Will SETI's unprecedented new program finally find E.T.?

August 4, 2015 by Laura Vican Haney, Universe Today
Credit: Breakthrough Initatives

Stephen Hawking, Frank Drake and dozens of journalists gathered at the Royal Society in London last week to hear astronomers announce a ground-breaking new project to search for intelligent extraterrestrial life called "Breakthrough Listen." They will be using two of the world's largest radio telescopes (Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia and the Parkes Radio Telescope in Australia) to listen for radio messages from intelligent alien species. Scientists have chosen to target the nearest million stars as well as the nearest 100 galaxies. This project will also monitor the Galactic plane for months at a time. This unprecedented effort is a collaboration between UC Berkeley and the Breakthrough Prize Foundation, and employs an international team of astronomers and data scientists, including Frank Drake – the father of SETI (Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence).

It is perhaps fitting that this new program will make use of the Green Bank Telescope (GBT), since Green Bank, West Virginia was the site of the first modern SETI experiment, called "Project Ozma." In 1960, Frank Drake pointed the Tatel telescope at two nearby stars to search for the telltale signs of intelligent life; radio signals near 1.420 GHz. He listened on-and-off for four months, collecting 150 hours of data. He heard nothing.

In 1963, astronomers began the first ever continuous monitoring program using the Ohio State University Radio Observatory. Called the "Big Ear," this observatory was used to monitor the sky continuously for 22 years. They heard nothing. The "Big Ear" was dismantled in 1998 to make room for the expansion of a nearby golf course.

In 2009, UC Berkeley launched the latest incarnation of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Radio Emissions from Nearby Developed Intelligent Populations (SERENDIP), which employs the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico. The idea is to effectively "piggy-back" on other planned radio observations and to use the same data that other astronomers are taking to study galaxies, but search those radio channels to find messages from ET.

The new program will be "a factor of 100 times more powerful than any current or past SETI program" says astronomer Geoff Marcy, a leading member of the team that will be organizing this search. He goes on to say that the 1.5 GHz bandwidth used for this program will be "like tuning your radio in your car, but instead of collecting the music from just one station, you collect the transmission from 1.5 billion stations."

Finding funding for SETI projects has been a challenge ever since NASA pulled their support in 1993. Scientists have relied on large private donations for years. Between 2000 and 2007, SETI pulled in nearly $49 million to build the Allen Telescope Array in northern California. Such donations have been sufficient to support some of the smaller projects, but there hasn't been a new, big-budget SETI endeavor in years. Many scientists are hopeful that the influx of funding from investor Yuri Milner for this program is only the beginning. Jill Tarter, former director of the Center for SETI Research and currently holding the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI at the SETI Institute believes that the time is right for the public to re-invest in SETI. In the past, astronomers have had an uphill battle convincing investors that the search for "little green men" is a legitimate, scientific endeavor, and worth significant attention. Some investors have even been laughed at for spending money on the search for intelligent alien life. Tarter hopes that the public attitude toward SETI is about to change: "The more people like Yuri openly and generously support this endeavor, the more you remove the possibility for being embarrassed or being ridiculed. The people who have funded [SETI] in the past, like Paul Allen, have been very bold. We need more Paul Allens. We need more Yuri Milners."

Will we find intelligent life?

The question that everyone wants to know is this: How likely is it that this or any other SETI program will actually find evidence of intelligent alien life, either in our galaxy or another? As it turns out, that is a very difficult question to answer. Remember, this SETI program will be searching for intelligent life in the universe. Even if our galaxy is full of planets teeming with microbes, none of them will be sending out radio signals that we could intercept. What are the odds that another planet hosts an intelligent alien species?

To even begin to answer that question, we have to look at the Drake Equation. This is a simple and elegant equation, first proposed by Frank Drake, to calculate the number of intelligent alien species that should reside in our Milky Way galaxy based on a series of probabilities. While the first few factors of this equation are relatively well-known quantities, we have to make educated guesses about some of them.

