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

Video US, Japan Offer Lessons as Eurozone Launches Huge Stimulus

Euro falls after European Central Bank announces a bigger-than-expected $67 billion-a-month quantitative easing program More

Saudi King’s Death Clears Succession Route

Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef is Saudi Arabia's New Crown Prince-in-waiting More

Cloud Hangs Over US Counterterrorism Efforts in Yemen

Sources say resignations of Yemen's president, government has left US anti-terror operations 'paralyzed,' yet an American military 'footprint' remains 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.
Worldwide Photo Workshops Empower Youthi
X
Julie Taboh
January 23, 2015 11:08 PM
Last September, 20 young adults from South Sudan took part in a National Geographic Photo Camp. They are among hundreds of students from around the world who have learned how to use a camera to tell the stories of the people in their communities through the powerful medium of photography. Three camp participants talked about their experiences recently on a visit to Washington. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Worldwide Photo Workshops Empower Youth

Last September, 20 young adults from South Sudan took part in a National Geographic Photo Camp. They are among hundreds of students from around the world who have learned how to use a camera to tell the stories of the people in their communities through the powerful medium of photography. Three camp participants talked about their experiences recently on a visit to Washington. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video US, Japan Offer Lessons as Eurozone Launches Huge Stimulus

The Euro currency has fallen sharply after the European Central Bank announced a bigger-than-expected $67 billion-a-month quantitative easing program Thursday - commonly seen as a form of printing new money. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London on whether the move might rescue the eurozone economy -- and what lessons have been learned from similar programs around the world.
Video

Video Nigerian Elections Pose Concern of Potential Conflict in 'Middle Belt'

Nigeria’s north-central state of Kaduna has long been the site of fighting between Muslims and Christians as well as between people of different ethnic groups. As the February elections approach, community and religious leaders are making plans they hope will keep the streets calm after results are announced. Chris Stein reports from the state capital, Kaduna.
Video

Video As Viewership Drops, Obama Puts His Message on YouTube

Ratings reports show President Obama’s State of the Union address this week drew the lowest number of viewers for this annual speech in 15 years. White House officials anticipated this, and the president has decided to take a non-traditional approach to getting his message out. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video S. Korean Businesses Want to End Trade Restrictions With North

Business leaders in South Korea are calling for President Park Geun-hye to ease trade restrictions with North Korea that were put in place in 2010 after the sinking of a South Korean warship.Pro-business groups argue that expanding trade and investment is not only good for business, it is also good for long-term regional peace and security. VOA’s Brian Padden reports.
Video

Video US Marching Bands Grow Into a Show of Their Own

The 2014 Super Bowl halftime show was the most-watched in history - attracting an estimated 115 million viewers. That event featured pop star Bruno Mars. But the halftime show tradition started with marching bands, which still dominate the entertainment at U.S. high school and college American football games. But as Enming Liu reports in this story narrated by Adrianna Zhang, marching bands have grown into a show of their own.
Video

Video Secular, Religious Kurds Face Off in Southeast Turkey

Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast has been rocked by violence between religious and secular Kurds. Dorian Jones reports on the reasons behind the stand-off from the region's main city of Diyarbakir, which suffered the bloodiest fighting.
Video

Video Kenya: Misuse of Antibiotics Leading to Resistance by Immune System

In Kenya, the rise of drug resistant bacteria could reverse the gains made by medical science over diseases that were once treatable. Kenyans could be at risk of fatalities as a result if the power in antibiotics is not preserved. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story from Nairobi.
Video

Video Solar-Powered Plane Getting Ready to Circumnavigate Globe

Pilots of the solar plane that already set records flying without a drop of fuel are close to making their first attempt to fly the craft around the globe. They plan to do it in 25 flying days over a five month period. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video How Experts Decide Ethiopia Has the Best Coffee

Ethiopia’s coffee has been ranked as the best in the world by an international group of coffee connoisseurs. Not surprisingly, coffee is a top export for the country. But at home it is a source of pride. Marthe van der Wolf in Addis Ababa decided to find out what makes the bean and brew so special and how experts make their determinations.
Video

Video Yazidi Refugees at Center of Political Fight Between Turkey, Kurds

The treatment of thousands of Yazidis refugees who fled to Turkey to escape attacks by Islamic State militants has become the center of a dispute between the Turkish government and the country's pro-Kurdish movement. VOA's Dorian Jones reports.
Video

Video World’s Richest 1% Forecast to Own More Than Half of Global Wealth

The combined wealth of the world's richest 1 percent will overtake that of the remaining 99 percent at some point in 2016, according to the anti-poverty charity Oxfam. Campaigners are demanding that policymakers take action to address the widening gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, as Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid