Yesterday, in the remote northeast corner of California, technology innovator and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen hit the big red button, says

Conceived by SETI pioneer Frank Drake, the Allen Telescope Array is a joint effort of the SETI Institute and the Radio Astronomy Laboratory (RAL) at the University of California, Berkeley. It is being constructed at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory, 290 miles northeast of San Francisco, California.

Its creators hope it will spot signs of alien life by 2025.

Allen inaugurated the initial 42 antennas of his namesake, the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) – the first major radio telescope designed from the pedestal up to efficiently (which is to say, rapidly) chew its way through long lists of stars in a search for alien signals. Within two decades, it will increase the number of stellar systems examined for artificial emissions by a thousand-fold.

Eventually, 350 dishes will grace the Hat Creek Observatory site. But the 42 now up and running are equivalent in collecting area to a 40 m single-dish antenna – and that’s large enough to start doing some serious science.

The new possibilities might best be understood by analogy. Consider making a time exposure photo of Manhattan from the Empire State Building. That’s comparable to what astronomers do now – collecting data with their radio telescopes for hours, while staring at one patch of space. A time exposure reveals lots of subtle detail – cars parked on the streets, the filigreed facades of the skyscrapers, and so forth. But anything that changes – the taxis, the pedestrians, or even the stoplights – gets blurred or lost by the long exposure.

Well, with the ATA’s snappy radio picture mode, things in the universe that change will finally be seen. Prepare to be surprised.

It’s a nice follow-on to the 50th anniversary of Sputnik last week.

In the 50 years since Sputnik 1 launched on Oct. 4, 1957, some 6039 spacecraft have been placed in orbit. The above graph represents them all.

When the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite 50 years ago this month, Americans responded with an imperative to greatly improve science and math education.

It worked.

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