Laser-powered SETI Telescope to Seek Out Alien Life

The search for laser signals from other civilizations has long been hampered by a lack of signal detection equipment. Now, thanks to the invention of LaserSETI, we may finally hear what they have to say. The night sky is scanned for pulses of visible light that might be used to convey huge amounts of information, such as half a million times as many bits as radio transmissions.

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute’s new technology will hopefully bring us closer to establishing contact with extraterrestrials than ever before if such civilizations exist.

According to the University of Hawai’i, new optical detection equipment has lately been put up on the roofs of existing properties on Mount Haleakalā in Hawaii. SETI researchers will be able to observe a larger section of sky than ever before with this technology, looking for nanosecond-long pulses of light that may be encoding signs from extra-terrestrial life.

“The possibility that life exists elsewhere is exciting for the public, especially with the reports of biologically interesting molecules in the atmosphere of Venus, the selection of two Venus missions by NASA, the Mars Perseverance rover mission, and the upcoming Europa Clipper mission to explore Jupiter’s moon,” said University of Hawai’i Institute for Astronomy professor Karen Meech.

“[University of Hawai’i] has had a long involvement in astrobiology to explore the possibility of life elsewhere—both through research related to formation of habitable worlds, discovery of exoplanets, and the development of new innovative mirror and telescope technology to detect planets. It is exciting to add a new direction to this investigation by searching for technological signatures.”

How LaserSETI works, in a nutshell

The Robert Ferguson Observatory in Sonoma, California, will use the same optical sensors that were recently installed in Hawaii to monitor the seas over the Pacific Ocean. The cameras employ a transmission grating to split light sources into spectra before being read out at a speed of more than 1,000 times per second by two cameras rotated 90 degrees relative to each other along a viewing axis.

The two cameras in the optical sensor can capture roughly 75 degrees of the night sky, and while light from stars will generate a distinct spectrum, laser pulses would be easily recognized.

In order to avoid detecting anything that originates from our solar system, researchers in California and Hawaii use camera systems to monitor the same section of sky from several angles, which can filter out light signals emitted by satellites or passing aircraft, both of which utilize laser pulses for navigation and communication. This ensures that any laser pulse emissions they detect are attributable to a foreign source.

“LaserSETI is attempting a big step forward in searching for technosignatures, that is, evidence of life originating beyond Earth,” said the principal investigator for LaserSETI, Eliot Gillum. “It’s the first project in either optical or radio astronomy designed to cover the entire sky.”

This method also helps to keep costs low, and the goal of covering the entire night sky in all hemispheres is anticipated to cost $5 million, which is a relatively small amount when compared to similar projects. Currently, 10 more systems are being put up in the islands of Puerto Rico, the Canary Islands, and Chile, which will suffice to cover the western hemisphere’s night sky.