An Overview on Project Phoenix

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In Greek mythology, the Phoenix is a bird of bright and colorful plumage that builds a nest of myrrh twigs, and lays a single egg in it. The nest catches fire, but the bird will not leave her egg and is reduced to ashes along with the nest. But the egg having been protected survives the fire and hatches to arise from the ashes, becoming just as beautiful as the bird consumed by the fire. It was fitting that the SETI institute would draw upon this parody for the naming of it Phoenix project.

In October 1992, NASA launched its most ambitious SETI program to that point, called High Resolution Microwave Search(HRMS). It was going to be a ten year effort to search for extraterrestrial intelligence by detecting high frequency electromagnetic transmissions any advanced intelligent species would be expected to be transmitting. It was not what anyone would call a big ticket item by any account, and certainly not considering the vast majority of the rest of NASA's expenditures, but nevertheless, the congress in a budget balancing mood canned funding for HRMS the next year. It was essentially the end of NASA's SETI project, and one is left wondering if there wasn't some other ulterior motivation in congress to ditch the program. In any case, some NASA scientist were basically out of a job.

The SETI Institute is a private nonprofit organization established in the Silicon Valley in 1984, by a group of philanthropic supporters of Fermi's Paradox, the reasonable premise that there must be other Earth-like worlds in the cosmos and intelligent life inhabiting them. When NASA's SETI program was thrown under the bus by congress, the SETI Institute jumped in resurrecting the former NASA HRMS research project as project Phoenix. A number of NASA scientists working on the HRMS project left the space agency to join the SETI Institute and work on project Phoenix.

The Phoenix project would tune in on 800 stars within a 200 light year radius of Earth, and attempt to pick up radio transmissions deliberately or accidentally being beamed in our direction. Three radio telescopes were used for the project. The incipient phase began at the Parkes 210 foot radio telescope in New South Wales, Australia, to search stars viewable from the southern hemisphere, then moved to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia, to cover the northern hemisphere, and finally was completed with the Arecibo telescope in Porto Rico . The signal search was focused on 1 Hz increments of the 1.2 to 3 Ghz region of the electromagnetic spectrum. This meant that over 2 billion frequencies were scanned for each star. Considering however, that the microwave component of the electromagnetic spectrum alone, includes frequencies from .3 to 300 Ghz, this search amounted to looking in San Francisco Bay to find a ship that could be anywhere in the Pacific Ocean.

By the time the 800th star had been surveyed in March of 2004, the project was over and it was time to assess the results. Zero, not a single intelligent signal was detected, only the natural radio background noise that is everywhere in space. So, was the Phoenix project a failure, a waste of 11,000 man-hours of observation? Are we alone in the universe after all? Hardly. It just means, that if there are earth-like planets around the sun-like stars that were queried, they are not transmitting radio signals between 1.2 and 3 Ghz. They could be transmitting at 5 Ghz, or 20, 30, or 100 Ghz, and we wouldn't know because we weren't scanning those and other frequency ranges. Moreover, aliens would not necessarily have to do things the same way we do. Consider for instance, that for the past 70 years humans have been transmitting television signals in an analog format and now are switching to a digital one. The two are radically different. Perhaps aliens have discovered or invented other methods of encoding information on a radio frequency carrier signal humans haven't thought of yet. After all, intelligible radio transmissions are a relatively new attribute of human prowess, having been around for only about a hundred years.

For a first big attempt, project Phoenix was successful in many ways, providing useful techniques that can be used and refined in future projects. When you consider the knowns with respect to the unknowns with respect to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, the factor of luck looms large that somebody, someday, will have the right equipment pointed in the right direction at the right time to catch that first signal denoting and extraterrestrial intelligence. As Enrico Fermi postulated in 1950, its got to be there. But we will never find this proverbial needle in the cosmic haystack, we will never know if there are forms of extraterrestrial intelligence, unless we are tuned in and listing when there signal arrives. The SETI Institute's Phoenix project was a ground braking effort that has led to other projects which will dwarf it in scale and complexity. The Allen Telescope Array(ATA) located at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory(HCRO), a joint project of the SETI Institute and UC Berkeley's Astronomy department, is one that provides a million times greater ability to scan the cosmos than did the Phoenix project. It is in essence the next step in an evolutionary process to continue the search of our galactic backyard which couldn't have happened had the first step, project Phoenix, not been taken.

The NASA HRMS project, precursor to project Phoenix, was launched on Columbus day in 1992, with the obvious figurative association that HRMS was the shove off on an odyssey of discovery, not unlike Columbus's voyage 400 years to the day earlier. Columbus didn't know what he would find beyond the horizon, but he did know what he was looking for. And so, the Phoenix project can be seen as the first leg of an ongoing odyssey in the greater human search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Who knows when the first symbolic bird from a foreign shore will bring the message that our destination is at hand, that project Phoenix was ultimately the first step towards the most profound realization humans could ever anticipate, that we are not alone in this vast universe.


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