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See Inside January 2011

Contact: The Day After

If we are ever going to pick up a signal from E.T., it is going to happen soon, astronomers say. And we already have a good idea how events will play out



Courtesy of SETI institute

One day last spring Frank Drake returned to the observatory at Green Bank, W.Va., to repeat a search he first conducted there in 1960 as a 30-year-old astronomer. Green Bank has the largest steerable telescope in the world—a 100-meter-wide radio dish. Drake wanted to aim it at the same two sunlike stars he had observed 50 years ago, Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani, each a bit more than 10 light-years from Earth, to see if he could detect radio transmissions from any civilizations that might exist on planets orbiting either of the two stars. This encore observing run was largely ceremonial for the man who pioneered the worldwide collaborative effort known as SETI—the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. As a young man, Drake had half-expected to find a cosmos humming with the equivalent of ET ham radio chatter. The elder Drake did not expect any such surprises from Tau Ceti or Epsilon Eridani. The Great Silence, as some astronomers call the absence of alien communiqués, remains unbroken after five decades of searching. And yet so does Drake’s conviction that it is only a matter of time before SETI succeeds.

“Fifty years ago, when I made the first search, it took two months—200 hours of observing time at Green Bank,” says Drake, who is now chairman emeritus at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. “When I went back this year, they gave me an hour to repeat the experiment. That turned out to be way too much time. It took eight tenths of a second—each star took four tenths of a second! And the search was better. I looked at the same two stars over a much wider frequency band with higher sensitivity and more channels, in eight tenths of a second. That shows how far we’ve come. And the rate of improvement hasn’t slowed down at all.”

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