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Researcher: science aids ongoing search for life in outer space

By Dave Paiz
Arizona Daily Wildcat,
November 1, 1999
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The father of the modern search for extraterrestrial intelligence said the quest for life beyond earth is one of the last great endeavors in human history.

Frank Drake is a research professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California at Santa Cruz and president of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute in Mountain View, Calif.

More than 300 people gathered at the University of Arizona's Centennial Hall Friday evening to hear Drake give the 34th annual Jansky Lecture: "Progress In The Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence." The lecture was free and open to the public.

Each year, Associated Universities, Inc., and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory awards the Jansky Lectureship to scientists who make significant contributions to the study of cosmic radio waves.

In 1960 Drake conducted Project OZMA - the first organized search for extraterrestrial intelligence. He later formulated the "Arecibo Message of 1974" - the first interstellar greeting sent via radio waves on behalf of planet Earth. Drake has been the president of SETI since the non-profit organization was formed in 1984.

"The big news - and one of the greatest discoveries of the 20th century - is the discovery of planetary systems outside our own," Drake said.

Scientists have in recent years identified 18 new planetary systems beyond our own, Drake said. He added that most of these systems involve stars roughly the size of Jupiter that are similar to the Earth's sun.

Any satellites in orbit around these massive stars could potentially harbor the necessary conditions for life, Drake said.

An emerging view cited by Drake theorizes that as small satellites migrate inwards towards their central star, "they will act almost like vacuum cleaners" and absorb clouds of dust and gas that could contain the seeds of life.

"As a result, they may grow large enough to hold an atmosphere," Drake said. "This has excited us because it tells us that there are many (potential) abodes of life in outer space."

Drake said manned missions to these potential life-sustaining planetary systems are impractical because of the immense distance and length of time involved.

"High-speed interstellar travel doesn't make sense," Drake said, adding that NASA's propulsion systems are not fast enough to get anywhere in a reasonable amount of time.

In response to these constraints, SETI scientists have harnessed computer technology to increase the speed and efficiency of their search efforts.

A new computer chip designed specifically for SETI acts as a "multi-channel super receiver" that far exceeds their previous detection capability.

"Now, instead of monitoring one channel, it monitors 56 million at once," Drake said.

An array of 47 of these chips is being used for SETI's Project Phoenix - the most sensitive and comprehensive extraterrestrial search ever conducted.

"We are today one hundred trillion times more powerful than we were 40 years ago," Drake said.

Those who arrived not knowing what to expect were noticeably awed by the broad scope of Drake's concepts.

"I like what he said about there being possible other Earths in the universe," said plant sciences senior Jason Wallace, who said he had never heard of Drake before the evening's lecture.

"I've thought about perception and other life forms, but I've never thought about light travel," Wallace said. "It (the lecture) made it seem a little more real."

Many attendees were already familiar with Drake's ongoing work.

"He's always been an idol of mine," said UA biology alumnus Kevin Haney. "I participate in the SETI@Home program. Personally, my computer has contributed over 2,000 hours of time to the project."

The SETI@Home program lets citizens participate in the search effort by using home computers to download search data, process it and relay it back to the SETI Institute in Mountain View.

"I think secretly we're all pulling for the idea that there's life out there besides our own," Haney said. "I think it's a crap shoot that we'll find anything in our lifetime, but in 500 years, who knows?"

Drake said that upon encountering an advanced alien civilization, humans would realize what it means to be an intelligent species in relation to others in the cosmic family tree, and scientists could gain access to a vast storehouse of advanced knowledge that could be used to benefit humanity.

"If you believe that intelligence and technology are inevitable, you can estimate that once a year, a new civilization appears," Drake said. "We are confident that life - at least primitive life - has appeared in countless places in the universe."

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