Researchers to construct fly’s-eye observatories to connect with other advanced civilizations

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Researchers from four universities are building fly’s-eye observatories to determine if other advanced civilizations are trying to communicate through laser blasts.

The observatories — which are being constructed by a team of scientists from UC Berkeley, UC San Diego, Harvard University and the California Institute of Technology —  consist of 80 telescopes. Through these telescopes, the researchers are trying to observe and collect optical and infrared signals, or forms of visible frequency, coming from other civilizations in the galaxy.

The goal of building the detectors is to observe the entire sky at every frequency of life all the time, according to Shelley Wright, a physics associate professor at UC San Diego and principal investigator for the project.

The scientists built two prototypes of the detectors in February at the Lick Observatory, which is near San Jose. The two prototypes each consisted of 80 telescopes designed to search for possible optical signals from other planets and take pictures within a nanosecond. They named the first planned telescope project Panoramic SETI, or PANOSETI.

The combination of two domed observatories will help astronomers identify and confirm the laser blasts, according to Berkeley SETI Research Center’s chief technologist Dan Werthimer, who has been involved with the search for extraterrestrial intelligence for the past 45 years.

Each PANOSETI observatory would observe one-third of the sky in search of possible laser flashes occurring within nanoseconds.

The application of technologies that can take pictures within nanoseconds is unusual, Wright said, adding that this distinguishes PANOSETI technology from traditional telescopes.

Although the researchers have always wanted to observe the sky in its entirety, the goal proved difficult because of technological and financial limitations, according to Werthimer. After the invention of inexpensive detectors with a plastic lens, which cost $5 each, scientists were given a chance to observe the whole sky in an affordable way.

“Nobody has ever built (observatories) to see the entire sky,” Wright said, adding it is more likely to discover natural astrophysical phenomena when studying a new aspect of astronomy.

The PANOSETI team, which consists of researchers from a variety of disciplines, has worked on the project for two years, drawing from astronomy, physics, computer science and engineering.

In trying to observe the entire sky, the scientists plan to build more observatories in other parts of the world, including southern countries. The process of building these observatories will take several years, as operating the existing observatories in the Lick Laboratory and analyzing the data is time-consuming.

The PANOSETI project is still in its early stage, according to Werthimer, who said the work of current detectors gives scientists more confidence looking to the future.

Contact Joy Ma at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @dcjoyma.