News / USA

Searching for Life in Outer Space

Frank Drake's quest for extraterrestrial intelligence spans decades

Multimedia

Audio

In 1960, Frank Drake conducted the first search for extraterrestrial intelligence, a project now known as SETI.
In 1960, Frank Drake conducted the first search for extraterrestrial intelligence, a project now known as SETI.

Space aliens and extraterrestrials have long been popular subjects of Hollywood movies and science fiction literature. But the idea of intelligent life in outer space is no longer limited to fiction.

For the last 50 years, scientists and astronomers have been training their telescopes into space in the search for signs of intelligent life. Frank Drake is a trailblazer in that quest.

Spellbound

Orson Wells' famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938 scared millions of Americans into believing earth was being invaded by Martians. But not a young Frank Drake. Rather than being fearful at the thought of aliens, he was captivated.

"My father told me there were other planets in space like the earth and this excited me," he says. "I was eight years old and this meant that a planet like where I lived with people like me and houses like me and eating food like I ate. The idea of there being other creatures in space is fascinating."

That fascination triggered many questions.

"It's the basis of so much exciting science fiction and the most popular movies ever made. It's just a subject which excites our curiosity. What would those other creatures be like? What would their histories be? Do they have technologies we don't have which we could benefit from? All of those things were the reasons that interested me."

Frank Drake, in 1964, at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia.
Frank Drake, in 1964, at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia.

Following his fascination

Drake pursued his boyhood interest and studied radio astronomy at Cornell and Harvard.

In 1960, he conducted the first search for extraterrestrial intelligence, a project now known as SETI. He looked for signals from these alien civilizations by setting up a 25-meter radio telescope in Green Bank, West Virginia and aiming it at two nearby stars.

"Much like the telescope that we use to look at the sky - at the stars and the planets - except that it receives radio waves instead of light waves. And at that time, we were on earth transmitting radio signals that were sufficiently powerful that our best radio telescopes of that day could detect them, across the great distances that separated the stars," says Drake. "And so it made sense to search for radio signals. We wouldn't be speculating or assuming super-civilizations or super technologies. All they had to have was technology like our own and we could find them."

SETI

At that time, Drake was a junior staff member at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and kept quiet about his new project. It was so novel that he was concerned it might raise skepticism among colleagues and academics. But word of SETI got out and the public responded with support and donations.

Since 1960, there have been over one hundred SETI projects, with radio telescopes stationed around the world, including Puerto Rico, Argentina, Australia, South Korea and Italy. The equipment has become larger and more sophisticated over time. But so far, nothing has turned up. According to Drake, the universe is so big that it's hard to know where to look.

"We now listen not to one channel as I listened to back in 1960 in the first search, but tens of millions or even hundreds of millions of channels at once," he says. "So the search for the signals is actually carried out by computers looking at the deluge of information that is coming from the radio telescopes."

An illustration of the Allen Telescope Array at the Hat Creek Observatory in California. Construction, which began in 2007, continues.
An illustration of the Allen Telescope Array at the Hat Creek Observatory in California. Construction, which began in 2007, continues.

Continuing search

Although he is now retired from full-time teaching, Drake continues to provide guidance for the next generation of astronomers at the SETI Institute. He is renowned in the astronomy community and helps with much-needed fundraising to keep the work of SETI going.

"Frank Drake is a singular person. There's no other Frank Drake," says Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute. "Frank being the first has led the way. I've been in places in rural Africa where Frank Drake is still a celebrity."

Now, the non-proft SETI Institute is spearheading efforts in the United States to build and set up larger and increasingly more sophisticated radio telescopes. Its latest project with the University of California, Berkeley, is the Allen Telescope Array, involving 42 radio antennas - the most advanced structure ever built to look for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence.

Although no signs of extraterrestrial intelligence have been detected, Drake remains optimistic.

"It's only a matter of time, and the amount of time is only a matter of money. We know how to make the search, we know how much searching is required, but it's very costly. And in time, as more funds are accumulated, we will carry out the search and eventually, we will succeed."

Does he think it will happen in his lifetime?

"Well, I'm 80 years old. And unfortunately, our best calculations tell us that even with our present very powerful equipment, the discovery is probably decades away. On the other hand, we could with very good luck chance upon a signal tomorrow."

