Less Than 20 Years Until First Contact?

Article written: 12 Nov , 2008
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015
by

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The Allen Telescope Array (ATA) has come online with its initial configuration of 42 antennas. The project, led by the SETI Institute, is a non-governmental project funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen in which eventually 350 small radio antennas will scan the sky for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. To test the system, the ATA sucessfully picked up the New Horizons probe on its way to Pluto. Senior SETI scientist Seth Shostak said at an event in San Francisco Tuesday night that the array could become strong enough by 2025 to look deep enough into space to find extraterrestrial signals. “We’ll find E.T. within two dozen years,” he said.

That’s, of course, assuming the distance we can look into space will be increased with new instruments yet to be built, and that the projected computing power under Moore’s Law actually happens.

Shostak estimated that if the assumptions about computing power and the strength of forthcoming research instruments are correct, we should be able to search as far out as 500 light years into space by 2025, a distance he predicted would be enough–based on scientist Frank Drake’s estimate of there being 10,000 civilizations in our galaxy alone capable of creating radio transmitters–to find evidence of intelligent life that is broadcasting its existence.

Only time will tell.

For the New Horizons observation, made Sept. 10, operators of the ATA used a synthesized beam formed with 11 of the array’s 6.1-meter (20 foot) antennas – a method called “beamforming” that electronically combines the antennas into a single virtual telescope. The 8.4-GHz spacecraft carrier signal was then fed into the SETI Prelude detection system.

“We’re happy to be the ATA’s new friend in the sky, helping SETI to verify the operations of their electronics,” says New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern. “It’s also nice to know that someone else is checking in on us during our long voyage to Pluto and beyond.”

And what does New Horizons look like to the Allen Telescope Array? This plot shows 678 hertz (Hz) of spectrum collected over 98 seconds. The New Horizons signal can be easily seen as a bright diagonal line, drifting at rate of -0.6 > Hz/second.

What New Horizons looks like to The ATA.  Credit: SETI Institute

What New Horizons looks like to The ATA. Credit: SETI Institute

Sources: CNET, New Horizons

Nancy Atkinson is currently Universe Today’s Contributing Editor. Previously she served as UT’s Senior Editor and lead writer, and has worked with Astronomy Cast and 365 Days of Astronomy. Nancy is the author of the new book “Incredible Stories from Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos.” She is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.


47 Responses

  1. zeb says

    Well, we’ll see. Personally I think we’ll be much more likely to discover ETI by finding robotic probes within the solar system (likely von Neumann probes). Though the trouble is that there are literally billions of places to look.

    Perhaps the best way to find them would be to send our own von Neumann throughout the system.

  2. Charles Vane says

    I like Shostak, he’s a good SETI popularizer, but to say something like “We’ll detect a signal in 24 years,” based on an equation that’s just a string of mostly unknown variables, is just wishful thinking.

    I hope we do, I think it would be great for humanity and great for seeing ourselves as one tribe rather than hundreds. But even 24 years from now it’s going to be the longest of long shots, computing power notwithstanding. Plus, Moore’s Law is about to run up against some serious limits, like heat in the processors and quantum effects at uberhigh processor speeds.

  3. BrianV says

    That’s a bold prediction… finding a signal within 20 years.

    The big unknown is whether there are any signals to find, whether 500 light years or 500 million light years away.

    The fact is, none of the terms of the Drake equation are known at all. Which means the equation is of no scientific or predictive use whatsoever.

    That said, I wish them well. The discovery of an extraterrestrial signal would be the most momentous and socially significant discovery ever made.

  4. Richie says

    10,000 civilizations in our galaxy alone capable of creating radio transmitters.

    “I don’t believe it”

    If our galaxy was twice the size, there may be 2…. even then the time frames would not match….

    Give it up, it’s not going to happen…

  5. Todd Coolen says

    I like the idea of searching for probes in our own system. It fact one of those Main belt objects could have a probe that was sent long ago and is now covered in rock from millions of years ago. Hmmm begs the question — if we find alien life exists, will their civilization still be alive? Maybe we will learn of a civilization that DID exist.

  6. Ayti says

    If Drakes own estimate (10,000 communicative civilizations in the galaxy) is true – and – we are able to search an area of radius 500 Ly – then – the number of such areas we would have to search to locate one communitative civilization is on the order of 10^6.

