In the field of planet hunting, Geoff Marcy is a star.
After all, the astronomer at the University of California at Berkeley found nearly three-quarters of the first 100 planets discovered outside our solar system.
But with the hobbled planet-hunting Kepler telescope having just about reached the end of its useful life and reams of data from the mission still left uninvestigated, Marcy began looking in June for more than just new planets.
He’s sifting through the data to find alien spacecraft passing in front of distant stars.
He’s not kidding — and now he has the funding to pursue his quest.
Last fall, the Templeton Foundation, a philanthropic organization dedicated to investigating what it calls the “big questions” — which, unsurprisingly, include “Are we alone?” — awarded Marcy $200,000 to pursue his search for alien civilizations.
As far as Marcy, an official NASA researcher for the Kepler mission, is concerned, that question has a clear answer: The universe is so big, it seems only logical that there would be other forms of life. “Really, the proper question is: ‘How far away is our nearest intelligent neighbor?’ They could be 10 light-years, 100 light-years, a million light-years or more. We have no idea,” he said.
To answer that question Marcy has begun to sift through the Kepler data. Launched in 2009, Kepler was designed as a four-year mission to detect planets — habitable or otherwise — around distant stars by measuring the dimming of those stars as orbiting bodies pass in front of them. In May, a component of the spacecraft designed to keep it pointing precisely failed, dealing a crushing blow to Marcy and his colleagues who last year convinced NASA to extend funding for the mission into 2016, which Marcy says would have allowed researchers to further refine the number of known Earthlike planets in our galactic neighborhood.
“It’s a heartbreaker,” he says. “People are reacting a little bit as if a close family member died.”
Kepler has been wildly successful in its four years. To date, it has found 132 exoplanets. Researchers have extrapolated from Kepler data that our Milky Way galaxy alone contains at least 100 billion exoplanets, as many planets as there are stars. Still, with the telescope — which is 40 million miles from Earth — having collected data on 150,000 star systems, researchers are only beginning to pick through all the information.
Marcy hopes that hiding within it will be hints of intelligent life. Marcy admits he’s not certain what he’s looking for.
Perhaps it would be an errant beam flashing from a distant star system. Or maybe it would be an unexplained source of heat or radio waves.
Marcy admits it’s an uphill struggle, famously characterized by Nobel prize-winning physicist Enrico Fermi, who asked: If intelligent life is common in the galaxy, “where is everybody?”