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VLA observatory to partner with SETI

The Very Large Array radio telescope west of Socorro will allow the California-based SETI Institute to install equipment giving SETI access to the VLA’s data stream. (Pat Vasquez-Cunningham/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The Very Large Array, west of Socorro, will be helping researchers at the SETI Institute in their search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

An agreement between the SETI Institute and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, or NRAO, which operates the VLA, will for the first time allow the institute to install equipment at the array so its members can access the data stream the VLA captures as it regularly scans the skies, said Dave Finley, spokesman for the observatory.

“We will continue to do exactly the same thing we’ve been doing, which is taking proposals from astronomers, looking at objects in the sky and providing the astronomers with the raw data they need to produce an image,” Finley said. “The SETI Institute will now be able to take that same data before it goes into our processing system and put it through a processing system that they are building and funding.”

The new system, which is still being designed, has been named the Commensal Open-Source Multimode Interferometer Cluster Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or COSMIC SETI.

The VLA, on the Plains of San Augustin west of Socorro, and the Mountain View, California-based SETI Institute both look at radio waves, but each processes them differently. That’s why the two have not done this type of collaboration in the past, Finley said.

The VLA, west of Socorro, has 27 dish-shaped antennas that are used to create high-resolution images of celestial bodies. (Pat Vasquez-Cunningham/Albuquerque Journal)

COSMIC SETI will use an Ethernet interface to grab VLA data around the clock and process it to detect “technosignatures,” that might be indicative of the existence of a technologically advanced, extraterrestrial civilization. The new software will also be able to detect fast radio bursts, another possible type of technosignature.

Bill Diamond, president and CEO of the SETI Institute, estimated the cost to develop and install the new system at more than $5 million, and the cost of operating it and conducting the science over five years at between $5 million and $10 million.

He said that installation of the new system would begin in about a year and that it would be fully functional a year after that.

SETI originally grew out of research at NASA and the Ames Research Center, in Mountain View, which funded SETI’s programs starting in 1984. That funding dried up in 1992. Since then, Diamond said, SETI has received enough private funding that it has been able to build its own radio telescope array, as well as buy time on others.

The VLA, which does receive federal funding, has never been used for SETI searches (despite being featured in the 1997 film “Contact”). Diamond said he was excited about the new collaboration because the VLA “is the most sensitive telescope in the Northern Hemisphere and has the widest frequency range of any radio telescope in the world.”

In addition, he said, “the VLA operates 24/7, and nobody else is doing 24/7 SETI observations,” including SETI’s own, and much smaller, Allen Telescope Array. That array is at the Hat Creek Observatory, and named for the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, a large donor.

“We are delighted to have this opportunity to partner with NRAO, especially as we now understand the candidate pool of relevant planets numbers in the billions,” Diamond said.

Most of the time, the VLA’s 27 dish-shaped antennas, each 82 feet in diameter, are used to create high-resolution images of celestial bodies using time exposure, Finley said.

SETI is also looking for a “very short burst of things,” so the time exposure images processed by the VLA would not detect the flashing.

“We are a general purpose radio telescope looking at the nature of stars, galaxies, black holes, supernova explosions, planets and things like that, and studying the basic nature of these components of the universe,” Finley said.

“They’re looking for technosignals that have characteristics that might indicate they are artificially generated,” such as modulation evidence of a radio station or communication system, laser emissions, atmospheric chemicals produced by industries or structures orbiting stars to capture energy.

“Determining whether we are alone in the universe as technologically capable life is among the most compelling questions in science,” said NRAO Director Tony Beasley. Telescopes such as the VLA “can play a major role in answering it.”

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