    I don’t see how he could have arrived at a 20 year prediction. My calculation is planar and assumes an even distribution across the entire area of the galaxy. Factoring in some thickness in the galactic plane and accounting for a galactic “habitable zone” would significantly reduce the number of areas to be searched but I’d be startled if it could support Shostak’s prediction.

  7. Huygens says

    Interesting that Stern is interested in a SETI project, as he showed little interest in doing any kind of a plaque, record, or other information package on New Horizons that
    would have been of benefit to an ETI which might find the probe in interstellar space some day.

    Instead they will be “treated” to the equivalent of an amateur time capsule. The same goes for our descendants who have an even greater chance of recovering the probe some day.

    An opportunity to inform our future about present humanity was largely lost. Though perhaps the items thrown on NH do say a lot about the present state of the species.

  8. PaulS says

    Gotta love that they are starting with 42 antennae. It’s the answer to the ultimate question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.

    Too bad “spooky action at a distance” seems untenable as a communication method. It would be so much better than radio wave transmissions. Instant communication no matter the distance. But it seems pokey old light speed is what we’re stuck with.

  9. David M says

    The setup is worthwhile – as just another eye-to-the-sky who knows what it may discover. But I’m skeptical it will find signals from inelligent beings.

    500 light years seems a little too short-a-distance, even if each statement in a conversation takes 6 human lifetimes to reach it’s recipient.

    Its not that I don’t think they’re out there because I do… but I won’t be getting my hopes up just yet.

  10. Chuck R. says

    I’ll believe it when I see it.

    But should I see it, I will smile.

  11. maudyfish says

    Does anyone have an idea how many solar systems are in a radius of 500LY???????

    You can’t hold science back any more than you can stop looking for the signs of life elsewhere; not matter what anyone says it is going to happen. It doesn’t matter if it is 2015 or 2025 or 2035 that we get an answer to something that needs answering.

    And even if we are the first species to send out messages or listen for signals from the far reaches of space, we need to know what steps to take if anyone is out there!!

  12. Douglas says

    Shouldn’t we get a self-defense system up first…I mean what if they are really hungry?

  13. Molecular says

    It more likely before SETI discovers anything within their projected time frames, they we’ll just “happen” across ET as we explore space through other scientific means which have nothing to do with discovering these civilizations in a direct manner.

    When a group of bare-footed individuals kick around in a haystack for fun, it doesn’t take long for the needle to pierce someone’s skin. 🙂

  14. Joe says

    I’m doubtful that it will be 20 years when we make contact, but I’d be surprised if it didn’t happen in 100. I’m more interested in just finding an inhabitable planet anyways, but that’s because I’m looking forward to the probability of building colonies elsewhere.

  15. KG6YRA says

    All we can do now is sit back and listen.

  16. Kevin F. says

    All organizations love making the 20-30 year prediction. By then, who’s gonna remember?

  17. Silver Thread says

    Spot on Kevin. I’m saying this dude plans to retire in the area of two decades anyhow. Not to be a Naysayer, mind you. I expect we’re already under some sort of scrutiny from a civilization somewhere but I doubt they’d want to have much to do with us until we prove that we can act like a Civilization. At any rate, here’s to pissing in the wind.

  18. Ross says

    People. Think. 500 light years? Light speed is our limit of communication. 20 years to make contact? It will not happen. Do the math. It would take 500 years to recieve the last message any E.T. would of sent. Unless they sent their message 480 years ago. If they sent it back then, they would certainly be 480 years more advanced by today. They would also not be useing the same tech or frequency any more today. We went from radio telegraph to computers in just about a 100 years. what will we be using in another 380-400 years from now? Also to note, Any communication system for use between stars even in our own galactic space, would have to be reasonable in terms of time. This form of communication would have to be faster then light. My point is this, If E.T. is communicating with some one else, their frequency would HAVE to be very high and with something faster then light, which I might add, is a technology we do not have, and can not at this time attain, and we are therefore not going to hear them. Mainly because we are not on their frequency, and do not have the technology TO hear them yet.

