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Technical difficulties resolved, for now.

Early this morning Jane Jordan diagnosed the problems (resulting from an improper termination of our observations yesterday) and fixed them.  I’ve now added that ‘fix’ to my cookbook so in the future I can be more effective at supporting the observations.  Why mention any of this here?  Just to request your continuing patience as we modify our real-time software to enable SETILive and incorporate your assistance.  Thanks.


We are experiencing technical difficulties …

Tonight (it’s all relative to where you are, and I’m in California) something unusual is going on with our SonATA observations. Since we started up a bit before midnight local time, Jon Richards and I have been babysitting the automatic SonATA (that’s SETI on the ATA) observing system. It started up on time from the observing cron files, but something is non-standard. Jon and I have spent the past few hours trying to figure out what’s going on – what changed – what might the error messages we’ve been receiving really mean???? For those of you familiar with software coding and embedded error messages, you can understand that error message XXX_XXXX doesn’t necessarily tell you what the REAL problem is. Jon (as brilliant as he is) and I haven’t been able to decipher tonight’s messages. Data are being taken and decisions are being made and we are continuing with our observing. However, when Jane Jordan, the particular wizard best suited to solving this puzzle, looks at the logs on Monday; she may tell us that tonight’s data are compromised and we should reobserve all of these targets/frequencies. Why wait until Monday? Why don’t we get Jane out of bed right now and have her tell us what’s really wrong? Our SETI team is tiny, and our observations take place EVERY day. We need to move forward with new ideas while we enable our ongoing observations. So at the risk of having to inform you, and the team, that tonight’s observations aren’t valid and will need to be redone, we are letting Jane sleep so she can be awake to help us improve SonATA and SETILive. Tonight, the SonATA system tells me that we are observing three targets simultaneously, but when I try to classify signals at, I am being presented with only one beam, not three. Welcome to the world of real observational science, and please accept my apologies for any “do overs” we need to do to get the job done.

What We Do With Your Classifications

What Data Do You See?

On SETI Live you are looking at ‘live’ data from the telescope.  Every second, SonATA (SETI on the Allen Telescope Array) reports the power measured in individual frequency channels that are 1 Hz wide.  While the SonATA system is dealing with more than 20 million such channels, for each beam on the sky, SETI Live is concentrating on only a few bands of channels that are crowded with signals.

Each waterfall plot displays the power in each of 533 channels horizontally, with each vertical row being a new time sample.  The most recently sampled data is at the top of the plot.  The brightness of the pixels represents how strong the signals are.

There are two or three separate waterfall plots for each observation, because the SonATA system looks at different target planetary systems at the same time.  If a signal is really coming from one of the targets, it should be in only one of the plots – this is the sort of signal that might be from ETI.  If the same signal can be seen in multiple plots, then it is some sort of interference of RFI that is entering into what we call the telescope sidelobes.  Your eyes have peripheral vision, and so does a telescope – that’s what we call sidelobes.  It is hard to distinguish a loud signal in the sidelobes from a weak signal in the telescope beam.  Looking at multiple targets at the same time helps us figure this out.

How Does the Crowd Find ET?

During the initial observations, signals that you identify as being in only one beam, having some non-zero drift rate, and never having been seen before, become interesting candidates to be real ET signals.  So when the current cycle of data acquisition ends, SonATA will retune the telescope’s frequencies and look back at the same target and frequency to try to reacquire that signal again.  But SonATA is still blind to the crowded bands and so you will have to help with this follow up.

If the candidate signal you found was changing frequency over time, SonATA will predict the frequency where it should now be found, and generate waterfall plots for you to observe.  Is the same signal still there?  Is it in any other beam?  If the answer to the first question is yes, and to the second question is no, this candidate remains of interest. Otherwise it will be classified as being due to chance noise, or interference.

A candidate that’s still interesting automatically generates an observation ‘off-source’ in the next data acquisition cycle.  These new data will be presented to you.  Is it still possible to see the signal?  If so, it is coming from somewhere other than the target we were looking at and is therefore interference.  If it isn’t seen ‘off-source’ than the next observing cycle will look back at the target.

This automated on/off cycle will continue 5 times, or until the signal is identified ‘off-source’ or fails to be seen again while pointing on the target.  After 5 cycles, SETI scientists are alerted and humans take over the logic of where to point the telescope next – this is a rare, but very exciting occurrence!  You are still critical because you’ve been classifying this signal up to now and are the experts on recognizing it.  We’ll all look together to figure out how to proceed and what other questions to ask.

Welcome to the SETI Live Blog

We’re pleased to welcome you to the blog for SETI Live. We’re asking for the public’s help in searching for extraterrestrial (ET) in radio signals from space. SETI uses the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) and lots of computer power to search for these signals automatically – so you might ask why we need you to help us search the skies in SETI Live? The answer lies is the talents humans possess, and computers cannot quite replicate. With computers and human brains working together, SETI Live can do more: faster.

The researchers at the SETI Institute have spent years creating an automated search system called SonATA (SETI on the ATA). This system handles the hugely complex task of deciding what to do with the signals the ATA detects. The huge number of signals in a single observation means that even though it is very advanced, SonATA just cannot complete the various queries to classify whether or not the candidates are interesting before the next data acquisition cycle starts up.

In order to avoid uneven and unknown completion of signal classification, SonATA skips over many “crowded” frequency bands. We are literally blind to any ET signals that might be arriving at those frequencies. Overall, it’s only a few percent of the entire 1 to 10 GHz frequency range we are trying to explore systematically, but those might be the most important frequencies!

Faster processors will help, but we really need to better understand what signals are in those crowded bands, and what is generating them, so that we can help SonATA do a better job of classifying and finding any really interesting candidates buried underneath all this clutter. That’s where you come in. We want to use your eyes and brains to help us work through these crowded bands. We want you to tell us about all the signals/patterns you can see, and why you think they may be from ET technologies rather than our own.

You’ll have to be quick – the telescope will move onto its next target in about 90 seconds!

SETI Live has been created by the Zooniverse, the SETI Institute and TED, through the TED Prize to allow everyone to join the search. You can read more about the science on the main SETI Live site, and our quick tutorial will explain how to get started in analyzing the signals from the ATA. We don’t know how well this will work. We’ve never had an army of citizen scientists to help us before. Until now we’ve been blind to these frequencies. We want you to help us regain them, and see if there’s an ET signal hidden there. Eventually, we want to learn whatever tricks you use to do your classifications, so we can teach SonATA how to do it as well.

We think that SETI Live is going to be very interesting and fun! Join the search now…