N.J. group awaits E.T.'s call

Bergen Record, February 22, 2000
By Bob Groves

Hello, Andromeda, we're still listening.

Next year, a worldwide group of radio astronomers based in Little Ferry plans to set up 16 satellite-dish antennas on an ostrich farm in Warren County to scan the skies for signals not of this Earth.

Members of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence League Inc. call this formation of antennas "Array2k." The name refers not to the year 2000, but to the 2,000-square-foot surface formed by the dishes, combined into a powerful radio telescope for collecting signal data from Out There. Array2k will be an "all-sky survey" of the stars. It will not target specific stars or galaxies unless there is something unusual to check out, said Paul Shuch, founder of the SETI League, which has more than a thousand members worldwide listening for signs of life elsewhere in the universe. Over the past few years, SETI members have occasionally detected strange signals that appeared to be a message from another world. But these all proved to be from more mundane sources, such as an orbiting satellite.

"We still remain optimistic. After all, it's far too early to become discouraged," said Shuch, an aerospace engineer and professor of electronics at Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport. "Civilizations take hundreds of thousands of years to develop. We've only been at this for five years.

"We believe other civilizations will generate signals which we can detect, but only if technology [on Earth] doesn't interfere with our own receivers. Not only have we not scratched the surface -- we haven't even felt the itching yet."

SETI League leaders picked the undisclosed site on the future ostrich farm because it was relatively removed from the barrage of radio interference, static, and electromagnetic pollution streaming from the Big City and suburbs.

"It's a very rural area, a beautiful place for hunting deer," said Richard Factor, SETI League president.

"One of the nice features is that there are hills between it and New York," he said. So microwave and radio garbage is kept down.

"What it'll really be is an ostrich farm dotted with antennas."

Factor, 54, is president of Eventide Inc., an avionics firm in Little Ferry that donated office and laboratory space to the SETI League for its international headquarters. Factor and Shuch have their own radio dish, but could not agree with Little Ferry officials on terms for an operating permit. The dish sits parked and unplugged at Eventide.

Factor has always dreamed of tuning a giant ear toward bucolic heavens. A year ago he bought a 3 1/2-acre "SETI easement" on 75 acres in Warren County that a friend, whom he did not name, plans to turn into the ostrich farm. Array2k will sit in a meadow. The design calls for two lines of eight TV dishes each, in the form of a cross. At the center will be a bunker-like building for computers, recording data, and other equipment.

Factor believes the mixed goals of the farm are compatible. "He [the friend] gets to grow ostriches, and I get to put up antennas. The key issue is that ostriches don't emit any radio signals. So it'll be pretty safe to have them around," Factor said.

The ostriches are incidental, but their symbolism is not lost on Shuch. "The significance of the ostrich farm is that we are burying our heads in the stars," said Shuch, who founded the non-profit SETI League in 1994, the year after Congress cut its $2 million budget for the federal SETI project. The SETI League is supported by private donations.

Ostriches, with their heads buried in the sand, also might be a metaphor for people who do not share the SETI dream.

After renewed public interest in UFOs and space-alien abductions in the 1980s and 1990s, pop culture appears to have moved on, for now at least. The 50th anniversary of the alleged 1947 crash of a flying saucer at Roswell, N.M., came and went, as did a flurry of TV shows about UFO sightings. Scientists have failed to agree whether a meteorite found in 1996 actually contained traces of Martian microbes. This month, authors of a new book, "Rare Earth," argue persuasively that conditions for complex life forms exist nowhere in the universe except here.

But true believers have not given up vigilance or hope. Shuch, 53, is a tireless, globe-trotting champion of the SETI cause, but on a modest basis. Hardware for Array2k will cost about $120,000, "a pittance in scientific terms," he said. "The NASA SETI scientists thought like government employees and wanted to build the world's greatest radio telescope. We're satisfied with building an adequate telescope," said Shuch, who is credited with helping develop the first commercial home-TV satellite dish in 1978. At present, the SETI League has more than 1,155 members operating 90 dishes in 17 countries and 31 states, Shuch said. Half of the members are ham radio operators. The goal is to enlist 5,000 backyard satellite dishes in the organization's "Project Argus," named for the 100-eyed beast of Greek mythology.

Until then, the ostrich-farm array will be used to confirm suspect signals picked up by members around the world, and will be a test model for eventually connecting all the dishes in a global network, Shuch said.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.