    How many stars are with in 500 light years of Earth? How many of those have a life barring habitable zone to harbour life? How many of those are have the technology to transmit a signal that advanced or any at all? With this in mind, I do not think the drake equation will help us here. After all. It is just 500 light years. Thats not really that far out there.

  19. tacitus says

    Actually, I don’t think Shostak picked 24 years because it is long enough for people to forget, I think he picked it because he hopes to live to see the day we finally make contact.

    His bio doesn’t say when he was born, but given that he published his first book in 1980, he’s at least 50 years old, so that gives him 25-30 years to see his life-long dream come true.

    So I wouldn’t be too hard on his prediction. It’s only natural to hope that your life’s work bears fruit while you are still alive. I’m not much younger than Seth, so I am hoping he’s right!

  20. Graham says

    Am I alone in thinking that Drake’s equation isn’t all that useful as a predictive tool with the present state of knowledge?
    Fl, Fi and Fc are clearly not equal to zero (we’re here) but they could each take pretty much any other of an infinite number of values – including vanishingly close to zero.
    If and when we have a few more life-forms to count , the equation may be of value but up until then it dresses up a guess as being more than it is.

  21. Aodhhan says

    Looks like this is designed to work more like a flashlight than an actual receiver. Meaning, it will allow someone to see us before we see them. Like someone using a flashlight in a dark area.
    So it isn’t the fact we have to find the correct frequency. Its a matter of someone seeing the beam, tracing it back to us, and then somehow sending us something in return.

  22. Yan Luz says

    I hope that when we do find a signal that the Government does not censor it from the public by not allowing scientists to go public with with. I fear that the Government will try to protect religion by not admitting that there are intelligent beings out there.

  23. Huygens says

    Any religion that cannot handle the realities of the Universe does not deserve to exist.

    Then again, most cults – I mean religions – are pretty self-deluding, aren’t they?

    If Obama weren’t coming into office in a few months, I might agree that the Government would hide an alien signal to preserve religion, especially the Christian ones.

    By the way, Frank Drake used to predict ETI detection by the distant future year of 2000. Oddly enough, the rest of the Universe probably does not base their calendars on the birth of a Jewish radical.

  24. Ayti says

    @Aodhhan

    Flashlight? I don’t think so – it’s a listening post not a transmitter unless I’m sorely mistaken.

    It has a large enough area to detect faint radio signals out to a distance of about 500 years which is pretty impressive but still small in the context of the larger galaxy.

    I’ve heard of others busy with flashlights hoping to signal ET directly – an act of questionable wisdom IMO.

  25. Aodhhan says

    Ayti…
    If it was a passive energy receiver you would be correct. In this case however, the engergy isn’t totally passive. It cannot be, in order to create beamforming.

  26. Paul says

    better off researching quantum communications or at least some neutrinos

  27. Ayti says

    Aodhhan,

    Thanks, I’ll read up on beamforming. I thought they were doing something akin to radio interferometry similar to the long baseline array of large scale radio telescopes.

    cheers

  28. Freddy Yu says

    Good Luck to them.

    Considering how this planet wastes money on some things like defence & weapons I’ve got no problem with money being spent on this.

    It is after all the question of the age.

  29. ShadowDancer says

    Aodhhan Says:
    November 13th, 2008 at 11:43 am
    Ayti…
    If it was a passive energy receiver you would be correct. In this case however, the engergy isn’t totally passive. It cannot be, in order to create beamforming.

    Go back and reread the article Aodhhan. It says right in the article that “a method called “beamforming” that electronically combines the antennas into a single virtual telescope.” It’s the same as the idea of launching multiple small telescopes that maintain a set distance from one another and combining the input to gain a sharper image.

  30. In radio astronomy, the term “beam” refers to the sensitivity pattern of the antenna. It is borrowed from radar engineering and often leads to confusion over whether we are transmitting or receiving. The ATA does not transmit; the antennas are combined for sensitivity.

    Over the course of the next two decades, the the SETI program on the ATA will observe about one million or more stars. We will be sensitive to narrowband signals with transmitters no more powerful than our own airport radars. Unlike Seth, I will not predict that we will find a signal. I will predict that we will search those stars over a wide range of frequencies and good sensitivity.

    Peter Backus
    Observing Programs Manager
    SETI Institute

  31. DestroyAllHumans says

    Will you be scanning areas that show up in the infrared but not optical?

