Everything you do will help us

I’m Jill Tarter, the Director of the Center for SETI Research.  Since we launched at TED last Wednesday, I’ve been reading what you’ve been writing.  There have been a bunch of comments on SETILive about not knowing what to do or what to mark or whether you are getting it right. We’ll work on making the tutorial more accessible and more informative as you’ve suggested, and over time we will implement some better marking tools as you’ve requested – but the ‘getting it right’ part is a bit more dicey.  That’s because we really don’t know yet exactly what ‘right’ is.

As Lou Nigra (thanks, Lou!) and the tutorials have described, the SETILive data that are coming from the ATA originate in the crowded bands; small portions of the terrestrial microwave window that we have historically skipped over.  That’s because our SonATA system gets confused there – it detects LOTS of signals, but it cannot finish clustering them, and classifying them by comparing them to signals that are detected in the other two (or maybe one as is now the case) beams on the sky being observed simultaneously, or finish looking them up in a database of all the signals that have been tagged as RFI in the past week.  Rather than conduct our observations with non-uniform sensitivity, or continuously restart software modules that have given up in exhaustion, we have chosen to ignore these crowded bands – at these frequencies we’ve been blind and deaf.  Ultimately that might turn out to be the best strategy – after all, why are those bands crowded?  They are crowded because they have been allocated to different types of terrestrial communications services.  We are the ones making all those signals.  Or are we?

IF (of course it’s a huge if) there is a technological civilization near enough to us – its distance in light years is less than half the time over which our technology has been transmitting at a particular frequency band – perhaps that civilization has noticed that the Earth is very ‘radio bright’ at certain frequencies. Perhaps it has transponded back a reply at the same frequencies, knowing that we would have receivers that work there.  A bit more speculation suggests that their message may be crafted to be detectable against this background of terrestrial transmissions.  With this scenario in mind, we could try to code and implement all sorts of clever, non-linear anomaly detectors that inter-compare the signals received from the multiple beams on the sky – but remember we are trying to do this in near-real-time.  The detector has to finish this task significantly before the observations move on to the next frequency band, because the system still needs to match whatever the detector has found against recently detected RFI from other directions on the sky.  We don’t know what we are looking for, but we do want to invoke logical constraints that insure that the signal is only coming from one direction on the sky and not many.

Before we throw a whole lot of new computing resources (that we actually don’t happen to have) at this problem, we should take a look at what’s actually going on in the crowded bands as a guide to what might be the most effective strategy – that’s where you come in!  We are hoping to use the amazing pattern recognition of your eyes and brains to look for signals (patterns of some sort) that appear in only one beam and not in any of the others.  We hope you can help us set up a sort of rogues’ gallery of signal patterns detected over the past week (fortnight, month, 3 days ??) that can be collectively ‘remembered’ to assess whether this particular signal pattern has been seen before from other directions on the sky. That’s why we want you to mark the RFI in multiple beams as well as any pattern that only shows up in one beam.  And then if enough of you mark the same single-beam pattern (so we are fairly confident it’s real, not noise), we’ll decide that it’s an interesting candidate signal and follow up on it immediately.  That means that instead of moving on to the next frequency in the observing sequence, we will reobserve in the same directions, at the same frequency.  SonATA is still blind, so you will have to tell us whether the pattern persists – is it still there?  Is it still only in one beam?  If so, the next observation will observe at the same frequency, but looking at different directions.  Is the pattern still there? Well, that’s too bad, it means it really was some form of interference and isn’t associated with the target we were pointing at on the sky. BE PREPARED – WE THINK THIS WILL HAPPEN A LOT.  Just like your eyes have peripheral vision, a radio telescope has ‘sidelobes’ into which signals can scatter and be confused with signals entering from the direction the telescope is pointing.  The sidelobes are complicated in the way they cover the sky; it may appear that a signal is coming from only one beam out of three, but moving ‘off source’ can reposition the sidelobes so that the interference is once again detectable.

But what if the signal/pattern persists when we reobserve ‘on source’, and disappears when we go ‘off source’? That’s getting interesting! We’ll start up a cycle of ‘ons’ and ‘offs’ that will stop when the signal fails to be detected, or not be detected, at the right time, or when we’ve completed five cycles.   If the system successfully completes five cycles, then the team at the Center for SETI Research will be alerted and we’ll be right there with you using our eyes and brains to figure out what to do next.  Since we’ve begun SETI observing on the ATA this has not happened in the less crowded bands that SonATA has been exploring automatically.  Now that we are trying to probe the crowded bands, we’ll have to see how it goes.

By now I hope you are convinced that your efforts can only help us.  There’s a slight chance that you just might discover a signal from another technology buried underneath all the terrestrial interference and we will all celebrate.  But at the very least you’ll help us better understand what it is that humans are doing as they manage to look at complex patterns and isolate sub-patterns that are unique to one of multiple samples.  There may well be neurologists or psychophysicists out there who already know that answer, but my team doesn’t.  If we can learn from you, we can be better equipped to train future automated detectors.  And if it turns out that this is not a task at which humans are particularly adept, well we haven’t lost anything.  After all, our previous strategy was to ignore the crowded bands.  There is only an up side to your participation.

