WILL E.T. PHONE HOME?

MEET THE ALIEN HUNTERS READY TO TAKE THE MES­SAGE AND GO BE­HIND THE SCENES AT THEIR HID­DEN HEAD­QUAR­TERS

The Gympie Times - - WEEKEND - WORDS: EMILY MAC­DON­ALD

“IT WOULD BE SU­PERB IF WE COULD FIND THE SIG­NAL AND LET THE REST OF THE WORLD KNOW SO THEY COULD TRAIN THEIR TELE­SCOPES ON IT AS WELL.”

In a se­cluded cor­ner of Queens­land gath­ers a group of peo­ple who may well be the ones to un­lock the uni­verse’s great­est mys­tery – are we alone?

The plot of In­de­pen­dence Day no longer seems as far-fetched when you con­sider we may not know if aliens are in­tend­ing to visit – after all, no world pow­ers are ac­tively look­ing for them.

China is the only gov­ern­ment openly par­tic­i­pat­ing in the Search for Ex­tra Ter­res­trial In­tel­li­gence (SETI), re­cently com­plet­ing the world’s largest ra­dio te­le­scope de­signed specif­i­cally for lis­ten­ing in to Mar­tian com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

But for the most part, the search has been taken up by en­thu­si­as­tic vol­un­teers who have amassed a seriously im­pres­sive ar­ray of tech­nol­ogy to aid in their noble quest.

SETI vol­un­teers aren’t the only ones in our neck of the woods look­ing for aliens.

Ac­cord­ing to UFO Re­search Queens­land, the Gold Coast is the state’s UFO cap­i­tal, with about half of all re­ports about mys­te­ri­ous ob­jects in the sky com­ing from the Glit­ter Strip.

It’s clearly a re­gion of be­liev­ers so it’s no wonder then that the SETI Re­search and Com­mu­nity De­vel­op­ment In­sti­tute in Boonah is worth more than half-a-mil­lion dol­lars, all ei­ther fundraised or do­nated by phi­lan­thropists.

Their web­site seti.org.au is pep­pered with ad­ver­tise­ments from Du­lux to Prowler Proof screens who have do­nated in-kind goods to the mam­moth project.

Three ra­dio tele­scopes, two of them ex­pan­sive 14m dishes, are trained on the sky lis­ten­ing for any signs of life.

The en­tire fa­cil­ity is off the grid – the 72 gi­ant so­lar pan­els, alone worth $350,000, are con­nected to two power sta­tions, pro­vid­ing elec­tric­ity to the volt­age-sap­ping dishes and the arse­nal of com­put­ers in­stalled to an­a­lyse the data they col­lect.

But if you’re ex­pect­ing to find the SETI vol­un­teers creep­ing around the com­pound bran­dish­ing tin-foil hats, you’re about to be dis­ap­pointed.

In­stead, you’ll find an IT guru, air­craft en­gi­neer and con­struc­tion ex­pert in­side the perime­ter.

Mike Bog­gan, 64, re­tired from Boe­ing a cou­ple of years ago but never stopped look­ing sky­wards.

The Ip­swich air­craft en­gi­neer used his ex­per­tise to re­con­struct two of the dishes, which were heav­ily dam­aged when they were do­nated to SETI.

He spent count­less hours metic­u­lously sewing them back to­gether with stain­less-steel wire and re­assem­bling them un­til they were as good as new.

“I think most peo­ple think we are crazy,” Mike says.

“I used to go camp­ing as a kid and there was noth­ing bet­ter than just look­ing up and won­der­ing what’s out there.

“Most peo­ple have no idea how small our lit­tle old planet re­ally is in the grand scheme of things.”

Mike’s re­cently ac­quired some fi­bre-op­tic cable and he plans to in­stall it on the tele­scopes, bring­ing them up-to-date with the lat­est avail­able tech­nol­ogy.

He be­came in­volved with SETI in Queens­land soon after the group started in 2000, and spent al­most a decade driv­ing out to the site ev­ery week­end to join the other-worldly cru­sade.

Three heart at­tacks in re­cent years have slowed Mike down, but one thing he knows deep in­side his dodgy ticker is one day we will find life on an­other planet.

