Search for Life Out There Gains Respect, Bit by Bit: NASA Jumps Back Into The Search

New York Times

July 9, 2003

Years after Congress ordered NASA to pull the plug on a survey looking for alien radio signals from the stars, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, as it is known to aficionados, seems to have gradually achieved a modicum of respect in the halls of Washington.

The most recent indication appeared at the end of last month, when NASA named 12 groups that had won five-year grants to participate as "lead teams" in its Astrobiology Institute, which investigates the origin and future of life in the universe.

On the list was the SETI Institute, an organization in Mountain View, Calif., that has carried on the abandoned survey.

The group proposed a variety of basic research on the way planetary environments affect life or are affected by it. One project is aimed at determining whether certain kinds of stars are promising abodes for life and thus good targets for a planned expansion of the institute's search for intelligent radio signals.

That would make the grant the first money in a decade that NASA has allocated for work related to radio searches, the astronomers at the institute said.

For most of the last decade, "SETI was a four-letter word in NASA," said Dr. Frank Drake, a radio astronomer and former chairman of the SETI Institute. "It was not uttered in speeches, or in documents."

NASA said nothing had changed. The agency does not as a rule finance ground-based astronomy and, thus, has no SETI (pronounced SEH-tee) program. But SETI research can be supported as long as it meets the strictures of good science and emerges from a competitive peer-reviewed process, explained Dr. Edward J. Weiler, associate administrator of the NASA Office of Space Science.

Dr. Michael Meyer, a biologist who heads the Astrobiology Institute, described the proposed study as "pure astronomy," aimed at looking for potential habitable planets, research that fits with the institute's mission. NASA, he added, is eager to use the results to find targets for its planned Terrestrial Planet Finder satellite.

Astronomers around SETI and elsewhere said NASA and Congress had recently shown warming attitudes toward the politically embattled subject of intelligent life Out There. Dr. Martin Rees, a cosmologist at the University of Cambridge in England, used an e-mail message to attribute the change partly to growing scientific interest in extraterrestrial biology and the origins of life, as well as, perhaps, "the growing visibility and manifest professionalism of the SETI Institute."

The issue is so important, Dr. Rees said, that "even though the chances of success are exceedingly low, it's worth a moderate effort."

Dr. Michael Turner, an astrophysicist at the University of Chicago, used a football analogy to describe the odds, saying, "SETI is definitely throwing deep, and oh what a touchdown it would be!"

Astronomers who testified two years ago to a House subcommittee on space and aeronautics reported that members seemed to support SETI. According to the journal Nature, Representative Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who called the hearing, said the discovery of life elsewhere in the universe would be "one of the most astounding discoveries in human history."

"Funding should match public interest," Mr. Smith said, "and I don't believe it does."

In recent years, the reports from the National Academy of Sciences have endorsed the idea of SETI, and the institute itself, once advised to change its name, has become a respected "brand" in astrobiology, said Dr. Drake, as evidenced by the recent announcement. "All of this is indeed a major sea change," he said.

It was Dr. Drake who in 1960 first pointed a radio telescope at two stars, hoping to hear the cosmic equivalent of "hi there." He did not hear anything, but he earned a curious sort of scientific immortality for his frustration.

No amount of cosmic silence has been able to discourage astronomers who theorize that radio signals can bridge the unbridgeable gulfs between stars much more cheaply than spacecraft, allowing distant species to communicate by a sort of cosmic ham radio. The Milky Way has 200 billion stars, the astronomers point out, and billions of frequencies available for signaling, if "they" exist.

SETI had been in eclipse at NASA since September 1993, when Congress, fearing a backlash if it spent tax dollars on "little green men," amended the NASA appropriation to kill a 10-year search program that had begun a year before.

Part of the project, a survey of 1,000 nearby Sun-like stars, was to have been managed by NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., and carried out by the SETI Institute, formed in 1984 as a conduit for scientists to obtain grants and conduct astrobiology research. When NASA pulled out, the astronomers at the SETI Institute decided to take the search private.

