Scientists Hunt for Light Flashes from Extraterrestrial Intelligence


California astronomers are broadening the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) with a new experiment to look for powerful light pulses beamed our way from other star systems. Scientists from the University of California's Lick Observatory, the SETI Institute (Mountain View, California), UC Santa Cruz, and UC Berkeley are coupling the Lick Observatory's 40-inch Nickel Telescope with a new pulse-detection system capable of finding laser beacons from civilizations many light-years distant. Unlike other optical SETI searches, this new experiment is largely immune to false alarms that slow the reconnaissance of target stars.

"This is perhaps the most sensitive optical SETI search yet undertaken," said Frank Drake, Chairman of the Board of the SETI Institute and a co-investigator on the new experiment. Drake, who in 1960 conducted the first modern hunt for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence, is usually associated with radio SETI, an approach in which large antennas are connected to specialized, multi-million channel receivers. "This is different," noted Drake. "We are looking for very brief but powerful pulses of laser light from other planetary systems, rather than the steady whine of a radio transmitter."

While optical SETI has been undertaken before, it is only recently that major experiments, scrutinizing hundreds or even thousands of star systems, have been initiated. This is largely the consequence of a study conducted by the SETI Institute during the years 1997 - 1999 which showed that new technology has made optical SETI an appealing approach for finding technologically sophisticated civilizations. However, unlike its radio counterpart, optical SETI requires that any extraterrestrial civilization be deliberately signaling in the direction of our solar system.

The new experiment is unique in exploiting three light detectors (photomultipliers) to search for bright pulses that arrive in a short period of time (less than a billionth of a second). Of course, light from the central star will trigger the detectors as well, but seldom will all three photomultipliers be hit by photons within a billionth of a second time frame. The expected number of false alarms for the stars being looked at is about one per year.

Other optical SETI experiments use only one or two detectors and have been plagued by false alarms occurring on a daily basis. Starlight, cosmic rays, muon showers, and radioactive decays in the glass of photomultiplier tubes can all contribute confusing "events" to optical SETI searches. Dan Werthimer and Richard Treffers of UC Berkeley designed the hardware and software for the new, three-tube system. It was built by Shelley Wright, an undergraduate physics student at UC Santa Cruz, under the direction of principal investigator Remington Stone, a research astronomer at Lick Observatory. The astronomers expect that the new approach will produce a clean experiment that can be run automatically, and for which the results will be far less ambiguous.

So far, the experiment at Lick Observatory has examined about 300 individual star systems, as well as a few star clusters. The intention is to continue the search at least on a weekly basis for the coming year. The project is being sponsored by the SETI Institute.

"One great advantage of optical SETI is that there's no terrestrial interference," comments Drake. "It's an exciting new field."

For further information, contact:

Frank Drake
SETI Institute and Univ. of California Santa Cruz
(650) 961-6633

Seth Shostak
SETI Institute
(650) 960-4530
seth@seti.org

Tim Stephens
UC Santa Cruz
(831) 459-2495
stephens@cats.ucsc.edu

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