up just yet, but we’ll let you know how it went when we go through this test data.

Thanks so much to all of our Citizen Scientists – you’re the best!

Followups Test Party Crashed by Gremlins – Let’s Try Again!

Last night at about 12 PM EDT, we were ready to do some full-function follow-up tests in the background and many dedicated users had responded to our request to log in and start classifying during the first of two predetermined testing windows. Just as all things were about to come into place,  the entire zooniverse site went down because our web service provider Amazon Web Services had a a major crash apparently due to a power failure. The situation was developing only minutes before our scheduled test so the timing couldn’t have been worse. This is a classic case of “Murphy’s Law”.

We are incredibly impressed and very grateful that so many of our SETIlive citizen scientists came to the party last night, we’re so sorry it was “crashed” by some major-league internet gremlins.

We have a second window scheduled in less than two and a half hours at 9 AM EDT and hope that folks will show up for this one too like they did last night. And let’s also hope the gremlins have been dispatched for good by that time.

Simulations! (late, but how would Scotty have handled it?)

It’s been about five weeks since my last post where I announced we’d start testing follow-ups in the background and also that some improvements to the waterfalls along with adding simulated ET signals to them were imminent. Well, we checked  those subtle but important waterfall improvements off the t0-do list two weeks later and yesterday, at about 21:30 UTC, we finally got simulations live. It took five weeks – longer than we had figured, but like  most science and engineering tasks, you’re doing something new and don’t always know what you’re getting into until you start making it work. Now, Star Trek’s Chief Engineer Lt. Commander  Scott (“Scotty”) might have figured that it should take a week, multiply that by five to get the real time for the task and then multiply it again by five and tell the captain it would take 25 weeks. The Captain would demand it in five and Scotty would say “I’ll do my best, Captain”, self-satisfied and with a barely visible smile. I’ll try to be more Scotty-like in the future.

Trekkies: I know that the Star Trek franchise has alluded to and made references to this process over the years. Any specifics about those references would be appreciated.

Our primary purpose for inserting simulations (“sims”) into the waterfalls is to conduct a controlled experiment which will measure the statistics on how well you, as a group, are able to detect a signal in a waterfall with noise and sometimes RFI signals in the background. The results we get will be an important part of a peer-reviewed scientific paper we plan to eventually publish and we’ll make comparisons to some basic computer algorithms. So, you’ll be a part of these real, important scientific results derived from the SETILive project.

Another benefit of adding sims that users have pointed out is that it’s an occasional “test” that helps us be sure we continue to be careful, looking closely for that weak signal track  that’s fading in and out and seems to sort of follow a line. It could be a signal of interest, trigger a follow-up and who knows, even make it to “Wow!” status.

The sims have random positions, angles, “wandering” patterns and randomly fade in an out in brightness to emulate typical signals. The two  key parameters that are systematically varied over wide ranges are brightness and how much they randomly move from side to side (“erratic-ness”) . Because we’re trying to find the limits of our users’ ability to pick these out, some will be so dim that no one would be able to see them, so don’t feel badly when we show you where a simulation was that you missed. Currently, you can’t see just how dim a missed simulation was and we’ll look into whether or not we should change that. We have to carefully consider doing anything that might affect how you as a group do the classifying. It might add an unwanted variable into the statistics. There have been some good suggestions on Talk for how to do it if we can – thanks!

Speaking of follow-ups, that’s been an even tougher slog. We’re doing something that hasn’t really been tried before. Yes, SETILive follow-ups are modeled after the automatic ones that are already working at the ATA, but replacing detection algorithms and calls to local computer programs at the ATA with the remote,web-based, human-in-the-loop SETILive detection process is quite different in many details so requires some programming and communication protocols that are not already there. We also can only work at certain times in the ATA schedule and also have to deal with scheduling around the availability of the experts who are making it work. It’s coming along, and we feel it will be working soon. When will it be live? I’m afraid we can’t really say exactly. Where’s Scotty when you need him? He’d have an answer.

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