Allen Telescope, Part 2

The SETI Institute is using off-the-shelf parts and techniques borrowed from automobile manufacturers to build a new kind of telescope. More on this less expensive but powerful telescope…

Dave DeBoer is a researcher with the SETI Institute in California.┬áHe and his team are designing and building a new kind of telescope that’ll be used to search for radio signals from extraterrestrial intelligence. The Allen Telescope Array will be made of hundreds of dishes 20 feet — or 6 meters — wide. A computer will combine their signals to make the array work like one huge radio antenna.

The design makes this telescope less expensive than a comparable traditional radio telescope. DeBoer describes how he and his team designed the array’s electronics.

Dave DeBoer: Nowadays, with computers, you do a lot of work on the computers. There’s a lot of nice modeling packages. It’s not as glamorous as being in the shop, getting your hands dirty. It’s a cheap way to get a good starting position. And then … you send it out to a manufacturer, you get it back and you test it. And we’ve had very good luck of having our initial prototypes be very close to the candidate technology. So now we’re in the really fun part of going up to a really beautiful place in northern California, wiggling antennas around, getting up on ladders on top, trying different electronics boards, making sure it all meets our specs.

The Allen Telescope Array is scheduled for completion in 2005. Then the world’s first continuous, long-term search for life beyond Earth will begin.

DeBoer says that NASA is looking at using some of this new technology in its Deep Space Network — the radio antennas that communicate with space probes. DeBoer says the current Deep Space Network can only handle occasional snap shots from probes.

DeBoer says, “With something like this, where you can build a lot of collecting area and get a good signal to noise, you start to be able to get streaming video back. And I think everyone would find it exciting to get streaming video of a landing on Mars … I think it will really make it come alive, plus you’ll get a lot of additional science back.”

Some more excerpts from interview with Dave DeBoer:

“I like interesting questions. And kind of the central question of the SETI Institute, which is, “are we alone in the universe?” is really one of the very small handful of questions that basically every human being has pondered, if only for a moment or two. And the exciting thing … is that we’re now at a very unique time in history and being in place to make a credible attempt to answer that question with our current technology.”

“It’s like building the car — the first one is hard and costs a lot of money, but then once you start building more cars, it becomes cheaper and easier — so the first one is hard, a lot of technology to develop. But then once we get going, we expect to put one telescope in the ground a day and hook it up to use it.”

“There are no custom, one-off pieces to the ATA. Everything has to be — everything will have a serial number, a part number and any part will work on any telescope and basically there’ll be a bin of drive gears and you’ll insert tab A into slot B and send it on to the next guy who’ll do his thing and then eventually he’ll take it out the field. I would say more of a factory line operation. You know, in an automotive plant, they send you a transmission. They don’t send you all the little pieces of a transmission to the assembly factory. They send you a full transmission and you have a special machine that helps you install the transmission in a few seconds and you send it on down the line. That’s kind of the model we’re looking at — we’re certainly nowhere near that scale. That’s kind of the way we’re going.”

“NASA has the same problem that radio astronomy and SETI have and that is that it costs a lot of money to get a lot of collecting area. And really at the Allen Telescope Array we think we’ve got that licked. We’re not quite an order of magnitude cheaper, but it looks like we think we can be a factor of five or better cheaper. So you can think for a given amount of money you can build five times the collecting area. And the Deep Space Network, since it talks to deep space probes — they want a lot of sensitivity as well. So we’ve been working quite closely with JPL and the DSN and they’ve been using some of our technology, we’ve been using some of their technology. And I think in the near future, you’ll see a Deep Space Network that looks a whole lot like the Allen Telescope Array.”

“I think one of the gripes with these deep space probes — for the public at least — is that you get a little snapshot and then maybe a few minutes later you get another picture. With something like this where you can build a lot of collecting area and get a good signal to noise, you start to be able to get streaming video back. And I think everyone would find it exciting to get streaming video of a landing on Mars than a snapshot here and there. I think it will really make it come alive, plus you’ll get a lot of additional science back. Basically, it’s the ability to get a lot of data back quickly, which has been lacking, just because of the amount of collecting area that the Deep Space Network has available …”

What you have in your mind?