From SETI Institute: Laser SETI

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Laser SETI: First Ever All-Sky All-the-Time Search

Until now, SETI experiments (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), whether listening for a radio transmitter or searching for a high-powered laser, have assumed that ET is on-the-air all the time, so that wherever the instrument is pointed, the signal will be there.

Laser SETI is the first experiment to circumvent this assumption.

Laser SETI could find a very short ping from anywhere on the night sky. Indeed, it could detect a laser flash as short as a millisecond or less; and one that might not repeat for days, weeks, or even longer. Or ever.

Searching all-the-sky all-the-time is an essential capability when looking for intermittent signals. Radio experiments will someday be able to do that, but Laser SETI can do so right now–with your help.



Laser SETI makes this possible by using multiple, redundant, and inexpensive detectors, located strategically around the globe. And experiments of the past two years have shown that this technology works.

The Laser SETI campaign will fund the remaining development and the installation of two detectors in a fully operational observing campaign. This would be a prelude to large-scale production and deployment around the world.

The SETI Institute is a private, nonprofit, scientific research organization, where more than 70 scientists study the origin and nature of life in the universe. We have a passion for discovery and exploration, and strive to be ambassadors of science to everyone.

Frank Drake did the first SETI observations at the Green Bank Observatory in 1960. Project Phoenix was a decade-long search using radio telescopes around the globe, and now with our game-changing Allen Telescope Array commissioned in 2007, the team at the SETI Institute continues its relentless innovation.

We’re proud to continue that tradition today, with Laser SETI led by Silicon Valley engineer Eliot Gillum and astrophysicist Gerry Harp, supported by Jill Tarter (made famous by Jodi Foster’s role in Carl Sagan’s movie Contact, and winning the TED prize) and Seth Shostak (astronomer and host of the Big Picture Science radio program), and advised by other scientists from the SETI Institute and elsewhere.

Project Status and Need

Laser SETI has been under development for more than two years. The instrument and associated software have now been proven with basic sky observations, validating the design and various types of sensor noise. Now it’s time to begin scaling up to a full sky observing campaign.

But we need you to help us take the next step! Laser SETI is exceedingly cost efficient, but astronomy-grade cameras must be purchased and optics fabricated. Meanwhile, the team must work to finish development and run SETI operations.

Here are the funding levels needed to advance to a fully operational system:

$100,000 With two cameras, we can spatially localize targets on the sky, validating the algorithm and distribution of potential signals
$150,000 Dual site operations can commence with 2 cameras at each location. Full time, high confidence SETI can begin with one 75 degree-across patch of sky. And, to show our excitement, we’ll announce a BONUS PERK!!!
$280,000 Two half-observatories means twice as much SETI and half as long to fundamentally prove the observing strategy
$510,000 Two full observatories!!!

Technology: How It Works

To detect monochromatic flashes anywhere in the sky, you first need to see the whole sky by “tiling” it with cameras. The cameras should have a large field of view, so fewer are needed, as well as to lower computational and maintenance costs. To detect a dim short flash, you must read the camera out very quickly. We use a specialized technique to read out our camera more than 1000 times per second! This technique gains time resolution by losing information vertically, but that’s ok because we get it back with another camera looking at the same patch of sky–which was needed to maximize sensitivity anyways. Finally, to distinguish a single color of light from other types of sources, a specialized transmission grating is used to spread out each point source into two spectra; the technical term for this is “slitless spectroscopy.”

You can’t see the whole sky from any one part of the globe. Below is a map of ideal locations for the observatories. Technically, only 6 are required to see the whole sky (red dots), but secondary observatories (gray dots) provide greatly increased statistical and physical validation of signals detected, as well as basic coverage when a primary site has bad weather.


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Risks & Challenges

The SETI Institute is a leader in its field and well suited to take on this audacious project. However, as with all science and engineering, specific outcomes cannot be guaranteed.

We believe the minimal risk that remains is demonstrating the observing strategy with multiple cameras and initial data collection at large scale. The hardware has been designed to be robust and the camera itself has been extensively field tested. There’s some software still to be developed, but that is mostly automation and cloud data collection and reporting.

Other Ways You Can Help

Maybe you just can’t contribute directly, or you already did and still want to do more, you’re in luck!

SETI is an endeavor for all humanity, and we need your help getting the word out to all interested parties! Tell your friends, share with the buttons on this page, light your laser beacon!

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