    SETI needs to get past the old paradigm of biological beings living on a planet orbiting a Sun type star, or the search will take even longer for success.

  32. alandee says

    I hope it is within the next couple of dozen years .. it would make my twilight so very much brighter ..

  33. Chuck Lam says

    To: Peter Backus @ the SETI Institute. A couple questions please. Has anyone in your organization ever done the math on, for example, a million watt highly focused RF signal aimed at earth, lets’s say, from the Alpha C system to determine just how many watts of RF energy might be available for detection? What is the theoretical gain of your new antenna array? How sensitive is the detection equipment? What is the calculated ‘signal to noise’ ratio? Alpha C is in our backyard. Now do the same math for 100 or 500 light years distance.

  34. Dark Gnat says

    Yan Luz, Huygens

    Christianity has no problem with extra-terrestials. The vatican announced a while back that it would not contradict the techings. Technically, angels would be considered aliens (heavenly beings), anyway.

    Not everyting is a conspiracy.

    As for the topic:

    I’m very skeptical of this 20-30 year prediction. I’m betting aliens will be so different than us, that they may not even communicate the same way, or use the same technology that we do. We may not even be aware of what we are looking at. I wonder if he’d be willing to put some money on it.

  35. Drew says

    Hz/second. That’s a fun set of units… 😉


    Drew

  36. Huygens says

    Dark Gnat –

    You and some other Christians may not have an issue with ETI, but I also know many fundamentalist types who are certain that God created only one planet with any life in the Universe – all for our benefit, of course.

    We are currently watching various groups in the USA flip out about the first black President. Imagine how they will react to an intelligent being from another planet. Centuries of stories about hideous aliens invading Earth will not help the situation.

  37. Robert says

    6, 42, 142 antennas – it’ll just be a fluke – a wonderful, marvelous fluke – if we hear anything. I agree with what some others have said – until we understand entanglement more clearly, we won’t really have a decent, directed shot at hearing, establishing and communicating with a more advance species – unless they come to us first.

  38. Kay says

    One of the most relevant comments here is that of Chuck Lam, who raises questions about the ability of the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) to discriminate actual signals from noise, and about the strength of those signals after 500 light years of travel.

    There are indeed reasons why SETI won’t work, at least not with ATA or other current equipment, and one wonders why the SETI Institute team endeavors to skirt this matter entirely.

    SETI (in the words of the SETI Institute) “seeks evidence of life in the universe by looking for some signature of its technology.” On the public face of the matter the impression has been created that it primarily searches for the radio leakage inadvertently streamed into space by extraterrestrial civilizations.

    Even using a 300 meter antenna (like Arecibo), which has an area 7 times larger than that of ATA’s combined antennas, Earth’s own radio leakage would diminish to indiscernible static at the relatively short distance represented by Saturn’s orbit, which of course is infinitesimal compared to any interstellar observation. Because of such inversely proportional attenuation and the existence of multitudinous sources of noise, the detection of leakage from a radio-using civilization on a planet circling the closest other possible solar system, at only 4 light years distance, would require an antenna measuring 33,000 kilometers in diameter. I kid you not.

    While the intriguing possibility of radio leakage from extraterrestrial civilizations garners much public interest, the SETI Institute is certainly aware of the presently nsurmountable obstacles to detecting such signals, and accordingly is not even trying to look for something it knows it cannot see. Rather, their effort is entirely based on the premise that some of the radio-using civilizations will to some degree lance focused beams into space. While focused beams are more easily detectable, the improvement is puny on the interstellar scale, and one is persuaded that in the vastness of space it is very improbable that any extraterrestrial beacons would casually impinge upon the infinitesimal dot which is Earth. While we are often subjected to the Drake Equation with its entirely unfounded assumed variables, we have never seen any efforts to calculate the extreme unlikelihood of interstellar focused beams impinging on our planet.

    It is nice that Mr. Allen has financed the SETI array bearing his name, but neither this decidedly modest array nor anything else on our planet comes remotely close to the minimum basic requirement for the detection of radio leakage from even our nearest potential neighbors. In fact, the current antennas are less than 0.001% of what is needed to get started, aside from the sensible questioning of the nature of any extraterrestrial signals.

