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Tune In The Universe!
Tune In The Universe!
by SETI League executive director Dr. H. Paul Shuch
Excerpt: Introduction

"We're getting a carrier, all right" confirmed Trevor, barely able to conceal his excitement.

Ken's fingers flew over the keyboard, his eyes never leaving the monitor. "Frequency?" he asked.

"Fourteen seventy one point five," answered Trevor, tweaking the tuning dial on the Icom 7000 receiver. "It's steady at S2. I've marked the local sidereal time. Shall I ring up the BBC?"

"Are you daft, man? Let's not forget the verification protocols! Check for modulation, and be quick about it."

"It's CW -- no, there's sidebands. Looks kind of like modem tones. Low baud."

The two English radio amateurs and were manning their radio telescope, much as they had during every spare waking hour for the past three weeks, in search of an intelligent signal from the stars. As UK Co-Coordinators for Project Argus, the all-sky survey launched by The SETI League on Earth Day, April 21, 1996, their job was to assist other British hams in building sensitive microwave listening posts. Their 3.5 meter diameter dish and associated electronics were put together as a demonstration station, and now they were demonstrating the patience and deliberation for which their one hundred combined years had uniquely prepared them. They were systematically analyzing an anomaly.

speaker You can hear what Ken (G4KIR) and Trevor (G0ECP) were hearing by clicking on the speaker icon at left.

"Doppler's kind of high. Tens of Hertz per minute. I'm betting it's an LEO."

Ken's colleague knew that Low Earth Orbit satellites were the bane of SETI, the scientific Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. Fortunately, their Doppler shift, a change in radio frequency caused by their motion relative to the Earth, made such manmade sources readily distinguishable from signals of interstellar origin. Still, there was something odd about this particular signal...

Ken's and Trevor's first signal

The Argus concept had been born in the States a year and a half earlier, in response to Congress canceling all of NASA's SETI funding. For just a couple of years, NASA had conducted a modestly funded SETI effort from headquarters at the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA. Consuming just one tenth of one percent of NASA's science budget, or about five cents per American per year, NASA SETI promised to be one of the best scientific bargains of all time. Then the budget-balancers axed it, reducing the US national debt in the process -- by point zero zero zero six percent.

A group of American microwave experimenters was not about to let the Search die for lack of intelligence in Washington. Ken and Trevor had heard about their amateur effort at the World Science Fiction Convention in Glasgow the previous summer, and were the first Europeans to sign on. Now their many months of effort and training were being put to the test.

"Save to disk," commanded Trevor unnecessarily, for Ken was already doing so. "Let's get a GIF, and also maybe a WAV file. We're going to have to Internet this one."

The signal amplitude rose smoothly, then fell. "Wow!" exclaimed Ken.

"Let's not be hasty," cautioned Trevor. "I think it's time to Ask Dr. SETI."

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