Kepler 22-b a top target in restarted SETI alien search

Air Force helps fund restart of search for extra-terrestrial life.

Finally, the Top Gun/Star Wars mashup we've been waiting for... SETI is back online, with the help of the U.S. Air Force. SETI Institute

The search for aliens is back on--and newly confirmed Earthy-ish planet Kepler 22-b is among the top targets.

SETI's Allen Telescope Array (ATA) is once again searching for extra-terrestrial life after spending several months in hibernation. The University of California cut funding to the program due to budget constraints, and last April the ATA ceased its obsessive habit of intense inter-galactic eavesdropping. The array "listens" across a broad range of frequencies for any radio transmissions from, well, somewhere else.

The SETI Institute says the restart of the search is thanks to funding raised via the Web--the SETIStars program has raised more than $200,000 in online donations--as well as additional funds from the U.S. Air Force.

The announcement comes as NASA also announced this week that its Kepler mission had confirmed the first Earth-like planet in a habitable zone where liquid water and life might exist. The planet, dubbed Kepler 22-b, is 600 light years away and roughly 2.5 times the size of Earth. Scientists believe surface temperatures to be comfortably around 70 degrees (Fahrenheit).

The Air Force will be conducting a formal assessment of the ATA's utility for "Space Situational Awareness," according to the SETI Institute. One of SETI's first tasks after rebooting will be resuming exploration of thousands of planet "candidates" identified by NASA's Kepler space telescope, including 22-b.

"For the first time, we can point our telescopes at stars, and know that those stars actually host planetary systems--including at least one that begins to approximate an Earth analog in the habitable zone around its host star," said Jill Tarter, director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute.

If you're into the nitty-gritty of the search, here are the details from SETI:

Observations over the next two years will allow a systematic exploration of these Kepler discoveries across the entire, naturally quiet 1 to 10GHz terrestrial microwave window. The ATA is unique in providing ready access to tens of millions of channels at any one time, anywhere in this 9 billion channel range (each channel is 1 Hz wide). Until recently, many SETI searches focused on limited-frequency ranges, including a small number of observations at the 8.67GHz spin-flip transition of the 3He+ ion, proposed by the team of Bob Rood (University of Virginia) and Tom Bania (Boston University). In memory of Rood, who died November 2, the initial ATA search of Kepler targets this week will focus around the 8.67GHz band, before moving on to examine the billions of channels available for observation at the ATA.

Reading between the lines--the Air Force decides to invest in a sort of space radar system the same week we confirm the closest thing to a planetary cousin yet--it seems to me that we are now closer to living in a "Star Wars" reality than ever before.

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