By Jeanna Bryner
Congress is talking about spending a bunch of money on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (or SETI) for the first time in 25 years.
The U.S. House of Representatives has proposed a bill that includes $10 million in NASA funding for the next two years “to search for technosignatures, such as radio transmissions, in order to meet the NASA objective to search for life’s origin, evolution, distribution, and future in the universe.” Such technosignatures would come in the form of radio waves that have the telltale features of being produced by TV- or radio-type technologies. An intelligent civilization could also produce those signals intentionally to communicate with other civilizations like ours.
“If it passes, it would definitely be a sea-change in Congressional attitude since Sen. [Richard] Bryan terminated NASA’s SETI program, the High Resolution Microwave Survey, in 1993,” renowned astronomer Jill Tarter, former diretor of the SETI Institute, told Live Science in an email.
Here’s what Tarter is referring to: In 1992, a huge NASA SETI initiative was launched in order to build instrumentation so that observatories could comb the cosmos for signals from alien civilizations. For instance, the high resolution microwave survey was hooked up to the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico for just that. A year later, however, Nevada Sen. Bryan shut it down, and “SETI” became an unmentionable.
“[Bryan] made it clear to the administration that if they came back with SETI in their budget again, it wouldn’t be good for the NASA budget,” Tarter told Marina Koren of The Atlantic. “So, we instantly became the four-letter S-word that you couldn’t say at headquarters anymore, and that has stuck for quite a while.”
She added that the funding proposal seems to be an extension of the efforts of Rep. Lamar Smith, R–Texas, to bring attention to the search for life beyond Earth when he was the chairman of the House Science Committee. (Smith, who announced that he will retire at the end of his term this year, is a known denier of human-caused climate change.)
If the legislation clears the House and passes the Senate, the result would be huge. “It allows for new instrumentation to be built, and data collected and analyzed at scale, by a global community,” Tarter said of the $10 million.
Of course, the hunt for intelligence beyond Earth has not stopped, as private companies and other organizations have funded it, but a buy-in from the federal government is a big deal. [7 Huge Misconceptions about Aliens]
“You need to remember that this is an authorization bill, not an appropriations bill. Even if it passes, the appropriators may not provide any SETI funding in their bill. But if they do, that would be a very big deal,” said Tarter, who was the basis for the heroine Ellie Arroway in Carl Sagan’s novel “Contact” and in the adapted movie by the same name.
Tarter is admittedly ecstatic about the possibility of such a federal focus on SETI. But you don’t become the director of the SETI Institute by keeping your feet on the ground.
“Bring it on! But don’t stop there,” Tarter said about the potential funding. “Earthlings everywhere are fascinated with this search and care about the answer. So, we should create an international endowment for searching for intelligent life beyond Earth. The backers should be private individuals, enlightened corporations, U.S. federal agencies and agencies from other governments around the world.”
She added, “By smoothing out the funding roller coaster that has characterized this research field from the beginning, it will be possible to attract the best and brightest minds with the best ideas from everywhere, and commit to the long-term search efforts that might be required for success.”
Are alien greetings just around the corner? Tarter said we have the technology now to search for more distant and fainter signals in ways we haven’t tried before. “But that doesn’t guarantee success in the ‘near future.’ The cosmos is vast, and we may not yet be looking in the right way, although we are doing the best job possible with what we now know.”
The “correct perspective on timing,” Tarter said, is summed up in a line from a paper published in 1959 in the journal Nature by Giuseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison: “‘The probability of success is difficult to estimate; but if we never search, the chance of success is zero,'” Tarter said.