Is anyone out there? Or are we alone in the universe?
Penn State intends to make its newly created Extraterrestrial Intelligence Center (PSETI) a global leader and worldwide hub for research aimed at answering that question.
For most people, SETI – the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence – conjures images of Jodie Foster in the movie “Contact,” sitting on her car wearing headphones and listening for signals from outer space.
“It’s true that is most of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence today, but there are a lot of other ideas that haven’t been explored, in part, because there hasn’t been an academic home to generate, and then put into the field, new ideas,” said Jason Wright, Penn State University associate professor of astronomy and astrophysics.
With $3.5 million in alumni pledges for an endowment, PSETI intends to become that academic home.
The research done at the center, Wright says, will be aimed at answering the question asked by anyone who has ever looked into the night sky with wonder:
“We want to know if there’s anyone out there. We want to know if we’re alone,” he said. “Is there anyone out there we can communicate with? Is there anyone out there like us? Are we alone in our ability to build tools and send signals and explore the universe?”
Scientists first started listening to the stars in 1959, searching for a radio signal that could have been sent our way from a civilization in a distant solar system.
But in all of those decades, only a tiny fraction of the universe has been searched. It’s like trying to scour the ocean for evidence of fish, but only looking at enough water to fill a bathtub, he said.
Research has been limited since federal funding was cut to next to nothing in the early 1990s, leaving it in the hands of private donors and academia. But with this endowment, Wright says Penn State is poised to become the global leader in the search for life.
SETI research employs more methods than Jodie Foster used. Researchers watch for visual cues from lasers. They seek out thermal clues that would be evidence of a civilization that had launched satellites. They look for neutrinos or gravitational waves or cosmic waves.
All of this makes Penn State the perfect home for this field of study, he said.
“Penn State is the hub of the Astrophysical Multimessanger Observatory Network that puts together all of humanity’s observatories and searches every wave length, every particle that nature sends through space and puts them all together,” he said.
The university is also already home to many other programs that study the stars, including the NASA Astrobiology Institute, the Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds, and the Institute for Cyber Science, which can analyze the terabytes of astronomical datasets coming in from observatories around the world. NASA’s Swift Space Observatory is also centered at Penn State, observing gamma rays, x-rays, ultraviolet and optical light.
And even though PSETI hasn’t officially launched, Penn State has a graduate student who will soon become only the sixth person in the world with a Ph.D. in this subject
“We believe that the search for extraterrestrial intelligence needs a permanent, academic home,” Wright said.
And at Penn State, PSETI, will have two functions:
• Enable faculty and graduate students to work on funded research, getting their degrees and formal training, he said.
• Offer an external grants program in which researchers around the world can apply to Penn State, creating a global network of academics working in the field.
So now the search intensifies.
But don’t expect to see giant radio satellite dishes rising above Beaver Stadium. The actual equipment to do this work won’t be located at University Park. Researchers through Penn State’s programs will use the most sophisticated equipment from around the world and the space observatories in orbit to make their observations and collect their data.
Wright has been interested in astronomy since he was a child. He started his academic career with the search for planets outside of our solar system. At that time, we knew of 20 or 30. Now, we know about thousands of planets. And the new frontier is search for intelligent life on those planets.
So, what can we expect to find? Will E.T. phone us?
“It’s possible we’ll receive a communicative signal,” he said. Or it could be a slower process, like finding evidence of an object that one would not expect to see around a star. And more research into it will create even more questions until there’s one conclusion.
We are not alone.
“Hopefully, within our lifetimes, we’ll find evidence of intelligence life in our universe,” he said.