Heavenly Secrets

How the NASA researchers who inspired the film Contact outfoxed Congress and continued the search for intelligent aliens

Cullers has been irrepressible since childhood, his friends recall.
He excelled at judo, earned stellar grades, built his own ham radio, and served as an inspiration to his friends. Bank of America Vice President Vernon Crowder, who was a close friend to Cullers in high school, recalls calling him out of the blue 10 years ago after they hadn't spoken for 20 years.

"I called him to say he had a big impact on my life," says Crowder, now a vice president and agricultural economist for Bank of America. "Kent was known as a genius. When I told him I was smart, too, he basically said, 'Show me,' and challenged me to do better on my grades, the way I spoke, and the way I conducted myself.

"While I'm not sure whether he was intending to motivate me, it was very motivational."

Algorithms developed by Cullers are now used by NASA for astronomical signal detection in the visible spectrum, and may have applications in detecting breast cancer.

"Of course I have a purpose in mind: I want to find ET. That excites me particularly," Cullers explains. "But I'm actually just doing weak signal processing and developing new methods for doing it."

The Final Era
For those who do believe, the quest for life beyond Earth does indeed appear to have entered its final phase. With astrophysicist Jane Tarter at Project Phoenix's helm and Cullers as the lead scientist, SETI appears to have left behind its era of fanciful musing. Indeed, SETI researchers around the globe are now holding periodic meetings to lay the foundation for a new era of SETI research.

"The Cyclops report is 30 years old," Tarter says. "It's time to try some new ideas."

Possibilities include searching different portions of the electromagnetic spectrum -- including light -- for evidence of beacons emanating from alien societies.

Researchers are encouraged by the rapid advance of computer technology. SETI researchers don't actually "listen" to radio signals in the way Jodie Foster's character did in the movie Contact. Rather, refrigerator-size banks of computer processors examine millions of frequencies along the radio spectrum in the hopes that somewhere they might find an unusual squeal.

So for SETI researchers, each time the speed of Silicon Valley microprocessors doubles -- historically every 18 months -- so does the size of the observable universe.

Researchers at UC Berkeley's Project Serendip have piggybacked a radio receiver onto the 1,000-foot radio telescope at Arecibo, Puerto Rico, crunching the signals through racks of microprocessors equivalent to 200 of the world's largest supercomputers.

The Berkeley project has lent its computer designs to SETI searches at Harvard, in Italy, and in Argentina -- each of which has developed its own version of SETI.

But the SETI Institute is home to the most ambitious plans.
Without the yearly Damocles sword of congressional review, the layers and layers of NASA bureaucracy, or the meddling of NASA overseers, the institute's researchers are now going about the task of planning decades into the future.

The institute has hired a development director to seek additional charity from Silicon Valley millionaires, and Executive Director Thomas Pierson hopes to acquire a perpetual endowment of $100 million by about the year 2008. The institute now operates on around half the $12 million per year it spent while at NASA, officials say. If the endowment drive is successful, the SETI Institute will survive the hundred or so years researchers say it may take to find ET.

Foremost among the institute's plans is a kilometer-wide telescope field made from hundreds of armchair-size satellite dishes that may be located near Mount Lassen. As signal-processing capacity increases due to growing computer speed, the institute could correspondingly increase collecting power by increasing the size of its satellite field.

"The goal is to build it for under $200 million," Tarter says.
Alternately, the institute could collaborate in one of several megatelescope projects now on the drawing board around the world.

Tarter has even held discussions with NASA officials about improving the Deep Space Network, the worldwide array of radio telescopes NASA uses to communicate with its interplanetary spacecraft missions.

Tarter would increase the network's power, and perhaps save the agency money, by linking it to her planned kilometer-wide telescope field.

Institute personnel went to NASA to talk about the plan, "but it was just so awkward because SETI is involved," Tarter says. "It is just so painful for them still."

Contact ...
When it first comes, it will arrive as a narrow line amid a cacophony of dots, a rhythmic whine amid a sea of hiss, or perhaps a series of tiny, momentary flashes.

There won't be much fuss at first. Scientists detect hundreds, even thousands, of such interstellar signals each year, and so far, they've all turned out to be false alarms. So at first the anomaly will be treated as routine. The scientists will check a nearby spotter telescope aimed at the same star system, then they'll ask colleagues in Australia, Italy, Argentina, and elsewhere to point their barn-size radio telescopes in the same direction. When multiple observations prove the signal isn't a wayward satellite, an earthly radio broadcast, or some other terrestrial nuisance, the researchers will have answered the question that has pestered humankind from the dawn of thought:

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