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New Frontiers in SETI Research

Gerry Harp, who has taken over Jill Tarter’s job as research director at the SETI Institute, has high hopes for the hunt for alien life

7 min read
Photo of telescope dishes.
Photo: Randi Klett

23 July 2012—In 1960, astronomer Frank Drake pointed a single radio dish at two nearby stars to hunt for signals from extraterrestrial civilizations. Since then, the search has gotten considerably more high-tech. Among those leading the charge is IEEE Member Gerry Harp, who in May took over as director of research at the SETI Institute, a position most recently held by famed signal hunter Jill Tarter. IEEE Spectrum Associate Editor Rachel Courtland talked to Harp about the track record of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) so far and what can be done to improve the search. 

IEEE Spectrum: The Allen Telescope Array is the only telescope designed specifically to search for signals made by an extraterrestrial intelligence. How does it work?

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Two men fix metal rods to a gold-foiled satellite component in a warehouse/clean room environment

Technicians at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems facilities in Redondo Beach, Calif., work on a mockup of the JWST spacecraft bus—home of the observatory’s power, flight, data, and communications systems.

NASA

For a deep dive into the engineering behind the James Webb Space Telescope, see our collection of posts here.

When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reveals its first images on 12 July, they will be the by-product of carefully crafted mirrors and scientific instruments. But all of its data-collecting prowess would be moot without the spacecraft’s communications subsystem.

The Webb’s comms aren’t flashy. Rather, the data and communication systems are designed to be incredibly, unquestionably dependable and reliable. And while some aspects of them are relatively new—it’s the first mission to use Ka-band frequencies for such high data rates so far from Earth, for example—above all else, JWST’s comms provide the foundation upon which JWST’s scientific endeavors sit.

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