Postcard from Arecibo:
Life at the Dish

Posted: March 10, 2002

The SETI Institute has once again set up camp at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico as part of its Project Pheonix search for extraterrestrial signals from civilizations beyond our Solar System. Alex Barnett reports on life at the observatory.

I came prepared. Or so I thought. Proper teabags, bug spray and the spanish phrase book. But nothing could prepare me for my first view of this amazing wonder of the scientific world. Even now, in the last light of the day, there is something surreal about encountering a 1000ft diameter, manmade bowl in the middle of the lush Puerto Rican jungle.

It's easy to forget how quickly darkness falls this close to the equator. As the first stars appear, I find that I'm busy trying to hunt out the summer triangle, because years of looking at the stars from England have created an association between balmy nighttime observing and the stars of summer. But there's something familiar about the steely blue star flashing halfway up the sky, and as the belt of orion appears overhead, I realise with a minor culture shock that the icy blue is Sirius.

The days heavy rain ensures that a cacophony from the excited frogs, bugs, and other critters fills the air. It's a stark reminder of the abundance of life -- here on Planet Earth. Inside the control room is a quieter form of life -- members of the Project Phoenix team from the SETI Institute. Taking command of the dish for each night over a three week run, the team are using its great bowl to scan the skies, searching for extra terrestrioal intelligence, hoping to encounter a whisper from ET.

: 'So', I ask at dinner "Is tonight the night?" Seth, Peter and Jane laugh. All visitors assume that ET is going to call during their visit.

Having been a viewer of the SETI web cams on previous observing occasions (and doing my best to keep out of view of the current cams whilst I'm here!) then I had started to form an impression that waiting for the signal had qualities of watching paint dry. But a couple of hours into the session, after the important tasks of hunting for milk, sugar and extra strength coffee have been finished, I realise that there is activity around the computer screens, and lots of discussion. I creep forward....maybe it will happen on my watch!