The first search for extraterrestrial intelligence began on April 12, 1960, using this 85-foot radio telescope at Green Bank, West Virginia. Known as Project Ozma for the ruler in L. Frank Baum's "Oz" books, the search targeted two nearby stars. Despite several months of work, though, Ozma detected no messages from alien civilizations. [NOAO]
It was a cold and foggy morning in the mountains of West Virginia -- not ideal weather for studying the stars. But the conditions didn't stop Frank Drake. The 29-year-old astronomer was getting ready to use a brand-new radio telescope to scan two nearby stars. The telescope could peer through the murky skies and see the radio waves coming from other stars.
Drake wasn't interested in the stars themselves, though. Instead, he was conducting the first search for extraterrestrial intelligence -- an effort to detect radio waves beamed into space by an alien civilization.
Drake called his search Project Ozma, after the mythical princess who ruled the Land of Oz. It began on April 8th, 1960 -- 50 years ago this month.
Drake had reasoned that the new telescope could detect high-powered radio signals -- like those produced by military radar here on Earth -- at distances of up to about 10 light-years. So he chose two target stars at about that distance -- Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani. Both were thought to be similar to the Sun in age, temperature, and composition, making them good places to look for signals from an alien civilization.
Ozma continued for about six months, and spent 200 hours observing its target stars. And despite an early false alarm, it heard nothing. But it set the stage for more extensive and sophisticated searches in the future -- searches that continue today.
We'll talk about one of Ozma's target stars tomorrow.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2010
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