"Long before it's in the papers"
July 22, 2015


Robotic telescope joins huge search for signals from aliens

July 22, 2015
Courtesy of University of California Observatories
and World Science staff

A robotic tel­e­scope a­bove San Jose, Calif. will under­take an in­ten­sive search for la­ser sig­nals from ex­trater­res­trials, un­der a plan funded by a $100 mil­lion prize.

“This is the big­gest scientif­ic search yet for signs of in­tel­li­gent life be­yond Earth,” sa­id a state­ment from the facility, the U­ni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia’s Lick Ob­serv­a­to­ry, this week. The ob­ser­va­to­ry’s Au­to­mat­ed Plan­et Find­er Tel­e­scope “will un­dertake a new deep and broad search for op­ti­cal la­ser trans­mis­sions from near­by civ­i­liza­tions, if an­y ex­ist.”

Inside the dome of the Automated Planet Finder at Lick Observatory. (Photo by Laurie Hatch)

The proj­ect is part of an in­i­ti­a­tive known as the Break­through Prize, funded by the Rus­sian in­ves­tor Yuri Mil­ner, and an­nounced Mon­day at The Roy­al So­ci­e­ty in Lon­don.

The tel­e­scope, the newest at Lick Ob­serv­a­to­ry, sits a­top Mt. Ham­il­ton, east of San Jose, and op­er­ates robot­i­cally on eve­ry clear night. Its main em­pha­sis to date has been on dis­cov­er­ing and de­scrib­ing plan­ets out­side our so­lar sys­tem.

With the new in­i­ti­a­tive, the tel­e­scope and an as­so­ci­at­ed spec­trom­e­ter, which an­a­lyzes the col­or make­up of light, will search 1,000 near­by stars and 100 near­by galax­ies for visible-light la­ser e­mis­sion from “tech­no­log­i­cal sources,” the state­ment ex­plained. 

Oth­er civ­i­liza­tions could use la­sers to com­mu­ni­cate be­tween their home plan­et and satel­lites, space­craft, or col­o­nies on oth­er worlds, it added.

La­ser e­mis­sions should be rec­og­niz­a­ble by their ex­treme single-wavelength, or single-col­or, na­ture, and by an un­re­solved dot in the sky from which they o­rig­i­nate, sci­en­tists sa­id. They spec­u­late that our Milk­y Way gal­ax­y might e­ven con­tain a ga­lac­tic In­ter­net of la­ser e­mis­sion, on which the tel­e­scope could eaves­drop.

This is “the most ex­ten­sive search for op­ti­cal la­ser trans­mis­sions in his­to­ry,” sa­id Claire Max, in­ter­im di­rec­tor of the U­ni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia Ob­ser­va­to­ries, of which Lick is a part.

The Break­through Prize Founda­tion is al­so con­tract­ing with two of the world’s larg­est ra­di­o tel­e­scopes for the search, the Rob­ert C. Byrd Green Bank Tel­e­scope in West Vir­gin­ia and the Parkes Tel­e­scope in New South Wales, Aus­tral­ia.

The o­ver­all pro­gram is to in­clude a sur­vey of the 1,000,000 clos­est stars to Earth. It would scan the cen­ter of our gal­ax­y and the ga­lac­tic plane. Be­yond the Milk­y Way gal­ax­y, tel­e­scopes will lis­ten for mes­sages from the 100 clos­est galax­ies.

“We learn­ed from the NASA Kep­ler mis­sion that our Milk­y Way Gal­ax­y con­tains tens of bil­lions of Earth-size plan­ets at luke­warm tem­per­a­tures, an­y of which might har­bor life,” not­ed Ge­off Mar­cy, Pro­fes­sor of As­tron­o­my and As­tro­phys­ics at the U­ni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia Berke­ley.

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A robotic telescope above San Jose, Calif., will launch a massive search for laser signals from extraterrestrials, under a plan funded by a $100 million prize. “This is the biggest scientific search yet for signs of intelligent life beyond Earth,” said a statement released by the Lick Observatory, part of the University of California system, this week. The observatory’s Automated Planet Finder Telescope “will undertake a new deep and broad search for optical laser transmissions from nearby civilizations, if any exist.” The project is part of an initiative known as the Breakthrough Prize, funded by the Russian investor Yuri Milner, and announced Monday at The Royal Society in London. The telescope, the newest at Lick Observatory, sits atop Mt. Hamilton, east of San Jose, and operates robotically on every clear night. Its main emphasis to date has been on discovering and describing planets outside our solar system. With the new initiative, the APF telescope and an associated spectrometer, which analyzes the color makeup of light, will search 1,000 nearby stars and 100 nearby galaxies for visible-light laser emission from “technological sources,” the statement explained. Other civilizations could use lasers to communicate between their home planet and satellites, spacecraft, or colonies on other worlds, it added. Laser emissions should be recognizable by their extreme single-wavelength, or single-color, nature, and by an unresolved dot in the sky from which they originate, scientists said. They speculate that our Milky Way galaxy might even contain a galactic Internet of laser emission, on which the telescope could eavesdrop. This is “the most extensive search for optical laser transmissions in history,” said Claire Max, interim director of the University of California Observatories. The Breakthrough Prize Foundation is also contracting with two of the world’s largest radio telescopes for the search, the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia and the Parkes Telescope in New South Wales, Australia. The overall program is to include a survey of the 1,000,000 closest stars to Earth. It would scan the center of our galaxy and the galactic plane. Beyond the Milky Way galaxy, telescopes will listen for messages from the 100 closest galaxies. “We learned from the NASA Kepler mission that our Milky Way Galaxy contains tens of billions of Earth-size planets at lukewarm temperatures, any of which might harbor life,” noted Geoff Marcy, Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of California Berkeley.