Call for help to search skies for signs of life

Radio telescopes in Hat Creek, Calif. at the Radio telescopes in Hat Creek, Calif. at the Allen Telescope Array are being used by the group Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, known as SETI. (Oct. 9, 2007) Photo Credit: AP

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SAN FRANCISCO - Help wanted: Citizen scientists to hunt for extraterrestrial life in the Milky Way.

Leaders at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., are seeking assistance to sort through floods of signals coming into an array of radio telescopes in the Sierra National Forest.

The 42 telescopes there are aiming at patches of the distant sky to seek long-sought signals from extraterrestrial beings -- if any exist.

But the radio sky is so crowded with signals from everywhere -- from spacecraft to rock stations to iPhones -- that no single computer program can process them all, astronomers say.

So the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence leaders who hunt for evidence that advanced civilizations must exist on planets somewhere in the Milky Way are now seeking "citizen scientists" to join their mission and help unscramble the radio signals.

The telescopes, working together as the Allen Telescope Array, are gathering signals day and night for SETI Institute astronomers to process.

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The telescopes currently are focusing on the 156,000 stars that NASA's Kepler spacecraft is scanning in the constellations Cygnus and Lyra. The scientists are using Kepler to search for signs of Earthlike planets in "habitable zones" where life might exist.

Jill Tarter, director of the institute's search for extraterrestrial life, announced Wednesday that she and her colleagues have created a new public search site that will allow volunteers to receive data on their computers directly from the Allen telescopes.

Hundreds if not thousands of volunteers are needed to hunt through screens full of radio noise and try to spot regular patterns of data that might indicate an alien technology at work where the telescopes are focused.

"The frequency bands are so crowded," Tarter said, "that our automated machines are overwhelmed and I'm hoping that an army of volunteers can help us to sort through all this chaos."

If a number of volunteers report spotting the same mysteriously regular patterns of data amid the noise, SETI astronomers would immediately follow up in an effort to identify the signal, Tarter said.

To volunteer to help the SETI Institute sort through data in its search for life in the galaxy, go to setilive.org.

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