A Way to Find Big ETI Laser Pointers

In Wright et al. (2014), a new, versatile optical SETI instrument is described that can search for direct evidence of interstellar communications via pulsed near-infrared signals. The article is in an SPIE (Society of Photo-Optical Instrumentation Engineers) conference proceedings paper and focuses heavily on the physical design of the detector and optics.

Modern high-powered lasers can easily outshine our Sun (for limited frequency ranges and times). As such, it is obvious that, if advanced ETI exists and wanted to communicate (or just broadcast its presence) specifically with us, it could easily do so with lasers. According to the article, the largest lasers on Earth are detectable with meter-class telescopes up to thousands of light years away. This is because, unlike radio signals, optical beams can be finely focused, providing a high received power flux for each amount of transmission energy.

Fast NIR pulses searches are an underexplored area not just for SETI, but for astronomy in general. Astrophysically-based nanosecond optical pulses are supposedly very rare, but this instrument is also planned to observed possible pulse sources such as pulsars, black holes, cataclysmic variables, gamma-ray bursters and active galactic nuclei.

The instrument works by utilizing commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) products including NIR photon counters that, for the first time, can be very fast, wide bandwidth, high-gain, low noise and cheap. The light from the sky comes in and the NIR light gets split into two independent detectors (to help eliminate false positive detections) while the optical light goes to a guide camera so that they know that the telescope is pointed at the right place. Their setup is capable of recording the time of arrival of signals down to the nanosecond and it is planned to be used on the 1-meter Nickel telescope at Lick Observatory in California.