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Return to the Ashes
by H. Paul Shuch, Ph.D.
Executive Director

When launched a year prior, the two-pronged NASA SETI study which Congress cancelled in 1993 had been slated to run ten years. Thus, it seemed a miracle of rebirth when California's SETI Institute lauched its ambitious privatized search in 1994. Aptly dubbed Project Phoenix because it rose from the ashes of NASA SETI's demise, this targeted search continued for a decade, surveying all the sunlike stars within two hundred light years of Earth, from six great radio telescopes in Parkes and Mopra, Australia, Green Bank WV, Woodbury GA, Arecibo in Puerto Rico, and Jodrell Bank in the UK. Now that Project Phoenix has completed surveying the thousand nearest good suns (some would say better than NASA could have done the job), where does SETI go from here?

Not ones to rest on their laurels, the engineers and scientists at the SETI Institute are now directing their resources toward the design and construction of the world's most sensitive SETI instrument, the Allen Telescope Array. When it's completed, our California colleagues will no longer have to raise and spend millions renting time on big dishes around the world. In fact, researchers from numerous countries are already queueing up to rent telescope time from them! A few years' observational hiatus is a small price to pay for the birthing of so grand an instrument.

Does this mean that SETI observations are now at a standstill? Hardly! For there's still that other prong of the old NASA SETI plan, the all-sky survey. This is where The SETI League came in nine years ago, with our Project Argus global search. And we're just hitting our stride.

Unlike Project Phoenix, our Argus search does not target individual stars. Rather, it attempts to sweep out the entire sky, systematically, swath by swath. Unlike Phoenix, Argus does not need to spend millions on renting telescope time. Our members donate it, on their own homebuilt instruments. Unlike Project Phoenix, all-sky surveys such as our own do not restrict themselves to a search for our nearby neighbors; any sufficiently advanced galactic civilization is fair game. And, unlike Phoenix, our Argus search is not designed around a ten-year tenure. We're in it for the long haul, and will keep observing until we detect the evidence we seek.

And where might that evidence reside? One thing we've learned from Project Phoenix is that it's not likely to be in the local neighborhood. After ten years of targeted searching, they've covered rather well the known good suns that are close at hand. So we conclude that maybe technological civilizations are not quite so common as the SETI pioneers supposed a half-century ago. And if radio-polluting societies are a bit more rare than previously thought, it stands to reason that the distances between them are correspondingly great.

The targeted search was an ideal strategy, in a universe where life is common. But if life is somewhat more rare (as now seems the case), then the nearest inhabited system might not even appear on our star charts. The only way we're likely to encounter its emissions is by sweeping the whole sky. This is what targeted searches do. This is what Project Argus does. This is even what some of the dishes in the Allen Telescope Array may be tasked with doing, when that facility comes online.

So we deem Project Phoenix a success. True, in ten years it has produced not one single confirmed signal of intelligent extraterrestrial origin. But it's done its job, very thoroughly and very well. We now know where to concentrate our efforts: just where The SETI League has been focusing all along.

Is SETI returning to the ashes? Not at all. Our passion and prospects for interstellar contact have never burned brighter.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in editorials are those of the individual authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of The SETI League, Inc., its Trustees, officers, Advisory Board, members, donors, or commercial sponsors.

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