First Light for a “Made in Canada” Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

TORONTO, ON (March 19th 2015) – On PI Day, March 14th, a team of astronomers expanded the search for extraterrestrial intelligence into a new realm when they achieved first-light with a ground-breaking instrument. While most searches have been conducted with radio telescopes, the instrument, called NIROSETI, is the first capable of detecting extremely short, extremely bright pulses of infrared light.

“Infrared light is an excellent means of interstellar communication,” said Shelley Wright, an Assistant Professor of Physics at the University of California, San Diego, who led the development of the new instrument while at the University of Toronto’s Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics. Interstellar gas and dust is almost transparent to near infrared, so these signals can be seen from great distances.

NIROSETI looks for short pulses based on the thinking that an advanced alien civilization attempting to communicate with us would send pulses rather than a continuous signal because an infrared laser can outshine the Sun if the signal lasts only a billionth of a second.

According to Wright, the idea dates back decades. Charles Townes, the late UC Berkeley scientist whose contributions to the development of lasers led to a Nobel Prize, suggested the idea in a paper published in 1961.

Scientists have searched the heavens for radio signals for more than 50 years and expanded their search to the optical realm more than a decade ago. But instruments capable of capturing pulses of infrared light have only recently become feasible.

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

Then, three years ago while at the Dunlap Institute, Wright purchased newly available detectors. She and Dunlap Fellow Jérome Maire—who played a key role in developing the new instrument—tested the detectors and found that they could turn the concept into reality. “It was exciting,” said Maire, “to solve the technological challenge of building the first instrument capable of detecting an infrared signal a billionth of a second long.”

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