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What are the chances of intelligent life in outer space?

The odds are “definitely not zero? and are potentially quite high, according to University astronomy professor Charles “Chick? Woodward. Additionally, the odds are on the rise, he says, as scientists apply new information to an equation developed in the 1960s to answer just this question.

In 1961, scientist Frank Drake developed The Drake Equation to try to quantify the number of planets in our galaxy capable of producing intelligent life. The equation takes into account factors such as the number of stars in the Milky Way, the fraction of stars that have planets in orbit around them and the number of planets per star that may be capable of evolving intelligent life.

At the time, the exercise was largely conjecture, Woodward says. But using sophisticated new telescopes and research methodologies, scientists are increasingly able to plug real numbers into the equation.

“Certainly we’re right on the cusp of being able to detect earth mass type planets,? Woodward says. “I think once we do that then the probability begins to go up enormously.?

But what are the odds that E.T. may be more science than fiction?

“I think the way to look at it is the odds are certainly not zero any more,? he says. “That is intriguing because I would consider our own galaxy to be a modest-sized galaxy, and to quote Carl Sagan, there are ‘billions and billions’ of galaxies out there, so even if the probability is 1 percent of 10 to the 9th power, you’ve got a big number.?

Chick Woodward is a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Technology. His research includes the study of solar system comets and dust around evolved stars, using the infrared imaging and polarimetry techniques of the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) and the Steward Observatory telescope, as well as data from the NASA Spitzer.