The search for alien intelligence is an enduring human endeavor.
Many scientists say it's just a matter of time before we find evidence it exists, and now, anyone can get in on the hunt -- as long as they have a computer.
"All you need is Internet access, and the desire to help out," said Seth Shostak, senior astronomer with SETI, the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence Institute.
SETI is recruiting citizen scientists to help them unscramble billions of radio signals and isolate those coming from Earth or space satellites, from sources quite literally out of this world.
'All you need is Internet access, and the desire to help out.'
- Seth Shostak, SETI astronomer
"We're looking for a signal that simply says one thing: there's somebody out there clever enough to have built a radio transmitter," Shostak said.
The signals are being gathered by 42 massive radio telescopes nestled in the rolling hills of Shasta County, Calif. The Allen Telescope Array is aimed at star systems that scientists have determined could contain Earth-like planets. The problem is there are just too many signals for SETI's computers to analyze alone. Now, the data gathered by the telescopes is being posted online, available for free to amateur astronomers -- or anyone else -- interested in helping them find E.T.
"One of the appeals of SETIlive.org, particularly for kids, is that this is science everybody can understand," says Shostak. While many people may not fully grasp particle theory or quantum mechanics, he says, "when you talk about looking for proof that E.T. is out there, everybody gets that, and anyone can judge signals on a screen" to see if there's a regular pattern.
Citizen scientists are vital for another reason as well. SETI scientists say their computer algorithms can't discern anomalies as well as the human eye. With SETILive.org, space enthusiasts like Ellen Schwartz can identify odd patterns, report her findings, and even engage with fellow volunteers in the online chat room.
"It just seemed like a fun way I could use my computer and a little bit of volunteer time to help the effort to possibly detect some signals from outer space," Schwartz said. "My hope is not so much that I'm the finder, but that we -- that humanity -- finds out there are other beings out there, hopefully peaceful ones."
A huge fan of the 1997 sci-fi movie "Contact," Schwartz says the prospect of actually finding evidence of advanced civilizations in outer space "is just so tantalizing."
In just a few months, nearly 60,000 volunteers have examined millions of pieces of data. If enough people identify the same mysterious pattern, the telescopes will take a closer look, and maybe -- just maybe -- confirm what alien enthusiasts have been saying all along: We are not alone.