Calling All Aliens:
Ohio State's 'Big Ear' radio telescope keeps listening
for evidence of extraterrestrial life
By Barry Kawa
Sunday Magazine section, September 18, 1994
One is a lawyer. Another is a school teacher. Still others just love the challenge of solving the greatest mystery of all.
Together, these volunteers and graduate students conduct Earth's longest running search for extraterrestrial life.
In this greatest of all fishing expeditions, their pole is Ohio State University's "Big Ear" radio telescope, one of the ten largest in the world. If the massive scope detects a "bite", a computerized feedhorn tracks the signal, recording it for analysis. After 21 years, there have been plenty of nibbles, but no keepers.
But every day brings new hope in landing the "big one".
"If they're going to find alien intelligence, this is where it's going to be," says Marilyn McConnel-Goelz, a Columbus lawyer and newly recruited volunteer. "It's really neat that I could be involved with this."
It's heady stuff for booming Delaware County - located just north of Columbus - that claims the Big Ear as its own. The telescope's founder, Ohio State University's Dr. John Kraus, designed and built the Big Ear here on a wooded 20-acre site off U.S. 23 in the early 1960's.
A radio telescope, the astronomer's "ears", is simply a massive antenna with a receiver. Conventional radio telescopes feature a rounded dish that can be raised and pointed skyward in any direction.
But Kraus' design used a fixed dish requiring a relatively cheaper support system. It allowed the OSU professor to buy more collecting power for the money.
The Big Ear completed the first radio map of the night sky in the early 1970's. Then, it turned its attention to the big question in 1973.
Now, the search continues for that elusive signal. But it's a difficult quest considering the 300 billion other stars in the Milky Way galaxy that can contain life, and the infinite distances in space.
"This is not only like looking for a needle in a haystack," says Dr. Philip Barnhart, a physics professor at Otterbein College in nearby Westerville and the Big Ear's volunteer coordinator. "It has been described as looking for a gold needle in a haystack that has been filled with copper needles."
That's because radio interference comes from thousands of sources, on Earth and in space, like orbiting satellites. Astronomers also aren't really sure what they'll find, but as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said in describing pornography, "I know it when I see it."
Barnhart says the first thing is to look for a radio signal that emanates from space and that isn't made from a natural source, like a star.
"We don't want to detect something coming from Port Columbus Airport," Barnhart adds with a laugh.
Stars radiate over a very wide radio spectrum, while Earth-bound radio sources transmit over narrow frequencies. So, the search centers on narrow band signals from space, where scientists might logically "eavesdrop" on transmissions from other civilizations.
The Big Ear heard an intriguing burst in 1977, the so-called "Wow!" signal that's still chronicled in radio telescope textbooks.
Volunteer Jerry Ehman scribbled "Wow!" next to the finding, one of the highest intensity signals ever detected. Since then, the Big Ear and other radio telescopes have never detected it again.
"We have only the indication that the noise in the antenna went up very nicely at that time for that position in the sky," Barnhart says. "We have no idea what the content of that signal was - it is the 'classic'."
Around the world, the Big Ear is not alone. Each day, other radio telescopes from Puerto Rico to California to Australia are listening for suspicious signals. Famed astronomer Carl Sagan heads the non-profit Planetary Society that is conducting two SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) investigations at Harvard University and in Puerto Rico.
In a well-publicized blow to the industry, Congress cut funding for NASA's SETI project last fall. However, the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., will carry on the NASA search through private funding. In January, it will use the Parkes Observatory in Australia, then move to the 1,000-foot Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico.
Bob Arnold, a spokesman for the SETI Institute, says SETI searchers aren't competitors, but complement each other by taking slightly different approaches. He says the SETI Institute hopes someday to help fund the Big Ear project.
"They've persevered and they sure have our respect," Arnold says. "They're solid people, very solid physicists and engineers. They keep at it, like we're trying to keep at it."
At Harvard University, Paul Horowitz runs one of the most-respected SETI projects in the country. He has nothing but admiration for Kraus' design, and also believes that recent technological advances will someday lead to pay dirt.
"No one knows what will work, but each more powerful search gets us closer," Horowitz explains.
All these radio observatories work together to guard against the dreaded false alarm. Any finding would be the news story of the century, so researchers' credibility and reputations are at stake. If something unusual is detected, the equipment would be checked first, and then a call placed to another observatory to confirm it.
"We'd say, 'We think we see something interesting,'" says Dr. Robert S. Dixon, the Big Ear's assistant director and SETI project director. "'Point your telescope at this frequency and see what you see.' So, an in-group of people would make sure this is really there, before any public announcement is made."
SETI projects, including OSU's, have found plenty of unexplained signals, but none have been independently verified and shown to be from a point beyond the solar system.
What SETI listeners seek is some kind of continuous, narrow band signal with modulation, that would repeat itself, so it could be verified. Then, the best scientific minds in the world would go to work.
"Every observatory on the Earth would be looking in that direction and recording and analyzing the signal," Dixon says. "Then, of course, grants would flow like water. It would become the challenge of the millennium to try to decode the signal, what it was saying and where it was coming from."
Until then, radio astronomers stay busy with other work. At the Big Ear, volunteers study improvements in radio telescope design and computer programs. They continue a new mapping project that will allow them to compare the night skies 20 years apart.
Besides trying to further technology in radio astronomy, Dixon and his group are aiming for more oublic support. Over the years, open houses and media attention have built a loyal local following. An open house in May attracted about 500 visitors.
