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Planetary Society dedicates major telescope to search for alien life

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HARVARD — Rural Harvard might not appear to the layman as an ideal choice for scientists to begin a new phase in the search for extraterrestrial life, but experts are convinced otherwise.

Less than a year after the closure of Harvard University’s Oak Ridge Observatory was announced, university officials and the nongovernment space interest group, the Planetary Society, were at the Pinnacle Road facility to commission a groundbreaking tool in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).

They were there to dedicate the world’s first major SETI optical telescope, which will be devoted exclusively to searching the night sky for illuminated anomalies that could signal alien life. With its 72-inch primary mirror, it is the largest optical telescope in the United States east of the Mississippi River.

Heading up the project is Harvard University physicist Paul Horowitz, who gave a brief history of SETI progress over the past 20 years.

Scientists, including Horowitz, have long-transmitted radio waves in hopes of receiving a response from alien life forms. More recently, they have added optic searches as well, though Horowitz described technology up until this point as looking through a soda straw.

Conversely, the new telescope will greatly expand that field of observation to include the entire northern sky.

”This new search apparatus performs one trillion measurements per second and expands by 100,000-fold the sky coverage of our previous optical search,” he said.

With that wide eye comes a lot of information to process. Computers attached to the telescope have the capacity to process information equivalent to all the books in print every second. They can also detect a flash of light down to a billionth of a second.

Horowitz credited students on his team for engineering much of the technology needed for the telescope. While he was told at one point that innovations required for it were impossible, Horowitz said his team considered it a nice challenge.

The idea of aliens using beams of light to signal their existence is not far-fetched, he said. Scientists using current technology could transmit intense beams of light into space that are briefly 10,000 times brighter than Sun. With equipment like the SETI telescope, such transmissions could be detected.

While its overwhelmingly likely that life exists on one of the billions of star systems out there, Horowitz said the odds were long on making contact any time soon.

”The chances are slight, but the payoff would be profound,” he said. “It would be, in effect, the end of the earth’s cultural isolation.”

The ribbon for the new telescope was cut by Horowitz’s wife, Vida Kazemi.

On a local level, the dedication means the observatory will remain open for the foreseeable future.

Opened in 1933, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics announced the closure of the observatory last June.

The decision was due to reasons of efficiency, said center Director Charles Alcock. There is an Arizona observatory as well, and it did not make sense to keep both open.

Horowitz’s progress with the SETI initiative gave the facility a new use and purpose, he said.

”Since it’s a developmental project, it makes sense to have it close to his office in Cambridge,” he said. “We’re happy to make the facility available to him.”

The project was largely sponsored by the Planetary Society, which is the largest nongovernmental space group in the world. Founded in 1980, scientist Carl Sagan was a charter member.

Current society Director Louis Freiman issued the following statement explaining their interest: “We’ve been listening for alien signals for decades. It’s time we started to watch for signals as well.”

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