Responses by a member of SETI follow this article.

http://www.injersey.com/news/hnt/story/0,2109,231169,00.html

Was it a blip or a beacon from cosmos?

Published in the Home News Tribune 11/29/99

Second of three parts

First Part

By TODD HALVORSON
GANNETT NEWS SERVICE

ARECIBO, Puerto Rico -- Call it a close encounter with what promises to be the most important scientific discovery of all time.


GANNETT NEWS SERVICE photo
With galaxies such as the Milky Way strewn with Earthlike planets, the chances of hearing from someone like E.T. -- shown here in a still from the 1982 film -- may not be too bad.

Midway through the midnight shift at the world's largest radio telescope, astronomer Jill Tarter picked up what appeared to be a signal coming from a small star named HD119850.

There was no mistake. The beacon came in loud and clear at 1535-MHz on the telescope's radio dial.

Yet it matched nothing in the computer's database of known terrestrial noise: cellular telephones, pagers, radars and satellites that often masquerade as broadcasts from alien beings.

What's more, a backup telescope in England was hearing the same beacon -- a clear sign the signal was not salsa music from a San Juan radio station bouncing back off the atmosphere.

Tarter, the real-life inspiration for the character played by actress Jodie Foster in the movie "Contact," took immediate notice and a long drink from an oversized coffee mug.

Snapping to attention in her wheeled office chair, she rolled over to a computer and tapped at its keyboard. Then her voice, almost giddy, rose in pitch.

"You may be here for something important," she said.

As the 21st century approaches, pioneering researchers are uncovering signs that suggest primitive life may be abundant in the universe. But Tarter and her colleagues are after much bigger game: proof that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the cosmos.

Tarter, 55, is chief scientist with the SETI Institute of Mountain View, Calif., a nonprofit, privately financed group that carries out a Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

Scientific vagabonds, the institute's two dozen astronomers and computer engineers have no permanent home base other than some suburban office suites near San Francisco. Their meager budget goes to buying telescope time at Arecibo Observatory.

Located high atop a mountain, the heart of the observatory is a massive aluminum dish that covers 20 acres. Radio signals bounce off the dish and into a 900-ton instrument carrier suspended by steel cables above it.

The equipment works like a giant ear, enabling SETI scientists to listen for radio signals from faraway stars. The premise is that those stars could harbor the planetary homes of intelligent civilizations.

The signal that got Tarter's attention came from a star 106 trillion miles away from the Arecibo control room, a bland computer lab with off-white walls and worn linoleum floors.

All the "listening" is done by computers that scan 28 million radio channels in search of unmistakable, repetitive artificial signals from other solar systems.

The problem is distinguishing what could be an alien call from the growing cacophony of terrestrial noise. An increasing gaggle of satellites above Earth swamp the airwaves with signals for cell phone conversations and TV programs. Radio stations broadcast constantly, and military and civilian radars scan the skies for enemy intruders and commercial airliners.

Here's how it's done: Should a promising signal pop up, SETI computers first compare the beacon to a catalog of known local noise. Any signal that matches is discarded automatically. But if the beacon is unfamiliar, a second radio telescope at Jodrell Bank near Manchester, England, swings into action.

If Manchester radio telescope doesn't detect the suspect signal, then the beacon isn't coming from a distant star: It's local Puerto Rican noise that hasn't been catalogued.

But if the signal is strong enough to be picked up thousands of miles away in England, too, then the beacon is put to another test.

An alien signal truly coming from a distant star would arrive in the United Kingdom at a slightly different frequency than it would in Puerto Rico. It also would drift just a bit on the radio dial.

That's because Earth is rotating, and the telescopes in Puerto Rico and England are widely separated.

Those subtle differences are predictable enough to be calculated with great precision, providing a mathematical way to make certain that Earthly jabber isn't mistaken for a message from afar.

The suspicious beacon that startled Tarter passed the first two alien signal tests. On cue, the huge Arecibo telescope automatically began to swing a few degrees, pointing not at HD119850 but at blank sky, in yet another test.

A true signal from ET would disappear, a result of the telescope being aimed away from the target star. But if it persisted, then it couldn't be coming from the far-off star because the telescope no longer was pointed at it. It would have to be local interference.

This time, it vanished.

