New infrared telescope expands SETI’s search for alien life

For more than 50 years, scientists working on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) have been scanning the heavens for a signal from beyond our solar system. Despite some interesting blips, there has been nothing conclusive so far. But maybe we simply haven’t been looking for the right things. A new infrared telescope instrument has been brought online in California that will let SETI look for signals being sent out with infrared pulses.

Lick-640x353

The new instrument is known as the Near-Infrared Optical Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (NIROSETI), and it’s housed at the University of California’s Lick Observatory. It’s not a completely new telescope, but is instead attached to the existing Nickel 1-meter telescope. From its position atop Mt. Hamilton, the newly enhanced telescope could search for alien civilizations thousands of light years away, much farther than you can manage with radio waves.

SETI scientists claim the infrared light could be an excellent way to send a message across the depths of space. Radio waves have been the primary focus of SETI over the decades, but interference limits such searches to a few hundred light years. A short pulse from a powerful infrared laser, however, can outshine even a star for a split second. Infrared light can also penetrate farther through dust and gas than visible light. That’s why NIROSETI could potentially detect a message from thousands of light years away.

From left to right at the 1 meter Nickel Reflector: Remington Stone, Dan Werthimer, NIROSETI instrument, Jerome Maire, Shelley Wright, Patrick Dorval, and Richard Treffers. Also on the team but not shown here are Frank Drake, Geoff Marcy, and Andrew Siemi

Optical detectors have been used by SETI for a few years, but the new instrument is far superior. NIROSETI will gather substantially more data than older optical detectors, allowing it to record data from stars over time so that patterns can be analyzed for potential signs of intelligent life. This data can also be reevaluated later as we come up with new ideas of how ET might try to communicate.

The necessary infrared detectors to make NIROSETI a reality have only recently become available, but they could make the project significantly more efficient. These instruments are small and inexpensive, which means there’s more observational time available with the same amount of funding. We need to scan as many stars as possible to have a better chance of success, and the list of promising stars is getting longer all the time. NASA’s Kepler mission showed just how common planets are.

In order for SETI to detect anything, someone has to be out there talking to us. Infrared light has great potential, but it’s not without its drawbacks. With radio waves, you can send a signal out across a wide swath of sky in hopes that someone picks it up. An infrared pulse would need to be pointed more or less directly at us for the NIROSETI instrument to detect it. SETI advisor Frank Drake points out if they’re aiming for us, they probably want to communicate, and that’s a good thing. Friendly aliens are less likely to blow up cities and enslave humanity.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s