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SETI telescopes get new life listening for signs of alien life

December 6, 2011 |  3:22 pm

SETI
Alien enthusiasts, get psyched.  

Thanks to the help of 2,700 independent supporters and a new deal with the U.S. Air Force, the SETI Institute's Allen Telescope Array is back online as of Monday. SETI stands for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

For the first time since April, the group of 42 giant radiotelescopes, built to monitor the universe full time for radio waves that might be sent out by life forms on other planets, is listening once again.

And the timing couldn't be better.

On Monday, NASA announced that its Kepler Mission had confirmed the existence of a planet in a "habitable zone," meaning it is close enough (and far away enough) from its sun that water could exist on its surface. The planet, called Kepler-22b, is located 600 light-years away.

And in the last 18 months the mission has discovered 2,236 planets that might also be in a similar "habitual region."

The SETI Institute plans to spend the next two years pointing its telescopes at the top 1,000 habitable planets that Kepler finds.

“This is a superb opportunity for SETI observations,” Jill Tarter, director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute, said in a statement. “For the first time, we can point our telescopes at stars, and know that those stars actually host planetary systems -- including at least one that begins to approximate an Earth analogue in the habitable zone around its host star. That’s the type of world that might be home to a civilization capable of building radio transmitters.”

But Tarter isn't convinced these are the only places that might be home to alien life.

“In SETI, as with all research, preconceived notions such as habitable zones could be barriers to discovery,” she said. “So, with sufficient future funding from our donors, it’s our intention to examine all of the planetary systems found by Kepler."

The Allen Telescope Array has monitored the universe consistently since 2008, but in April, SETI and its partner, the Radio Astronomy Lab of UC Berkeley, ran out of money and put the ATA into hibernation mode. The SETI Institute raised $232,155 from private citizens to help put the array back online, but the bulk of the funding came from a partnership with the U.S. Air Force to help with its space situational awareness mission.

In a statement Tarter added that SETI's website would soon allow people to see for themselves what is happening with the telescopes while they work, but a spokeswoman for the institute said she could not yet elaborate on what that would look like.

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-- Deborah Netburn

Image: SETI's Allen Telescope Array. Credit: Los Angeles Times

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