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The Man To Contact When Calling Home

From: UFO UpDates - Toronto <ufoupdates.nul>
Date: Tue, 28 Aug 2007 11:59:32 -0400
Archived: Tue, 28 Aug 2007 11:59:32 -0400
Subject: The Man To Contact When Calling Home

Source: SpaceDaily.Com - Sydney South, NSW, Australia


Aug 28, 2007

The Man To Contact When Calling Home From Across The Galaxy

by Leslie Mullen for Astrobiology Magazine

Moffett Field CA (SPX)

In the field of astrobiology, few people have had a bigger
influence than Frank Drake. In 1960, he conducted the first
radio Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). He
formulated the "Drake Equation," which set the standard for the
search for alien life in our galaxy, providing scientific rigor
to a field of inquiry that previously had been derided as pure
science fiction.

Drake, along with Carl Sagan, designed plaques that were carried
on the Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 spacecraft. The Pioneer plaques
depicted symbolic messages for any aliens the spacecraft might
encounter as they travel outside our solar system. Drake also
worked with Sagan on the Voyager Golden Record. Containing
sounds and images of life on Earth, the record was sent on both
the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft.

Besides pursuing his interest in alien life, over the course of
his career Drake conducted radio studies of the planets in our
solar system, discovering the radiation belt of Jupiter and
showing that Venus had a very high surface temperature. He also
studied pulsars, neutron stars that spin rapidly and thus send
out flashes of electromagnetic energy much like a lighthouse
beacon. Drake was the director of the Arecibo Radio Telescope
Observatory for 12 years, and taught at Cornell University and
the University of California, Santa Cruz. Now retired from
teaching, he runs the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in
the Universe at the SETI Institute.

"There are currently two scientific programs at the SETI
Institute," says Drake, "one for radio SETI and one for
astrobiology. I tell people that the first program deals with
radio and optical searches, and then I take care of the rest of
the universe."

Frank Drake sat down with Astrobiology Magazine's Leslie Mullen
to discuss sending a message to the aliens from Arecibo, the
Drake Equation, and the search for alien life.

Astrobiology Magazine (AM): In 1974 you sent a message from the
Arecibo radio telescope into space. What was the message
composed of entirely?

Frank Drake (FD): It had a number system. It had a group of five
numbers which were the atomic numbers of the five elements in
DNA. And then there were actual schematics of the DNA molecule
itself, with the bases and the deoxyribose frame. There was a
sketch of the solar system. There was a diagram of a telescope
focusing rays to a point, with the size of the Arecibo telescope
given because that's what sent the message, and that indicated
the maximum level of intelligent technology on Earth. There was
a sketch of a human being, our population was given, and planet
three in the solar system sketch was displaced towards the human
to indicate that's where we lived.

AM: Did Carl Sagan collaborate with you on designing the

FD: Carl Sagan wasn't part of that, actually. It was constructed
by several of the scientists on the staff at Arecibo, but mainly
by me. But Carl Sagan did play a role after it was constructed.
I took him to lunch one day and presented him with the message
already decoded. I asked, "Can you understand this?" This was a
test to see if the message was understandable to a very
knowledgeable Earth scientist. We eventually learned that nobody
could interpret all of the message; each scientist only could
interpret the part relevant to their discipline. So Carl got the
numbers right and the planetary system right, but he didn't get
the DNA chemistry.

AM: The message was sent to the globular cluster Messier 13. Was
that to increase the odds of someone receiving the message,
because more planets should be in that area of so many stars?

FD: That's right. The message would come to the maximum number
of stars.

AM: I've heard that life may be less likely in globular clusters
because of the intense gravitational forces and high radiation

FD: That's true, although more important is the lower abundance
of the chemical elements of life there. It would have been
better to send the message to the galactic center, but the
Arecibo telescope can't point towards to the center of the
galaxy because of its mechanical limitations. The dish is fixed
in the ground, and it can't look south of minus 2 degrees. If we
could send the message again we'd send it from a telescope that
could point to the center of the galaxy. There's a 100-meter
telescope at Green Bank that could do that.

AM: How long will it take the Arecibo message to reach the
globular cluster?

FD: 25,000 years. We sent it in 1974, so it's 33 light years

AM: Has it reached any stars at all during that time?

FD: No. It'll come to 30 stars along the way, but it hasn't
reached any of them yet.

AM: Your "Drake Equation" sets constraints on the possible
number of intelligent civilizations in the galaxy. I see the
equation as establishing which questions scientists should ask
in the search for alien life.

FD: That's a good way to look at it, as a table of contents of
what we have to study.

AM: Do you feel much progress has been made in filling in the
values of the equation? FD: Oh, enormous progress has been made.
Most important was the detection of the extrasolar planetary
systems. Before, we had theories but no direct knowledge.
There's also been increased understanding on the origins of
life, showing it may be an easy process. We've also improved our
understanding of what makes a planet habitable, and how many
habitable planets there might be.

