SERENDIP: Searching for Intelligent Life in Outer Space

The Search for Extraterrestrial Radio Emissions from Nearby Developed Intelligent Populations (SERENDIP) is a SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) research program based at UC Berkeley. The SERENDIP project, through the use of a spectrum analyzer, collects data that researchers hope will one day reveal transmissions from other life forms in the universe. Because the sky scans are random, proponents readily admit that if any ET signal appears, it will arrive in a serendipitous manner.

A Brief History of SERENDIP
The SERENDIP project began in the mid-1970s, as a “piggyback” system that would take advantage of existing radio telescope activity. The first unit, a 100-channel spectrum analyzer, collected data at the Hat Creek Observatory, part of the UC Berkeley system.

A Berkeley astronomy professor, Stuart Bowyer, developed the ideal of “tagging along” with an existing telescope system to scan the skies for signs of intelligent technological transmissions. From its official launch in 1999, SERENDIP has scanned and rescanned the skies, searching for both random and repeat activity. 

Through a handful of incarnations, SERENDIP grew with technological advancements and relocations. Today, its main data collection analysis across millions of channels comes from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Through enhanced developments and many years of feedback, massive amounts of raw data began to accumulate. In fact, the system gathered so much data that even existing “supercomputers” would take decades to process it.

As a result, David Geyde and Dan Wertheimer from UC Berkeley developed the idea of SETI@home. By recruiting “volunteer” computers and amassing enthusiastic individuals around the world, data processing could occur in weeks to months, instead of years.

The piggyback system makes sense, as no one is actually sure where to look in the first place. While radio telescopes provide research for other projects, SERENDIP can collect its own data for analysis. The lack of control over directional positioning is not problematic and outweighs the drawbacks of cost for a dedicated system.

Other radio telescope locations are also making efforts to raise funds for implementing the latest version of SERENDIP. This would greatly expand the opportunity for locating alien life.

SETI researchers and supporters believe that radio wave communication is the best form for locating intelligent life in the universe. This is due to the fact that radio waves are able to penetrate the atmosphere without losing viability in their outreach. SERENDIP operates at a wavelength equal to that of neutral hydrogen, which is optimum for detecting radio emissions from other civilizations. These radio waves are also inside a MHz realm that, by international agreement, is restricted for astrophysical research.

The SERENDIP analyzer collects the transmissions on-site at Arecibo. It tapes the raw data for Berkeley’s SETI team members. There, they break down the information into small “chunks,” which are sent out to millions of SETI@home users. Each packet is independent of the others. However, when combined and compared, researchers seek out unique “blips.” They hope that soon, perhaps, there will be a radio emission from a thriving population somewhere in the universe.

On the “distributed computer” end, a specialized analysis program, in a screensaver format, sifts through and processes the information. The software runs while a computer is running but not in use. For example, SETI could start running while your computer is inactive during your lunch break at work.

In homes, the software can run using very little processing power. Through a network of participating computers around the world, the software excels at compiling data and transferring it back to Berkeley. In the meantime, volunteer enthusiasts can view the graphical transcripts on their monitors. Should an alien signal rise from the data, an alarm will sound.

SERENDIP Project Goals
Researchers acknowledge that it is somewhat farfetched but entirely possible for other corresponding life forms to exist. To date, no evidence exists to back up this belief. Human life, as we know it, would generally need the right conditions to exist. On the other hand, a true “alien” civilization might thrive under completely different circumstances without the need for water, oxygen and the perfect temperature range. The “if it’s out there, we should look for it” approach governs the SETI project.

The SERENDIP project team, along with a host of SETI programs under its umbrella, is dedicated to finding that burst of unusual electronic transmission. It may be fleeting or in a continuing string of communicative effort. A series of repeat scans with the same burst of information is likely the best chance of identifying an ET.

Another persisting mystery lies in whether or not signals will come as an errant radio transmission that escapes another galactic atmosphere or as a genuine effort for contact. In the case of the latter, all SETI organizations abide by Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Article IX, United Nations Treaty.

Anyone detecting a communication of any sort will first contact the United Nations Secretary General, followed by scientific authorities and the general public. For those who worry about making contact with a disagreeable life force, convening bodies will next decide whether or not to craft a response. If they decide that a response is appropriate, they will also determine the content of the message.

With each technological advancement, SERENDIP data collection continues to grow. The more channels it can search and more locations that utilize the SERENDIP technology, the greater the chances are of detecting intended alien transmissions or, at the very least, their radio wavelength leaks.