Distraction Free Reading

Lonely Planet Looking for Connection: Citizen Science SETI Research at NASA

NASA’s homepage is as glitzy as you would expect of the U.S. Government’s sexiest administration. Glossy pictures of nebulas, astronauts, and asteroids float across the top of the page and even the ozone hole over Antarctica manages to look like a snack. A quick swipe over to the Citizen Science Page, however, and now the images give enthusiastic, low-res, DIY vibes coupled with pun-filled project titles like “Aurorasaurous” and “Spiritacular.” Each one beckons: anyone with a cellphone or a laptop can do this project. A Jacob’s Ladder of binary stretching into the blurry heavens stops my scroll with its provoking title—Are we alone in the universe? Well golly, I don’t know. Go to Project Website. So I do.

Are we alone in the Universe? (AWAU) contributes to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). The title poses a provocative and ancient question, which neither AWAU nor I will answer here. I will, however, show how AWAU’s query instantiates a particular reality of who humans are, how we relate to the other, and how we world the cosmos, profoundly unsettling the dominant scientific-political ordering of this moment.

This essay is theoretically grounded in Annemarie Mol’s idea of multiple realities. Mol argues that reality is “done,” “located,” and “multiple”; that is, rather than a pluralistically perceived but still external event, reality is enacted through our “mundane practices” (1999, p. 75). This means that different performances of reality are, in fact, different realities that exist simultaneously and are often partially (or totally) contained within each other, with slippage possible between them.

The reality instantiated by SETI research—and AWAU in particular—is one in which old ideas of human exceptionalism and its modes of ordering (such as capitalism or imperialism) no longer function as such, necessitating that a different set of stories be performed. This reality does not default to utopia. Rather, it is so deeply unknown and unfamiliar that it becomes a site of generative ontological, metaphysical, and political possibility. The stakes here are cosmic and immediate. Who are humans in extraterran (not yet extraterrestrial) relationships, and what becomes of the Earth when it exists as a participant with, rather than antithesis to, other heavenly bodies?[1] To supply me with language in these unknown parts, I draw from Donna Haraway’s concept of SF as “storytelling and fact telling […] the patterning of possible worlds and possible times” (2016, p. 31). This is to say that SETI, and its (citizen) researchers, perform reality with fact and fabulation, while layered into the conflicting realities and mundanities of other institutions and orderings. In such a welter, careful attention must be given to the way worlding, knowing, and relating are (differently) enacted, with which stories and ideas those enactments occur, and in what ways these enactments matter.

The Best Way to Ask Me Out is a Narrowband RFI Signature

Based out of UCLA SETI, AWAU is led by astronomer and professor Jean-Luc Margot. It began as an undergraduate course in SETI research in 2015, and in 2023 it was launched as a NASA-sponsored citizen science initiative with additional funding from The Planetary Society and private donors (Margot, 2015; 2023).

The term SETI is most commonly used to describe the search for “technosignatures” by scanning the sky for narrowband radio frequency interference (RFI) that do not conform to identifiable patterns within a set range of probable frequencies (Wright, 2021; Price, 2021).  Finding these signals requires researchers to either rent time on a large radio telescope array or “piggyback” on whatever data another project is gathering. Cost, digital storage, processing capacity, and available array time put limits on how much research can be done, while the direction and frequency range of the telescopes limits what data is gathered (Wright, 2021). AWAU rents time at the Green Bank Array in West Virginia, where Margot’s UCLA SETI team gathers, processes, and filters the RFI data. Then, volunteers help classify the possibly anomalous signals. No alien messages have yet been intercepted.

A white barn and a large white telescope sit in a grassy field with some trees around and tree-covered mountains in the background.

The Green Bank Telescope. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:GBT_Distance.png.

Looking for a Good Time AND A Long Term Research Funding Situation 😉

SETI research has held a dubious status in the institutional scientific community since Frank Drake set up the first SETI program in the 1960s. NASA dabbled in SETI throughout the 1970s and 1980s with the public support of science celebrities like Carl Sagan, but securing funding for such efforts from the US Congress was difficult, due to what NASA historian Stephen Garber dubbed the “giggle factor” of a project that presupposed alien intelligence (Garber, 1999, p. 5). In 1992, NASA finally secured $100 million for a ten-year radio SETI project, but this was abruptly canceled a year later by a contingent of hostile congressmen who viewed the program as a waste of “real money” searching for “little green men” (Garber, 1999, p. 9). Within NASA, however, there was, and continues to be, a strong contingent of support despite the current overwhelming focus on the Artemis moon program (Garber, 2014; Harrison, 2011; NASA, 2023). Despite not receiving new funding to develop its own major SETI program, NASA has sponsored and collaborated with other SETI initiatives, including AWAU (Harrington, 2020; Kaufman, 2018).

The Planetary Society (TPS), AWAU’s other primary funder, has held SETI research as a top priority since TPS’s founding in 1980. TPS’s framing is unabashedly idealistic, as the words of its first SETI coordinator, Thomas McDunough, demonstrate: “[…] a civilization out there […] may have discovered cures for the social, economic and ecological ills that afflict younger civilizations [like Earth’s]. It may be that if we just point our antenna at the right piece of sky, and tune to the right channel, we will discover signals giving us knowledge that other beings have been storing for eons” (1983, p. 3). This narrative of simultaneous grandeur and humility seeks salvation in the heavens with confidence that it is there, and that such salvation is deserved.  Echoing the humility but eschewing the presumption of humanity’s cosmic relationality is the ethos of Carl Sagan, one of the co-founders of TPS, for whom the Earth is “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam” which challenges our “imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe” (Sagan, 1994).

