Astronomers have devised an instrument that could lift the veil of doubt over whether we're alone in the universe, tapping into a type of radiation that has little trouble cutting through the vast cosmic distances or penetrating the thickest nebula.
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The search for extraterrestrial intelligence is a highly speculative affair - if we don't know what we're looking for, how can we hope to discover evidence for aliens that we don't yet know exist?
As we discover more extra-solar planets orbiting their stars in (what we would consider to be) "habitable zones" and we continue to unearth evidence for organic chemistry from Mars to the most distant nebulae, it seems that life should be inevitable beyond Earth's blue shores. But answering the question of whether there are other intelligent lifeforms in the galaxy is a far loftier goal.
Is there another example of a technology-savvy alien civilization out there intelligent enough to be pondering the same questions as us? Are they looking into deep space, hoping for signs of life among the rich sparkle of stars as we currently are?
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To try answering these heady questions, we model these hypothetical alien races on ourselves - as, let's face it, in a universe filled with infinite possibilities, the only life we know of is ourselves. So in an effort to seek out signs of intelligent life, we build radio antennae and try to eavesdrop on leaked radio communications between alien civilizations or the possible radio beacons deliberately transmitted across the light-years in an effort to reach out.
Radio waves were the first artificial transmissions leaked from our atmosphere, so we've used the radio realm as our "go-to" intelligent alien detection method so far. But as technology advances, new techniques are born and now astronomers have devised a way of detecting rapid pulses of infrared radiation that could revolutionize how we look for alien beacons.
"Infrared light would be an excellent means of interstellar communication," said Shelley Wright, an Assistant Professor of Physics at the University of California, San Diego.
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Leading the development of the Near-Infrared Optical SETI (NIROSETI) instrument when she worked at the University of Toronto's Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics, Wright had to be patient. Though SETI has advanced from solely seeking out radio transmissions to peeking into optical wavelengths, detecting artificial pulses of infrared radiation has not been possible.
"We had to wait," Wright said in a press release. "I spent eight years waiting and watching as new technology emerged."
Although infrared astronomy has transformed our view of the cosmos, the technology to detect nano-second pulses of infrared radiation has not been available until now.
"This is the first time Earthlings have looked at the universe at infrared wavelengths with nanosecond time scales," said collaborator Dan Werthimer of the University of California, Berkeley. "The instrument could discover new astrophysical phenomena, or perhaps answer the question of whether we are alone."
The instrument has been installed at the University of California Lick Observatory near San Jose, an observatory that is frequented the SETI Institute's Frank Drake, who layed the groundwork for SETI in the 1960s with Project Ozma. Drake has taken special interest in NIROSETI as the instrument not only accesses a realm we've not seen before, its flexibility allows more observing time - a bonus for any SETI project.
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"The signals are so strong that we only need a small telescope to receive them," said Drake. "Smaller telescopes can offer more observational time, and that is good because we need to search many stars for a chance of success.
"There is only one downside: the extraterrestrials would need to be transmitting their signals in our direction," he added.
This limitation needn't be a problem, however. As we discover planets orbiting in what we would consider to be life-friendly locations around their stars, a new method of "directed SETI" has come about. Rather than aiming at random stars in the hope they possess a population of transmitting aliens, missions such as NASA's Kepler have allowed us to be more picky, focusing our search on star systems known to contain planets.
And now, rather than passively "listening" to the stars, astronomers have begun transmitting humanity's beacon into space, aiming radio messages at stars known to contain planets - a project known as "Messaging to Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence" (METI), or "Active SETI."
So if we turn what we're doing around and aliens are reaching out to us using a highly directed infrared signal, it reveals something about our hypothetical galactic neighbors.
"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," said Drake.
Of course, ‘they' may not be friendly, a factor that worries some scientists.
For more information about NIROSETI, check out the UCSD press release.