Frank Drake, pioneer in the search for extraterrestrial life, dies at the age of 92

After NRAO, Frank Drake worked briefly at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Research Laboratory as director of the Lunar and Planetary Science Service. In 1964 he joined the astronomy department at Cornell University. He was also director of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico from 1966 to 1968 and then of the National Center for Astronomy and the Ionosphere (NAIC), which managed the observatory, from 1971 to 1981.

During his tenure, Frank Drake notably oversaw renovations at the Arecibo Observatory. These are to adapt for astronomical research this observatory, which was originally used to monitor the upper atmosphere as part of an anti-missile defense program. On the telescope’s gigantic parabolic antenna, we are installing, among other things, a new coating as well as a powerful state-of-the-art radar; the instrument is now more sensitive than ever and can detect the movements of asteroids and other planetary bodies.

Frank Drake also plays a central role in the representation that humanity gives of itself in the messages it sends to these distant worlds. It is to him that we owe the “message from Arecibo”, a radio signal sent in 1974 in the direction of a cluster of stars located approximately 22,000 light years away.

In 1972, Frank Drake co-designed the Pioneer plaque, the famous pictograph message carried by the Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 probes, which represented a man and a woman, our solar system, as well as a map showing the sun’s position in the galaxy. He would also become technical director of the Voyager Golden Record, the iconic collection of Earthly photos and sounds that, like the Pioneer’s plaque, is a bottle that humanity has thrown into the ocean of space.

Frank Drake left Cornell in 1984 and moved with his family to California, where he became dean of the Department of Natural Sciences at the University of California at Santa Cruz. When he resigned this position in 1988, he remained a professor there and was recruited to the newly founded SETI Institute, where he served as chairman of the board and as director of the Carl-Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe. He ended his teaching career in 1996.

The academic honors he received throughout his career are abundant. The obituary published by the University of California at Santa Cruz testifies to this: Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Fellow of the National Academy of Sciences, Chairman of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, Chairman of the National Research Committee in Physics and Astronomy and Vice President for the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

But Frank Drake cannot be reduced to his work. To channel his burning desire for mathematical precision, he became an amateur lapidary; he cuts and polishes gemstones to make jewelry for his friends and family. He enjoys growing orchids (his greenhouses are home to hundreds). For a time he also grew his own red wine and won a few medals for his work at the New York State Fair.

Frank Drake is also a big prankster and his daughter says so. In the early 1980s, while living in Ithaca, he spent an entire Christmas Eve hopping in the woods next to his house with a cellophane-covered flashlight to give Nadia and her little sister the joy of seeing Rudolph the Red-Nosed luminous siskin. reindeer, fictional star of children’s stories.

But his mischievous tendencies also rub off on his professional life. When US Senator William Proxmire, to criticize what he considers a waste of public money, bestows a highly ironic Golden Fleece Award on a proposal by NASA and SETI, Frank Drake attempts to register the chosen one with the Flat Earth Society, which defends the idea that the Earth is flat. However, his request will be denied.

In his later years, Frank Drake would witness a revolution that would transform 21st century astronomye century, which will deepen the scientific interest in SETI and which will make it possible to refine the parameters of its equation: the discovery of thousands of planets orbiting other stars in the Milky Way.

Nadia Drake remembers a day in 2011 when Kepler, NASA’s space telescope, transmitted a chart showing more than 1,200 potential new planets discovered within its field of view. When Nadia showed it to her father, “he just stopped for a second and just said, ‘There are so many planets,'” in a voice full of wonder.

Thanks to Kepler and other missions, astronomers now know that the number of planets and stars in the Milky Way is on the same order of magnitude: there would be 100 to 400 billion. Among them, hundreds of millions could be Earth-sized terrestrial planets orbiting at a distance that allows the presence of liquid water. Many astronomers believe that one day we may discover traces of life on one of these distant worlds.

And as a certain Frank Drake predicted over 80 years ago, these planets might have their own cars, their own streets, and their own Chicago.

In addition to his daughter Nadia, Frank Drake is survived by Amahl Shakhashiri Drake, his wife of 44 years; Leila Drake Fossek, his daughter; Steve Drake, Richard Drake and Paul Drake, his sons from a previous marriage; Bob Drake, his brother; as well as a niece, a nephew and four grandchildren.

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