Though SETI contains these profound ontological and metaphysical propositions, SETI researchers (including Margot) are very careful to emphasize that they are doing serious science that produces quantifiable results and technological advances, even as extraterrestrial intelligence itself ever eludes detection (Price, 2021; Wright, 2021; Margot et al., 2019). Within the same scientific institutional structures, different realities are being constructed, in part through the distinction between “legitimate” and “preposterous” scientific doings. Legitimacy, in this case, is measured by direct benefit to an already established apparatus of reality inscription. The US government sees science as the technological means of hegemonic reproduction and demands economic, military, commercial, or propagandistic benefits in order to legitimate it. Academic institutions, nonprofit organizations, and commercial enterprises are incentivized to reproduce the status quo for the sake of money and credibility. NASA is beholden to the framing of the US government—specifically Congress and the president—to receive project funding. Yet SETI unsettles all of this, as it is difficult to make the possibility of extraterrestrial encounters feel concretely real; if SETI were successful, it would shatter not just our idea of “science” but of who we are on the deepest level of cosmic identity. SETI cannot be done without engaging in such metaphysical and ontological speculation. Even when it follows the procedures of modern science, it is doing something much different: worlding Earth and its humans into unsettling extraterran realities.

But what is this reality? One answer is a reoriented Earth, in which we are no longer in a vertical relationship to the heavens, the bottom level of a hierarchy, the material below to the transcendent above. Rather, we are one of many celestial bodies participating in wider ecologies and relationships of sun systems, galaxies, and the universe (Battaglia, 2015). Every known paradigm of control falls apart when the atmosphere no longer bounds relating: “As a proposition, life beyond Earth sits at the intersection of the technologically extreme, the impossible, the imaginable, the unencountered, and the terrestrially irrelevant” (Battaglia, 2015 p. 3). While Battaglia here is speaking of the presence of humans in space, the proposition of other-than-human life beyond Earth furthers their argument. In the latter case, one must consider not just how humans are to each other out of familiar contexts, but who we are to the other. As citizen science, AWAU provides a widely (but not completely) accessible means for beginning to enact this type of relationality. It is to this aspect that I now turn.

Dating Me is Like Dating Eight Billion People All at Once

I flick back over to AWAU’s project website. Now Jacob’s Binary Ladder invites me with banner text to Join the search for extraterrestrial civilizations! I hit “get started” and my page fills with staticky grey spectrogram images of the RFI sample. White lines represent signal; black background represents noise. Classifying the images is a simple click-through task of answering questions about the way the white signal lines are oriented and ordered: I choose between known RFI classes that contain the identified characteristics. The last classification option is “other,” where the most “promising” signals end up (Field Guide: Classification Task). It’s simple. I don’t even need to make an account. Every classification enters an AI training set that will eventually become an open-source resource for other researchers. Everything marked “other” is inspected by the “science team” and subject to further “confirmation protocol” (AWAU, “Classify”; “FAQ”).

I am curious about the AWAU citizenship to which I have just been naturalized. Who are my fellow extraterrans, and what reality is suggested by our new relation? To find out, I slide myself into the AWAU message boards. There’s not a lot of activity aside from announcements and notes on the completed signals. One thread, however, begins to answer my question: Are we alone? It was posted on March 5th, is pinned to the top of the Science sub, and has 23 participants and 35 comments. Most comments attest to a belief or a hope that other life exists, citing the oldness, vastness, and improbabilities of the universe. They are a Sagan-esque refusal to conceive the Earth as special. Two people speak to a deeper motivation for this human search. FrenchEyes (2023) writes, “[It] is a way to calm down our anxiety towards death. Or at least towards the concept that everything has an end.” Another user elaborates on how we are only looking for our own reflection, modeled on our own technologies and behaviors: “I don’t know if it’s even possible to search for anything other than what we already know… [we are] on the threshold of the known and the unknown, and it is in this tension that we encounter the “others”… what we are looking for is us, who we are in the universe” (Zenia-Crawls, 2023).[2]

I’m the Kind of Texter Who May or May Not Text Back

Even among those actively seeking signs of extraterrestrial life, there is active debate about whether or not sending out our own messages—or responding to any we might find—is a good idea (Traphagan, 2018; Haramia & DeMarines, 2019; Gertz, 2016). As much as we want to know there is a terrific fear of being known. And with good reason. Simply attending to the possibility that we are not alone creates a reality in which modernity’s myths of ordering and relating have no context and no meaning. To actually discern a signal, much less respond to it, would undo- and redo- us all over again.


I click on the next spectrogram. Even with such simple guidelines, I find interpreting them to be surprisingly ambiguous. My eyes flick over to the initial query that invited me in: Are We Alone in the Universe? After so much reflection, asking this question gives me a shiver, a fractional moment of resonance with the unknown. I glance out the window, aware that the stillness I see is hurtling at 67,100 mph around a radiating cacophony of energy balled into what others like me have long worshiped as a god. Beyond us, other bodies whirl, other gods ignite, other atmospheres swirl like phantoms, and perhaps—just perhaps—another creature stares towards their own sun and wonders back.

Click. HHD.

Click. VRT.



[1] I use “extraterran” to describe humans presence outside earth’s atmosphere, as opposed to “extraterrestrial,” which refers to life forms not of our earth. I don’t know that there is any kind of consensus on the use of “extraterran;” I think it might have originated in science fiction.

[2] This post was originally in French, which I do not know. This is what Duck Duck Go Translate offered.


This post was curated by Contributing Editor Jessica Bray-Olivares.


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