WILL E.T. PHONE HOME?
MEET THE ALIEN HUNTERS READY TO TAKE THE MESSAGE AND GO BEHIND THE SCENES AT THEIR HIDDEN HEADQUARTERS
“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.