Bruce BettsAug 30, 2012

Optical SETI Gets a Major Upgrade

The Planetary Society Optical SETI Telescope in Harvard, Massachusetts just got a major upgrade of its electronics. The telescope, which has been operating the only all-sky optical SETI survey since its opening in 2006, is run by Harvard University Professor Paul Horowitz and his team. The telescope scans the sky every clear night with a 72-inch primary mirror, looking for laser pulses as short as one billionth of a second that could be transmitted by distant extraterrestrials. When observing, it has been able to process 1 terabit (trillion bits) of data every second, that’s as much as in all the books in print every second. 

One of the things causing false triggers of the system has been Cherenkov radiation, light given off when charged cosmic particles plunge through the Earth’s atmosphere faster than the speed of light in the atmosphere. What was needed was a new, even more amazing, set of back-end electronics that could not only sift data quickly, but also store more of it than previously possible so that the streaks of light from Cherenkov radiation or other sources can be sorted out from the points of light that might emanate from an alien signal. Curtis Mead’s impressive designs for electronics boards meet those needs. 

The boards, made possible by Planetary Society members, have now been fabricated, thoroughly tested in the lab, and were just recently installed on the telescope. But, wait, it gets better. The Harvard team also upgraded the photomultiplier tube detectors with new models that are more sensitive and that extend out into the infrared (to 950 nanometers wavelength). Since we don’t know what wavelength an extraterrestrial civilization might transmit at, observing at a wider range of wavelengths will improve our chances. ET, we’re watching.

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The Planetary Society OSETI telescope is scanning the night sky on every clear night. They sift through a terabit of information each second. How is that possible? Through electronics that were funded by Planetary Society Members.

And now the team, led by electronics guru, Paul Horowitz, has a clever strategy to not only increase the accuracy of their observations but also to look for signals into the infrared band, as well. They have a great new system coming online—but they look to us for the funding to operate and maintain it.

If you believe we should continue our quest for knowledge about the universe around us then I ask you to make a contribution in support of The Planetary Society's SETI programs.

Thank you!

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