Died a pioneer of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence

On September 2, 2022, the famous American astronomer Frank Drake died at the age of 93. He went down in history as one of the pioneers of radio astronomy and projects to search for extraterrestrial civilizations.

Frank Drake. Source: SETI Institute

Frank Drake was born in 1930 in Chicago. He graduated from the Department of Electronics at Cornell University. After listening to a course of lectures by astronomer Otto Struve on the formation of planetary systems, Drake became interested in the existence of extraterrestrial life. 

After serving in the army, Drake enrolled in graduate school at Harvard University in radio astronomy, after which he got a job at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. There he studied the center of the Milky Way, as well as observations of the atmosphere of Venus and the magnetosphere of Jupiter.

In 1960, Drake implemented the first ever program for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), called “Project Ozma” (in honor of one of the characters in Frank Baum’s books). Within its framework, the astronomer used a 26-meter ground-based radio telescope to observe the nearby sun-like stars Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani. The receiver was tuned to a frequency of 1420 MHz, corresponding to the emission of neutral hydrogen. It is assumed that it should be known to any technically advanced civilization. Later, this frequency became standard for most SETI projects.

Drake equation. Source: SETI Institute

In 1961, Drake formulated his famous formula. It is designed to determine the number of extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way with which humanity has a chance to come into contact. Now the Drake equation is considered the second most famous in modern science, after Einstein’s formula.

Drake worked closely with the famous popularizer of science Carl Sagan. So in 1972, he helped him develop a message engraved on the plates installed on the Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 probes. A few years later, Drake joined the commission that was engaged in the selection of materials that were recorded on the gold plates of Voyager spacecraft.

A plate with a message for extraterrestrial civilizations on board Pioneer 10. Source: NASA

Drake is also the author of the “Arecibo Message”: a radio signal sent in 1974 by the radio telescope of the same name towards the globular star cluster M13 in the constellation Hercules. Despite the fact that the event had mainly symbolic significance (it was timed to coincide with the completion of work on the modernization of the observatory), it is now also considered one of the important milestones in the SETI case. Later, Drake worked both at the Arecibo radio telescope and at the University of California, and was also president of the SETI Institute for a long time.

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