From UC Santa Cruz: “Breakthrough Listen launches new optical search with VERITAS Telescope Array”

UC Santa Cruz

From UC Santa Cruz

July 17, 2019
Tim Stephens
stephens@ucsc.edu

SCIPP (Santa Cruz Institute for Particle Physics) physicist David Williams will help lead effort using four 12-meter telescopes to search for nanosecond flashes of light from extraterrestrial civilizations.

The Breakthrough Listen initiative to find signs of intelligent life in the universe will collaborate with the VERITAS Collaboration in the search for technosignatures, signs of technology developed by intelligent life beyond the Earth.

Joining the Breakthrough Listen initiative’s ongoing radio frequency survey and spectroscopic optical laser survey, VERITAS (the Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System) will search for pulsed optical beacons with its array of four 12-meter telescopes at the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory in Amado, Arizona.

VERITAS is the world’s most powerful telescope array for studying high-energy astrophysics with gamma rays. It detects gamma rays coming from space by looking for the extremely brief flashes of blue “Cherenkov” light they create when they hit the top of the Earth’s atmosphere.

VERITAS will look for pulsed optical beacons with durations as short as several nanoseconds. Over such timescales, artificial beacons could easily outshine any stars that lie in the same direction on the sky. The use of all four telescopes simultaneously allows for very effective discrimination against false positive detections. The VERITAS Collaboration has previously published observations of the mysteriously dimming Boyajian’s Star in search of such optical pulses. The new program of VERITAS observations will provide complementary searches for optical pulse signatures of many more stars from the primary Breakthrough Listen star list.

“It is impressive how well-suited the VERITAS telescopes are for this project, since they were built only with the purpose of studying very-high-energy gamma rays in mind,” said David Williams, adjunct professor of physics at UC Santa Cruz and the Santa Cruz Institute for Particle Physics (SCIPP) and a member of the VERITAS collaboration.

Breakthrough Listen’s search for optical technosignatures with VERITAS will be led by Williams at UCSC and Jamie Holder of the University of Delaware, in collaboration with the Listen team at UC Berkeley’s SETI Research Center led by Andrew Siemion.

“When it comes to intelligent life beyond Earth, we don’t know where it exists or how it communicates,” said Yuri Milner, founder of the Breakthrough Initiatives. “So our philosophy is to look in as many places, and in as many ways, as we can. VERITAS expands our range of observation even further.”

“Breakthrough Listen is already the most powerful, comprehensive, and intensive search yet undertaken for signs of intelligent life beyond Earth,” Siemion said. “Now, with the addition of VERITAS, we’re sensitive to an important new class of signals: fast optical pulses. Optical communication has already been used by NASA to transmit high definition images to Earth from the moon, so there’s reason to believe that an advanced civilization might use a scaled-up version of this technology for interstellar communication.”

If a laser comparable to the most powerful lasers on Earth (delivering about 500 terawatts in a pulse lasting a few nanoseconds) were situated at the distance of Boyajian’s Star and pointed in our direction, VERITAS could detect it. But most of the stars in the Listen target list are 10 to 100 times closer than Boyajian’s Star, meaning that the new search will be sensitive to pulses a factor 100 to 10,000 times fainter still.

“Using the huge mirror area of the four VERITAS telescopes will allow us to search for these extremely faint optical flashes in the night sky, which could correspond to signals from an extraterrestrial civilization,” said Holder.

Breakthrough Listen Project

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UC Observatories Lick Autmated Planet Finder, fully robotic 2.4-meter optical telescope at Lick Observatory, situated on the summit of Mount Hamilton, east of San Jose, California, USA




GBO radio telescope, Green Bank, West Virginia, USA


CSIRO/Parkes Observatory, located 20 kilometres north of the town of Parkes, New South Wales, Australia


SKA Meerkat telescope, 90 km outside the small Northern Cape town of Carnarvon, SA

Newly added

CfA/VERITAS, a major ground-based gamma-ray observatory with an array of four 12m optical reflectors for gamma-ray astronomy in the GeV – TeV energy range. Located at Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory, Mount Hopkins, Arizona, US in AZ, USA, Altitude 2,606 m (8,550 ft)

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UCSC Lick Observatory, Mt Hamilton, in San Jose, California, Altitude 1,283 m (4,209 ft)

