SETI's search for alien life is back in business

Scientists are once again listening to the stars — or, more specifically, newly discovered planets — for signs of intelligent life.

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute, which in April had shut down its quest because of funding cuts, has put the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) in Mountain View, Calif., back into operation, searching systems for radio and other signals that could indicate life.

And SETI has some good candidates to start with: planets in habitable zones discovered recently by NASA’s Kepler space telescope.

“For the first time, we can point our telescopes at stars, and know that those stars actually host planetary systems – including at least one that begins to approximate an Earth analog in the habitable zone around its host star,” Jill Tarter, director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute, said in a SETI announcement. “That’s the type of world that might be home to a civilization capable of building radio transmitters.”

One planet that looks promising was reported by NASA scientists Dec. 5. Called Kepler 22b, it’s about 2.4 times the size of Earth orbiting a star about 600 light years away and could have an average temperature of 72 degrees F, USA Today reported.

“It is right smack in the middle of the habitable zone,” Kepler scientist Natalie Batalha said, according to the report.

Kepler 22b, which circles a type-G star like the sun, is the smallest and closest planet yet confirmed to exist in a habitable zone, TechNewsWorld reported. 

The search for E.T. had gone on hiatus after SETI lost funding from the National Science Foundation and California, which caused the University of California Berkley, SETI’s partner, to withdrawal.

But the search has been revived with donations from the public and the Air Force, which is testing ATA’s capability for space surveillance.

SETI said it plans to spend the next two years focusing on the Kepler discovery, focusing primarily on the planets known to exist in habitable zones, where temperatures would allow water to exist. However, Tarter noted that, “preconceived notions such as habitable zones could be barriers to discovery. So, with sufficient future funding from our donors, it’s our intention to examine all of the planetary systems found by Kepler.”

Since its launch in 2009, Kepler has found more than 2,000 potential planets among about 150,000 stars within 3,000 light years of Earth. 

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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