Planetary Society Opens World's First Dedicated Optical SETI Telescope

For Immediate Release
April 11, 2006

Mat Kaplan
Email: [email protected]
Phone: +1-626-793-5100

Today, April 11, 2006, The Planetary Society dedicated a new optical telescope at an observatory in Harvard, Massachusetts -- one designed solely to search for light signals from alien civilizations. Read more.

Opening ceremonies for The Planetary Society's Optical SETI Telescope featured Project Director Paul Horowitz of Harvard University; Planetary Society Chairman Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of New York's Hayden Planetarium; and Society Executive Director Louis Friedman.

"With the launch of The Planetary Society's Optical SETI Telescope," said Friedman, "we are proud to be part of a new voyage of discovery with this great Harvard team."

The new telescope is the first dedicated optical SETI telescope in the world. Its 72-inch primary mirror is larger than that of any optical telescope in the U.S. east of the Mississippi River.

Under the direction of Horowitz and his team, the optical SETI 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 telescope has been built at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics Oak Ridge Observatory, where for many years, The Planetary Society has conducted radiotelescope SETI searches with Horowitz. The first was the Mega-channel Extraterrestrial Assay (META) search, which was later expanded to 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 stripes 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 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, 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 have been radio SETI projects. The new observatory is one of the largest SETI projects ever sponsored by The Planetary Society.

About The Planetary Society

With a global community of more than 2 million space enthusiasts, The Planetary Society is the world’s largest and most influential space advocacy organization. Founded in 1980 by Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray, and Louis Friedman and today led by CEO Bill Nye, we empower the public to take a meaningful role in advancing space exploration through advocacy, education outreach, scientific innovation, and global collaboration. Together with our members and supporters, we’re on a mission to explore worlds, find life off Earth, and protect our planet from dangerous asteroids. To learn more, visit