Frank Drake, SETI pioneer, 1930–2022 – Astronomy Now


Frank Drake and his eponymous equation for estimating the variety of technological civilisations within the Milky Manner Galaxy. Picture: SETI Institute.

Frank Drake, the radio astronomer who pioneered the seek for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), died yesterday (2 September) on the age of 92.

Born on 28 Might 1930 in Chicago, Drake was working on the Inexperienced Financial institution Radio Telescope in the course of the early days of radio astronomy, within the late Fifties, when he was impressed by Giuseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison’s well-known 1959 paper in Nature about utilizing radio transmissions at 21cm wavelength to speak throughout interstellar distances. Inspired by the director of Inexperienced Financial institution, Otto Struve, Drake carried out the primary ever radio SETI search in April 1960. Referred to as Undertaking Ozma, the search utilised the 26-metre dish at Inexperienced Financial institution to scan two close by stars, epsilon Eridani and tau Ceti, for extraterrestrial radio transmissions. Drake thought he had hit pay-dirt on day one, with the detection of an anomalous, pulsed sign coming from the course of epsilon Eridani. Nevertheless, the sign turned out to be from a high-altitude plane as a substitute. 

The mission lasted about six weeks unfold throughout April and Might, accounting for about 200 hours’ price of observing time. Suffice to say, no bonafide extraterrestrial alerts had been found, however that didn’t put Drake off. The next yr he organised a SETI convention at Inexperienced Financial institution on the behest of J. Peter Pearman of the Nationwide Academy of Sciences. Invited to the assembly had been such luminaries as a younger Carl Sagan, Cocconi and Morrison who had kicked the entire thing off with their Nature paper, electronics scientist Dana Atchley, Barney Oliver of Hewlett-Packard, the biochemist Melvin Calvin, controversial neuroscientist John Lily, and naturally Drake and Struve.

However days earlier than the assembly, Drake realised that they wanted a extra coherent agenda, so he set about making a framework based mostly on what he thought had been the salient questions that wanted answering earlier than let’s imagine whether or not SETI is perhaps profitable.

If extraterrestrial life existed, then it appeared cheap to count on that it could stay on planets, orbiting stars, so realizing the speed at which stars kind appeared a very good start line. Then, what number of of these stars kind planets? What number of of these planets are temperate like Earth, and what number of in the end develop easy life? Then, now what number of of these worlds does that easy life evolve into advanced, clever life? What fraction of these clever civilisations develop the know-how for interstellar communication? And at last, how lengthy do alien civilisations exist for, as a result of the Universe may be very outdated, and if technological civilisations don’t final lengthy, the probabilities of our existence coinciding with theirs is perhaps slim.

Drake wrote this all down, and realised he’s give you an equation to estimate what number of technological, communicative, extraterrestrial civilisations there could also be on the market. Although a lot of the components in what has develop into referred to as the Drake Equation are utterly unknown, which means we are able to solely guess at their values, that’s precisely the purpose. Not like different scientific equations, it was by no means meant to offer an correct reply, however quite to show our ignorance and the way a lot we nonetheless must study. Even to at the present time, we solely know correct values for the primary two components.

Though SETI was an essential a part of Frank Drake’s profession, he was principally a radio astronomer, and in 1964 he joined Cornell College as a professor of astronomy, whereas on the identical time main the re-development of the Arecibo Radio Observatory from a navy facility into the most important single-dish astronomical telescope on the planet, appearing as its director between 1966–68, after which because the director of the over-arching Nationwide Astronomy and Ionosphere Heart between 1970–81

A section of the Arecibo message, displaying depictions of the human physique, the Photo voltaic System with Earth highlighted, and a crude image of Arecibo on the backside. Picture: Cornell College.

It was at Arecibo that he transmitted the well-known Arecibo message in 1974 to the globular star cluster Messier 13, which is 22,000 gentle years away. Arecibo had simply been renovated, its wire mesh bowl being changed by a high-precision floor of aluminium panels, and as a part of the re-opening ceremony, the Arecibo message was blasted into house.

The Arecibo message was a brief, binary-encoded communication, containing simply 551 bits that, in cryptic trend, contained data that might inform any aliens who detected it about humankind, our organic data, the place we stay, and what we appear like. The intention was that aliens would obtain the message as a collection of 1s and 0s that may very well be decoded right into a pictogram. Drake really lamented that he’d made the message too advanced to know; he despatched it in binary code to his colleagues who’d attended the Inexperienced Financial institution convention, and solely the formidable Barney Oliver was capable of partially translate it and even ship Drake a reply in type. Then Drake despatched it to a bunch of Nobel Prize winners, none of whom might decode it. Ultimately, years after the message had been beamed into outer house, an beginner codebreaker noticed the binary message in {a magazine} and utterly decoded it.

“The expertise taught me two issues,” wrote Drake in his e-book ‘Is Anybody Out There?’ co-written with Dava Sobel. “(1) My message was too crowded and too complicated; and (2) on such a day as we really obtain an extraterrestrial message, we should always make sure to contain enthusiastic beginner codebreakers in its interpretation.”

However Drake’s days of sending messages to aliens weren’t over. In 1972 he’d labored with Carl Sagan and Linda Salzman Sagan to design the Pioneer plaques that had been connected to the Pioneer 10 and 11 missions to the outer Photo voltaic System and which at the moment are heading into interstellar house. The plaques proved controversial with prudes for that includes bare people, however extra pertinently the plaques additionally contained details about the place aliens might discover Earth. Then, previous to the launch of the Voyager 1 and a couple of missions in 1977, he labored with Sagan once more on the Voyager Golden Report, which contained a choice of music, sounds and footage of Earth for aliens to hearken to.

Drake left Cornell in 1984 to take up a brand new submit on the College of California, Santa Cruz, and remained there as Emeritus Professor after he retired in 1996. After shifting to California, he additionally acted because the Director of the SETI Institute’s Carl Sagan Heart for the Research of Life within the Universe, after which later because the Chair of the SETI Institute’s board of trustees.

In his later years he continued to be distinguished within the SETI neighborhood, appearing as a public figurehead. Typically known as the ‘father of SETI’, his identify will stay on in his contributions to how we take into consideration life past Earth, and the way we seek for proof that we’re not alone. Though we’re proceed to be met with silence, Drake by no means misplaced his optimism, as he confirmed in his phrases in Is Anybody Out There? 

“The silence we’ve got heard to date just isn’t in any manner important,” he and Sobel wrote. “We nonetheless haven’t appeared lengthy sufficient or laborious sufficient. We’ve not explored a big sufficient chunk of the cosmic haystack … The purpose just isn’t past us. It’s inside our grasp.”

Frank Drake exterior the Inexperienced Financial institution radio observatory. Picture: NRAO/NSF/AUI.

Supply hyperlink