Search for extraterrestrial intelligence expands at Lick Observatory

New instrument scans the sky for pulses of infrared light


The NIROSETI instrument saw first light on the Nickel 1-meter Telescope at Lick Observatory on March 15, 2015. (Photo by Laurie Hatch)


UCSC alumna Shelley Wright, now an assistant professor of physics at UC San Diego, discusses the dichroic filter of the NIROSETI instrument. (Photo by Laurie Hatch)

Astronomers are expanding the search for extraterrestrial intelligence into a new realm with detectors tuned to infrared light at UC's Lick Observatory. A new instrument, called NIROSETI, will soon scour the sky for messages from other worlds.

"Infrared light would be an excellent means of interstellar communication," said Shelley Wright, an assistant professor of physics at UC San Diego who led the development of the new instrument while at the University of Toronto's Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics.

Wright worked on an earlier SETI project at Lick Observatory as a UC Santa Cruz undergraduate, when she built an optical instrument designed by UC Berkeley researchers. The infrared project takes advantage of new technology not available for that first optical search.

Infrared light would be a good way for extraterrestrials to get our attention here on Earth, since pulses from a powerful infrared laser could outshine a star, if only for a billionth of a second. Interstellar gas and dust is almost transparent to near infrared, so these signals can be seen from great distances. It also takes less energy to send information using infrared signals than with visible light.

Frank Drake, professor emeritus of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz and director emeritus of the SETI Institute, said there are several additional advantages to a search in the infrared realm.

"The signals are so strong that we only need a small telescope to receive them. Smaller telescopes can offer more observational time, and that is good because we need to search many stars for a chance of success," said Drake.

The only downside is that extraterrestrials would need to be transmitting their signals in our direction, Drake said, though he sees this as a positive side to that limitation. "If we get a signal from someone who's aiming for us, it could mean there's altruism in the universe. I like that idea. If they want to be friendly, that's who we will find."

Scientists have searched the skies for radio signals for more than 50 years and expanded their search into the optical realm more than a decade ago. The idea of searching in the infrared is not a new one, but instruments capable of capturing pulses of infrared light only recently became available.

"We had to wait," Wright said. "I spent eight years waiting and watching as new technology emerged."

Now that technology has caught up, the search will extend to stars thousands of light years away, rather than just hundreds. NIROSETI, or Near-Infrared Optical Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, could also uncover new information about the physical universe.

"This is the first time Earthlings have looked at the universe at infrared wavelengths with nanosecond time scales," said Dan Werthimer, UC Berkeley SETI Project Director. "The instrument could discover new astrophysical phenomena, or perhaps answer the question of whether we are alone."

NIROSETI will also gather more information than previous optical detectors by recording levels of light over time so that patterns can be analyzed for potential signs of other civilizations.

"Searching for intelligent life in the universe is both thrilling and somewhat unorthodox," said Claire Max, director of UC Observatories and professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz. "Lick Observatory has already been the site of several previous SETI searches, so this is a very exciting addition to the current research taking place."

NIROSETI will be fully operational by early summer and will scan the skies several times a week on the Nickel 1-meter telescope at Lick Observatory, located on Mt. Hamilton east of San Jose.

The NIROSETI team also includes Geoffrey Marcy and Andrew Siemion from UC Berkeley; Patrick Dorval, a Dunlap undergraduate, and Elliot Meyer, a Dunlap graduate student; and Richard Treffers of Starman Systems. Funding for the project comes from the generous support of Bill and Susan Bloomfield.