The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is adding a new set of laser detectors to its arsenal, upping its array of tools in the search for signs of life beyond Earth. Designed to detect laser pulses originating from space, including those that may have been created by intelligent life, LaserSETI is the latest effort by a nearly forty-year-old organization more commonly known for searching the skies for extraterrestrial radio signals.
BACKGROUND: SETI THE UNWANTED STEPCHILD OF TWO UNWELCOMING WORLDS
SETI likely rose to its highest prominence when a movie version of Carl Sagan’s novel Contact hit theaters in 1997. However, although the SETI Institute wasn’t officially founded until 1984, the organization’s start is often said to have unofficially occurred in 1960, when astronomer Frank Drake first used a radio telescope to comb the heavens for radio signals originating from beyond Earth.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, especially given the era, early SETI efforts were met with a heavy amount of skepticism, particularly from the mainstream science community who mostly agreed (at least at that time) that life beyond Earth was highly unlikely. Ironically, the UFO community, which proposed that extraterrestrial life may already be here, has also criticized SETI for not taking their cause seriously.
ANALYSIS: SETI LASER HUNTING SYSTEM WILL OFFER GREATER COVERAGE
“LaserSETI is a unique astronomy program designed to detect potential laser pulses originating from outside the solar system,” the organization’s recent press release explains. “It is building a global network of instruments to monitor the entire night sky.”
Specifically, each hub in the LaserSETI arsenal will house “two identical cameras rotated 90 degrees to one another along the viewing axis.” These cameras work by using a “transmission grating” that splits incoming light sources into spectra. According to the release, it can accomplish this feat over 1,000 times per second. Of course, stars emit light across a range of spectra, but the signals from alien lasers that SETI researchers are looking for should be confined to a specific spectrum, making them distinguishable from other interstellar phenomena.
The first LaserSETI detection array was installed at the Robert Ferguson Observatory in Sonoma, CA, while this second system was just set up last month in Hawai’i at the Haleakala Observatory. The California cameras point west, while the new Haleakala cameras will point east, providing “redundant coverage of the sky over the Pacific.”
“When you don’t know where to look, an instrument with an enormous field-of-view and time range allows us to cover a lot more ground than ever before.” said Eliot Gillum, principal investigator for LaserSETI.
“LaserSETI is attempting a big step forward in SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence,” added Gillum. “It’s the first project in either optical or radio astronomy designed to cover the entire sky.”
OUTLOOK: THE SEARCH FOR LIFE IS IN FULL SWING
Regardless of one’s disposition toward SETI or their methods, this increased effort to hunt for technosignatures is just the latest in a string of exciting efforts already underway.
“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 Karen Meech, interim director for the University of Hawai’i’s Institute for Astronomy (IfA), who is a partner on this latest SETI effort. “UH 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,” added Meech of the LaserSETI effort.