    One wonders why SETI proponents completely skirt this fundamental detection issue. The SETI Institute enthusiastically informs its sponsors about its sophisticated instrumentation, but neglects to mention that it is all connected to an antenna array which will be just as effective in receiving extraterrestrial signals as a toaster.

  39. UnknownBoy says

    Wow for so many seemingly intelligent posters, you all fail to think past the human aspect of it eh? Our understanding of physics and how the universe works is extremely limited..based on what? 1 human( rather smart but still human) called Einstein?
    Who’s to say an advanced alien species has a much stronger understanding of physics & is able to surpass the time/distance/speed limit we have so far been unable to figure a way around? Do you think the Aliens also had a Marconi who built a radio transmitter..or are they based on a totally different set of parameters..my god you people are so narrow minded..

  40. Nexus says

    I think contact is a long, long way off. I used to believe that intelligence would arise in a lot of places that had life, and that life would start pretty much anywhere it could. But now I’m of the opinion that life might not be that common and that it takes a lot for intelligence to develop. There might be no more than a few dozen civilizations in our galaxy.

    Then there’s the simple fact that it is easier to passively listen for signals than it is to send them. We’ve made maybe five or six attempts to send a signal to whoever might be out there, and all of those were symbolic efforts for our benefit, with no hope of actually reaching someone. If we don’t make an effort, why should we expect the aliens to? We might be one of fifty civilizations, all sitting around with their hands cupped around their ears going “Someone say something!”

  41. PB says

    To Peter Backus @ the SETI Institute: I am sure the readers here would very much appreciate a response to the comments posted by Chuck Lam and Kay.

  42. JB says

    Better get the “units” right this time! …

    Less than “2 Dozen years” is actually 24 (2 x 12), not “20” as in the head line. So there’s an extra 4 years to come up with those little green guys!
    Damned imperial-metric conversions 🙂

  43. AH says

    Way to go, Shostak. You just put a 24 year kill-switch on SETI. Prepare to be fired.

  44. Andy F says

    My view is that there is no harm in trying to detect signals, to answer what must be the greatest of all questions. As Frank Drake recently said, if people are unhappy with the word “science” being attached to the hypothesis (there is after all a problem with falsifiability), then perhaps we should associate it with the word “exploration”.

    I “believe”, (basing my judgement from science/evolution of how life readily developed on Earth, and how the organic building blocks of life are ubiquitous in our solar system and in interstellar space), that the universe is brimming with life.

    Most of this will be microbial/bacterial, but on a small (perhaps very small indeed) fraction of worlds sentient beings will have developed, like us, from these microbes and muck (to quote Sagan), and who knows how thet utilise the RF spectrum or lasers, or their TX powers!

    As a species of wanderers and explorers, despite setbacks, politics and economics, we can never cease either space exploration or ETI searches – it’s part of us, and hence, SETI’s modest cost is well worth it. 24 years may be rather hopeful, but how many of us 6 months ago were actually expecting to see images of exo-planets – some taken from ground-based telescopes? And that’s before we talk about serendipitous discoveries of ETI!

  45. Chuck Lam says

    To Andy F., I no doubt that most of the population agrees, as I do, with your position on exploration. It just seems to me that SETI is working things backwards. Their effort would be better served promoting the development of hyper-sensitive rf detection equipment capable of sensing femto-watt levels or less of rf from an overwhelming natural background of noise. Currently SETI is looking for the equivalent of a burning candle on the surface of a distant star. Stray rf detection from as little as a few light-years distance simply isn’t going to happen.

  46. Ttkk'slklkpaa says

    Dear Humans:

    I have found your radio signal but am confused about how to navigate this “internet.” Could someone please direct me to the “website” of your “leader?”

  47. Cronos D says

    Dear Ttkk’slklkpaa,

    May I be the first to cordially welcome you to our signal! My advice steer clear of ‘sites’ that require a ‘credit card’ & end in .com. Many of them may appear to be our ‘leader’ but in fact only link to information on variations in how our species attempts reproduction but mostly is absolutely incorrect physiologically speaking.

    Maybe for an effective transition to Earth culture monitor our ‘television’ broadcasts and then decide if it may be better to wait until our sun expands into a red giant and life re-emerges on Mars – luck with that!!

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