You’ve heard of SETI, right? It’s the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, where astronomers point telescopes at distant stars in the hope of hearing signals from alien civilizations.
But what you might not know is the person who started it all. That person is Frank Drake, now 86, who in 1960 conducted the first modern SETI experiment. Called Project Ozma, he used a 25-meter (82-foot) National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) telescope in Green Bank, West Virginia, to study stars 11 light-years from Earth. For that reason, he’s often called the “father of SETI”.
Last week saw the second annual Breakthrough Discuss conference take place, a meeting of scientists searching for life across SETI, planetary science, and more. Drake was there, too, and six decades on from his initial search, we caught up with him about the state of the industry.
“SETI has made giant progress in the last 60 years,” he said. “Today we have 100-meter telescopes at our disposal and radio receivers which are at least 10 times more sensitive than I had in 1960.”
That’s not to say it has been an easy ride for SETI, though, nor does it continue to be. It has often been regarded as a fringe science, relying on donations from benefactors as opposed to government funding to continue its work. Indeed, the latest extensive search – called Breakthrough Listen – is being funded to the tune of $100 million by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner.
“Now what has changed has been the greatest step in the history of SETI, in fact possibly for any science, and that is the coming forward of one person, Yuri Milner,” said Drake. “That has changed everything. We now have people who work in SETI and are sure that their jobs will exist a year from now.”
The Howard E. Tatel radio telescope used by Drake in 1960. Z22/Wikimedia Commons