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Microsoft's Allen Buys Alien Hunters a Bigger Radio

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MessagePosté le: 13/10/2007 10:19:30    Sujet du message: Microsoft's Allen Buys Alien Hunters a Bigger Radio Répondre en citant


Here Arrow Allen_SETI

Microsoft's Allen Buys Alien Hunters a Bigger Radio
By Sandi Doughton
Seattle Times
10/11/07 9:17 AM PT

Paul Allen, who cofounded Microsoft and has invested in SpaceShipOne, has a new starry-eyed project: an array of radiotelescopes in northern California that will help scientists look for signs of life out there. The Allen Telescope Array in Hat Creek, Calif., will scan the skies not only looking for life, but also studying stars, planets and other celestial bodies.

The hunt for ET is revving up to warp speed, thanks largely to an infusion of cash from Seattle's most famous science fiction fan.

Today, Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) cofounder Paul Allen will join scientists from SETI -- the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence -- to unveil the first major telescope devoted full time to answering the question: Is anyone out there?

"It's the longshot of longshots, but if we did hear a signal from another civilization, that would be world-changing," said Allen, who paid half the US$50 million price tag for the observatory in Hat Creek, Calif.

More Coverage

The first mission for the Allen Telescope Array will be to scan several billion stars across a vast swath of our own Milky Way galaxy, said astronomer Seth Shostak, of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. That broad-brush survey will be followed in the coming years by detailed examinations of a million stars -- a quantum leap in coverage of celestial real estate. In the 45 years since scientists first started looking for signals from alien worlds, only about 750 stars have gotten such close scrutiny.

"This is an exponential increase in speed," Shostak said. "And it covers much more of the radio dial, which is important because ET never told us where to look for his broadcasts."

The array of 42 radio dishes, perched atop a volcanic plateau 300 miles northeast of San Francisco, will also help push the frontiers of conventional astronomy, said Leo Blitz, director of radio astronomy for the University of California, Berkeley, which helped foot the bill.

"We can see a larger piece of the sky at once than other radio telescopes -- and we can make better images than anybody," he said.

Looking for Surprises

The telescope's power will enable more detailed study of pulsars, black holes, dark matter, gravity waves and phenomena not yet dreamed of, he said.

"Throughout the history of astronomy, whenever you build an instrument with new capabilities, you make serendipitous discoveries."

Allen was first drawn into SETI by the late celebrity astronomer Carl Sagan, who persuaded the Seattle billionaire to keep the program going after federal money dried up.

However, Allen's interest in space goes back to his childhood and the Seattle library where he first came across "Rocket Ship Galileo," Robert Heinlein's sci-fi classic about whiz kids who build a moonship. As one of the world's wealthiest men, he has bankrolled a science-fiction museum in Seattle and backed the winning entry in the $10 million X-prize competition for manned flights to the edge of space.

"I think science fiction inspires people of all ages to imagine what the future can be," he said.

Little Green Men

And what respectable sci-fi envisions a future without aliens?

Whether humanoid, reptilian or the furry tribbles of "Star Trek" fame, any advanced civilization would have developed radio technology, which is why SETI focuses on radio waves, Shostak explained.

Radiotelescopes on Earth could detect the "leakage" from ordinary broadcasts, or pick up a signal beacon deliberately aimed into space by extraterrestrials.

Radiotelescopes are also a mainstay of astronomy. All hot gases emit radio waves, so scientists analyze the emissions to glean information about objects that can't be seen, like black holes and dark matter. Radio waves also allow scientists to peer through dusty regions of space, and provide different views of stars and other galactic structures.

Until now, SETI scientists had to queue up for time on the world's few radiotelescopes.

The new telescope can simultaneously scan for alien signals and study the cosmos. It also provides a much wider view of the sky, and its small dishes are relatively cheap at $125,000 installed.

Looking Further Ahead

The goal is to boost the telescope's power even more by expanding the array to 350 dishes, at a cost of an additional $41 million. Until that happens, the telescope won't break much new ground in conventional astronomy, said University of Washington astronomer Woody Sullivan.

As leader of the UW's astrobiology program, Sullivan is a big believer in alien life forms, but says they're more likely to be microbes than intelligent beings. He and his students are looking much closer to home for evidence of liquid water and possibly life on Jupiter's moons or Mars.

Fellow UW astronomer Don Brownlee tried to estimate the occurrence of Earth-like planets capable of supporting life as we know it. He didn't come up with a number, but the name of the book he co-authored on the subject says it all: "Rare Earth."

"But it's certainly worthwhile to look," Brownlee said. Even if a signal from another planet were to reach Earth, communication would be difficult across distances measured in light years, he cautioned.

Allen acknowledged his own optimism has waned a bit.

But if the phone rings late one night, he'll be ready.

"If this project picks up a signal, they would call me right away," he said. "I would be astonished ... then I'd be trying feverishly to help decode the message."

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MessagePosté le: 13/10/2007 10:19:30    Sujet du message: Publicité

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