SETI to Begin Searching for Alien Lasers

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.


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.

Now, the group is once again carving its own path between these two extremes by announcing the addition of a second laser detector to its extraterrestrial techno-signature hunting arsenal.

SETI laser Hawai'i
Installation team. Left to right: Jason Gillum, Eliot Gillum, and Stephen Bourdow. Image Credit: Eliot Gillum.



“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.”


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.

For instance, NASA’s James Webb telescope is almost on station, where a number of researchers who have booked time on the first of its kind infrared observatory will begin looking for sign of extraterrestrial life on previously detected, potentially habitable exoplanets. Harvard’s Avi Loeb is mounting Project Galileo, which is preparing to use telescopes to scan Earth’s skies for potential alien techno-signatures. Furthermore, recent reports of findings in our own solar system along with plans for an array of tantalizing missions by the world’s space agencies have added even more fuel to the extraterrestrial life hunting fire.

“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.

And remember, if they find proof of aliens by 2036, someone owes someone else a cup of coffee.

Follow and connect with author Christopher Plain on Twitter: @plain_fiction