When I first began to work on Quest’s SETI: The Search for ET segment, I have to admit that my initial reaction was “are we still looking for ET?” Of course, humans have been gazing up to the heavens for millennia, asking ourselves that interminable question “are we alone?” And of course, there’s been a long line of increasingly sophisticated radio telescopes searching the skies for cosmic signs of intelligence. But hey, don’t we at some point have to call it a day? Though I think most of us don’t actually believe we’re alone, the universe is really, really big. What chance do we have of finding ET?

Well, it turns out our chances are much better than I thought. Grote Reber began conducting sky surveys in the radio frequencies with his newly invented radio telescope in 1937, and detected the first signals from outer space in 1938. In the seven decades since then, we’ve seen a multitude of radio telescope designs pop up all over the world, but we still haven’t gotten signals from any little green men. What I didn’t understand, until I spoke to Jill Tarter and Seth Shostak at the SETI Institute, is that in all that time, we’ve hardly looked at any space at all.

Since SETI’s first experiment in 1960 by Dr. Frank Drake, and until very recently, they’ve only looked at a thousand stars out of about 400 billion stars in our galaxy, and there are 100 billion other galaxies to look at! There are two reasons for this: 1) The radio telescopes they’ve been using can only look at narrow swaths of the sky, and 2) they’ve had to RENT time on other people’s telescopes, which constrains their search and budget. Now, the new Allen Telescope Array is being built just for them, and with it they’ll be able to capture millions of frequencies from multiple star systems simultaneously. It will be the biggest and fastest tool in the world for seeking signs of ET!

To learn why scientists use radio frequencies in the hunt for intelligent life, and to learn more about the history & future of the search, watch our story SETI: The Search for ET. You can also watch our extended interview with Astronomer Jill Tarter. And hey folks, the SETI Institute is a non-profit organization, so if you’d like to help them out with the search, consider adopting a scientist like Jill Tarter or Seth Shostak. Go to Adopt-a-Scientist, or join Jill’s team and become a TeamSETI member at Join TeamSETI.

Also, check out U.C. Berkeley’s SETI@home page and turn your home computer into a tool that downloads and analyzes radio telescope data.

Producer’s Notes – SETI: The New Search for ET 14 March,2016Joan Johnson

  • andrea

    I was part of the Quest crew that joined Joan up north for the SETI shoot. I have to say, if a distant voice from outer space is to be overheard from anywhere it makes sense it would be in Lassen County. The place itself is otherworldly. Volcanic rock and steaming mud pots give it a lunar like feel. And then there is the array which we came upon in a mist covered valley. Dozens of silver, ultra retro satellite dishes point upward. The completed array which is funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, will consist of 350 satellite dishes. We were in Hat Creek for the ribbon cutting ceremony for the new array which finally gives these astronomers their own telescopes. At the kick off, Allen flew in by private helicopter to push the silver button and the telescopes moved like syncronized swimmers…. But really, the dishes have been on for awhile manned by a few grad students and SETI astronomers 24 hours a day. And what if they pick up a signal? Well, the whole thing is steeped in protocol. First, the telescope must be turned away if a signal is found. Then the telescope must re-aquire the signal. Next, independent verification is required. Then, all sorts of international consultations have to take place and, well, everyone is still in disagreement over how we respond, who gets to respond and what do we say? One thing is for sure, there is a bottle of champagne in the office refriderator up at Hat Creek waiting to be opened if a signal is ever found. The Quest crew stayed in the nearby town of Burney, not on the map for its cuisine. In fact, it’s barely on the map at all. But it does have a bowling alley, a nice place to unwind after searching for “intelligent life” all day.


Joan Johnson

Joan Johnson is an TV Associate Producer for QUEST. Joan got her start making science television back in 1998 when she joined the team at Sea Studios in Monterey, working as a researcher and production coordinator on National Geographic Television projects for 4 years. Following that she pursued a career in features and network television down in Los Angeles, working on seven full length feature films, three television shows and several pilots. Joan graduated in 1993 from U.C. Santa Cruz with honors in Biology, and spent several years working as a marine biologist, naturalist and SCUBA guide. Originally from San Francisco, Joan is thrilled to be home and working on QUEST, fulfilling a long-term goal of combining her interests in science and entertainment.

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