[Big Ear Masthead]

A SETI Searcher's Day
Like the Maytag Repairman ... Nobody Ever Calls!

By Herb Johnson
With Addendum by Cindy Brooman

There is nothing magic about SETI research over many other kinds of research. SETI involves doing a lot of observations, weeding out the obviously irrelevant ones so you can spend time looking at the more likely ones. SETI is an experiment. You develop a hypothesis as to what a SETI signal might look like, and how it would be different from what you would otherwise see or detect. You build equipment to both collect observations and to eliminate information that "is not SETI", that is normal events or background stuff (like noise or stellar radio sources).

Since SETI signals are rare (else you'd have some already) you have to search long-term. That means a lot of observing. And that means it's mostly automated, to save costs and observer's sanity. Humans only get involved when the equipment decides there is an unusual event. It records the result, and the researcher's review of the log reveals an event occurred. Once the data and events are in, those events get examined and processed, and sometimes reported upon. Researchers spend their time on dealing with such results as we get, or reviewing the parameters of the experiment, or considering new experiments (i.e. new equipment designs, changing the parameters of search, etc.) or in review of old results.

But most of the time, a SETI researcher is waiting - the equipment is doing the work. A researcher may need to do adjustments or shifts in the equipment, and often a regular or scheduled adjustment to change a part of the survey (we shift the antenna in steps across the sky). Other times, he'll archive accumulated data, verify that the equipment is operating as expected (by knowing what it should be doing and confirming this), inspect the equipment and so on. Then there are the normal duties of physical maintenance, grounds keeping, the same things any lab or research facility deals with. SETI people are not funded at many facilities, so the researchers do all the other jobs too.

Most of the time, the search goes as described above. Only occasionally does anything resemble the control room of the movie "Independence Day". Russ Childers, Big Ear's Chief Observer, received a very strong narrowband signal on June 9, 1994. The signal had all the characteristics of a SETI signal, and caused the Observatory's automatic tracking mechanism to kick in. Before the source of the transmission was identified, there was a great deal of excitement. Phone calls were being made and equipment checked. However, the source turned out to be a powerful OH emission maser (a naturally occurring narrowband radio source). Alas, no aliens were calling after all.

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