SETI@Arecibo: The Plodding Pace of Discovery

March 14, 2001

by Seth Shostak - Senior Astronomer

Project Phoenix is back at Arecibo, checking out nearby stars for signs of intelligent life. Astronomer Seth Shostak is reporting from the observatory once again, and will be home to his Arecibo Diaries. This is the third installment.

"What? You think Lewis and Clark made discoveries every minute?" Gerry Harp was almost wild-eyed. "I bet most days they just silently shambled through underbrush."

It’s true. We get a lot of visitors to the control room, most of them excited by the prospect of seeing history in the making. They savor the thought of being onboard the Santa Maria as the New World quietly edges over the western horizon.

Of course, if you really were onboard the Santa Maria, the western horizon would be about the last thing you’d get to look at. Someone else did that. You’d be busy fixing the rigging and sail, or holystoning the deck.

It’s not much different when you hunt for extraterrestrials. The Homo sapiens life forms that slump in front of the Project Phoenix work stations aren’t really necessary except for the demands of maintenance and repair. We’re down on the deck, often doing little more than filling in the log books, while the computers keep watch from the crows nest.

"Frame relay errors again," says Rob Ackermann, stabbing a forefinger at the screen. The frame relay is a data link between Arecibo and Jodrell Bank. We use it to send information about candidate signals back and forth to the Lovell 250-foot (76-meter) telescope, just south of Manchester, England. It’s the most important link in our elaborate system for determining whether a signal is terrestrial or extraterrestrial. When it’s down, so are we.

Almost immediately, Ackermann leans back in his chair, relieved. "It’s rescheduling the observation." Our software reckons that all failures are temporary, so when it encounters a glitch, it simply backs off and tries again. Fortunately, the frame relay isn’t completely down. The breathing is labored, but it is breathing.

The system forgoes its usual 20-megahertz march up the radio dial and spends an extra five minutes re-observing star 4661, a K-dwarf neighbor that’s a mere 109 light-years away. The frame relay errors are annoying, but not fatal. Like thickets and marsh, they slow progress. We’re awaiting some maintenance guys from the Puerto Rican phone company to check the data link out, but it’s the weekend, and not much is going to happen until Monday.

Most of the glitches we stumble upon are in the Phoenix system. Its complexity rivals refinery plumbing, and some of the hardware is ready for Medicare. But the principal cause of problems is the fact that we observe at Arecibo for a few weeks, and then go away for six months. A continuously operated system can be systematically pruned of troublesome components, and doesn’t (like a light bulb) blow up when you turn the switch back on. This is one reason why SETI Institute researchers are so excited about the new Allen Telescope Array. Not only will it benefit from all the lessons learned here, but constant use will inevitably produce a highly reliable system.

I start to unwrap some crackers layered with an imitation-cheese food product when the lights in the control room briefly flicker. A half-second later, a klaxon lets loose with an abrasive blast, and a strobe light turns our quarters into a high-tech discotheque. The Arecibo telescope operators scurry to check equipment after the power dropout. But we’re not worried: the Phoenix electronics runs on its own generator.

Unfortunately, eight hours later, we are. The power glitch flipped a circuit breaker that runs the compressor cooling the Arecibo receivers, high up in the feed platform. By 3 a.m., the receivers are a toasty 100 Kelvin (about minus 280 degrees Fahrenheit or minus 173 degrees Celsius). This is not good, but this problem is on the observatory’s turf. By midmorning, it will be fixed. We continue to push our way forward, our observations a bit less sensitive, having lost some of our sail.

But it’s in the nature of discovery that progress is marked by long, unremarkable slogs, interrupted by shorter periods of crisis. If it wasn’t difficult, it would have been done by now.

"We always seem to be fixing stuff," notes Harp. "But of course, when all is said and done, the maintenance is secondary. It’s all about that western horizon."

Ackermann gives him a look. "Holystone the deck, Harp. Whatever that means."