The Big Ear's volunteers have operated on a near-shoestring budget for 21 years, scrounging up grants, parts and help as needed. Currently, the Big Ear operates on a budget of about $25,000 a year, with most of the money going to pay the graduate students.
The biggest crisis, however, ensued 10 years ago when Ohio Wesleyan University, the Delaware school which owned the land and leased it to OSU, sold it to a real-estate developer. The telescope operators were ordered to vacate the site and dismantle their scope.
Developers planned to replace the Big Ear with a 9-hole golf course to complement the adjacent 9-hole Delaware Golf Club, and also homes, like a mini-Muirfield Village.
But in a fight that attracted national attention, residents and astronomers rose up and smote the developers. An eighth-grade middle school class from Upper Arlington wrote in support, as well as astronomers from across the country.
Finally, both sides negotiated a leasing arrangment for the land. The Big Ear's 10-year lease expires next year, but the prospects for renewal look promising.
OSU, which pays the lease and utility costs, also gets a considerable piece of the grant money. And that's why Dixon figures the university will renew the lease in 1995.
OSU President E. Gordon Gee calls the Big Ear a "very useful instrument, displaying the best research, which can be used in an applied way." [Webmaster Cindy Brooman's editorial interjection, and she accepts full responsibility: Gee's comments were made just prior to his nixing the lease on the telescope, stating that it was 'an antiquated instrument'.]
"I am in a position to say that we're very comitted to the project," Gee says. "The question is how we ultimately resolve some of those funding issues."
With the furor that arose here 10 years ago when development threatened the telescope, some Delaware County officials and neighbors to the Big Ear say they don't want to be dragged into another fight. But privately, some say, the Big Ear is an outdated piece of technology [not true] that restricts business expansion along U.S. 23. And they say the telecopes' operators won people's support because of the popularity of the movie "E.T." at the time.
Golfers say their Delaware Golf Club will never be able to add another nine holes to their proud Donald Ross-designed 9-hole layout while the Big Ear stands.
"It's ugly [beauty is in the eyes of the beholder!], it can be seen from great distances, it gets in the way," says one neighbor who asked not to be identified.
The radio telescope is behemoth, taking up more than three football fields. On a recent day, turkey vultures warmed themselves above the blinding aluminum ground plane that makes it the world's largest tanning bed.
The telescope is 360 feet wide and 70 to 100 feet high, while the aluminum plane is 480 feet long. Barbed wire fencing surrounds the installation to keep out local youths who used to hot-wire golf carts and race them on the ground plane.
In the distance, golfers trudge up the lush fairways of the Delaware Golf Club. The fourth green sits only a few hundred yards from the telescope, making the site a curious blend of science and golf.
The country club's driving range lies adjacent to the Big Ear. All around the Big Ear, red-striped golf balls rise up like mushrooms. Long hitters can even drive their golf balls onto the Big Ear's surface.
The volunteer staff meets two Saturdays a month in a tiny office building on the lot. The Big Ear is run by about 15 volunteers, who include a chemist, an optical astronomy buff and an industrial designer, as well as numerous computer whizzes. A few OSU graduate students serve as the paid staff. Kraus remains the director, but is retired and isn't involved in the day-to-day activities.
Dixon, who has been involved since the beginning, defends the continued search for extraterrestrial life.
"You can be guaranteed if you don't look, you won't find anything," Dixon says flatly.
And today, the Big Ear is looking with state-of-the-art equipment.
Before Congress cut NASA's SETI project, the funding also provided the Big Ear with a $60,000 4 million channel band receiver. The receiver, currently being installed, will allow the Big Ear to increase its sensitivity by about a thousand times.
Also, the Big Ear is adding some low noise amplifiers that will further aid in the search.
"Our fishing technique gets better each day," Dixon says. "We're getting finer nets."
Another grant, $4,000 from the Planetary Society, will pay for a graduate student to revisit the "Wow!" signal and also to examine another series of mysterious signals that piqued Sagan's interest.
The graduate student is Russ Childers, 29, an MBA student. Childers works in the Big Ear's underground focus room, with the receiving equipment, sky maps and computers. The temperature in the room is kept at 65 degrees to keep the computers cool.
The control room is vintage 1960's Godzilla. There's an atomic clock, flashing lights, oscillators and continuum receivers.
If something is found, Childers would probably be the first to know. Still, it's not something he discusses with everyone he meets.
"I tell them 'radio telescope,' and they think radio stations," Childers says. "They think I'm monitoring that. I try and stay away from the extraterrestrial aspect until they get a little more comfortable with what I do. They immediately think UFOs, or they say, 'There was a UFO sighting...'"
UFOs aside, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is serious stuff here. The Big Ear's future is tenuous, but the volunteers are determined to keep it going. Funding will continue to be a problem, but the search is an intriguing one, so grants and university support should be there.
Will the Big Ear be the first to find evidence of life?
The odds are long, but no one is giving up.
The Big Ear remains a romantic saga, a group of volunteers seeking the big payoff. That someday, the feedhorns will catch that telltale signal, and the headlines will scream that the Big Ear has found evidence that extraterrestrial life exists.
What happens then? Is it worth devoting a lifetime to find out?
"If people just realized that there is really more to the universe than what's on Earth, then maybe we would think these internal problems we have are not so important," Dixon says.
"That might be the most important finding of all."