Father of SETI Honored 50 Years After First Search for Alien Life

Frank Drake with a young observer at the Lick Observatory
Frank Drake with a young observer at the Lick Observatory. (Image credit: SETI Institute)

SANTA CLARA, Calif. ? Fifty years ago, humanity conductedthe first scientific experiment to search for evidence of alien life in theuniverse .

Astronomer Frank Drake, the man behind that project, received tophonors at a banquet gala Saturday at the SETIconconvention here about the searchfor extraterrestrial intelligence. It is not only the 50th anniversary ofthat first experiment, called Project Ozma, but also Drake's 80th birthday.

In 1960, Drake, then an astronomer at Cornell University,decided to mount a search for a signal being sent to us from another solarsystem. He pointed a radio telescope at the National Radio Astronomy Observatoryin Green Bank, W. Va., toward two nearby sun-like stars, Tau Ceti and EpsilonEridani, which seemed like good bets for hosting habitableplanets, and possibly life. He observed them for 150 hours over fourmonths.

"That's optimism that ranks right up there with RodBlagojevich's lawyer," said SETI Institute senior astronomer Seth Shostakof this first attemptto detect alien life, referring to the embattled former Illinois governor.

Though the experiment did not succeed in discovering any ofour cosmic neighbors, it began the search that is still going strong today.Drake and others at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., believe thatone day the search will prove fruitful.

"We are fully aware of the great importance of ourenterprise," Drake said. "That discovery will be one of the mostimportant to occur for any civilization."

One year after Project Ozma, Drake formulated an equationthat would fundamentally shape the way scientists think about life beyond Earth.The Drake equation, named after its creator, is the "second-most famousequation" after Einstein's E = mc^2, Shostak said.

This formula calculates how many intelligentextraterrestrial civilizations are likely to exist in the Milky Way, based on anumber of factors. The equation takes into account the rate of star formationin the galaxy, the fraction of stars that have planets, the fraction of planetsthat are habitable, the percent of those that actually develop life, thepercent of those that develop intelligent life, the fraction of civilizationsthat have a technology that can broadcast their presence into space, and thelength of time those signals would be broadcasted.

"The Drake equation is in effect a textbook forastrobiology," said David Morrison, director of the Carl Sagan Center forthe Study of Life in the Universe at the SETI Institute. "He has given usthe first great example of the synthesis of astronomy and biology."

Drake is still active in SETI, participating in optical andradio searches for signs of life. [10 AlienEncounters Debunked]

"Frank is not only a pioneer but he continues to bubbleup new ideas for SETI," Shostak said.

If and when humanity does discover a signal from aliens, itwill transform our society, Drake said.

"All of history has been just prologue," he said."There is a new history about to come to us."

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Clara Moskowitz
Assistant Managing Editor

Clara Moskowitz is a science and space writer who joined the Space.com team in 2008 and served as Assistant Managing Editor from 2011 to 2013. Clara has a bachelor's degree in astronomy and physics from Wesleyan University, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She covers everything from astronomy to human spaceflight and once aced a NASTAR suborbital spaceflight training program for space missions. Clara is currently Associate Editor of Scientific American. To see her latest project is, follow Clara on Twitter.