Planet hunting scientist gets grant to search for ET spacecraft

Super star planet hunter, Geoff Marcy, has been credited with finding nearly three-quarters of the first 100 exoplanets discovered with the Kepler space telescope. Now he has sought and been awarded a grant to search for ET spacecraft and an alien laser based internet.

Geoffrey Marcy (Credit: NASA / Media Telecon)

Marcy is an astronomer at the University of California at Berkeley, and he has no doubt that there are other intelligent civilizations somewhere in space. He told the Sydney Morning Herald, “The universe is simply too large for there not to be another intelligent civilization out there. Really, the proper question is: ‘How far away is our nearest intelligent neighbor?’ They could be 10 light-years, 100 light-years, a million light-years or more. We have no idea.”

Planet hunters like Marcy use the Kepler telescope to observe the dimming of a star to calculate the presence of planets. However, Marcy wants to use this same technique to look for irregular patterns of dimming that may indicate it is not a planet passing in front of the star, but possibly a gigantic extraterrestrial spacecraft.

Marcy explains:

I do know that if I saw a star that winked out, then at some point it winked back on again, then winked out for a long, long time and then blinked on again, that that would be so weird. Obviously that wouldn’t constitute the detection of an advanced civilization yet, but it would at least alert us that follow-up observations are warranted.

Kepler Telescope (Credit: NASA/JPL)

The Kepler telescope has been damaged and can no longer make observations. The telescope, which is 40 million miles from earth, began failing in May. Marcy says this has been heartbreaking to his team. “People are reacting a little bit as if a close family member died. There’s this combination of severe depression and confusion, coupled with denial.”

However, there are reams of data that Kepler has retrieved that has not been analyzed. Part of the $200,000 grant he received is going to be set aside to pay a Berkeley student to develop software that will look for the telltale dimming in the Kepler data. Marcy says, “Writing the computer code is not easy. There’s no prescription in any computer science book about how to search for aliens.”

The remaining money from the grant will go to lease space at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii to look for an extraterrestrial laser based internet. The Keck Observatory is the largest telescope in the world.

Keck Observatory in Hawaii. (Rick Peterson / W.M. Keck Observatory)

While SETI is searching for radio waves, Marcy believes that a technology more advanced and precise, such as lasers, would be a more likely method of communication for an advanced alien civilization. Using the Keck Observatory his team will look for beams of light flashing from distant star systems.

Physicist Enrico Fermi asked the question that if there are so many intelligent extraterrestrial civilizations out there, “where is everybody?” Although SETI has been unsuccessful in their search, they plan to keep working at it. Currently they have a large radio telescope array under construction outside of San Francisco. Paul Allen has donated over $30 million dollars for its construction.

Marcy agrees that the chance of success, however slight, is worth the effort, and hopes his alternative to traditional SETI methods will prove fruitful.

When asked if he fears discovering a Death Star in space, Marcy replies, “The first thing we do is transmit a message to them that says, ‘We taste bad.’ “

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