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Is Amateur SETI Even Possible?
by Dr. H. Paul Shuch, Executive Director

Recent link calculations have revealed what should not particularly surprise experienced weak-signal radio amateurs: the best ham SETI station we can assemble appears unable to communicate with its counterpart at the distance of the nearest star. This finding has generated concern within the SETI community. "If your system wouldn't detect the strongest signal the ETI might radiate," SETI pioneer Dr. Bernard M. Oliver told me recently, "even if it came from the nearest star, then years of listening, or thousands doing it, won't improve the chance of success. To cross the Golden Gate, we need a bridge about 10,000 feet long. Ten thousand bridges . . . one foot long won't hack it." I must admit, Barney makes an excellent point. And yet I am not discouraged. Why? In part, because the Golden Gate Bridge analogy assumes a serial process, whereas SETI may indeed prove a parallel enterprise. In addition, the crux of his argument seems to rest on how we define "the strongest signal the ETI might radiate." And this is so entirely unknown as to make speculation futile.

What happens to our range, for example, if a ham SETI station tries to receive not itself, but a MegaWatt signal from an Arecibo-type antenna? The additional antenna gain at one end of the path increases system range by perhaps two orders of magnitude, to tens of light years. And what if the ETI possesses a Cyclops? Now our potential contact range increases another order of magnitude, into the hundreds of light years. Is amateur SETI futile? Not if our galactic neighbors are more successful than we in getting their governments to fund large-scale antenna arrays. So ironically, it just might be the distant success of Oliver's own brainchild which gives hope to amateur SETI.

Hams have always been innovators, and one cannot begin to anticipate the spin-off technologies which might result from the search. Just as the thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters might some day write out the whole Encyclopedia Galactica, might not a thousand digital signal processing experimenters, pushing a thousand different algorithms, someday find the key to digging another 20 dB into the noise? It would seem that amateur SETI is a no lose scenario, even if we hear not a peep from the stars.

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