Allen Telescope Array Advances SETI Research

The Allen Telescope Array (ATA) is a multi-unit collaboration between the Radio Astronomy Laboratory (RAL) and the SETI Institute at University of California, Berkeley. It is one of the newest tools for SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) research because it can scan the skies, collecting a vast amount of information about the universe. 

Designed to be complete over several phases, the Allen Telescope Array took its first 42 units live in October 2007. In the next few years, three more group additions, or “sub-arrays,” will ensue. These are currently identified as ATA-98, ATA-206 and ATA-350. 

Beginnings of the Allen Telescope Array
The ATA setup has been a dream of SETI Institute researchers for many decades. High costs and the need for funding made the project, first known as 1hT (One Hectare Telescope), unfeasibly. However, as technology advanced, options opened to take advantage of standard transmission dishes already in mass production. These were an economical, more effective alternative to the super-sized single radio telescopes in existence, thus creating an “array” type setup.

Initial funding also became available through the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Allen provided a challenge grant for the first-phase completion. Additional monies are coming in through membership sales and dish-naming opportunities, along with other private and public pleas. In addition, the U.S. Navy is implementing a paid agreement to harness the Allen Telescope Array’s capabilities for its own uses.

The first 42 dishes (ATA-42) are in operation at the Hat Creek Observatory in California’s Cascade Mountains northeast of San Francisco. Because this has been deemed a “radio-quiet” region, it is thus an ideal spot for collecting extraterrestrial information. With additional funding, a total of 350 dishes, acting as a unified far-reaching antenna, will be operational within a few years. By linking each of these together, the final effect is that of a “radio camera.”

Allen Telescope Array Basics
The dedicated field of 20-foot diameter dishes in the Allen Telescope Array will allow for SETI activity around the clock. This will definitely speed up the opportunity to detect potential alien life or its use of technology.

Each antenna features a unique offset reflector and mirror design that will eliminate some of the terrestrial interference. The greatest advantage will be its cutting-edge ability to collect massive amounts of data, including star formation and enhanced astronomical research. In fact, this system’s transmission and data collection methods use the newest digital signal processing technologies and receivers.

Benefits of the Allen Telescope Array
To date, SETI research through UC Berkeley exists as a piggyback effort. An analyzer known as the SERENDIP (Search for Extraterrestrial Radio Emissions from Nearby Developed Intelligent Populations) resides at the Aceribo Observatory, which is home to the world’s largest radio telescope. It provides massive amounts of random data, as the telescope performs data collection for other astronomers. The SETI group has no control over the direction of the telescope or the time spent targeting a specific area. Speeds are terribly slow by comparison to the proposed setup of a closely linked telescope array.

The Allen Telescope Array, or ATA, will provide greater benefits than existing radio telescopes, including:

  • ability to operate evenly at earthly frequencies without interference
  • fiber optic cabling, allowing for central processing enhancements without the need for re-wiring as technology progresses
  • filtering capabilities to discard common sounds from objects in orbit
  • rapid scanning techniques for easier clarification and precision in collecting data
  • simultaneous frequency coverage from 0.5 to 11.2 GHz
  • split-signal capabilities for both SETI and astrophysical projects
  • wider field of view.

Team members from the RAL are also excited, as the ATA will open up new formats for traditional radio astronomy. They are in charge of running the operation, which makes it an excellent joint effort with technologies that will aid in both fields.

Goals of the Allen Telescope Array SETI Team
Clearly, one of the main goals of the SETI team is to detect life beyond our own atmosphere. Specific types of research and evaluation will potentially help identify one or more distant life forms. The ATA can produce an enormous amount of information with specific tasks.

Study of star formation is part of those challenges. By understanding more about how other galaxies operate, it may be possible to find those that could support life as we know it. That includes probing the Milky Way’s magnetic fields.

With only the first sub-array in place, shorter, less targeted searches will continue. However, once all 350 dishes are pulling their weight, it will be a powerhouse of new discoveries. The eventual plan is that the ATA will be able to zero in on faraway areas that, to date, have been unattainable.

Scientists and ET enthusiasts maintain a steady belief that radio technology is a natural progression for any civilization, be it earthly or otherwise. That’s why SETI programs continue to utilize this method for scanning the skies while the specialists behind each project remain optimistic.

Upon completion of the 350-dish ATA field, perhaps by 2010, this site will be the fastest and most comprehensive of its kind. Utilizing the latest electronics paired with the cost-effective multiple dish design, the Allen Telescope Array will certainly play an important part of continued SETI research.