Back in 1960, Astronomer Frank Drake started scanning two sun-like stars with an 85-foot wide antennae in West Virginia. His goal: search for signs of life. Over the past 50 years, thanks to the advantage of significant advances in electronics, digital technology, and some help from other people, that search has really ramped up. This month, Seth Shostak of the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in Mountain View, CA, claims it is now estimated that by 2040 enough star systems will have been scanned to have discovered alien-produced electromagnetic signals.
During a talk at the 2014 NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) symposium at Stanford University, Shostak said, “I think we’ll find E.T. within two dozen years using these sorts of experiments…Instead of looking at a few thousand star systems, which is the tally so far, we will have looked at maybe a million star systems.” Shostak went on to say that 24 years from now “…a million might be the right number to find something.”
A lot of this is based on the recent findings of the Kepler space telescope which shows that the Milky Way galaxy is filled with worlds that could support life. The James Web Space Telescope will also aid in finding signs of microbial life in our solar system when it is launched in 2018.
By using Frank Drake’s equation (aptly named “the Drake Equation”) we can estimate the probability of life in our Milky Way galaxy.
N = R* • fp • ne • fl • fi • fc • L
N = The number of civilizations in The Milky Way Galaxy whose electromagnetic emissions are detectable.
R* =The rate of formation of stars suitable for the development of intelligent life.
fp = The fraction of those stars with planetary systems.
ne = The number of planets, per solar system, with an environment suitable for life.
fl = The fraction of suitable planets on which life actually appears.
fi = The fraction of life bearing planets on which intelligent life emerges.
fc = The fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space.
L = The length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.
With this equation, Drake states that there are probably between 1000 and 100,000,000 civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy. This has been debated over the years since many of the expressions in the equation are based on conjecture. That being said, it still creates a dialogue about the possibility of finding intelligent life outside of our own solar system. This moves us into the area of how scientists should move forward experimentally.
The search for intelligent life in the Universe is contingent upon keeping programs like Allen Telescope Array in northern California well funded. This is the place that SETI uses to do sky gazing. The Allen Telescope Array was designed to house 350 radio dishes but only 42 have been built so far. Back in 2011 this program had to go into hibernation due to lack of funding. However, in April of 2011, the array went back into function.
Shostak says his 24-year estimate “depends on continued SETI funding, which is in dire straits right now.”
Now it’s just a matter of finding one.