Mark A. Carter

SETI and the Drake Equation

World famous Canadian Science Fiction writer Mark A. Carter encourages you to support the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence also known as radio astronomy project SETI by running FREE seti@home software on your home computer.

"SETI is probably the most important quest of our time, and it amazes me that governments and corporations are not supporting it sufficiently." - Arthur C. Clarke, 2006


Frank Drake - the Father of SETI

In the early 1960s, Frank Drake, a young astronomer with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Green Bank, West Virginia, developed what is now known as the Drake Equation in an effort to determine how many intelligent, communicative civilizations our galaxy could harbor. And for forty years, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence or SETI has combed the skies in search of signals from star systems within our galaxy.

The 100-meter National Radio Astronomy Observatory used by SETI at Green Bank, West Virginia, is the world's largest fully steerable radio dish.

The Drake Equation is written as N = R* · fp · ne · fl · fi · fc · L where:

N is the number of civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy whose electromagnetic emissions are detectable;
R* is the rate of formation of stars suitable for the development of intelligent life;
fp is the fraction of those stars with planetary systems;
ne is the number of planets per solar system with an environment suitable for life;
fl is the fraction of suitable planets on which life actually appears;
fi is the fraction of life-bearing planets on which intelligent life emerges;
fc is the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space; and,
L is the length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.

Drake Equation courtesy of the SETI Institute.


The graphic above by Danielle Futselaar is the famous Drake Equation, representing the full spectrum of science undertaken at the SETI Institute. Wherever you are on Earth, the Drake Equation represents all explorations of our lives, and life beyond our home planet.

Within the limits of our existing technology, any practical search for distant intelligent life must necessarily be a search for some manifestation of a distant technology. In each of its last four decadal reviews, the National Research Council has emphasized the relevance and importance of searching for evidence of the electromagnetic signature of distant civilizations.

Besides illuminating the factors involved in such a search, the Drake Equation is a simple, effective tool for stimulating intellectual curiosity about the universe around us, for helping us to understand that life as we know it is the end product of a natural, cosmic evolution, and for making us realize how much we are a part of that universe. A key goal of the SETI Institute is to further high quality research that will yield additional information related to any of the factors of this fascinating equation.

While at the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1970s, Jill Tarter was recruited to work on a SETI project there because she was the only one who could program an obsolete computer. She has been with the SETI program ever since.

"There was never a time when I didn't just absolutely assume that the stars in the sky were somebody else's suns." - Jill Tartar

In 1993, in a perfunctory if not malicious act of Congress, the SETI program was axed. Undaunted by the setback, Jill Tarter acquired private funding and resurrected SETI from the ashes of its old self as Project Phoenix. Currently, Project Phoenix listens to 1,000 sun like stars within 200 light years of Earth, for intelligent radio signals.



Jill Tarter, Director: SETI Institute - Project Phoenix

Ellie Arroway, the character portrayed by Jodi Foster in the movie Contact, which was based on Carl Sagan's novel by the same name, was modelled after his friend Jill Tarter. In fact, Jill Tarter makes a cameo appearance in the film, during the scene where Ellie is questioned by committee, and can be seen sitting behind Jodi Foster against the back wall at stage right for all to see. Ha.

SETI alien janitor is copyright © Brian Zaikowski. All Rights Reserved.


According to the Drake Equation, there are more intelligent aliens out there in our own galaxy capable of communicating with us than we ever imagined. Perhaps some of them have been mistaken by us as Angels, as I describe in Hephzibah of Heaven.

Berkeley SETI Research Center's Dr. Steve Croft, in collaboration with colleagues at UC Museum of Paleontology and the Space Sciences Laboratory's "Multiverse" education group have put together an educational site focusing on the conditions needed for life to arise in the Universe. Although aimed primarily at high school teachers and their students, this material may be of interest to broader audiences. In the "Research Profiles" section of the site you can also find an interview with BSRC's Dr. Eric Korpela, Director of SETI@home.

Go to: A Place for Life: Introduction

You can participate in SETI using your home computer. It's called SETI@home.

SETI@home is a scientific experiment that uses Internet-connected computers in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. You can participate by running a FREE program that downloads and analyzes radio telescope data.

SETI@home is a project of the University of California a nonprofit educational and research organization governed by the provisions of Section 501(c) (3) of the Internal Revenue Code. The University's Federal Identification number for reporting and tax purposes is 94-6002123.

When you run SETI@home on your computer, it will use part of the computer's CPU power, disk space, and network bandwidth. You can control how much of your resources are used by SETI@home, and when it uses them.

The work done by your computer contributes to the goals of SETI@home, as described on its web site. The application programs may change from time to time.

The Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) used by SETI, and featured in the film Contact, is a radio astronomy observatory located on the Plains of San Agustin, between the towns of Magdalena and Datil, some 50 miles (80 km) west of Socorro, New Mexico. It comprises 27, 25-meter radio telescopes in a Y-shaped array and all the equipment, instrumentation, and computing power to function as an interferometer.

Is it safe to run SETI@home?

Any time you download a program through the Internet you are taking a chance: the program might have dangerous errors, or the download server might have been hacked. SETI@home has made efforts to minimize these risks. We have tested our applications carefully. Our servers are behind a firewall and are configured for high security. To ensure the integrity of program downloads, all executable files are digitally signed on a secure computer not connected to the Internet.

The applications run by SETI@home may cause some computers to overheat. If this happens, stop running SETI@home or use a utility program that limits CPU usage.
SETI@home was developed by University of California. BOINC was developed at the University of California.


SETI@home and University of California assume no liability for damage to your computer, loss of data, or any other event or condition that may occur as a result of participating in SETI@home. .

The Arecibo Observatory used by SETI, and featured in the film Contact, is a radio telescope in the municipality of Arecibo, Puerto Rico. This observatory is operated by SRI International, USRA and UMET, under cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation.

If you have any questions about SETI@home, you may contact SETI by US MAIL: at the following address:
Space Sciences Laboratory
Mail Code 7450
University of California
Berkeley, CA 94720-7450

Donate to SETI by Credit Card.   |   Join SETI@home.

Join in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Run FREE SETI@home software on your home computer.

Read: Earths Everywhere
Regularity of Mass Extinctions

Now you know.

from the imagination of Mark A. Carter - writer

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