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

IS Militants Release 49 Turkish Hostages

Turkey's state-run Anadolu news agency reports that no ransom was paid and no conditions accepted for the hostages' release; few details of the release are known More

Photogallery IS Attacks Send Thousands of Syrian Kurds Fleeing to Turkey

Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says more than 300 Kurdish fighters crossed into Syria from Turkey to defend a Kurdish area from attack by the Islamic militants More

Video Sierra Leone's Ebola Lockdown Continues

Thousands of health workers are going door to door in the West African country of 6 million, informing people of how to avoid Ebola, handing out soap 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.
Fears Ebola Outbreak ‘Beyond Our Capability to Contain’i
X
Jeff Seldin
September 20, 2014 10:28 PM
Each day brings with it new warnings about the deadly Ebola outbreak already blamed for killing more than 2,600 people across West Africa. And while countries and international organizations like the United Nations are starting to come through on promises of help for those most affected, the unprecedented speed with which the virus has spread is raising questions about the international response. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more from Washington.
Video

Video Fears Ebola Outbreak ‘Beyond Our Capability to Contain’

Each day brings with it new warnings about the deadly Ebola outbreak already blamed for killing more than 2,600 people across West Africa. And while countries and international organizations like the United Nations are starting to come through on promises of help for those most affected, the unprecedented speed with which the virus has spread is raising questions about the international response. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more from Washington.
Video

Video Iran, World Powers Seek Progress in Nuclear Talks

Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, known as the P5 + 1, have started a new round of talks on Iran's nuclear program. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports that as the negotiations take place in New York, a U.S. envoy is questioning Iran's commitment to peaceful nuclear activity.
Video

Video Obama Goes to UN With Islamic State, Ebola on Agenda

President Obama goes to the United Nations General Assembly to rally nations to support a coalition against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. He also will look for nations to back his plan to fight the Ebola virus in West Africa. As VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports, Obama’s efforts reflect new moves by the U.S. administration to take a leading role in addressing world crises.
Video

Video Migrants Caught in No-Man's Land Called Calais

The deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean this week has only recast the spotlight on the perils of reaching Europe. And for those forunate enough to reach a place like Calais, France, only find that their problems aren't over. Lisa Bryant has the story.
Video

Video Westgate Siege Anniversary Brings Back Painful Memories

One year after it happened, the survivors of the terror attack on Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Mall still cannot shake the images of that tragic incident. For VOA, Mohammed Yusuf tells the story of victims still waiting for the answer to the question 'how could this happen?'
Video

Video Militant Assault in Syria Displaces Thousands of Kurds

A major assault by Islamic State militants on Kurds in Syria has sent a wave of new refugees to the Turkish border, where they were stopped by Turkish border security. Turkey is already hosting about 700,000 Syrian refugees who fled the civil war between the government and the opposition. But the government in Ankara has a history of strained relations with Turkey's Kurdish minority. Zlatica Hoke reports Turkey is asking for international help.
Video

Video Whaling Summit Votes to Uphold Ban on Japan Whale Hunt

The International Whaling Commission, meeting in Slovenia, has voted to uphold a court ruling banning Japan from hunting whales in the Antarctic Ocean. Conservationists hailed the ruling as a victory, but Tokyo says it will submit revised plans for a whale hunt in 2015. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Iraqi Kurdistan Church Helps Christian Children Cope find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil

In the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes by Islamic State militants and find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil. Despite U.S. airstrikes in the region, the prospect of people returning home is still very low and concerns are starting to grow over the impact this is having on the displaced youth. Sebastian Meyer reports from Irbil on how one church is coping.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid