Astronomers present research on extraterrestrial life before U.S. House of Representatives

Dan Werthimer/Courtesy

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Bay Area astronomers discussed extraterrestrial life and intelligent civilizations on other planets, or possibly other galaxies, before the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday.

Presented by Dan Werthimer, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center, and Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, the testimony before Congress discussed the question “Are we alone?” by suggesting the possibility of extraterrestrial civilizations and the scientific efforts that are under way to find them.

“(The members of Congress) asked perceptive questions and seemed enthusiastic,” Werthimer said.

Pioneered by well-known astrophysicists Carl Sagan and Frank Drake, SETI — which stands for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence — is a field of science that looks at the possibility of intelligent life beyond Earth by pointing radio telescopes at the stars, planets and galaxies and analyzing the light emissions gathered by these telescopes.

“There is maybe a one-in-100 chance that we might detect a signal (revealing another form of intelligent life) in the next couple of decades,” said Andrew Siemion, a graduate student of astrophysics at UC Berkeley who helped draft Werthimer’s statement to Congress and is a part of the SETI project on campus.

SETI has been around for approximately 60 years and is a subset of astronomy. The largest collective group of researchers who study the field are at UC Berkeley, according to Siemion and Werthimer.

SETI researchers search for extraterrestrial civilizations by searching for emissions produced by technology, which would indicate the existence of intelligent life forms. Large radio telescopes, which are 100 times larger than optical telescopes, are placed internationally and located far away from people because cellphone, television and radio signals can interfere with data measurements, Siemion said.

Researchers then examine data extracted from these telescopes to look for electromagnetic emissions such as radio signals, optical signals and infrared signals, which they can differentiate from natural light emissions, such as starlight. A radio telescope works like a magnifying glass and is able to transmit 100 terabytes of information within 24 hours, Werthimer said.

Currently, researchers are focusing on studying the nearest stars to the Earth by examining 30 stars within the nearest 15 light-years for any signs of intelligent life. According to Werthimer, the growth of computing power will allow searches to be done more efficiently and thoroughly.

“If we were to discover another intelligent species, it would forever change our conception of what it means to be human,” Siemion said, adding that there would be scientific, religious and political implications to consider. “For many people, it would be a momentous discovery. It would be the greatest event in the discovery of human inquiry into science.”

Lydia Tuan covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @@tuanlydia.