Bill Borucki

MOUNTAIN VIEW — On October 15, the SETI Institute will award the 2015 Frank Drake Award for Innovation in SETI and Astrobiology Research to William Borucki, who was the Principal Investigator for NASA’s Kepler mission.  

Borucki will be honored for leading a team that conceived, designed, built and operated a space telescope that has detected dozens of possible Earth-size worlds situated in the habitable zone, the range of distances from a star where liquid water might exist on a planet’s surface.  Fifteen of these worlds have been verified and double that number await confirmation, although scientists do not know if they harbor life.

“The Frank Drake Award for Innovation in SETI and Life in the Universe Research honors distinguished contributors to the search for life beyond Earth,” said Bill Diamond, President and CEO of the SETI Institute.  “Awardees are chosen by a panel of scientists who are appointed by the SETI Institute Board of Trustees.  There are few developments more important to the quest for life beyond Earth than the new worlds discovered by the Kepler mission.”

In total, the Kepler mission has so far discovered more than one thousand confirmed exoplanets, and 3,600 additional candidates are awaiting verification.  More than half of all the known exoplanets have been found by this spacecraft.

Borucki is the third recipient of the Drake Award, which was launched in 2001 with a ceremony honoring its namesake.  Frank Drake conducted a pioneering search for signals from extraterrestrial intelligence in 1960, and a year later developed a simple equation that can be used to estimate the prevalence of technically sophisticated societies in the Milky Way.  

The award was also given to Charles Townes, a physicist who won the Nobel Prize for his work on developing the first masers and lasers.  Townes was also a champion of so-called optical SETI, a scheme in which mirror-and-lens telescopes are used to hunt for brief pulses of light that could be signals from other worlds.

“Kepler has been hugely successful in determining that there must be several billion terrestrial planets in the habitable zone of solar-like stars,” says Borucki.  “The knowledge that our galaxy is filled with planets, but that the SETI Program has not heard from anyone is intriguing; so which factor in the well-known Drake equation accounts for the missing communications?  Clearly, the continuation of the search is critical to understanding mankind’s position in the universe.”

Borucki, who has been a space scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center since 1962, has degrees in physics from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, as well as a masters in meteorology from San Jose State University.  His early research helped to design the heat shields for the Apollo Mission re-entry vehicles.  He also measured lightning activity on other planets.

In the early 1980s, Borucki began to study the feasibility of detecting exoplanets using the so-called transit method.  This requires sensing the very slight (typically 0.01 percent for an Earth-size planet) dimming of a star that occurs as planet passes in front of it. Eventually, Borucki concluded that it would be possible to measure such slight dimming with an orbiting telescope. After years of persistent application to NASA, the Kepler spacecraft – designed to survey 150,000 stars – was launched in 2009.  It is arguably one of the most successful astronomical instruments of all time, and clearly relevant to SETI research because it addresses the question of what fraction of stars has habitable planets.

The award will be presented at a private function hosted by the SETI Institute.

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About SETI Institute

Founded in 1984, the SETI Institute is a non-profit, multi-disciplinary research and education organization whose mission is to explore, understand, and explain the origin and nature of life in the universe. Our research encompasses the physical and biological sciences and leverages expertise in data analytics, machine learning and advanced signal detection technologies.  The Institute is a distinguished research partner for industry, academia and government agencies, including NASA and NSF.