Will SETI’s unprecedented new program finally find E.T.?
SETI’s budget over the years. Budget figures are derived from NASA documents and SETI Institute news releases. Data courtesy of Bob Krekorian who was employed by the NASA SETI project and the SETI Institute for a combined 15 years.

Number of Stars Born Each Year – 1.0

By studying the light emitted by young stars, astronomers are able to estimate that about 1 new star is born every year in the Milky Way galaxy, though some estimates have gone as high as 7 new stars per year.

Fraction of Stars with Planets – 0.50

The latest studies using results from the Kepler Space Telescope indicate that nearly 100% of stars like the sun have at least one planet. Many planetary systems we have observed so far appear to be packed with 3 or more planets! Even the most skeptical analysis of the available data leads us to believe that ~50% of all stars have at least one planet.

Number of Habitable Planets per Planetary System – 0.2

This number is also motivated by the most recent Kepler data. It is difficult to assign a value to this parameter, since sun-like stars have more habitable planets than, say, high-mass stars. However, conservative estimates say that there are 0.2 habitable planets around each star, since 1/5 stars host at least one planet in the habitable zone of its star.

Fraction of Habitable Planets that Actually Develop Life – 1.0

From here on, our estimates are much more sketchy. For instance, how many planets that could host life actually do? We have tried to recreate the conditions of the early Earth in laboratories to try to replicate the development of life on our planet, and have been unsuccessful. We don't entirely understand how life on Earth actually got its start. Geological evidence suggests that life started immediately after the Late Heavy Bombardment – a period of time when Earth was pummeled by comets and asteroids from the outer solar system. As soon as it was safe for life to begin, it did.We believe that life may have existed on Mars billions of years ago, but have not found any direct evidence (fossils) yet. Such a discovery would suggest that life is created easily on any planet with the right conditions. Since the only habitable planet in our solar system did develop life, we could estimate that this number is 100%.

Kepler 62 contains multiple planets in the habitable zone of the host star. Credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech

Fraction of Life Systems that Develop Intelligence – 0.50

Recall that the mission of SETI is to discover intelligent life on another planet. Human beings are the only species on our planet that could send and receive radio signals. So, how likely is it that life will evolve to become intelligent? There are some who would argue that intelligence is an inevitable consequence of evolution, but this is a highly debated issue. Since probability that a species will develop intelligence is somewhere between 0-100%, we will say that it is 50%.

Fraction of Intelligent Species that Develop Interstellar Communication -0.10

There are different levels of intelligence, and not all intelligent species will be able to send radio signals across interstellar space. Chimpanzees share much of their DNA with humans, but they have not built their own space program. So we need to examine the fraction of intelligent species that will actually develop the ability to communicate with us across space. We might assume that any intelligent species would eventually seek out fellow residents of the Milky Way in an attempt to share knowledge. Conservatively, we might estimate that 10% of intelligent species will develop interstellar communication.

Broadcasting Lifetime

Of course, it is not useful for us if there was an intelligent, broadcasting alien species in our Milky Way 2 billions years ago that has since died off. We want to communicate with ET here and now. Therefore, we have to take into consideration the length of time during which a civilization can broadcast signals into space. Our galaxy is only 10 billion years old, so even if life began on a planet at the moment our galaxy was formed, it could only have been broadcasting for 10 billion years. The first intentional broadcast from Earthlings into space with the intention of reaching alien species was in 1974 from the Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico. Let's assume (conservatively) that intelligent species are able to broadcast radio signals for 10,000 years.

When we plug these numbers into the Drake Equation, we find that there should be about 100 intelligent alien species currently capable of communicating with Earth in our Milky Way galaxy alone. Since there are approximately 150 billion galaxies in the visible universe alone, that means that there should be 15,000,000,000,000 intelligent in our universe.

