Observatory searching for infrared beacons from aliens

Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – @BednarChuck

Astronomers at the University of California, San Diego have broken out a new tool in the search for intelligent extraterrestrial life: an instrument that can scan the sky for pulses of infrared light that may be indicative of messages from advanced civilizations on other worlds.

The instrument, known as NIROSETI (Near-Infrared Optical Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), was developed by current UCSD assistant professor of physics Shelley Wright and colleagues while she was at the University of Toronto’s Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics.

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Wright explains that infrared light “would be an excellent means of interstellar communication,” as pulses from a powerful enough infrared laser could shine brighter than a star for a fraction of a second. Since interstellar gas and dust is almost transparent to near infrared, such a signal would be visible from a far greater distance, and sending a signal using infrared light would require less energy than sending the same amount of information using visible light, she added.


As Discovery News explained on Wednesday, the search for intelligent alien life forms “is a highly speculative affair,” as astronomers and researchers hunting for evidence of otherworldly creatures aren’t even sure exactly what they’re supposed to be looking for. NIROSETI provides a complement to the radio antennae and other technologies currently being used in the hunt.

Over the years, SETI has advanced from exclusively seeking out radio transmissions to probing optical wavelengths for signs of otherworldly intelligence, but attempting to detect artificial pulses of infrared radiation has only recently become possible, the website said. In fact, Wright said that she had to wait eight years for the technology to catch up with the concept.

Three years ago while at the Dunlap Institute, she purchased newly-released detectors and ran a series of test to ensure that they worked well enough to equip onto a telescope. Once they passed the test, development of NIROSETI kicked into high gear. NIROSETI has been installed at the University of California’s Lick Observatory near San Jose, and saw first light on March 15.


The NIROSETI team with their new infrared detector inside the dome at Lick Observatory. Left to right: Remington Stone, Dan Wertheimer, Jérome Maire, Shelley Wright, Patrick Dorval and Richard Treffers. (Photos by © Laurie Hatch)

Signs of other civilizations

According to UCSD, the instrument will gather more information than previous optical detectors by recording light levels over an extended period of time so that researchers can analyze them in search of patterns that could be signs of other civilizations. That record could also be reviewed as new concepts about what form communication from extraterrestrials could take emerge.

“Because infrared light penetrates farther through gas and dust than visible light, this new search will extend to stars thousands rather than merely hundreds of light years away,” UCSD noted, adding that the ongoing success of NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler mission in finding new habitable worlds “has prompted the new search to look for signals from a wider variety of stars.”

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UC Berkeley’s Dan Werthimer, who designed the first optical instrument used in SETI searches at Lick Observatory, added that NIROSETI could also reveal new information about the physical universe. “This is the first time Earthlings have looked at the universe at infrared wavelengths with nanosecond time scales,” he explained. “The instrument could discover new astrophysical phenomena, or perhaps answer the question of whether we are alone.”


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