You May Like

Photogallery Americans Celebrate Thanksgiving With Feasts, Festivities

Holiday traditions include turkey dinners, 'turkey trots,' American-style football and New York parade with giant balloons More

Video For Obama, Ferguson Violence is a Personal Issue

With two years left in term, analysts say, president has less to lose by taking conversation on race further More

Video Italian Espresso Expands Into Space

When Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti headed for the ISS, her countrymen worried how she would survive six months drinking only instant coffee More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Community Kicks Off Thanksgiving With Paradei
X
Anush Avetisyan
November 26, 2014 10:57 PM
Thursday is Thanksgiving in the United States, a holiday whose roots go back to the country's earliest days as a British colony. One way Americans celebrate the occasion is with parades. Anush Avetisyan takes us to one such event on the day before Thanksgiving near Washington, where a community's diversity is on display. Joy Wagner narrates
Video

Video US Community Kicks Off Thanksgiving With Parade

Thursday is Thanksgiving in the United States, a holiday whose roots go back to the country's earliest days as a British colony. One way Americans celebrate the occasion is with parades. Anush Avetisyan takes us to one such event on the day before Thanksgiving near Washington, where a community's diversity is on display. Joy Wagner narrates
Video

Video For Obama, Ferguson Violence is a Personal Issue

Throughout the crisis in Ferguson, Missouri, President Barack Obama has urged calm, restraint and respect for the rule of law. But the events in Ferguson have prompted him to call — more openly than he has before — for profound changes to end the racism and distrust that he believes still exists between whites and blacks in the United States. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Online Magazine Gets Kids Discussing Big Questions

Teen culture in America is often criticized for being superficial. But an online magazine has been encouraging some teenagers to explore deeper issues, and rewarding their efforts. VOA religion reporter Jerome Socolovsky went to this year’s Kidspirit awards ceremony in New York.
Video

Video Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar Opposition to Keep Pushing for Constitutional Change

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi says she and her supporters will continue pushing to amend a constitutional clause that bars her from running for president next year. VOA's Than Lwin Htun reports from the capital Naypyitaw in this report narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video Mali Attempts to Shut Down Ebola Transmission Chain

Senegal and Nigeria were able to stop small Ebola outbreaks by closely monitoring those who had contact with the sick person and quickly isolating anyone with symptoms. Mali is now scrambling to do the same. VOA’s Anne Look reports from Mali on what the country is doing to shut down the chain of transmission.
Video

Video Ukraine Marks Anniversary of Deadly 1930s Famine

During a commemoration for millions who died of starvation in Ukraine in the early 1930s, President Petro Poroshenko lashed out at Soviet-era totalitarianism for causing the deaths and accused today’s Russian-backed rebels in the east of using similar tactics. VOA’s Daniel Shearf reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests at a Crossroads

New public opinion polls in Hong Kong indicate declining support for pro-democracy demonstrations after weeks of street protests. VOA’s Bill Ide in Guangzhou and Pros Laput in Hong Kong spoke with protesters and observers about whether demonstrators have been too aggressive in pushing for change.
Video

Video US Immigration Relief Imminent for Mixed-Status Families

Tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants in the Washington, D.C., area may benefit from a controversial presidential order announced this week. It's not a path to citizenship, as some activists hoped. But it will allow more immigrants who arrived as children or who have citizen children, to avoid deportation and work legally. VOA's Victoria Macchi talks with one young man who benefited from an earlier presidential order, and whose parents may now benefit after years of living in fear.
Video

Video New Skateboard Defies Gravity

A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Impact US Oil Extraction

With the price of oil now less than $80 a barrel, motorists throughout the United States are benefiting from gas prices below $3 a gallon. But as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the decreasing price of petroleum has a downside for the hydraulic fracturing industry in the United States.
Video

Video Tensions Build on Korean Peninsula Amid Military Drills

It has been another tense week on the Korean peninsula as Pyongyang threatened to again test nuclear weapons while the U.S. and South Korean forces held joint military exercises in a show of force. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from the Kunsan Air Base in South Korea.
Video

Video Mama Sarah Obama Honored at UN Women’s Entrepreneurship Day

President Barack Obama's step-grandmother is in the United States to raise money to build a $12 million school and hospital center in Kogelo, Kenya, the birthplace of the president's father, Barack Obama, Sr. She was honored for her decades of work to aid poor Kenyans at a Women's Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations.
Video

Video Ebola Economic Toll Stirs W. Africa Food Security Concerns

The World Bank said Wednesday that it expects the economic impact of the Ebola outbreak on the sub-Saharan economy to cost somewhere betweenf $3 billion to $4 billion - well below a previously-outlined worst-case scenario of $32 billion. Some economists, however, paint a gloomier picture - warning that the disruption to regional markets and trading is considerable. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Chaos, Abuse Defy Solution in Libya

The political and security crisis in Libya is deepening, with competing governments and, according to Amnesty International, widespread human rights violations committed with impunity. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video US Hosts Record 866,000 Foreign Students

Close to 900,000 international students are studying at American universities and colleges, more than ever before. About half of them come from Asia, mostly China. The United States hosts more foreign students than any other country in the world, and its foreign student population is steadily growing. Zlatica Hoke reports.

All About America

AppleAndroid