But what if these numbers are wrong? What if there's no one out there? When do we pull the plug and stop spending money on a program that hasn't had any success? Jill Tarter says that the most important results from SETI have nothing to do with extraterrestrial intelligence, but everything to do with our cosmic perspective. "SETI being discussed….SETI being pursued around the globe has this phenomenal ability to make us stop in our day-to-day lives and look at the big picture. And that picture is the 'Pale Blue Dot.' That's us. We're all the same to someone 'out there'." she said in an interview with Universe Today. She went on to explain that the most precious short-term benefit of SETI is the perspective it gives us, which can help us as a species to solve big problems here on Earth. "The ability to trivialize the differences among human beings is something that is incredibly important, because it will help us when we step up and try to solve the challenges we have in our future and when we try to manage our planet as a global civilization."

With the new SETI initiative, astronomers are betting that there is someone out there, trying to communicate with us right now, and all we have to do is listen. As astronomer Geoff Marcy put it, "Every explorer has ventured out. They have crossed a river…or gone over a hill, not knowing what they would find. The most exquisite and fantastic types of exploration are journeys where you don't know what you're going to find. SETI is like that. We don't know if we will find anything. But we are explorers, crossing a cosmic ocean, and these two radio telescopes are our ocean liner."

Explore further: What is the status of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence?

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24 comments

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Returners
1.9 / 5 (7) Aug 04, 2015
Since the only habitable planet in our solar system did develop life, we could estimate that this number is 100%.


False.

Since probability that a species will develop intelligence is somewhere between 0-100%, we will say that it is 50%.


False. This planet has hosted probably a billion different species in its history,and only one of them has so much as invented pottery or writing, nevermind discovering Radio waves.

So we can divide your number above by at least a billion or more, to drop it down to less than 15,000 intelligent species in the history of the Milky Way.
docile
Aug 04, 2015
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
LariAnn
1.2 / 5 (6) Aug 04, 2015
IMHO, there is a bias against finding (or recognizing) signs of intelligent alien life, even (or possibily, especially) among those who study the cosmos. While on the one hand they state that the discovery would be one that any researcher would shout from the rooftops, they are quick to deride anyone who proposes that they have seen or obtained any evidence at all of such alien life, and even go so far as to ignore obvious non-life but intriguing things on images from their own space probes! Several Mars images I've seen (from the Curiosity rover) show what seems obvious as small pools of liquid water, but while the pictures are readily available, I've seen no comment about what should be a spectacular discovery. Why? I wonder if, when a real alien fossil is ever found, the scientists will explain it away as "pareidolia", which would be easy if such is found by Curiosity or other probe and there is no human there to personally analyze it. (continued)
LariAnn
1.2 / 5 (6) Aug 04, 2015
So, we won't find ET no matter how much money and effort is spent, but it won't be because ET is not there, it will be because there is an inherent bias against recognizing ET evidence. Perhaps it is a psychological block about it in the scientific community - I don't know.
shavera
5 / 5 (11) Aug 04, 2015
LariAnn: There's a reason for the bias. What if you announce "It's aliens" and then some other scientist says "no, it's not, and this is why it's not." Despite what trolls on this site and others say, scientists *love* proving each other wrong. Way more than they like agreeing with each other.

So if you say "it's aliens" without definitive proof it's aliens, then you stand to be seriously undermined.

Furthermore, there's a "boy who cried wolf" aspect. If we keep "finding aliens" and then reversing on the issue, then who's actually going to believe proof of "aliens."

Really, we're just trying to be skeptical until we find incontrovertible proof. That sounds responsible to me, because it's such a huge, history-changing claim. The bigger the claim, the more evidence you need to support it. That may be somewhat irrational, that we should just "accept" data, but humans aren't rational. We need findings to shift our inertia from one track to another.
JustAnotherGuy
3.4 / 5 (5) Aug 04, 2015
Returners:
So we can divide your number above by at least a billion or more, to drop it down to less than 15,000 intelligent species in the history of the Milky Way.

Considering the article says....
"we find that there should be about 100 intelligent alien species currently capable of communicating with Earth in our Milky Way galaxy alone"

... you just increased it by 150 rather than drop it down. Which multiplied by "150 billion galaxies in the visible universe alone" is like 22.500.0000000000oooh..sh*t!