Thanks for being willing to help out, and good luck!

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23 responses to “Everything you do will help us”

  1. Robert Ackermann says :

    From Jill’s blog entry:

    IF (of course it’s a huge if) there is a technological
    civilization near enough to us – its distance in light
    years is less than half the time over which our technology
    has been transmitting at a particular frequency band – perhaps
    that civilization has noticed that the Earth is very ‘radio bright’
    at certain frequencies. Perhaps it has transponded back a reply
    at the same frequencies, knowing that we would have receivers
    that work there …

    The distance in light years to 99% of the stars targeted by Kepler
    is greater than 600 LY (http://kepler.nasa.gov/Mission/faq/#b4).
    Given that, in conjunction with the modest sensitivity of the ATA, why
    in particular target the Kepler Field for transponding civilizations?

    • Jill says :

      Hi Rob – yup your right, the Kepler targets themselves are too far away for transponding to be a factor, but note that the Kepler field is only up part of the day and the rest of the time when we have the telescope, we target the exoplanets that have been found by groundbased radial velocity, transient, and gravitational lensing techniques. Some of those planetary systems are close enough. What we are trying to do in characterize the RFI in the crowded bands and find a way to look through it or schedule around it. Even if the particular target is too far away for transponding to be viable, these bands still represent a portion of the 1 to 10 GHz window we’d like to explore systematically. Absent any other prior information, the crowded bands are as likely as any other bands to contain a transmitted signal from ET. We can give them up and spend our time at other frequencies, or we can try to reclaim them – that’s what SETILive is intended to help us accomplish. This is an experiment.

  2. Ben says :

    I appreciate the information. For those of us with a strong science background but little or no knowledge regarding radio signal/waterfall plots, the more information the better.

  3. peteuplink says :

    Hi, Jill. Thanks for the blog post, it’s really helpful. One thing that concerns me slightly is the possibility of people seeing things that look like they may be patterns, but aren’t. For example, in these images http://talk.setilive.org/observation_groups/GSL00002lm the second image seems to have a very faint, erratic signal going from the top left corner to the bottom right (at least to me). Is this really a signal or is it just my brain making a pattern out of a jumble of random dots? Should we be marking stuff like that down?

    • Jill says :

      The Zooniverse team is trying to help screen out patterns that you make up when there is only noise. The easiest tool is to have multiple people classify the same data. Mark what you think you see. If others don’t see the same thing, it will be treated as noise-alone.

      • Jim says :

        I apologize in advance for leaving my Ph.D. in my other jacket but I still have to ask … shouldn’t there be some kind of gamma correction tool (set by you guys) so we are all operating as close as possible at the same level of light/dark?

        With that kind of variable isn’t it likely to produce different results from one individual to the next if we are looking for faint patterns? Won’t this variable potentially flag some of the data that is classified as a pattern … as noise to others? With Zooniverse screening in this way it seems likely that the very thing you are looking for could easily be discarded.

        Again, sorry for what is most likely a simpleton question but I like many others honestly do want to help and not flag things for review if they are just going to be discarded due to hardware differences.

  4. MPJ says :

    Hi there!
    I don’t know if the idea exists already but what about recording a fingerprint of the radio noise generated by the Earth with one of the Voyager probes now in interstellar medium? This way we could get an idea of how random radio noise of putative technical et-civilizations may look like from afar- much dimmer of course but still similar perhaps.
    Regarding narrow band signals: maybe the ATA picks up some transmissions from et probes aka UFOs in or near our solar system? Maybe a possibility not to ignore! :-)

  5. Nolan says :

    Thank you for the update Jill,

    I’m relieved that we will have a little more direction here. I know from reading replies that a lot of us would like to be able to tag Signals under multiple descriptions. I guess we can double mark Signals and put another description on it. Not convenient. But, is possible. I can’t wait until we can log on to the interstellar internet. Everyone is going be like … “wow, where have you been?”. Either that or it would be nice to listen to the whale songs of space whales. ha ha ha. Hope you have a sense of humor. Seriously though, wouldn’t unintelligent radio transmission by life be just as interesting as intelligent radio transmission? There could be a lifeform that evolved radio transmission as a biological function.

    This new project is really exciting. Now, not only is my computer involved in assisting with searching for ETI now I can actively participate in making progress.

    I would like anyone that runs SETI@Home to join my Team by contacting me.

