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SETI, Adler offer way to listen in if E.T. phones home

DREW BARRYMORE

DREW BARRYMORE

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Updated: April 2, 2012 8:51AM



If E.T. ever phones home again, now you have a chance to listen in on his call.

The Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute, with the help of astronomers at Adler Planetarium, launched a Web site Wednesday that lets ordinary folks process data scientists believe might one day reveal the existence of space aliens.

Instead of transmitting images, a powerful California-based telescope transmits radio signals onto the Web site —

SETIlive.org . Earthlings of all ages are invited to log in, view a short tutorial and then look for hidden signals in the data as it streams in real time.

The signals could be as simple as a transmission from a mobile phone, said Adler astronomer Chris Lintott, or could be a radio transmission from some alien life form trying to make contact with friends or foes on Earth.

When enough people mark an unusual signal through the Web site, the telescope takes a closer look at the signal, rather than moving on to the next star.

“People have been doing this in an attempt to listen in on aliens for 50 years,” Lintott said. “Never before has it been looked at, at this frequency.”

Lintott said astronomers have long believed alien life might use radio as a way to communicate because of its ability to send signals across large distances in space. Human civilization also produces constant radio signals, so that may be the same for life elsewhere.

Artificial interference from the telescope “completely confuses computers,” Lintott said, so humans’ ability to sort out patterns may be superior to a computer in processing this data. He compared it to a person’s ability to hold a conversation on a CTA train with a friend while 50 others are talking around them.

“There’s lots going on, and we think we need humans to pick through it,” he said.

Adler already runs a number of citizen scientists programs focused on galaxies, the Moon and planet discovery. Money from the TED nonprofit helped fund SETIlive.org. The Web site was designed to be spoof-proof to protect against pranksters or the paranoid.

“It will be pretty obvious if people are just throwing stuff in there,” said Karen Randall, SETI’s director of special projects. “They can still play with it, but they wouldn’t be counted as a vital statistic.”



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