Ok, most of used numbers are somewhat arbitrary. Good point.
Hope the math/logic you use on most of your comments is not like this... (:S)
docile
Aug 04, 2015
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Doug_Huffman
4.5 / 5 (2) Aug 04, 2015
Falsifiability is science. Technology is validated.
syndicate_51
1.3 / 5 (3) Aug 04, 2015
Ah yes the assumptive Drake equation. Of what we have scanned for extra solar planets 20% is far to high from the current sample size to say 20% of planets are habitable.

This among many major deficiencies in the equation. Namely some variables that have been found thus far to have far worse odds than what are currently assigned by the "Drake Assumption".

Use more believable numbers.
PhysicsMatter
1.3 / 5 (3) Aug 04, 2015
It would be useful to define intelligence first because humanity did not define it adequately yet. When we eventually learn what intelligence is we will be able to start to really look for it, but first among ourselves, humans.

I myself deride those staunch critics of the SETI calling it waste of money and failure. I thing SETI got it right. They just did not notice that they got their answer i.e. silence.

This silence is a proof that extraterrestrial higher intelligence exists, since they, exercising their superior judgment and knowledge, did not even bother to respond to some primitive utterances of thinking outcrop of useless creatures that are just a blip that will disappear soon with absolutely no consequence to the universe. And that's what aliens hope for. But they may be wrong.
Returners
1.3 / 5 (3) Aug 04, 2015
Returners:
So we can divide your number above by at least a billion or more, to drop it down to less than 15,000 intelligent species in the history of the Milky Way.

Considering the article says....
"we find that there should be about 100 intelligent alien species currently capable of communicating with Earth in our Milky Way galaxy alone"

... you just increased it by 150 rather than drop it down. Which multiplied by "150 billion galaxies in the visible universe alone" is like 22.500.0000000000oooh..sh*t!

Ok, most of used numbers are somewhat arbitrary. Good point.
Hope the math/logic you use on most of your comments is not like this... (:S)


I said "less than 15,000 in the history of the Milky Way". What you quoted is a claim of 100 currently....a number I find highly unlikely seeing as how half the terms used by the authors/original sources in this article are entirely fabricated.
JustAnotherGuy
5 / 5 (2) Aug 04, 2015
Returners, this is what you said
So we can divide your number above by at least a billion or more

So you make your numbers (15.000) directly from the CURRENT numbers from the article (15,000,000,000,000). And then switched it from current Universe to Milky Way's history just for the sake of what? Don't you think you mixed things a little?

I suppose you missed this part:
"Broadcasting Lifetime - Of course, it is not useful for us if there was an intelligent, broadcasting alien species in our Milky Way 2 billions years ago that has since died off"

You see, the fun of the Drake Equation you can make your own numbers without contradict the numbers from others. Now the selected variables an the result that comes from it are subject to questioning, that's true.
By the way, I think it may be good to you to assume own mistake, for once at least....
malapropism
4.8 / 5 (6) Aug 04, 2015
Will SETI's unprecedented new program finally find E.T.?
Nope, these money are wasted. If we would invest them into cold fusion, we would get much higher profit, which could pay many thousands of SETI projects subsequently. But the priorities of contemporary science are clearly set up to serve the scientists - not the tax payers, who are paying them.

But what you conveniently ignore with this comment is that this money is from an individual who happens to be a billionaire. In making this donation he presumably is not interested in cold fusion or in any putative profit from it; he is also perfectly entitled to put his money wherever he wants to since it is his, and the scientists using this money are presumably supported by it rather than by the taxpayer. The money may or may not be wasted, the future outcomes of the research will determine that but we can assume that the donor does not think it is wasted and, again since it is his money, that's all that really matters.
KBK
2 / 5 (4) Aug 05, 2015
One of the more dangerous assumptions, is that alien life would be limited by our understanding of science and travel.

Almost every scientific discovery in the history of science, and before, has been overturned or succeeded by newer, grater capacities and greater understandings.

There is no reason whatsoever, to think that understanding of physics stops with Einsteinian views. That would be ego of the most illiterate kind.

