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Lisa Yount - Modern Astronomy

Lisa Yount - Modern Astronomy

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Published by: harcaian_cristina on Mar 30, 2011
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Drake had concluded while still at Harvard that radio waves
would be the most economical form of electromagnetic radia-
tion to use in sending messages across interstellar distances.
The ideal tool for detecting such messages, therefore, would be
a radio telescope. In spring 1959, at first just for fun, he calcu-
lated the maximum distance from which NRAO’s new 85-foot
(25.9-m) telescope might detect radio signals as powerful as the
strongest signals generated on Earth. He arrived at a figure of
12 light-years. Several stars similar to the Sun lay within this
distance, so Drake and several other NRAO astronomers began
planning a project to look for signals that might come from
intelligent beings on planets circling these stars. Such signals,
Drake thought, would have a very narrow bandwidth, regular
repetition, and other features that would make them easy to dis-
tinguish from natural radio signals.
In September of that same year, Drake and the other astronomers
were startled to read an article called “Searching for Interstellar
Communications” in the respected science journal Nature. Philip
Morrison and Giuseppe Cocconi, the two Cornell physicists who
had written the article, proposed using radio telescopes to look for
signals from extraterrestrial civilizations, just as Drake hoped to
do. They recommended searching on the 21-centimeter (about 8-in.)
wavelength, the microwave radio band on which single atoms of
hydrogen send out natural signals. They pointed out that hydrogen
is the most abundant element in the universe, making its wavelength
a logical choice for communication. The Cornell scientists’ article
“made us feel good because now there were further arguments for
what we were doing,” Drake wrote in a memoir published in Cosmic


70 Modern Astronomy

Search, an early magazine devoted to SETI research. NRAO’s direc-
tor gave Drake’s group permission to go ahead with their project.

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