“When we find some­thing, I’ll be head­ing for the fridge and get­ting a champagne out,” Mike says.

“I’d prob­a­bly have an­other heart at­tack ac­tu­ally.

“It would be su­perb if we could find the sig­nal and let the rest of the world know so they could train their tele­scopes on it as well.”

In case you are con­cerned that rogue am­a­teur Mar­tian hunters are send­ing sig­nals to po­ten­tially hos­tile plan­ets, rest as­sured.

For a start, they’re not trans­mit­ting, only lis­ten­ing to the whis­pers em­a­nat­ing from the uni­verse.

Sec­ondly, the SETI Per­ma­nent Com­mit­tee of the In­ter­na­tional Acad­emy of Astro­nau­tics have a strict post-con­tact pro­to­col.

After de­ter­min­ing they have in­deed found an alien sig­nal, the dis­cov­erer must let the other SETI sig­na­to­ries around the world – as well as their national au­thor­i­ties – know.

They will then be sum­moned to a spe­cial meet­ing of the United Na­tions to present their ev­i­dence.

The peo­ple re­spon­si­ble for the dis­cov­ery will then have the priv­i­lege of an­nounc­ing the news to the world’s me­dia.

Noel Wel­stead still has a child­hood scrap­book of news­pa­per cut­tings, the

head­lines scream­ing about the pos­si­bil­ity of lit­tle green men.

As an adult he chan­nelled his fas­ci­na­tion with UFOs into learn­ing all he could about tech­nol­ogy here on Earth.

This has stood the SETI chair­man in good stead when it comes to the pur­suit of the uni­verse’s deep­est se­crets.

“I in­stalled a high-speed lo­cal area net­work around the site to be able to com­mu­ni­cate with all com­put­ers we’ve got there, in­clud­ing the ra­dio te­le­scope com­put­ers, so we can look at what’s go­ing on re­motely,” Noel says.

“We’ve got a lot of re­ally spe­cialised peo­ple work­ing in our group.

“The guy who was re­spon­si­ble for set­ting up the mo­bile phone net­work in Queens­land is one of us – he comes down from his home in Maleny.

“There was an­other fel­low who just passed away who was with us for years. He used to work in the nu­clear in­dus­try in the UK.”

For SETI’s con­struc­tion man­ager Peter Thomp­son, hold­ing out hope dur­ing a long search is a fa­mil­iar sen­sa­tion.

Peter grew up in South­port where he built houses dur­ing the week and spent all his spare time vol­un­teer­ing with the SES and air and sea res­cues teams.

He was awarded an Or­der of Aus­tralia Medal for his ded­i­ca­tion to find­ing those who oth­ers thought could not be found.

“I’ve al­ways been interested in plan­e­tary stuff,” Peter says.

“I strongly be­lieve we are not alone in the uni­verse.

“There’s a lot of peo­ple out there with a lot of ideas of what they’ll look like but no one has too much proof.

“I guess that’s what we are look­ing for – the proof.”

Should Noel and his team find an alien sig­nal, de­pend­ing on the dis­tance of the star sys­tem, it may take a gen­er­a­tion for a re­ply to come back to us.

Should we re­ceive a vis­i­tor, Noel is not con­vinced they’ll be sport­ing over­sized black eyes or slimy ten­ta­cles as sci­ence fic­tion would have us be­lieve.

So do these merry band of UFO en­thu­si­asts think they’re on the cusp of un­lock­ing all the uni­verse’s se­crets? Well, not quite, ac­cord­ing to Noel. “The ques­tion of­ten comes up, ‘do you be­lieve in God?’,” Noel says.

“Sci­ence can tell you what hap­pened a mi­cro sec­ond after the big bang but we can’t tell you what hap­pened a mi­cro sec­ond be­fore. So maybe there is a place for a god after all.”

OP­PO­SITE: SETI Re­search and Com­mu­nity De­vel­op­ment In­sti­tute director Noel Wel­stead. ABOVE: Struc­tural en­gi­neer Brian Nor­ris tests equip­ment. BE­LOW: The group’s Mt Ed­wards base.

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