At the base level, we still do not know what is going on, down there, in the quantum bits and in dimensionality.

Therefore, by any form of logic as conclusion, it is utterly ridiculous to assume that others, other intelligent life.....will be limited by light speed or dimensions.

As a matter of fact, there is so much circumstantial evidence to the contrary that it is foolish to ignore it. So much that it can fill multiple libraries. The provocative statements of Ben Rich (Lockheed), are but one voice in a thousand similar.
AmritSorli
1 / 5 (2) Aug 05, 2015
The only purpose of SETI is not to find other intelligence
because than all this nonsense about different nationalities and different religions
will be over.
Clear thaat physical homogenity of the universe includes biological homogenity
and evolution of life an the planet earth is only a part of universal process
going on in entire universe
www.fopi.info
Returners
1.3 / 5 (4) Aug 05, 2015
KBK:

It may be that the aliens are 4th dimensional beings. I know they are telepathic, so why not be 4th dimensional too?

If so, then they could probably step between the stars as easily as a man could step from one side of a small stream to the other.

Who's to say they even need machines?
Mimath224
3 / 5 (1) Aug 05, 2015
Please ignore this if posted it's just a test. I wrote a post earlier today but it isn't here.
EnsignFlandry
5 / 5 (4) Aug 05, 2015
, there is a bias against finding (or recognizing) signs of intelligent alien life, even (or possibly, especially) among those who study the cosmos
Of course, because it's racist and xenophobic. We are looking for our brothers, not aliens.


Oh, baloney. Astrobiologists are looking forward to finding different kinds of life. And stop with the racist crap. And we're hardly xenophobic if we *want* to find alien life.
EnsignFlandry
5 / 5 (4) Aug 05, 2015
Will SETI's unprecedented new program finally find E.T.?
Nope, these money are wasted. If we would invest them into cold fusion, we would get much higher profit, which could pay many thousands of SETI projects subsequently. But the priorities of contemporary science are clearly set up to serve the scientists - not the tax payers, who are paying them.


This may be a shock, but most scientists are not paid by taxpayers. SETI in particular is funded by wealthy individuals, who can spend their money on SETI or lollipops as they see fit.
Tuxford
1 / 5 (5) Aug 05, 2015
Simply ridiculous to conclude that aliens perhaps millions of years in advance of us are still using radio for communication. Nevertheless, they should focus on the moon and Ceres.
Andrew Palfreyman
not rated yet Aug 08, 2015
1. https://en.wikipe..._Way#Age : 13+ BY, not 10 BY
2. What about the Allen SETI Array at Hat Creek?
3. Detection with KLT not DFT?
Mimath224
1 / 5 (2) Aug 08, 2015
In my view, KBK is correct. We seem to be so complacent that every form of live has to be and think like us. We have life right here on Earth that doesn't think like us. If one believes in evolution it could be that other forms of life became dominant elsewhere in the universe and that,s without invoking exotic ideas. Why does it have to be that other intelligent life must be like us? Conditions on Earth may have been suitable for human life but do we know so much that it has to be that way everywhere?.
@ Returners '...I know they are telepathic, so why...'
Really??? How do you know? You've had a meeting with one/them? Please tell us more!
cont.
Mimath224
1 / 5 (3) Aug 09, 2015
Cont.
There are too many UFO reports by 'reliable' witnesses, including scientists, for something NOT to be going on. In the late 1970's I saw photos taken from English Electric series interceptors and they were the best I had seen. This RAF fighter apparently had the highest rate of climb at that time which made it suitable for 'scramble' but it suffered in other ways such as limited radar range etc so the pilot had to be very specific. For a craft out climb, out run and out manoeuvre these jets seems unlikely but apparently UFO's did with apparent ease with almost a 'catch me if you can' game. Were/are these mysterious craft of alien origin can only be speculated but on the off chance that they alien then we don't SETI for 'out there' we need it for right here. Oh boy, here come the 'down votes' ha!
VINDOC
not rated yet Aug 09, 2015
No.

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