State of the Infrastructure for SETI/METI Research

Radio Telescope Points Skyward

BMSIS researchers Anamaria Berea, Dimitra Atri, and Haritina Mogoșanu consider the current state of infrastructure for research in the areas of searching for and messaging extraterrestrial intelligences


Abstract

In this paper we are outlining the current existing infrastructure for conducting SETI and METI experiments and projects, the needs for future infrastructure in these fields, what is possible given the current technology and what we expect to be developed in the future. Additionally, we also highlight how economics has shaped the past and current state of the SETI and METI infrastructures. SETI and METI are highly controversial topics for policy and are presently not supported by government-funded scientific agencies; both efforts are being funded by private enterprises and individuals. Due to these limitations, there are a handful of facilities dedicated for SETI research, while METI projects have been very short-lived. We are also discussing the challenges and implications posed by the absence of a global space organization and the individual actions of countries and private companies that have infrastructural advantages or disadvantages for conducting such projects openly or covertly.

Keywords: SETI, METI, Astrobiology, space economy


SETI and METI in the History of Science Context

SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence, sometimes named Active SETI) efforts are expensive (Billingham & Benford, 2014) and have been historically piggybacking on other sciences infrastructures, such as astronomy, physics and biology. This has happened in two ways: 1) through the use of existing physical infrastructure such as radio observatories, biolabs or existing computer resources, or 2) through existing funding for larger scientific projects, such as the origin of life, synthetic biology, and others.

While many people, including both scientists and the public at large, recognize the fact that whether there is life in the Universe apart from Earth, intelligent or not, are some of the most important and fundamental questions we could be answering in science, the paradox remains that these are also some of the most underfunded and academically frowned upon research efforts.

Some of the reasons for sidelining SETI and METI research can be found in the risk averse policies for funding science, in general, and detrimental media perceptions such as “looking for green men”. Science remains tributary to the fashions of time and its’ currency is mainly reputation, therefore the formal approach to conducting science in the past few decades has been very cautious about taking risks, providing publishable results and having positive public perceptions (see Figure 1.).

Figure 1. The relationship between perceived risk/uncertainty and payoff in high stakes research projects

High-risk high-reward science has mostly been spurred by war in the 20th century, but lately, in times of peace, we have also seen an increase in this type of funding (DARPA[1] and IARPA[2] have been increasing their funding for high-risk high-rewards funding), as well as in the demand for interdisciplinary research (NAS[3]). But this increase has been only very recent. Science itself has developed in an evolutionary fashion, first addressing the needs of solving immediate and pressing problems (e.g., navigate by longitude) and only afterwards involving more abstract and theoretical problems. Basic science remains underfunded.

SETI/METI split and Emergence of Astrobiology

During the Cold War, SETI efforts were tied to defense and military research, but the growth of the field of radio astronomy provided new tools and incentives for scientific SETI, which resulted in the famous Drake equation and, later on, the establishment of the SETI Institute as a formal institution for conducting SETI research. But when SETI has become undesirable politically in the 1990s, the funding from federal sources stopped and the Institute had to rely solely on private funding.

These events have shifted the focus towards the new, emergent field of astrobiology (Harrison, 2015), where searching for life elsewhere has become broader, to include the search for microbial or non-intelligent life outside Earth, including our Solar System. One of the pioneers of this new field had been the new NASA Astrobiology Institute, which is closing down after 20 years of activity. In terms of Active SETI or METI, due to the still ongoing debate about whether we should signal our presence in space or quietly listen/observe signs of life or technology elsewhere, a new organization was established in 2015, METI International, with the purpose of purpose of creating and transmitting interstellar messages.

Infrastructure for SETI/METI – observatories on the ground and in space

While these have been, largely, the main institutional frameworks involved in SETI and METI research, the instruments involved in the actual collection of data are tied to radio and optical astronomy, as well as exoplanetary research.

