Bruce BettsOct 30, 2007

Planetary Society's Optical SETI Telescope Offers Online View of Night sky

The Planetary Society unveils today a new treat on its website in conjunction with the optical search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) -- a live view of the night sky in the region where The Planetary Society's Optical SETI Telescope is searching.

"Our new web feature offers people everywhere a virtual seat inside the observatory, the chance to see the skies through the lens of The Planetary Society's Optical SETI Telescope," said Louis Friedman, Executive Director of The Planetary Society.

The Planetary Society's Optical SETI Telescope was built solely to search for possible light signals from alien civilizations. Located at Oak Ridge Observatory in Harvard, Massachusetts, it is the first dedicated Optical SETI telescope in the world.  Its 72-inch primary mirror also makes it larger than any optical telescope in the U.S. east of the Mississippi river.

The Optical SETI Telescope page offers four new features:

  • A skycam view through the observatory's roof showing the night sky during observations, updating every 10 minutes. If the telescope is not observing, the page displays the last image taken before observations ceased.
  • A graphic of the telescope showing whether it is currently observing and, if active, where it is pointing. This also updates every 10 minutes.
  • A map of the night sky as seen from Oak Ridge Observatory, showing which regions of the sky have been observed, updated weekly.
  • Current data about the telescope's status, updated every 10 minutes.

Under the direction of Harvard University physicist Paul Horowitz and his team, The Planetary Society's Optical SETI Telescope is conducting a year round, all-sky survey, scanning the entire swath of our Milky Way galaxy visible in the northern hemisphere.

“The Harvard SETI group is most grateful to The Planetary Society for a quarter century's loyal support,” said Horowitz. “With (a lot of) luck, this new search might just catch The Big One!”

The Planetary Society has conducted radio telescope SETI searches around the world for 25 years, including several projects with Horowitz at the Oak Ridge Observatory.

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 Earth's own current 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 Planetary Society's Optical SETI Telescope's custom electronics 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 scans the sky every night, weather permitting.

Planetary Society members around the world helped fund the Optical SETI Telescope.  Additional major support for the telescope 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 and making use of different approaches. The first META search, which began more than 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 Optical SETI Telescope is one of the largest SETI projects ever sponsored by The Planetary Society.

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