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Astronomer Geoff Marcy said it’s not a question of whether aliens exist, but rather “how far away is our nearest intelligent neighbor?”

University of California, Berkeley,

Planet hunter aims for aliens

  • Article by: Peter Brannen
  • Special to the Washington Post
  • July 27, 2013 - 5:15 PM

In the field of planet hunting, Geoff Marcy is a star. After all, the astronomer at the University of California at Berkeley found nearly three-quarters of the first 100 planets discovered outside our solar system. But with the hobbled planet-hunting Kepler telescope having just about reached the end of its useful life and reams of data from the mission still left uninvestigated, Marcy began looking in June for more than just new planets. He’s sifting through the data to find alien spacecraft passing in front of distant stars.

He’s not kidding — and now he has the funding to do it. Last fall, the Templeton Foundation, a philanthropic organization dedicated to investigating what it calls the “big questions” — which, unsurprisingly, include “Are we alone?” — awarded Marcy $200,000 to pursue his search for alien civilizations.

As far as Marcy, an official NASA researcher for the Kepler mission, is concerned, that question has a clear answer: “The universe is simply too large for there not to be another intelligent civilization out there. Really, the proper question is: ‘How far away is our nearest intelligent neighbor?’ They could be 10 light-years, 100 light-years, a million light-years or more. We have no idea.”

To answer that question Marcy has begun to sift through the Kepler data and to search the heavens for a galactic laser Internet that might be in use somewhere out there. Launched in 2009, Kepler was designed as a four-year mission to detect planets around distant stars by measuring the dimming of those stars as orbiting bodies pass in front of them. In May, a component of the spacecraft designed to keep it pointing precisely failed, dealing a crushing blow to Marcy and his colleagues who last year convinced NASA to extend funding for the mission into 2016.

“It’s a heartbreaker,” he says. “People are reacting a little bit as if a close family member died. There’s this combination of severe depression and confusion, coupled with denial.”

Kepler has been wildly successful in its four years. To date, it has found 132 exoplanets — that is, planets outside our solar system — and possibly 3,216 more that await confirmation. Researchers have extrapolated from Kepler data that our Milky Way galaxy alone contains at least 100 billion exoplanets, as many planets as there are stars. Marcy hopes that hiding within it will be hints about intelligent life abroad.

While the movie “Contact,” based on Carl Sagan’s book of the same name, popularized the idea of aliens dozens of light-years away picking up an old telecast of the 1936 Berlin Olympics that was unintentionally transmitted into space, our civilization has become quieter to any outside observers in recent decades.

As our civilization makes the jump from analog to digital, communication is increasingly carried by fiber-optic cables and relatively weak cellphone repeaters rather than powerful broadcast transmitters. Rather than spilling out messy radio transmissions, Marcy posits that alien civilizations would use something much more precise and efficient than radio waves to stay connected, and lasers fit the bill. At the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, he hopes to spy an errant beam flashing from a distant star system, an observation that would be strikingly obvious on a spectrum.

This shift to new ways for finding E.T. is in part due to the failure of traditional SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) to pick up radio signals from deep space. Federal funding for SETI projects ended in 1995, but private benefactors have stepped up to support the search for alien radio transmissions, including Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who has sunk more than $30 million into a giant radio telescope array now under construction northeast of San Francisco.

Nevertheless, the silence underscores the question once posed by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Enrico Fermi: If intelligent life is common in the galaxy, “where is everybody?”

Marcy admits that this poses a powerful counterargument to the prospect of success for any search for extraterrestrial intelligence. But what if, even if the chances are vanishingly remote, he is successful? More disturbingly, what if (as some respected physicists fear) he finds a Death Star? “The first thing we do is transmit a message to them that says, ‘We taste bad.’ ”

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