The Kepler space telescope (2009-2018), that was specifically designed to search for exoplanets, cost USD 550 mil. (USD 640 mil. if we include launch costs) and was manufactured by Ball Aerospace and Technologies, but, while it was originally planned to last for only 3 and a half years, it lasted almost 3 times more than that. By comparison, the current TESS telescope (2018 – present) cost only USD 200 mil. (plus USD 87 mil. for launch). Technology is becoming more cost efficient and therefore the physical costs of doing science are decreasing, on average. Still, it remains a costly effort that can only be done with complex funding, institutions and cooperation (Benford, G., Benford, J., & Benford, D. ,2010).

On the ground, the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) at Hat Creek, operated by the SETI Institute, was built with more than USD 30 mil. from Paul Allen private donations, and currently has only 42 dishes from the 350 originally planned. There is an estimate that points the completion of the project at USD 41 mil., which is a fraction of what the Green Bank Telescope cost (USD 85 mil.). Other ground based telescopes that are intermittently conducting SETI are spread all over the world (Arecibo, Parkes, Green Bank, etc.).

Renting telescope time for collecting data and/or transmitting messages for METI can also be quite expensive; it can range from a few thousand USD for ground telescopes to $11000 for space telescopes (Hubble).

The focus in these searches has now shifted from developing large projects to utilizing existing datasets from astronomical observational facilities for SETI research. New efforts in this field are likely going to be privately funded, such as the Breakthrough Listen project at Berkeley University.

As the infrastructure required to conduct this research on a continuous basis can be quite complex and expensive, there are a few ways in which the costs can be minimized and the research optimized and brought to the level of search of “all sky, all the time”, as Jill Tarter often points out as the current need for SETI. Some of these infrastructures are:

  1. Distributed infrastructure for satellite launches and for observations – i.e., the square km array – which also has the potential to spur cooperation between worldwide scientists.
  2. Dual Use infrastructure – i.e., as the Hubble telescope currently has the components inside it with technology that is made of is dual use; this also has the potential to spur new innovations in technology
  3. Radar – has been developed during the war and now is used for tracking near Earth objects (NEO), satellite observations for collision avoidance.
  4. New computing advances such as AI and deep learning methods are being used for processing observation data, number crunching and analysis from any of these instruments; this has the potential to shorten the time and the human bias oversight of data analysis and processing.
  5. Robotics, 3D printing and new technologies can be extended to enhance the current physical and data/informational infrastructures to be extended for METI and SETI searches.

Conclusions

With the increase of human presence in space and the dawn of the space economy, there will be undoubtedly both challenges and opportunities, technological and economic, for new SETI and METI efforts. The new infrastructure needed for human permanent presence in space is undoubtedly complex and will be partly designed, partly emergent from the more immediate needs of the space economy, such as robotics, satellites, wifi in space, 3D printing, manufacturing in space, etc.

The question for SETI/METI researchers would be how to best make use of such existing and imminent infrastructures that have already ROI (return on investment), or how to gain funding for building a specific SETI infrastructure; or, obviously, as we can already see, a combination of both.

Space infrastructure is more than one country alone can afford, therefore financial collaborations that imply the development of international treaties and institutions are crucial to make this happen. For example, the USA and Russia cooperate for launching astronauts and operating the international space station (ISS). This is currently, unfortunately, the only example of countries that are cooperating in space (but not in anything else).


References:

Billingham, J., & Benford, J. (2014). Costs and Difficulties of Interstellar ‘Messaging’ and the Need for International Debate on Potential Risks. Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, 67, 17-23.

Benford, G., Benford, J., & Benford, D. (2010). Searching for cost-optimized interstellar beacons. Astrobiology, 10(5), 491-498.

Harrison, A. A. (2015). Astrobiology: Where Science Meets Humanistic Inquiry. Journal of Astrosociology, 1(1), 11-30.


[1] Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency

[2] Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity

[3] National Academies of Sciences