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21-Jul-2004

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UK CONTACT - Claire Bowles
claire.bowles@rbi.co.uk
44-207-331-2751
New Scientist Press Office

US CONTACT Toni Marshall
toni.marshall@newscientist.com
617-558-4939
New Scientist

ET first contact 'within 20 years'

IF INTELLIGENT life exists elsewhere in our galaxy, advances in computer processing power and radio telescope technology will ensure we detect their transmissions within two decades. That's the bold prediction from a leading light at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute in Mountain View, California. Seth Shostak, the SETI Institute's senior astronomer, based his prediction on accepted assumptions about the likelihood of alien civilisations existing, combined with projected increases in computing power. Shostak, whose calculations will be published in a forthcoming edition of the space science journal Acta Astronautica, first estimated the number of alien civilisations in our galaxy that might currently be broadcasting radio signals.

For this he used a formula created in 1961 by astronomer Frank Drake which factors in aspects such the number of stars with planets, how many of those planets might be expected to have life, and so on. Shostak came up with an estimate of between 10,000 and 1 million radio transmitters in the galaxy. To find them will involve observing and inspecting radio emissions from most of the galaxy's 100 billion stars. The time necessary for this formidable task can be estimated from the capabilities of planned radio telescopes- such as SETI's 1-hectare Allen Telescope Array and the internationally run Square Kilometre Array- and expected increases in the power of the microchips that sift through radio signals from space. Shostak assumed that computer processing power will continue to double every 18 months until 2015- as it has done for the past 40 years. From then on, he assumes a more conservative doubling time of 36 months as transistors get too small to scale down as easily as they have till now. Within a generation, radio emissions from enough stars will be observed and analysed to find the first alien civilisation, Shostak estimates. But because they will probably be between 200 and 1000 light years away, sending a radio message back will take centuries.

Paul Shuch, executive director of the SETI League, a separate organisation in New Jersey, says Shostak's prediction ignores one important factor. "It is altogether reasonable to project the development of human technology, based upon past trends and planned investments," he says. "But predicting the date, the decade or even the century of contact is another matter because the 'other end' of the communications link is completely out of our hands. It would be nice to think we know something about the existence, distribution, technology and motivation of our potential communications partners in space, but in fact, we don't." Shostak admits that there are myriad uncertainties surrounding his prediction, but he defends the basis on which he made it. "I have made this prediction using the assumptions adopted by the SETI research community itself."

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Author: Marcus Chown

This article appears in New Scientist issue: 24 July 2004

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