Winter 2010 Issue

Beginner’s Guide

SETI, EmComm, and YO-YO 72

By Rich Arland, K7SZ

Hello and welcome to 2010. I trust that Santa was good to you and this new year will be an informative and fun-filled time as we explore more of VHF+. As a starter for the new year, I plan on deviating a bit from the norm and wander into an exciting aspect that couples real QRP (low-power signals, 5 watts and under) with VHF+, resulting in an almost surreal endeavor: Searching for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI)!

SETI-101

One of the great things about living in northeast Pennsylvania for a number of years was I was close to Dr. Paul Shuch, N6TX, better known as “Dr. SETI” (see his column elsewhere in this issue—ed.). Paul is the firebrand behind the SETI League (http://setileague.org/), headquartered in New Jersey. I first became acquainted with Dr. Shuch about 10 years ago when I attended a York (PA) VHF club meeting where he was the guest speaker. The topic? SETI, of course!

Both my wife, Patricia, and I were transfixed by Paul’s presentation and joined The SETI League on the spot! His overall message: SETI is doable on a small budget, using cast off C-Band satellite TV dishes and some relatively inexpensive hardware, including the sound card on your computer. During his multi-media presentation, Dr. Shuch showed how easy it was to retrofit a 9- or 12-foot dish and achieve the sensitivity approaching (if not surpassing) the huge “Big Ear” radio telescope at Ohio State University. Wow! That is a lot to take in all at once!

The “WOW!” Signal

Speaking of “WOW!” the Big Ear radio telescope was the one that heard the famous “WOW!” signal in 1979. What was the “WOW!” signal? It was a series of coded observations recorded by a radio astronomer who was using the Big Ear at the time. In the margin of the printout he placed the letters “WOW!” alongside the incoming signal. Was this the first indication of extraterrestrial life? The answer is unknown. Even though radio astronomers across the world followed up on the “WOW!” signal, no other emanations from that particular portion of the sky have ever been recorded. Try as they did, no one could duplicate the signal on other radio telescopes. Some think that this was an anomaly—some glitch in the receiving or recording equipment. Others think it might have been a terrestrial source such as an artificial Earth satellite or possibly a spy aircraft. In short, no one knows for sure. The “WOW!” signal still mystifies radio astronomers to this day.

SETI League and You

The ultimate goal of The SETI League is to use amateur radio astronomy equipment manned by SETI League members to provide an “all-sky” search in an attempt to receive some microwave transmissions from intelligent species outside our own planet. It seems far fetched, but in reality it is a starting point that, unfortunately, has been pushed aside by main-stream science and NASA. This leaves interested amateurs in the driver’s seat. With the current microwave receiving techniques coupled with re-tasked C-Band satellite TV dishes and some very sophisticated software, an individual can assemble a working radio telescope that would rival anything that could have been placed on line by universities and/or governments only 20 years ago. Now that is saying something.

The cost is quite economical, too, if I do say so myself. My 12-foot C-Band dish cost me absolutely nothing! It was free in exchange for my efforts to remove it. Thanks to Kyle Albritton, W4KDA, and his big pickup and trailer, we managed to dismount the dish from its mounting pole, load it on the trailer, and drive it about a half mile to my home. Two of my neighbors helped us man-handle the dish on and off the trailer. It now sits beside our house awaiting a new mounting system and a whole bunch of concrete. All in good time.

Receiver Considerations

Believe it or not, procuring a dish was the easy part of this SETI station. The receiver was the biggie. If you have deep pockets, a wide-band commercial receiver such as the ICOM R-5000 would be a good choice. Why?

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