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UCO Lick Shane Telescope
UCO Lick Shane Telescope interior
Shane Telescope at UCO Lick Observatory, UCSC

Lick Automated Planet Finder telescope, Mount Hamilton, CA, USA

Lick Automated Planet Finder telescope, Mount Hamilton, CA, USA

UC Santa Cruz campus
The University of California, Santa Cruz, opened in 1965 and grew, one college at a time, to its current (2008-09) enrollment of more than 16,000 students. Undergraduates pursue more than 60 majors supervised by divisional deans of humanities, physical & biological sciences, social sciences, and arts. Graduate students work toward graduate certificates, master’s degrees, or doctoral degrees in more than 30 academic fields under the supervision of the divisional and graduate deans. The dean of the Jack Baskin School of Engineering oversees the campus’s undergraduate and graduate engineering programs.

UCSC is the home base for the Lick Observatory.

Lick Observatory's Great Lick 91-centimeter (36-inch) telescope housed in the South (large) Dome of main building
Lick Observatory’s Great Lick 91-centimeter (36-inch) telescope housed in the South (large) Dome of main building

Search for extraterrestrial intelligence expands at Lick Observatory
New instrument scans the sky for pulses of infrared light
March 23, 2015
By Hilary Lebow
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The NIROSETI instrument saw first light on the Nickel 1-meter Telescope at Lick Observatory on March 15, 2015. (Photo by Laurie Hatch) UCSC Lick Nickel telescope

Astronomers are expanding the search for extraterrestrial intelligence into a new realm with detectors tuned to infrared light at UC’s Lick Observatory. A new instrument, called NIROSETI, will soon scour the sky for messages from other worlds.

“Infrared light would be an excellent means of interstellar communication,” said Shelley Wright, an assistant professor of physics at UC San Diego who led the development of the new instrument while at the University of Toronto’s Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics.

Wright worked on an earlier SETI project at Lick Observatory as a UC Santa Cruz undergraduate, when she built an optical instrument designed by UC Berkeley researchers. The infrared project takes advantage of new technology not available for that first optical search.

Infrared light would be a good way for extraterrestrials to get our attention here on Earth, since pulses from a powerful infrared laser could outshine a star, if only for a billionth of a second. Interstellar gas and dust is almost transparent to near infrared, so these signals can be seen from great distances. It also takes less energy to send information using infrared signals than with visible light.

Frank Drake, professor emeritus of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz and director emeritus of the SETI Institute, said there are several additional advantages to a search in the infrared realm.

“The signals are so strong that we only need a small telescope to receive them. Smaller telescopes can offer more observational time, and that is good because we need to search many stars for a chance of success,” said Drake.

The only downside is that extraterrestrials would need to be transmitting their signals in our direction, Drake said, though he sees this as a positive side to that limitation. “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.”

Scientists have searched the skies for radio signals for more than 50 years and expanded their search into the optical realm more than a decade ago. The idea of searching in the infrared is not a new one, but instruments capable of capturing pulses of infrared light only recently became available.

“We had to wait,” Wright said. “I spent eight years waiting and watching as new technology emerged.”

Now that technology has caught up, the search will extend to stars thousands of light years away, rather than just hundreds. NIROSETI, or Near-Infrared Optical Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, could also uncover new information about the physical universe.

“This is the first time Earthlings have looked at the universe at infrared wavelengths with nanosecond time scales,” said Dan Werthimer, UC Berkeley SETI Project Director. “The instrument could discover new astrophysical phenomena, or perhaps answer the question of whether we are alone.”

NIROSETI will also gather more information than previous optical detectors by recording levels of light over time so that patterns can be analyzed for potential signs of other civilizations.

“Searching for intelligent life in the universe is both thrilling and somewhat unorthodox,” said Claire Max, director of UC Observatories and professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz. “Lick Observatory has already been the site of several previous SETI searches, so this is a very exciting addition to the current research taking place.”

NIROSETI will be fully operational by early summer and will scan the skies several times a week on the Nickel 1-meter telescope at Lick Observatory, located on Mt. Hamilton east of San Jose.

The NIROSETI team also includes Geoffrey Marcy and Andrew Siemion from UC Berkeley; Patrick Dorval, a Dunlap undergraduate, and Elliot Meyer, a Dunlap graduate student; and Richard Treffers of Starman Systems. Funding for the project comes from the generous support of Bill and Susan Bloomfield.