And when the British telescope nodded away from the target, the beacon disappeared there, too. Maybe, just maybe, Tarter was on to a most astounding discovery.

But as the telescope ground its gears, the pragmatic Tarter immediately started to discount the possibility of making contact.

After all, the star is only one of 1,000 being scrutinized by SETI scientists. And in a universe of 50 billion galaxies, each made up of a half-trillion stars, the chances of striking ET gold are radically remote.

In fact, the prospects for success are so slim that people often wonder why serious astronomers would devote entire careers to such a pursuit.

"Some people would say it's nutty to toil your whole life and never see the results, and that's a distinct possibility here," admitted SETI scientist Seth Shostak, 56. But "think of the enormous payoff. I mean, this is the purest longshot horse in science today. But if we succeed, it's really big. So you accept the low odds."

Tarter, too, knows the needle-in-the-haystack nature of the search, and as the Arecibo telescope locked back on to HD119850, she stared intensely at the 19-inch computer screen before her.

But SETI computers decided the signal had not been the real thing. That was it. The show was over.

Outside, the grinding of telescope gears meant the computers were moving on to the next star on a preprogrammed target list.

Tarter slumped back in her chair, a bit deflated.

What initially had been a strong signal, she said, had faded. If aliens were phoning, the volume on the telephone here on Earth wasn't high enough to hear the second ring.

"Maybe that was E.T. shouting once and never again," she said.

copyright 1999 Gannett News Service

from the Home News Tribune

Published: November 29, 1999

First Part

Copyright 1997-1999 IN Jersey.
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Last  names and email addresses of SETI members deleted for privacy.

Date:          Mon, 06 Dec 1999 14:00:51 -0500
To:           'SETI'" <seti@sni.net>
From:          Yvan
Subject:       Re: SETI ??? FW : NEW INTELLIGENT SIGNALS FROM SPACE

>From the Hipparcos catalogue:

HD119850

HIP ID................... : 67155
RA (J2000)............... : 13:45:43.77
DEC (J2000).............. : +14:53:29.46
V Mag.................... : 8.46
Parallax................. : 184.13 1.27 mas
PM (RA).................. : 1778.46 0.98 mas/yr
PM (DEC)................. : -1455.52 0.89 mas/yr
Hp Max................... : 8.48
Hp Min................... : 8.55
HD/HDE/HDEC.............. : 119850
DM (BD).................. : B+15 2620
V-I for reductions....... : 2.07
Sp. Type................. : M3V

Is short, it is red dwarf about 18 lyr from here. Unlikely place
to find life but what do we know about the universe. Anyway, I
will wait before sending an email to Jill Tarter. If they think
this is true we will se an IAUC within hours.

Yvan


Date:          Mon, 6 Dec 1999 14:16:00 -0500
From:          "Claude"
Subject:       re: SETI ??? FW : NEW INTELLIGENT SIGNALS FROM SPACE
To:            "seti@sni.net" <seti@sni.net>

Ron,

It is a hoax.  See the thread on sci.astro.seti concerning this
"announcement."

Claude


Date:          Mon, 06 Dec 1999 14:36:34 -0500
To:            "seti@sni.net" <seti@sni.net>
From:          Yvan
Subject:       re: SETI ??? FW : NEW INTELLIGENT SIGNALS FROM SPACE

FROM sci.astro.seti:

Yup.  I can provide more definitive information.  The SETI
Institute did not find an intelligent signal.  We did look at
HD119850 during this observing run.  Other than that, many parts
of this report are accurate.

The SETI Institute did observe HD119850 from Arecibo, on March 20,
21, 22, 23, 26, and April 4.  There were 4 times where we looked
for a signal away from the target star, followed by an on target
observation.  The signals were not confirmed in the on target
followups. 

At Arecibo and Jodrell Bank, there is a significant amount of
interference and it is common to have off source and on source
confirmations.  While a real signal would go through the same
process, these off source and on source confirmations are not
really unusual enough to be considered exciting.

We also observed HD119850 from Green Bank's 140 foot antenna, with
Woodbury as a backup.  These observations were made during June,
1997, and January and March, 1998.  Nothing was observed during
these observations either.

Jill Tarter's title is actually Director, SETI Research.  I
believe that her age is incorrect as well.

HD119805 is an M class star, so the fake article is correct that
it is a small star.