This Valentine’s Day, fall in love with science. Join a community that’s helping UCLA astronomers search for life in the universe.
On Feb. 14, UCLA SETI is launching a new project to crowdsource the search for extraterrestrial civilizations. (SETI is an acronym for “search for extraterrestrial intelligence.”) The project, Are We Alone in the Universe?, will give members of the public an opportunity to help scientists find signs of extraterrestrial intelligence by classifying radio signals that may have been emitted up to tens of thousands of light-years away and collected by a radio telescope. No special training or education is needed to participate.
Classifying the signals will help scientists train artificial intelligence algorithms to identify which signals, among millions, could possibly have been made by intelligent life.
“If we found a radio signal that was produced by an extraterrestrial civilization, it would offer compelling evidence that humans are not alone in the universe and offer the exciting possibility of decoding any message encoded in the signal,” said Jean-Luc Margot, the project’s lead researcher, a UCLA professor of earth, planetary and space sciences and of physics and astronomy.
Radio waves are a type of electromagnetic radiation that can travel great distances without losing their strength. That makes them one of the most important tools for terrestrial and interplanetary telecommunication. Radio waves from distant stars or galaxies can be easily detected on Earth.
All natural objects that emit energy also emit radio waves. In space, pulsars, quasars and exploding stars are among the many sources of radio signals. Other signals that radio telescopes detect come from human-created communications systems, satellites and spacecraft, or are byproducts of technologies on Earth’s surface.
Scientists have been studying radio signals for decades and know the patterns natural and human-made radio waves can take. Certain types of radio waves cannot be generated in natural settings and instead can be produced only by technology.
The SETI scientists use a radio telescope that observes thousands of stars in the sky, yielding around 5 million signal detections per hour. So far, the group has observed 42,000 stars and detected over 64 million radio signals. Their automated data processing software discards about 99.5% of the signals as having been produced either deliberately or as side effects of human technologies.
The remaining 10,000 detections per hour constitute potential signs of alien technology, and the new project is designed to identify the most promising signals among them.
After watching a brief tutorial, each participant will view images of radio signals and answer basic questions about the structure of each one. Then, participants are asked to select the image, from a set of illustrations provided by the researchers, that most closely resembles the signal they’re reviewing. The goal is to classify signals by matching them to common classes of radio frequency interference.
That’s all there is to it! Anyone with a computer or smartphone can help astronomers detect intelligent life in the universe with just a few clicks.
“As a first-year graduate student, I find myself incredibly lucky to be working on SETI’s most interactive citizen science collaboration,” said Megan Li, a UCLA doctoral scholar. “Humankind’s most profound discovery could be a few clicks away.”
The project was designed by UCLA SETI using the Zooniverse platform, with funding from The Planetary Society and NASA’s Citizen Science Seed Funding Program.
“We are excited to expand our search capabilities by launching a collaboration with citizen scientists,” Margot said. “We hope that people from all over the world will help us find the most amazing needle ever found in a haystack.”