"This time is unique in our history,
in any civilization's history: the moment
of the acquisition of technology. The
moment when contact becomes possible."
-Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster), Contact
Are we alone in the cosmos? If so, the implications are profound; if not, they are equally so. And whether one believes in science or faith, the possibility is tantalizing. The discovery that we are part of a larger community of worlds would be among the greatest discoveries in history; if we continue to find ourselves alone, we are that much more precious. Either way, the implications for how we see ourselves and our fellow human beings could not be more profound.
The first SETI search was conducted in 1960 by Dr. Frank Drake. Since then many searches have been made, and they are becoming more powerful and cheaper. A handful of of unexplainable signals have been detected, but none has been confirmed as an extraterrestrial signal.
The search for evidence that we are not alone continues, and is currently being carried out by two main organizations, the Planetary Society and the SETI Institute. Using a commonplace technology, radio, the search for extraterrestrial signals is extremely inexpensive. When Congress got rid of SETI funding in 1993, it saved one tenth of one percent of NASA's budget. NASA's budget is about 5% of what the U.S. spends on defense.
The Planetary Society is one of Earth's premier organizations that actively supports the search for extraterrestrial life and intelligence. Founded in 1980 by Carl Sagan, the Society is a nonprofit organization funded by its members in the United States and around the world. With 100,000 members from more than 100 countries, the Planetary Society is now the largest space-interest group on Earth.
Since its founding, the Planetary Society has encouraged humankind's exploration of the cosmos, and the Society's commitment to SETI has grown. Today, with programs in both the northern and southern hemisphere, the Society supports a number of powerful, continuous searches for signals from extraterrestrial civilizations.
To find out more about today's SETI efforts, visit the Planetary Society's home page or the Planetary Society's new Search: The Site for the Search for Extraterrestrial Life and Intelligence. Also of interest may be Carl Sagan's article In Defense of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, a dialogue in which Sagan and Ernst Mayr, an evolutionary biology specialist, debate SETI's merits. Membership information for the Planetary Society can be found here.
Of all the modern attempts to find extraterrestrials by eavesdropping on their radio signals, Project Phoenix is the largest. Using mammoth antennas, such as the 140 foot radio telescope in Green Bank, West Virginia, Phoenix zeroes in on nearby sun-like stars--
Project Phoenix is run by the SETI Institute, a non-profit research organization in Mountain View, California. Once part of a NASA program, this ambitious SETI search is now privately supported.
Phoenix's Chief Scientist, Dr. Jill Tarter, is a real-life Ellie Arroway. As she says, her work has the potential "to answer questions about our place in the cosmos that previous generations could only pose to priests or philosophers."
So far, SETI scientists have not heard a confirmed extraterrestrial peep from the cosmos. If and when they do, human history will be changed forever. It could happen tomorrow.