Extraterrestrial Life

The late Carl Sagan, world-renowned astronomer, educator, producer and best-selling author, was arguably the most influential voice in the scientific community of Planet Earth. Considering the "billions and billions" of star systems and mathematical certainty that other Earth-like planets exist, Sagan believed that it would be sheer arrogance on our part to assume that we are alone in the universe.

Still, the question remains: Is there life in outer space? If intelligent life truly exists outside Planet Earth, the SETI Institute will most likely be the first to discover it. SETI, an acronym for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, is a privately funded, non-profit organization whose single purpose is to scan the cosmos for signs of intelligent life. Pointing powerful radio telescopes at nearby stars, SETI listens intently for audio signals that would confirm that there is life out there.

On the surface, it would seem that the SETI Institute and UFO enthusiasts would have some common ground. But this could not be further from the truth. SETI does not embrace the notion that flying saucers and little green men have visited Earth. In an article published last year, Dr. Seth Shostak, an astrophysicist with SETI, dispelled the notion. "We're interested in intelligent life, life that is intelligent enough to build a radio telescope. We are not interested in UFOs. It's hard to go from star to star. The energy required to fuel such a ship is extraordinary. Physics, as we know it, does not allow for it."

SETI researchers send no messages of their own; they merely listen. The reason SETI doesn't send a shout out into space is that it simply would take too long to receive a reply. For instance, if the nearest civilization was 100 light years away, it would take approximately 200 years before we would hear back.

In the early 1990s, NASA also had a SETI program. But in 1993, Congress cut the space agency's funding for the SETI research. The SETI Institute moved quickly to retain the core of NASA's engineering and science team. And in early 1994, Project Phoenix was born. This ambitious project takes advantage of the world's largest telescopes to scrutinize the nearby star systems for technological civilizations. While SETI engages in this mammoth search, they are also working to design and develop systems with even greater capacity.

Radio Telescope
courtesy of SEDS

  What would happen if SETI detected a signal from an extraterrestrial intelligent origin? According to SETI, the first thing would be to confirm that it truly is extraterrestrial. Upon confirmation, the discovery would be announced as quickly and as widely as possible. A Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence, endorsed by six international space organizations, describes how to make such an announcement. The SETI Institute has a plan of action that resembles the Declaration of Principles. SETI maintains that there would be no secrecy, as there would be an urgent need to have astronomers world-wide monitor any detected signal, 24 hours a day.

How likely is it that we'll one day hear from a distant neighbor? Scientists are optimistic. SETI sites scientific evidence that supports the notion that life arose on Earth relatively quickly, suggesting that life will occur on similar planets orbiting sun-like stars. More and more scientists feel that contact with other civilizations is no longer something beyond our dreams, but a natural event in the history of mankind that will perhaps occur in the lifetime of many of us. For now, the welcome mat is out. SETI is just waiting for a knock on the door!

 M31 galaxy
courtesy of SEDS

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