'No one's out there': We're likely alone in the Milky Way, says Shaw Prize astronomy winner as he visits Hong Kong for award ceremony

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 September, 2015, 7:02am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 September, 2015, 12:10am

An internationally-revered Nasa scientist whose work helped discover the first Earth-sized habitable planet outside our solar system said the evidence so far points to us being alone in our galaxy.

William Borucki, the principal investigator of Nasa’s historic 2009 Kepler mission, was awarded the prestigious Shaw Prize in Astronomy in Hong Kong yesterday and said he planned to donate US$100,000 of his prize money to the battle against climate change.

But in an interview with the South China Morning Post, Borucki said his work on the Kepler mission discovering habitable planets made the silence in our galaxy all the more unusual.

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“We have a galaxy full of 10 billion planets, in habitable zones, roughly earth-size, [but] no visits, no communications we’ve picked up,” he said. “How can that be?”

“Up till now it was just an intellectual question. It isn’t anymore. There could be 10 billion civilisations or none. The evidence certainly is none … the evidence says, no one’s out there.”

Before the Kepler mission, Borucki said scientists were not sure how many planets orbited each star. Six years after its launch, we know the answer is millions.

“Just think of what [Kepler] has shown us …today we know most stars have planets, today we know many of these planets are earth-sized, we know many of these are in the habitable zone,” he said.

“Today we know one of the biggest questions mankind faces is, why haven’t we been contacted?”

The habitable zone describes the area in a solar system where a planet is near enough to the sun to not freeze, but far enough away to avoid its oceans boiling up.

Borucki will be awarded the Shaw Prize in Astronomy on Thursday night for his work on Nasa’s Kepler mission, which could determine the number and size of planets orbiting a star by monitoring its brightness

He began working at Nasa in 1962 and helped develop the heat shields that protected the Apollo astronauts who landed on the moon in 1969.

“It’s a wonderful honour, it’s a lifetime honour,” Borucki said. “I could never imagine I’d receive something so prestigious. All I wanted to do is build a telescope and find out whether there were planets.”

The Shaw Prize honours individuals who have achieved significant breakthroughs in academic and scientific research and whose discoveries have had a profound impact on mankind.