    Thank You

  6. Shea says :

    .
    I think whoseever idea it was to concentrate on the crowded area of the sprectrum wave deserves alot of credit. I think the purpose of doing so is to pick up any non-earth activity that is not intentionally directed to us and on the off-chance the signals that are. For the latter, I think it a good idea for SETI to choose a specific frequency that is designated for such purposes and keep that frequency clear and open for transpondence. I think any advanced eti attempting communication will start with the frequency designated by SETI if SETI were to make it clear and known that a certain frequency was being used and purposed for such activity.

  7. Shea says :

    I think whoseever idea it was to concentrate on the crowded area of the sprectrum wave deserves alot of credit. I think the purpose of doing so is to pick up any non-earth activity that is not intentionally directed to us and on the off-chance the signals that are. For the latter, I think it a good idea for SETI to choose a specific frequency that is designated for such purposes and keep that frequency clear and open for transpondence. I think any advanced eti attempting communication will start with the frequency designated by SETI if SETI were to make it clear and known that a certain frequency was being used and purposed for such activity.

  8. rsmoove says :

    Would it be possible to have a tool to hear the audio feed for any given beam as well? I imagine this would be a huge amount of data to add to the website, but I think you would be better able to determine feint signals from noise if you could use your ears as well as your eyes. I’m sure some of the feint signals I see may be just noise, but I’ve been pretty liberal so far just in case.

  9. Rod says :

    I am new here and new to this entire concept! But I am very interested and wish to participate. I won’t however add my two cents until I am certain of doing it right! I wish to thank you for this opportunity to participate in something that may well change how we view the Universe.

  10. 12345Fifteen says :

    How would I go about contacting you Jill, or another member of the science team VIA Email about certain classifications and different techniques I’ve found on how to classify signals in a more in-depth manner and website suggestions?

    Thanks in return.

  11. tomacz says :

    jill,on you tube there are virtual tours of the univers?es?? done to simulate
    space travel @ MC2,something like that might give us (me,I have lousy direction) an overview of our vast fishbowl,thence zeroing in on RF emitting candidates.also,are there audio components we can listen to??

  12. cosmicphil says :

    Hy ! I hope that this issue has not been asked before… anyway, could you show us what is the signal that comes from Pioneer or Voyager or Cassini or other… (to see how it behaves over time and what is its intensity).

    Thanks so much for the dream …

  13. GenePreston says :

    Can units be put on the plots, such as time and frequency ranges? As a ham operator K5GP I’m used to listening to audio also. Is there a way to get the audio for a particular section of plot as a stream for a selected piece of plot? I can hear signal characteristics that would be hard (for me) to identify visually. I would expect alien signals to be extremely faint. For example, would we even be able to hear a UHF transmitter running 100 kW ERP pancake pattern on their planet of those nearby? Wouldn’t they have to transmit a beam directly at us for us to hear them? In that case it might be a really good signal but the probability of that seems extremely remote. More likely they would flash a laser at us to catch our attention in visible light if they transmitted directly to us. So that means we are trying to pick up their equivalent of land based TV or radar signals on their planet. I the Allen array sensitive enough to do this?

  14. SearchDeep says :

    Hi Jill, I’m from Germany. First of all I wan to tell you and your team, that I’m very thrilled and proud to take part in SETILive and your post gives us deeper understanding in it. Thank you for that!

    But two hints:
    1. this may sound funny at first, but if contact ET is a difficult effort the harder it is to contact SETILive under http://www.setilive.org/contact at the moment….. Open the link and we get “The page you were looking for doesn’t exist.- You may have mistyped the address or the page may have moved.” ;)

    2. I think the additional integration of a PayPal option will do a great job on your TeamSETI Membership Shopping Cart under https://www.teamseti.org/ for all human beings who don’t have an credit card, like me;)

    What do you think?

  15. Brian Williams says :

    I’ve been looking through the discussions on setilive and to me it seems that a lot of people are a bit confused as to how to mark signals. Perhaps a system where new users need to be exposed to the tutorials before they are able to actually start marking signals would be more productive?

  16. Duck says :

    As one who does not have a science degree But is very curious to find out (“Are we alone”) Are you going to put out a so called signal identifying guide for Dummy’s I might not understand all the Technical jargon but my eyes and brain work just fine. (well my Girl friend might dispute that)and would like to kind of follow and understand what I’m doing. The main question I have right now is am I to look for vertical and diagonal anomalies and patterns? do I mark the Horizontal patterns as well?

  17. Joe says :

    Jill, You are one of the coolest people in the universe! I’m so grateful to be participating in SETI Live! Thank you to you, Seth, Lou and everyone at SETI for your hard work and perseverance!

  18. ThaReapa says :

    hi, im new to seti but i think the thing you would look for the most is whatever is not a random cluster of dots. if you see patterns of lines within the dots, mark em’, if you see pieces of lines that seem out of place, mark em’, if you see a large group of alien ships,…thats right mark em’. if you dont get it “right” the cpu will discard it as noise, if you do get it “right” the cpu will compare it to other “sightings” and analyze. everything helps, glad to be part of the team.
    J.B.

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