Astronomer talks about search for alien life | NevadaAppeal.com

Astronomer talks about search for alien life

Kirk Caraway
kcaraway@nevadaappeal.com

When will we find evidence of life outside our solar system?

That was one of the many questions posed by Seth Shostak, the senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, during a presentation Saturday evening at Western Nevada College.

And the answer he gave was probably in the next quarter century.

The SETI Institute searches for life among the stars using radio telescopes, a mission dramatized in the movie “Contact” with Jodie Foster. But unlike Hollywood, the discovery of extraterrestrial life is likely to be less dramatic than the messages Foster heard wearing a set of headphones.

“I told Warner Brothers that this is wrong,” said Shostak, who was a consultant for the film. “We monitor 56 million channels simultaneously. So you have to put 28 million pairs of earphones on Jodie.”

Shostak said it takes powerful computers to monitor all of these channels, though he said they do have a bottle of champagne in the refrigerator in case they have something to celebrate.

“For some reason, it’s always a different bottle of champagne when I go there,” said Shostak, to the amusement of the crowd.

Shostak debunked the theory put forward in science fiction movies that the government would want to shut down their research if they really found life on other planets because human civilization couldn’t handle that reality.

“Half of you believe the aliens are already here!” Shostak said.

SETI researchers have only scanned about 1,000 star systems, out of a galaxy of a couple of billion stars.

“To me, it’s not at all surprising we haven’t found anything. In fact, I would be astonished if we had found anything.”

Shostak talked about the Allen Telescope Array in Northern California that currently has 42 radio telescopes and will have 350 when completed, and how this facility gives them more tools to search for signs of life elsewhere.

“If we get the money to get this built, it will be hundreds of times faster than what we’ve done in the past, and it will get faster after that,” he said.

Because of the increased scanning of these star systems, Shostak predicts we will stumble across signals from other intelligent life sometime in the next 24 years.

“If the assumptions that have been made are anywhere near correct, this is not an experiment that is going to take centuries or generations. If it’s going to work, it’s going to work soon, in your lifetime. Unless you get hit by a truck.”