It was a project that launched a thousand interstellar dreams.
Fifty years ago, NASA published a voluminous 253-page book titled “Project Cyclops.” He summarized the results of a NASA workshop on how to detect extraterrestrial civilizations. What was needed, the assembled group of astronomers, engineers and biologists concluded, was Cyclops, a large variety of radio telescopes with up to a thousand antennas 100 meters in diameter. At the time, the project would have cost $10 billion. It could, astronomers said, detect extraterrestrial signals from a distance of up to 1,000 light-years.
The report began with a quote from astronomer Frank Drake, now professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz:
At this very moment, with almost absolute certainty, radio waves sent by other intelligent civilizations are falling on earth. A telescope can be built that, pointed in the right place and tuned to the right frequency, can detect these waves. Someday, from somewhere among the stars, will come the answers to many of the oldest, most important, and most exciting questions mankind has ever asked.
The Cyclops report, long out of print but available online, would become a bible for a generation of astronomers drawn to the dream that science could answer existential questions.
“For the first time, we had technology where we could do an experiment instead of asking priests and philosophers,” said Jill Tarter, who read the report as a graduate student and dedicated her life to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. she told her in an interview a decade ago.
I was reminded of Cyclops and the work it inspired this week when word spread around the world that Chinese astronomers had detected a radio signal that had the characteristics of being from an extraterrestrial civilization, that is, it had a bandwidth very narrow at a frequency of 140.604 MHz, a precision that nature rarely achieves on its own.
They made the detection using a new giant telescope called the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope, or FAST. The telescope was pointed in the direction of an exoplanet called Kepler 438 b, a rocky planet about 1.5 times the size of Earth that orbits in the so-called habitable zone of Kepler 438, a red dwarf star hundreds of light-years from here. , in the constellation of Lyra. It has an estimated surface temperature of 37 degrees Fahrenheit, making it a candidate for supporting life.
Just as quickly, however, an article in the state newspaper “Science and Technology Daily” reporting on the discovery disappeared. And Chinese astronomers poured cold water on the result.
Zhang Tong-jie, chief scientist of China’s ET Civilization Research Group, was quoted by Andrew Jones, a journalist who tracks China’s space and astronomical developments, said: “The possibility that the suspected signal is some kind of radio interference is also very high, and it needs to be further confirmed or ruled out. This can be a long process.”
“These signals are from radio interference; they are due to radio contamination from earthlings, not aliens,” he wrote in an email.
This has become a family story. For half a century, SETI, or the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, has been a game of whacking a mole, finding promising signals before tracking them back to orbiting satellites, microwave ovens and other terrestrial sources. Dr. Drake himself pointed a radio telescope at a pair of stars in 1960 and soon thought he had struck gold, only to discover that the signal was stray radar.
More recently, a signal that appeared to come from the sun’s closest stellar neighbor, Proxima Centauri, was tracked as radio interference in Australia.
Just as NASA’s announcement last week that it would make a modest investment in the scientific study of unidentified flying objects was intended to bring rigor and practicality to what many criticized as wishful thinking, so too was the agency’s Cyclops workshop. held at Stanford for three months in 1971. The conference was organized by John Billingham, an astrobiologist, and Bernard Oliver, who was the head of research at Hewlett-Packard. The men also edited the conference report.
In the introduction, Dr. Oliver wrote that if anything were to happen to Cyclops, he would consider this the most important year of his life.
“Cyclops was, indeed, a milestone, largely in crafting a coherent SETI strategy and the clear calculations and engineering design that followed,” said Paul Horowitz, an emeritus professor of physics at Harvard, who later designed and started Cyclops. your own listening. campaign called Proyecto Meta, financed by the Planetary Society. Film director Steven Spielberg (“ET” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”) attended the official opening in 1985 at the Harvard-Smithsonian Agassiz Station in Harvard, Massachusetts.
“SETI was real!” Dr. Horowitz added.
But what Dr. Oliver initially received was just a “Golden Fleece” award from Sen. William Proxmire, a Democrat from Wisconsin, who crusaded against what he saw as government waste.
“In my opinion, this project should be postponed by a few million light-years,” he said.
On Columbus Day in 1992, NASA launched a limited search; a year later, Congress canceled it at the urging of Senator Richard Bryan, a Democrat from Nevada. With no federal support since then, the SETI effort has limped along, backed by donations to a nonprofit organization, the SETI Institute, in Mountain View, California. Recently, through a $100 million grant, Russian businessman Yuri Milner established a new effort called Advance Listen. Dr. Horowitz and others have expanded the search to what they call “optical SETI,” monitoring the sky for laser flares from distant civilizations.
Cyclops was never built, which is fine, Dr. Horowitz said, “because by today’s standards it would have been an expensive hulking monster.” Technological advances, such as radio receivers that can listen to billions of radio frequencies at once, have changed the rules of the game.
China’s new large FAST telescope, also nicknamed “Sky Eye,” was built in 2016 in part with SETI in mind. Its antenna occupies a sinkhole in Guizhou, in southwestern China. The size of the antenna dwarfs what was once the iconic Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, which ignominiously collapsed in December 2020.
Now FAST and its observers have experienced their own false alarm trial. There will be many more, SETI astronomers say.
Those who endure profess not to be put off by the Great Silence, as it is called, from without. They have always been in search of the long term, they say.
“The Great Silence is not unexpected,” Dr. Horowitz said, even as only a fraction of one percent of the 200 million stars in the Milky Way have been studied. No one ever said that detecting that rain of alien radio signals would be easy.
“It may not happen in my lifetime, but it will happen,” Dr. Werthimer said.
“All signals detected by SETI researchers so far are made by our own civilization, not another civilization,” Dr. Werthimer complained in a series of emails and phone conversations. Earthlings, he said, might have to build a telescope on the back of the moon to escape growing radio pollution on Earth and interference from orbiting satellite constellations.
The present time, he said, could be a unique window in which to pursue SETI from Earth.
“A hundred years ago, the sky was clear, but we didn’t know what to do,” he said. “In a hundred years, there will be no sky left.”