New Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Begins

Today, April 11, 2006, The Planetary Society dedicated a new optical telescope at an observatory in Harvard, Massachusetts — one designed solely to search for light signals from alien civilizations. Read more at

Opening ceremonies for The Planetary Society’s Optical SETI Telescope featured Project Director Paul Horowitz of Harvard University; Planetary Society Chairman Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium; and Society Executive Director Louis Friedman.

“With the launch of The Planetary Society’s Optical SETI Telescope,” said Friedman, “we are proud to be part of a new voyage of discovery with this great Harvard team.”

The new telescope is the first dedicated optical SETI telescope in the world. Its 72-inch primary mirror is larger than that of any optical telescope in the U.S. east of the Mississippi River.

Under the direction of Horowitz and his team, the optical SETI telescope will conduct a year round, all-sky survey, scanning the entire swath of our Milky Way galaxy visible in the northern hemisphere.

“This new search apparatus performs one trillion measurements per second and expands by 100,000-fold the sky coverage of our previous optical search,” said Horowitz. The telescope has been built at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics Oak Ridge Observatory, where for many years, The Planetary Society has conducted radiotelescope SETI searches with Horowitz. The first was the Mega-channel Extraterrestrial Assay (META) search, which was later expanded to the Billion-channel Extraterrestrial Assay (BETA).

Alien civilizations are thought by many to be at least as likely to use visible light signals for communicating as they are to use radio transmissions. Visible light can form tight beams, be incredibly intense, and its high frequencies allow it to carry enormous amounts of information. Using only Earth 2006 technology, a bright, tightly-focused light beam, such as a laser, can be ten thousand times as bright as its parent star for a brief instant. Such a beam could be easily observed from enormous distances.

“The opening of this telescope represents one of those rare moments in a field of scientific endeavor when a great leap forward is enabled,” said Planetary Society Director of Projects Bruce Betts. “Sending laser signals across the cosmos would be a very logical way for E.T. to reach out, but until now, we have been ill equipped to receive any such signal.”

The Planetary Society’s Optical SETI telescope’s custom processors will process the equivalent of all books in print every second. As the telescope scans stripes of sky, it employs a custom-built “camera” containing an array of detectors that can detect a billionth-of-a-second flash of light. The telescope will scan the sky every night, weather permitting.

Planetary Society members around the world helped fund the optical SETI telescope. Additional major support for the telescope came from the Bosack/Kruger Foundation.

Since its founding, the Society has been a leading advocate of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, supporting a wide variety of searches, making use of different approaches. The first META search, which began over 20 years ago, kicked off with a significant donation from Society Board Member Steven Spielberg. Most of the Society-sponsored searches have been radio SETI projects. The new observatory is one of the largest SETI projects ever sponsored by The Planetary Society.


The Planetary Society has inspired millions of people to explore other worlds and seek other life. Today, its international membership makes the non-governmental Planetary Society the largest space interest group in the world. Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray and Louis Friedman founded The Planetary Society in 1980.


The Planetary Society

Optical SETI

Radio SETI

Planetary Society Opens World’s First Dedicated Optical SETI Telescope