Apr. 5, 2006 After 20 years of listening for signs of life elsewhere in the universe, The Planetary Society is now ready to watch the skies. On April 11, 2006 the Society will dedicate a brand new optical telescope at an observatory in Harvard, Massachusetts, designed solely to search for light signals from alien civilizations -- a search known as Optical SETI (OSETI).
The new telescope will be the first dedicated optical SETI telescope in the world. Its 72-inch primary mirror is larger than any optical telescope in the U.S. east of the Mississippi river.
Under the direction of Harvard University physicist Paul Horowitz and his team, The Planetary Society's new telescope will conduct a year round, all-sky survey, scanning the entire swath of our Milky Way galaxy visible in the northern hemisphere.
"This new search apparatus performs one trillion measurements per second and expands by 100,000-fold the sky coverage of our previous optical search," said Horowitz.
The new optical telescope has been built at the Oak Ridge Observatory, where for many years The Planetary Society has conducted radiotelescope SETI searches with Horowitz -- first with the Mega-channel Extraterrestrial Assay (META) and later the Billion-channel Extraterrestrial Assay (BETA).
Alien civilizations are thought by many to be at least as likely to use visible light signals for communicating as they are to use radio transmissions. Visible light can form tight beams, be incredibly intense, and its high frequencies allow it to carry enormous amounts of information. Using only Earth 2006 technology, a bright tightly focused light beam, such as a laser, can be ten thousand times as bright as its parent star for a brief instant. Such a beam could be easily observed from enormous distances.
"The opening of this telescope represents one of those rare moments in a field of scientific endeavor when a great leap forward is enabled," said Planetary Society Director of Projects Bruce Betts. "Sending laser signals across the cosmos would be a very logical way for E.T. to reach out, but until now, we have been ill equipped to receive any such signal."
The Planetary Society's Optical SETI telescope's custom processors will process the equivalent of all books in print every second. As the telescope scans strips of sky, it employs a custom-built "camera" containing an array of detectors that can detect a billionth-of-a-second flash of light. The telescope will scan the sky every night, weather permitting.
Planetary Society members around the world helped fund the OSETI telescope. Additional major support for the telescope, which is located at the Oak Ridge site of the Harvard College Observatory, came from the Bosack/Kruger Foundation.
Since its founding, the Society has been a leading advocate of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, supporting a wide variety of searches, making use of different approaches. The first META search, which began over 20 years ago, kicked off with a significant donation from Society Board Member Steven Spielberg. Most of the Society-sponsored searches were radio SETI projects. The new observatory is one of the largest SETI projects ever sponsored by The Planetary Society.
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