Answers about Intelligent Alien Life should come within 20 years, astronomers told members of a Congressional science committee. A three-way race is under way to learn if life exists elsewhere in the solar system or beyond, Seth Shostak, senior astronomer with the California-based SETI Institute, said during a hearing before the House Science and Technology Committee.
Dan Werthimer, who directs Berkeley’s new SETI Research Center, summarized current efforts to search for extraterrestrial intelligence at a May 21 hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.
At the invitation of committee chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), Werthimer and astrobiologist Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., described current projects to find intelligent life on other planets and how NASA’s Kepler space observatory is contributing to this effort. They also reviewed the newest projects, such as “eavesdropping SETI,” and the latest tools, including the Allen Telescope Array in northern California now operated by the SETI Institute.
If intelligent alien life exists we will find it within two decades, thanks to advances in Computer power speeding up our search of star systems, says the SETI Institute’s senior astronomer Seth Shostak. Previous searches have covered a few thousand star systems “at most” and it is likely that we would need to scour “a few million” before we were successful, he said in an interview with Popular Mechanics. But advances in computer technology have sped up the search and will continue to do so. Seth Shostak’s best guess is that we’ll succeed in the next two decades is based on the fact that with improvements in digital electronics and computers – which are getting better and cheaper, following Moore’s law – we will be continually sifting through the sky faster. And you can extrapolate how fast we’ll be able to search, assuming we have the money, in the next decade or two.
Three main ways to search for alien life
1. So far, most efforts — and funding — to find extraterrestrial life have focused on Mars and potential life-bearing moons in the outer solar system.
“At least a half-dozen other worlds (besides Earth) that might have life are in our solar system. The chances of finding it, I think, are good, and if that happens, it’ll happen in the next 20 years, depending on the financing,” Shostak said.
2. A second initiative scans the atmospheres of distant planets for telltale signs of oxygen or methane, gases which, on Earth, are mostly tied to life. These searches likewise could yield results in the next two decades, Shostak added.
3. The third project hunts for technologically advanced aliens that are sending radio or other signals out into space. The idea behind the Search of Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, is to eavesdrop on signals that are deliberately or accidentally leaked from another world.
The Kepler Space Telescope mission has shown that the Milky Way Galaxy alone has a trillion planets, three times the number of stars.
“Billions of these planets are Earth sized and in the ‘habitable’ or so called ‘Goldilocks’ zone – not too distant from their host star (too cold), and not too close to their star (too hot). And there are billions of other galaxies outside our Milky Way galaxy – plenty of places where life could emerge and evolve,” he added
“The Kepler mission has given us a ton of multiplanet systems to look at,” said Werthimer’s colleague Andrew Siemion, a research scientist at the Space Sciences Laboratory who holds joint postdoctoral appointments at ASTRON, the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy, and Radboud University in Nijmegen, Netherlands. In 2012, the team observed 75 such line-ups using the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank telescope in West Virginia.
They now plan a broader, more coordinated effort, dubbed the Panchromatic SETI Project, to observe the planets around all 30 stars within 13 light years of Earth in the northern hemisphere. To do this, the UC Berkeley collaborators will harness six different ground-based telescopes, including Arecibo, Green Bank and the Keck telescopes in Hawaii, to look for optical, infrared and radio signals simultaneously and for more extended periods of time.