AM: The extrasolar planets found so far are thought to be not

FD: But they may be. Determining habitability is complicated. In
our own solar system we've found a potentially habitable planet
in Jupiter's satellite Europa, which is outside the solar
system's habitable zone based on, as we now know, an
oversimplified theory. I think the habitable zone actually
extends out almost to infinity from a star, because, if a planet
has an insulating layer, it can have temperatures suitable for
liquid water. In the case of Europa, that insulating layer is
ice. On Jupiter there are layers in the atmosphere at room
temperature, and also on Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. For those
planets, the insulating layer is gas. In the case of Mars, the
insulating layer is probably soil. There could well be life deep
under the surface. So when there's an insulating layer, a planet
can be much farther from the star and still be warm enough.

AM: Do you think a lot of the models searching for life are too

FD: Yes, very much. Some of the models take no account for the
fact that a greenhouse effect can cause the habitable zone to be
much farther out from the star. We could put Venus much farther
from the Sun, and with its massive atmosphere it would have
liquid water on the surface. Of course, there's the habitable
zone for any kind of life, and a habitable zone for intelligent
creatures. They're probably not the same. Microbial life is
going to be everywhere, but intelligent life won't be as

AM: What do you think of the idea that life, once it does get
started on a planet, will inevitably advance to higher
complexity, even if it's not in forms we may recognize?

FD: Sure, Darwinian evolution will proceed.

AM: Although we have no evidence for intelligent life in our own
solar system other than Earth.

FD: But that's meaningless. Probably every planet can produce
more than one intelligent species eventually. But they do it at
different rates. So on every suitable planet in very many
planetary systems, there may be many intelligent species about
to appear, but one is always first. And the first one looks
around and says, "We're the only smart ones!" It is the only way
it can be, and this is greatly misunderstood. This inevitable
situation does not say that a planet can produce only one
intelligent species. This fact says nothing about the
probability of intelligent life or the possible eventual number
of intelligent civilizations. AM: Have you ever felt the need to
make any changes to the Drake Equation over the past 47 years?

FD: No. I do get letters all the time suggesting we should add
more factors, like the role of politicians. But all of that is a
part of the already existing factors, so there's been no need to
change it. It's held up well. The numbers may change, but not
the equation itself. One rapidly changing factor in the equation
is the typical number of planets in the habitable zone. Well,
that number is changing all over the place, but that just
reflects a healthy march of science towards the real truth.

AM: There are a number of missions in the near future that could
have an impact on your equation. Are there any in particular you
are looking forward to?

FD: A mission to Europa. I think that's the best chance of
finding life elsewhere in the solar system, if they can drill
through the ice. But that mission doesn't exist yet.

AM: Is there anything in the science of astrobiology in general
that strikes you as being particularly interesting?

FD: Subsurface life on Mars is important to explore, and that's
relatively easy. Also, searching for potential life on Titan,
but that's more problematic because it's so cold there.

AM: What about in the field of SETI?

FD: The funds are drying up. SETI has always been dependent on
private gifts, and those have become very limited. The price of
SETI is not a lot, only a few million dollars a year. People ask
me, "How long will it take for you to succeed?" I say, "It all
depends on how much money people give."

AM: Success depends on more than money, though. Dan Werthimer,
who runs the SETI.nul project, says the success of that project
is highly dependent on how much computer processing they can get
done. They need millions more volunteer computers crunching the
numbers, analyzing the data.

FD: Dan's statement is very true. A lot of people think SETI has
failed, but we just haven't looked at nearly enough stars or
radio frequencies in different ways. The signals may not be
there all the time, and we may have to look at the same star in
different frequencies over and over in order to be listening at
the right time.

AM: Listening at the right time, at the right star that has a
planet with life at the same point of evolution as us - the
chance of that seems so small. FD: Small, yes, but we live in a
galaxy very rich in stars suitable for life. My estimate is
we'll find existing intelligent life in one in ten million

AM: Speaking of listening at the right time, what are your
thoughts about the "Wow signal" received by the Big Ear
telescope at Ohio State University in 1977?

FD: It's an unsolved mystery. It could have been an alien
signal, or it could have been a human signal inadvertently
picked up, or something else, perhaps an equipment failure.
Hundreds of people have looked for that signal over the years,
but it's never been repeated.

There have been some other tantalizing candidate signals. The
long Harvard search of Horowitz and Sagan observed more than
thirty signals that had the earmark of an extraterrestrial
signal. The SETI.nul program has observed more than a hundred
such signals. Both of these programs are automated, though, so
no one was there at the time to do immediate follow-up
observations. Researchers later tried to detect these signals,
but, as with the Wow signal, they've been unsuccessful. So the
origin of these signals is an open question.

Project Phoenix of the SETI Institute also has found many good
candidates, but that program could immediately determine the
origin of the signal and all of them turned out to be of human
origin. It may be that all the potential signals detected so far
were generated by humans. But for now they remain a mystery, and
that gives hope to those of us who search for alien signals.

Article is courtesy of NASA's Astrobiology Magazine team at Ames
Research Center. This article is public domain and available for
reprint with appropriate credit.

[Thanks to 'The Norm' for the lead]

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