SETI Institute: Celebrating 25 Years of the Search

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Using the massive Allen Telescope Array (ATA) for SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and conducting a wide range of research in the Institute’s Carl Sagan Center for Study of Life in the Universe, scientists at the SETI Institute are piecing together the clues to the cosmic puzzle.

Allen Telescope Array (ATA)

The probability of success is difficult to estimate, but if we never search, the chance of success is zero.

Using the massive Allen Telescope Array (ATA) for SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and conducting a wide range of research in the Institute’s Carl Sagan Center for Study of Life in the Universe, scientists at the SETI Institute are piecing together the clues to the cosmic puzzle.

Marking its 25th anniversary this year, the SETI Institute has conducted some of the world’s most profound and influential scientific research since opening its doors for business in 1985. The Institute’s mission is to explore, understand, and explain the origin, nature, and prevalence of life in the universe. Put more simply, they seek an answer to a question that has vexed humanity ever since humans first looked up into the night sky and pondered our very existence: Are we alone?

Most well-known for the Center for SETI Research, Institute scientist Jill Tarter explains; “We’ve built the Allen Telescope Array (ATA), a totally new type of radio telescope; one that uses a large number of small dishes to survey the sky for engineered signals - evidence of distant, technologically advanced civilizations. It is the first facility ever specifically devoted to both SETI searches and to radio astronomy. ”

Yet, a large percentage of this non-profit science organization conducts astrobiology. The SETI Institute’s CEO, Thomas Pierson states; “It is fair to say that the Institute was performing astrobiology before it was recognized as a scientific field, and years before NASA formed its Astrobiology Institute. From the earliest days, work in what is now our Carl Sagan Center was organized to fit under the umbrella of the Drake Equation”, investigating where and how life could emerge and evolve in the universe.

Institute scientists are lead analysts on NASA’s Kepler project that searches for Earth-like planets in the universe that could potentially support life. Others are experts on Mars and examine where life could have once thrived on the red planet. Investigations of life in extreme environments here on Earth have taken scientists like Dale Andersen into the waters below the ice caps in Antarctica, to volcanic vents on the ocean floor, and to the Chilean antiplano. Analyses of these extremophiles (extreme life) help scientists understand how life can survive in Earth’s own harsh habitats, and if life could flourish in similar environments on another planet. Cynthia Phillips studies Europa, a moon of Jupiter with vast oceans covered by a layer of ice. Even the discovery of microorganisms in Europa’s seas would be of monumental importance. It would signal Earth is not unique and that the universe is probably teeming with life.

And the protocol if life is found? The Institute has scientists for that. Margaret Race pursues planetary protection and has helped outline the international procedures for the discovery of extraterrestrial life. She works to ensure shuttles don’t inadvertently bring unknown life back from space. Her research, along with that of Douglas Vakoch (inter-stellar message construction) considers the psychological implications surrounding the discovery of any type of life. Dr. Vakoch, a psychologist, uses research and the answers from a global survey “What would you say to an alien civilization?” to analyze what humanity’s response would be if we ever receive a phone call from ET. The discovery of life beyond Earth has the potential to reshape humanity’s very understanding of life as we know it, and therefore social preparation is just as important as scientific.

Having concluded a productive past 25 years conducting over quarter billion dollars of funded research, the SETI Institute is looking forward to its next quarter-century. Will 2010 be the year they make contact? Only time will tell, but as the last sentence of the seminal 1959 NATURE paper by Cocconi and Morrison said, “The probability of success is difficult to estimate, but if we never search, the chance of success is zero.”

For interview opportunities, jpegs, or videos please contact Amelia Meadows at amelia(at)publicnewyorkcity(dot)com, 212.431.1470

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