In 1995, with grants from Silicon Valley titans like David Packard, William Hewlett and Dr. Barney Oliver of Hewlett-Packard; Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel; and Paul G. Allen, co-founder of Microsoft; as well as Arthur C. Clarke, the science fiction author and inventor of the communications satellite, the search was reborn as Project Phoenix.

The astronomers expect to finish surveying the original list in the fall, but they are already laying plans for an expanded survey of up to a million stars.

The survey will be performed by a dedicated array of 350 small radio telescopes that will be built in conjunction with the University of California at Berkeley, at its Hat Creek Observatory near Mount Lassen in Northern California. The telescope, which can be used for SETI and regular radio astronomy, will be known as the Allen Telescope Array, after Mr. Allen, who invested $11.5 million for developing the telescopes.

Meanwhile, the SETI Institute, with about 120 employees and an annual budget of $10 million, not counting the cost of the new telescope array, has grown into a powerhouse of astrobiological research.

Its scientists say they have never had any trouble obtaining support from NASA and the National Science Foundation for this branch of their activities, which are as diverse as studying the chemistry of interstellar clouds and ways to handle Martian soil samples.

In all, the institute has more than 36 individual grants and cooperative agreements with NASA, said Thomas Pierson, chairman of the institute.

"Only our SETI work is (has been, actually) without federal support for the past 10 years," Mr. Pierson wrote in an e-mail message.

That exclusion has particularly stung, as NASA has embarked on highly publicized programs to search for cosmic origins — of life, matter and everything else — and begun planning for the Terrestrial Planet Finder, which will search for Earth-like planets.

The search for intelligent life in the cosmos was a logical part of those endeavors, the staff argued, and should be eligible for federal money.

"The questions SETI asks are a natural component of the questions that get asked in astrobiology," said Dr. Christopher F. Chyba, a Stanford professor who is head of astrobiology research at the SETI Institute.

As an indication of changing fortunes, astronomers point to remarks that Dr. Weiler made at the House subcommittee hearing on July 12, 2001. Dr. Weiler made clear in the session that the Congressional ban on SETI applied just to 1994.

"NASA is no longer prohibited by any congressional language from considering funding SETI research," he said, "so SETI is currently eligible and considered fairly under peer review for NASA opportunities."

The next year, a National Academy of Sciences report, "Life in the Universe, an Assessment of U.S. and International Programs in Astrobiology," called the SETI Institute a "unique endeavor" and an "important national resource in astrobiology."

The search for intelligent life, it said, is "the most romantic and publicly accessible aspect of the search for life, yet is perhaps the most problematic."

"It would be dissembling," the report added, "to say the least, to discourage such a search (especially one enabled by private funding) at the same time that astrobiology as a whole taps into the same emotions and aspirations to excite the public about the general search for life's origins, evolution and cosmic ubiquity."

Last year, the idea of searching for intelligent signals was explicitly endorsed in the newest version of "The NASA Astrobiology Roadmap," an outline of questions and goals assembled by 200 astrobiologists inside and outside NASA as a guide to research.

Although technology may be rare in the universe, its effects may nevertheless be easier to detect from a distance than biological ones.

"Accordingly," the roadmap said, "current methods should be further developed and novel methods should be identified for detecting electromagnetic radiation or other diagnostic artifacts that indicate remote technological civilizations."

The selection of the SETI Institute as part of the Astrobiology Institute is more evidence, Dr. Chyba said, that "there has been a sea change in attitudes toward SETI, as evidenced by the `Astrobiology Roadmap' and, explicitly, by NASA."

The higher end of evolution, intelligence, has been missing from astrobiology, he said, adding, "We're bringing it to the institute now for the first time."

In a statement from the institute, Dr. Jill Tarter, a radio astronomer who directs the search program, called the selection "the stamp of approval that what we started so long ago is a really good idea."

"The cross-fertilization of all these disciplines," Dr. Tarter said, "pays big dividends."