Science in the Moment
I’m Lou Nigra and have the good fortune to be Project Scientist for SETI Live and I’d like tell you about what we’re doing and why.
The SETI Live project’s goal is to take the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) into the large chunks of radio frequency spectrum previously made mostly useless by the human-made Radio Frequency Interference (RFI) that crowds them from sources like GPS satellites and mobile phone networks. We’ll do this by showing you radio frequency signals direct from the SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array (ATA) as they are received while looking in the direction of stars that according to the Kepler telescope (and sometimes our sister project, Planet Hunters) have planets where liquid water is likely and so have the best chance of hosting an ET civilization producing radio signals of their own. Not only that, we’ll be putting you “in the loop” – if enough of you see a potential ET signal in the same data, then within minutes, the ATA will be interrupted and sent back to take a second look. This is already pretty exciting on several levels – you’ll process SETI data fresh off the telescope, the telescope will be pointed at stars with promising planets, and if you identify something ET-like, it could trigger a follow-up measurement. Now, this is basically what the ATA computers normally do, so why bring a bunch of citizen scientists into the loop?
Cleverly conceived computer algorithms used by the SETI Institute are extremely good at identifying potential ET signals in the presence of simple forms of RFI or small amounts of it. They become confused and unreliable when too much RFI begins to make the data too complex and chaotic. This is where you come in. Maybe it’s because humans evolved in a basically chaotic world that our sight (and other senses) are so good at picking out of that chaos the patterns that are important to us at the moment. Because of this, we believe that the human eye… well actually the human brain, will be much better suited than a computer algorithm to finding the weak, but orderly engineered signals we expect to intercept from a distant ET civilization amidst the complex and sometimes chaotic background of RFI.
Aside from the very important contribution to SETI science of opening up new frequency spectrum to the search, there are other scientific results we expect to get from SETILive. For one thing, we don’t know just how weak an ET signal you’ll be able to identify. So, we’re going to evaluate this by occasionally inserting data with an artificial ET test signal and collecting statistics on the results. Don’t worry, we will tell you immediately after you’ve classified one of these that it had a test ET signal and whether you caught it or not. We also don’t yet know the best ways to visually present this data to users that will make it easiest to pick out ET-like signals. We expect this to evolve as the project progresses and we’ll evaluate how successful you are with different visualizations. We expect to publish the results of both of these studies so you will be contributing to some important signal analysis science. Some of this may also lead to improving SETI computer algorithms.
We’ll start with a simple display that is widely used and very effective throughout radio astronomy: The “waterfall” display. Here the data is shown to you in a set of images, each of which shows all the frequencies in a particular bit of spectrum coming from a particular Kepler target’s direction, the strength of each frequency, and also how this changes with time. We’ll also give you some graphical tools to identify signals with frequency patterns that could be of interest.
Welcome to this unique Zooniverse project! I’m very excited to be a part of it and I look forward to working with you all.