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SPACE.com Columnist Leonard David

'PANOSETI' prototypes: Ambitious alien-hunting project deploys 1st two telescopes

Team members installed two PANOSETI 0.5-m telescopes in the Astrograph dome to commence a wide-field optical SETI search and continue prototyping designs for the full observatory concept. Picture: team outside Astrograph on January 14, 2020. (Left to right: Aaron Brown, Shelley Wright, Jerome Maire, Wei Liu, Rick Raffanti, Dan Werthimer, and James Wiley.)
Team members installed two PANOSETI 0.5-m telescopes in the Astrograph dome to commence a wide-field optical SETI search and continue prototyping designs for the full observatory concept. Picture: team outside Astrograph on January 14, 2020. (Left to right: Aaron Brown, Shelley Wright, Jerome Maire, Wei Liu, Rick Raffanti, Dan Werthimer, and James Wiley.) (Image credit: UCSD OIR Laboratory)

The first two prototype telescopes for the ambitious PANOSETI project are up and running.  

PANOSETI — short for "Pulsed All-sky Near-infrared Optical SETI" — will eventually include 160 of these specially designed scopes, which will scan the sky for signals from intelligent life in our galaxy. (SETI, of course, stands for "search for extraterrestrial intelligence.")

When finally assembled, PANOSETI will be the first dedicated observatory capable of constantly searching for flashes of optical or infrared light, project team members said.

PANOSETI researchers come from the University of California, San Diego, UC Berkeley, the University of California Observatories and Harvard University.

Related: 13 ways to hunt intelligent aliens

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The deployment of the two PANOSETI telescopes at the recently renovated Astrograph Dome at California's Lick Observatory will provide a new window into how the universe behaves on extremely short timescales, project team members said.

Project co-investigator Dan Werthimer, chief technologist at UC Berkeley's SETI Research Center, explained in a UC San Diego statement last month:

"When astronomers examine an unexplored parameter space, they usually find something surprising that no one predicted," Werthimer said. "PANOSETI could discover new astronomical phenomena or signals from E.T."

"The goal is to basically look for very brief but powerful signals from an advanced civilization," said Werthimer, who has been involved with SETI for the past 45 years. "Because they are so brief, and likely to be rare, we plan to check large areas of the sky for a long period of time.” 

But how likely is it that scientists will detect extraterrestrial signals with PANOSETI? 

"The short and correct answer is we have no idea on the likelihood of detection,” UC San Diego astronomer Shelley Wright said in the same statement. "With PANOSETI we will be observing an unexplored phase space for SETI and astronomical observations. Our goal is to make the first dedicated SETI observatory that is capable of observing the entire visible sky all of the time."

Final design

PANOSETI began development in 2018. The end goal is to create a dedicated optical SETI observatory that will image the entire observable sky — approximately 10,000 square degrees — instantaneously. 

PANOSETI's final design will feature a dedicated observatory at each of two locations. Each observatory will contain 80 of the project's unique telescopes. Site selection is underway, and the research team hopes to begin observatory construction in the next year, project team members said.

You can learn more about PANOSETI here.

Leonard David is the author of the book "Moon Rush: The New Space Race," published by National Geographic in May 2019. A longtime writer for Space.com, David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook. 

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  • Dasho
    I don't understand why this seems to be the standard when searching for extraterrestrial signals
    look for very brief but powerful signals
    Is there a particular reason we believe the signals being looked for would be brief and not sustained? And in this case, what is brief? Like nanosecond or 7-8 minutes?

    Thank you!
    Reply