Renowned Astronomer Given Go Ahead for New Alien Search

UC Berkeley professor Geoff Marcy sits in front of terminals that allow for remote control of the W. M. Keck Observatory, located near the summit of a Hawaiian volcano.

UC Berkeley professor Geoff Marcy sits in front of terminals that allow for remote control of the W. M. Keck Observatory, located near the summit of a Hawaiian volcano.

With NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler telescope reaching the end of its useful life, it is now up to private investors and companies to step up in supporting the search for intelligent life in our universe.

And that is exactly what is occurring.  Last month saw the launch of METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence), a crowd-funded project set up by a group of businessmen and entrepreneurs to send out radio signals into the cosmos in the hope that an advanced civilization ‘out there’ might be able to pick them up.  Now Geoff Marcy, renowned astronomer at the University of California who discovered nearly ¾ of the first 100 planets outside our solar system, has received funding to pursue his search for alien civilisations.

Marcy has been awarded a total of $US200,000 by the Templeton Foundation, a philanthropic organisation dedicated to exploring the big questions of life, such as: ‘Are we alone?’.  According to Marcy, that question is relatively easy to answer: “The universe is simply too large for there not to be another intelligent civilisation out there. Really, the proper question is: ‘How far away is our nearest intelligent neighbour?’ They could be 10 light-years, 100 light-years, a million light-years or more. We have no idea.”

Geoff Marcy has now begun sifting through Kepler’s data, which includes data on 150,000 star systems gathered from its telescope 40 million miles from Earth, to determine if there is any evidence of extraterrestrial spacecrafts passing in front of distant stars.


A look at the SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array at Hat Creek Observatory about 290 miles northeast of San Francisco, Calif. (Photo: SETI Institute)

So far, scientists have been able to identify exoplanets by noticing the way stars dim as the planet passes in front of it. But Marcy has hypothesised that the dimming could also be caused by a giant spacecraft moving close to the star. It all depends on the way it dims and the timing. For example, if the star dimmed, then came back, then dimmed out for a long time, then came on again, that pattern would not be consistent with the passing of a planet. It would also not confirm extraterrestrial presence but as Marcy stated, it would at least warrant further investigation.

The sheer scale of the funding that is emerging from private investors around the world, such as $US30 million coming from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen to build a giant radio telescope array in San Francisco, is evidence that the almighty question of ‘are we alone?’ is not one that is going to be forgotten.


Are We Too Primitive To Detect ET?


Leading scientists, astronomers and philosophers alike have pondered the question – are we just too primitive to detect signals or signs of intelligent life on other planets? According to Arthur C. Clarke, “we may be like jungle savages listening for the throbbing of tom-toms while the ether around them carries more words per second than they could utter in a lifetime.”

 Recently we have reported on numerous efforts which are underway to detect, as well as contact, advanced extraterrestrial life – the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has been scanning our universe for intelligent signals for over 60 years; the Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) project has begun sending out messages in the hope that an advanced race may pick up our signals and respond; and NASA’s Kepler spacecraft has been hunting for planets that could host other life forms for more than a decade.

But has anyone working on these projects stopped to ask: what if their ‘signals’ are very different from our ‘signals’? Leading astronomer, Sir Martin Rees, believes that extraterrestrials could be using an entirely different communication medium to our own, such as neutrinos or gravitational waves or another communication mechanism that we cannot begin to understand.

Lord Rees believes that the existence of extraterrestrial life could simply be beyond human understanding, “I suspect there could be life and intelligence out there in forms we can’t conceive. Just as a chimpanzee can’t understand quantum theory, it could be there as aspects of reality that are beyond the capacity of our brains,” he said.

The current lack of clear messages or signals from advanced civilizations should therefore not be viewed with disappointment – we may just have some catching up to do! Ancient Origins

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