How I Spent My SETI Summer
Ruth Pearson signing the dent she created on one of the Allen Telescope Array antennas.
Credit: Lisa Grossman

Every kid loves to play make believe. Some play cops and robbers. Others play house. And some dress up in their parents' clothes, pretending they have their parents' jobs and dreaming about what they'll be when they grow up.

When I was a kid, I dreamed about being an alien hunter. As a third grader peering into a microscope at single celled organisms, I imagined a universe full of tiny, hardy life. Why not? Microbes can live comfortably in the most absurdly unfriendly reaches of the planet. If these little creatures can survive in volcanoes, at the bottom of the ocean, embedded in glacial ice, and even in countless human guts, then they must be able to exist on other planets! Life must be absolutely everywhere!

I didn't know then that there was an entire community of scientists who felt exactly the same way. I certainly didn't expect that before I'd even graduated from college, I'd be working with them.

This summer, for the second year in a row, the SETI Institute in Mountain View, CA hosted a group of undergraduates from all over the world to work one-on-one with research mentors, funded in part by the National Science Foundation and NASA's Astrobiology Institute. We were a motley bunch of 16 students, from big universities and small liberal arts colleges, coming from as nearby as California and as far away as England and Hawaii, and studying physics, astronomy, geology, chemistry, and biology. But this summer, we were all alien hunters.

For many of us, the experience was nothing short of fantasy fulfillment.

No two students did the same thing. One student spent her summer searching for extrasolar planets and doing radio astronomy using the Allen Telescope Array (ATA), located at UC Berkeley's Hat Creek Radio Observatory in northern California. She's already left her mark on the SETI community, in a literal sense: while operating the telescopes at the ATA, she inadvertently crashed one antenna into another. She says the other scientists were more intrigued than annoyed. The telescopes are supposed to be programmed to avoid each other, so her mentor was impressed that she'd managed to cause a collision. She even got to sign her name near the dent it made. Fortunately, the actual damage was minimal, and won't affect future operations or observing.

Another student spent her days studying the geology of Europa, one of Jupiter's moons. Scientists believe that it has a vast liquid water ocean beneath a layer of ice at the surface. She analyzed images of Europa from the Galileo mission, looking for areas of the surface whose appearance changed over time and trying to determine if those changes are what you would expect if there were a liquid ocean. She thinks the possibilities for life on Europa are especially exciting. "As soon as I heard about Europa, I thought, 'Oh, awesome. Let's look for lobsters!'" she said. So far, she hasn't discovered any Europan crustaceans, but she's enjoyed learning more about geology and approaching biology and chemistry from an astronomy perspective.

Or imagine instead working with an instrument that will be on Mars within a year. One student spent the summer testing the limitations of a soil composition analysis instrument ? a replica of the one that was launched toward Mars on the Phoenix lander on August 4. "It's like sending a little piece of me to Mars," she said. The experience gave her ideas for future research prospects, too. Phoenix is expected to land on May 25, 2008, a week after she graduates from college. She's already thinking ahead: "My mentor was saying he'd like to have some people in the lab to, say, throw a certain clay into the instrument and see what kind of data we get so we can compare it to the data we get back from Phoenix. I'd really like to come back and work here again," she said. "This summer is the first time that I've found a location, a career type and a set of people that I could see myself getting along with for the long term."

Several students hit the summer research jackpot. Imagine a summer job that involves watching a meteor shower from an airplane, high above the atmosphere, wearing a NASA jumpsuit with a mission patch that you helped design. Or a project that takes you to Hawaii for an observing run at the Keck Telescope at the summit of Mauna Kea to watch the chaotic orbits of Uranus' moons and the rare ring-plane crossing. Or an opportunity to attend the week-long Seventh International Conference on Mars, and hear the world's leading Mars experts discuss their research and plans for the future of Mars exploration. These are just a sampling of the many real projects that students at the SETI Institute were involved in.

All of us got to take a week-long field trip to the Hat Creek Radio Observatory, home of the Allen Telescope Array, where Jill Tarter, SETI's director of research and the inspiration for Carl Sagan's novel Contact, explained how the telescopes work and what research they'll be used for. Several of us even camped overnight in tents under the array. It wasn't very scientifically useful, but it was definitely something to write home about. Later that week, we spent two days hiking in Lassen Volcanic National Park with a Park Service Ranger and the SETI Institute's Rocco Mancinelli, a microbiologist. We visited "Bumpass Hell" and "Devil's Kitchen," two hydrothermal sites of remnant volcanic activity where the water is acidic and boiling hot, yet teeming with microbial life.

In a week or two we'll all take off our astrobiologist costumes and return to our normal college lives. Nevertheless, whether we continue on in astrobiology or not, this summer of playing alien hunters will stay with us.

If you think this sounds like a great way for students to spend a summer, you're right. And if you know any scientifically-inclined undergraduates who might want to experience it for themselves, spread the word. Next summer the SETI Institute will host a new cohort of students who can try their hands at alien hunting. Watch the Institute's REU website in the coming months for more information on the results of this summer's program, as well as applications for next summer's opportunity. It could be the start of the research career you always dreamed about.

The SETI Institute's Astrobiology Research Experience for Undergraduates is funded by the National Science Foundation AST-0552751, NASA's Astrobiology Institute NNA04CC05A, and private donations.