The Planetary Society, the world's largest space-interest organization, marks 20 years of searching for extraterrestrial intelligence - SETI. From an optical SETI telescope to the wildly popular SETI@home program, the Society supports cutting edge research around the world, seeking to answer an age-old question: are we alone in the universe?
"In fact and in fiction, the existence of life elsewhere is one of the most compelling questions for everyone," said Louis Friedman, Executive Director of The Planetary Society. "In 20 years we have supported a dozen projects totaling over one million dollars and now involving three million people on Earth in the search, but still it is just beginning."
It all began with a dream and a suitcase - well, more like a steamer trunk. Paul Horowitz, a professor at Harvard University, designed Suitcase SETI to be small enough so that he could bring the equipment to available radio telescopes. The Planetary Society began funding Suitcase SETI in 1982 as its first SETI project.
Project META (Megachannel Extraterrestrial Assay) was the Society's -- and Horowitz's -- next big step. With a donation of $100,000 from Steven Spielberg, who had just completed the popular movie, E.T, The Extraterrestrial, the Society gave Horowitz the go ahead to design and build an 8 million channel receiver for a full-time search at the Oak Ridge radio telescope in Massachusetts. Spielberg, Society President Carl Sagan, and Friedman dedicated Project META at the telescope in 1985.
Project META evolved over time into Project BETA, an even larger system, and was cloned as META II in Argentina, allowing researchers to scan the skies of the southern hemisphere as well as the northern.
The Planetary Society's SETI programs gained new importance in 1993 when Congress halted all funding to NASA SETI programs.
Four years ago, David Anderson and Dan Werthimer of the University of California, Berkeley, approached the Society with another novel SETI concept: design a computer program that analyzes scientific data while acting as a screen-saver on personal computers. SETI@home was born.
Over 3,000,000 participants now make SETI@home the largest distributed computing experiment in the world. Their computers download raw packets of data and return the processed information automatically to the SETI@home team at UC Berkeley. Now anyone, anywhere, with access to a personal computer and the internet, can join the search for real ET's.
The Planetary Society will mark 20 years of SETI support later this year with the grand opening of its new optical SETI telescope in Massachusetts. From a suitcase to a state-of-the-art SETI research facility, the Society has come a long way in two decades. Will the next 20 years yield the first signal from an alien intelligence?
"We don't know," says Friedman, "which is what makes this both such an adventure and such a compelling question of science."