• La Drucker (Catherine Durand) working as the scientist on the hunt for extraterrestrial life. (© Joss Barratt / Urban Myth Films)Source: © Joss Barratt / Urban Myth Films
SETI, or the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, is a field of scientific inquiry dedicated to finding answers to that quintessential big question: are we alone in the universe?
By
Sharon Verghis

18 Jun 2020 - 4:07 PM  UPDATED 9 Jul 2020 - 7:21 AM

Danny Price grew up under the big, star-filled skies of Western Australia. As a child, he would pore over books on space and stars, dreaming about faraway galaxies and watching TV science shows with his father. At university, he studied Japanese and physics. It was his passion for radio astronomy, however, that would see him studying the stars for a living.

As the Australian project scientist for Breakthrough Listen (Australia), his working life is dedicated to eavesdropping on the universe. The goal? To search for intelligent life outside Earth.

“I’ve always loved space and science and stars but never thought it would be a possibility that I could become an alien hunter,” he says with a laugh. “I didn’t know it was a job you could get, but here I am.”

SETI, or the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, is a field of scientific inquiry dedicated to finding answers to that quintessential big question: are we alone in the universe?

It’s a question that we’re all fascinated by, it seems – witness the enduring public interest in aliens in popular culture (see SBS’s upcoming War of the Worlds eight-part series).

“Everyone has an opinion,” Price says. “People all want to know if there’s anything out there.”

And is there?

It’s likely. “Most scientists think there is life out there and the only question is whether or not we will ever be able to detect it.”

“Most scientists think there is life out there and the only question is whether or not we will ever be able to detect it.”

Price crunches data collected from NSW’s Parkes radio telescope as part of the Breakthrough Listen project, a ten year, $100 million program billed as the most comprehensive search for alien communications to date, using radio wave observations to survey one million nearby stars, the entire Galactic plane and 100 nearby galaxies at a wide range of radio and optical bands.

It’s part of Breakthrough Initiatives, an ambitious suite of space research programs dedicated to “dramatically accelerating” the search for intelligent extra-terrestrial life founded by Israeli-Russian physicist and entrepreneur Yuri Milner, and involving a high-profile team of supporters include Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sergey Brin.

Other projects include Breakthrough Starshot, which aims to send a swarm of tiny spacecraft to our neighbouring star system, Alpha Centauri, at about a fifth of the speed of light  (“it’s theoretically possible - it would be the first time we could ever call ourselves a star-faring society,” Price says); and Breakthrough Watch, aiming to identify and characterise Earth-sized, rocky planets around Alpha Centauri and other stars within 20 light years of Earth in search of oxygen and other "biosignatures." 

Price’s chief space eavesdropping tool is the 64-metre Parkes radio telescope, a behemoth of precision radio astronomy technology used to gather data in the global hunt for ‘techno-signatures’—proof of technology such as transmitters or propulsion devices created by civilisations beyond Earth. 

The mission is to scan for laser transmissions as well as radio signals too narrow and well-defined to result from natural processes: alien chatter, in other words. 

The mission is to scan for laser transmissions as well as radio signals too narrow and well-defined to result from natural processes: alien chatter, in other words.

It’s a tricky, needle in the haystack process. “You just want to make sure you don’t accidentally find a satellite and tell the world you’ve found an alien civilisation,” he says with a laugh. “You have to be careful.”

There has been no smoking gun proving evidence of intelligent life so far but the universe continues to tantalise us with possibilities, Price says.

A team of scientists, using old data from NASA’s Kepler space telescope, has discovered an Earth-size exoplanet orbiting in its star's habitable zone, the area around a star where a rocky planet could support liquid water. Earlier research has determined that twenty percent of Sun-like stars in our galaxy have Earth-sized planets that could host life (“a staggeringly high number”). 

He’s particularly fascinated by the phenomenon of fast radio bursts, brief cosmic blips of unexplained origin that pop up from time to time (he was intrigued to detect a new cluster recently). “They’ve started to tell us about the cosmology and the makeup of the universe.”

As a scientist, each new discovery, inconclusive as it is, brings out the goosebumps. “There’s so much happening in the field.”

Key upcoming research missions include the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, the largest space-based observatory ever developed with imaging power 100 times that of the Hubble Space Telescope; the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin vehicle’s mission to drill samples from Mars, and NASA’S Dragonfly mission  to Titan, Saturn’s icy moon.

“These are all incredibly exciting and incredibly difficult projects. Space is very large, and the only way we are going to get there is unless we have some other miracle breakthroughs. I think that will happen in the coming decades.”

For all this exhaustive, high-tech work searching for answers, he’s never lost his fascination with the mystery and magic of space, he says.

For all this exhaustive, high-tech work searching for answers, he’s never lost his fascination with the mystery and magic of space, he says.

“The more you learn about universe, the more you realise you don’t know. A lot of scientists and mathematicians talk about something being a beautiful formula, you know – Einstein’s theory of relativity is beautiful, elegant, these words come out.

“It’s kind of profound that the universe obeys these laws or seems to obey these laws as far as we can tell, and yes, there’s something magical about that.”

War of the Worlds double episode will premiere at 8.30pm Thursday 9 July on SBS and will continue weekly at 9:30pm from Thursday 16 July. Episodes will be available on SBS On Demand each week on the same day as broadcast. The series will be subtitled in Simplified Chinese and Arabic for SBS On Demand, available immediately following its premiere on SBS.