Ask Dr. SETI ®
by Dr. H. Paul Shuch, Exectuive Director
The privatization of SETI, the scientific Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, is in trouble -- and not for the reasons you might assume. Once a glamorous NASA project, SETI was orphaned when Congress pulled their funding in 1993. Since then, several nonprofit organizations, including the grass roots, international SETI League, have stepped up to the plate. I am privileged to coordinate a global network of amateur radio telescopes, all seeking evidence of our cosmic companions. But now, all that is in jeopardy.
Our flagship enterprise is Project Argus, an ambitious effort to deploy 5,000 small backyard dishes around the world, and thus see in all directions at once. During the past eight years, though devoted hams and skilled experimenters have been building up SETI stations out of kits, surplus and scrounged materials, our numbers have grown painfully slowly. People have been insisting that, in order for us to approach our ambitious goal of all-sky coverage, commercial vendors must offer inexpensive, turnkey SETI systems. But major manufacturers (including Radio Shack ®) have declined to get involved in this endeavor, because they perceived that no mass market exists. It appears that they are right.
Perhaps you recall the Seeker 2000, a nearly turnkey SETI package (receiver, LNA, feedhorn, cables -- just add dish and stir) introduced by Radio Astronomy Supplies about four years ago. After a year of heavy promotion, RAS had sold exactly one system (to SETI League Hardware Committee chairman Lee Kitchens), and decided to discontinue the product line. I can't say that I can fault that business decision.
Not long ago, one of our members (in Siberia, no less!) informed me that the link from our top web page to "Complete SETI Systems from Grove Enterprises" no longer worked. I emailed to Bob Grove (owner of that erstwhile equipment supplier, and publisher of Monitoring Times) to question its disappearance. His response:
"Over the period of years that we carried the equipment and promoted it on our web page, we never received a single order. Without a doubt on my part, they are probably hams for the most part who are immersed so deeply into the hobby that they don't need to buy systems; they can assemble whatever's required from their own resources. But we were pleased to try the experiment and lost very little money doing it."
Bob had spent both time and money designing SETI packages, promoting them in his catalog and magazine advertisements, and devoting web server space to SETI equipment and The SETI League. We are grateful for his effort. But Bob is running a business, not a non-profit (that's my responsibility!) And he just can't stay in business by promoting products for which there's no market. So, of course he made the logical decision, and pulled the plug.
But what of all those potential SETIzens who have long said to me, "I'll build a station if someone will produce commercial equipment that I can set up without having to be (or hire) an engineer"? I conclude that they were just making excuses. If someone isn't willing to spend as much on a SETI station as families typically spend on a weekend holiday at Disneyland, I figure he or she just isn't all that interested. And since nobody seems willing to put his money where his mouth is, I am forced to rethink the goals of Project Argus.
Chief among those goals was that notion of 5,000 active stations around the world, pointed in all directions at once. About six years ago, in our growth phase, I made the mistake of extrapolating, and optimistically projected full-sky coverage "by mid-2002". Well guess what, folks -- we didn't make it! Having stagnated at just over 100 stations for the past two years, I figure we've pretty much tapped out the pool of techie hobbyists -- and can't really expect significant growth until something changes.
I thought that "something" was the availability of commercial turnkey systems. Apparently I was wrong. Now, I haven't a clue what that "something" might be. But I do know it's time to redefine our objective for Project Argus. Instead of full-sky coverage, perhaps what we should be striving for is the very best science we can do with however many stations we can muster.
Our 100+ radio telescopes are still more than exist in the rest of the world (combined). Still, some are been saying that The SETI League is a failure, for falling short of our goal by a factor of fifty. Maybe so. For that matter, since its stated objective was to detect solid evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence, which we have not yet done in four decades of searching, I could argue that the entire SETI enterprise is a failure.
Believe that, and you'll be snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in editorials are those of the individual authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of The SETI League, Inc., its Trustees, officers, Advisory Board, members, donors, or commercial sponsors.
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this page last updated 4 January 2003
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