Can We Hear Them Now?

Speak up, space aliens. These 42 new radio telescopes are all ears.

The array's first phase of 42 telescopes was completed this year. To build the full observatory, the SETI Institute will need a lot more money. (Seti Institute)
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“We’re struggling, absolutely struggling,” Tarter says on the subject of fundraising. So far, the man for whom the array is named, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, has bankrolled the project to the tune of $25 million. His last donation came in the form of a challenge grant, which would fund the array through 206 dishes if the SETI Institute could raise $16 million on its own. It fell $7 million short. The deadline was extended, but the institute is still about $30 million away from financing the full 350-dish array. And the longer it takes to raise the money, the longer the delays in construction, and the more expensive it all becomes.

Between the telescope testing, the software debugging, and the money worries, Tarter doesn’t have a whole lot of time to think about alien contact. That’s another odd thing about SETI: Even though a positive result would be among the most exciting discoveries in human history, there’s a good chance that the content of any message would be indecipherable. We’d know only that someone is out there, trying to communicate. And that would begin a whole new field of inquiry.

It’s hard to predict if or when that day will come. But should the ATA scientists ever hear a signal and verify independently (and in confidence) that it’s not from Earth, here’s what would happen: First they’d have their own private celebration. Every time the Phoenix team lugged its equipment to a radio telescope in Puerto Rico or Australia, says Tarter, “we always brought along champagne and kept it on ice.” Then, as a courtesy, they would inform the major ATA donors. After that, they’d e-mail an official notice to the scientific community describing the discovery. They’d also send off a scientific paper to an astrophysics journal. Much of that paper is already written; only the details are missing.

Then they’d call a press conference.

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