Anybody Out There?

In the search for extraterrestrial life, a new method of communication reaches light years beyond.

Astronomers Shelly Wright, Frank Derake and Remington Stone flank the Anna B. Nickel telescope at Lick Observatory (Photo by Laurie Hatch)

Scientists have searched for signals from interstellar civilizations for the past 30 years. So far, silence. They’ve listened for radio waves and looked for light, but extraterrestrial intelligence could still send messages on a more efficient channel: infrared light.

The infrared spectrum shines through the dust and gas that fills interstellar space. Pulses from an infrared laser could even outshine a star, if only for a billionth of a second. However, detectors capable of capturing flickering light at such minuscule intervals have only recently been developed.

Astronomer Shelley Wright, an assistant professor of physics at UC San Diego, has waited eight years for this technology to emerge. She now leads a team that has developed an instrument to record nanosecond pulses of infrared light, which was deployed this spring at University of California’s Lick Observatory.

The project, called NIROSETI, or near-infrared optical search for extraterrestrial intelligence, will extend the search to stars thousands of light years away, rather than hundreds. As it’s the first time anyone has looked for infrared pulses at nanosecond time scales, the search could reveal new astrophysical phenomena—or answer the question of whether we are really alone.