Thursday, 15 November, 2018

MIT says existing laser tech could attract alien astronomers

An artist’s concept of the TRAPPIST-1 system. | Credits NASA  JPL-Caltech An artist’s concept of the TRAPPIST-1 system. | Credits NASA JPL-Caltech
Elijah Vega | 09 November, 2018, 23:01

As it turns out, this wild sounding idea could actually be carried out with current and developing technologies. A new MIT study found that by shining a powerful laser through a very big telescope, humans could produce a beam of infrared radiation detectable from 20,000 light-years away. James Clark, the study's lead author, believes it would "certainly attract attention".

"I wanted to see if I could take the kinds of telescopes and lasers that we're building today, and make a detectable beacon out of them", Clark said in a press release. Such an intense signal, he reasoned, would be enough to stand out against the sun's own infrared signal, in any "cursory survey by an extraterrestrial intelligence".

And if the Land was used as a beacon to the aliens using a laser to super-powerful?

Clark said the megawatt laser could send Morse code signals to alien astronomers living in systems closest to the Earth such as Proxima Centauri or TRAPPIST-1, a star 40 light years away with three potentially habitable exoplanets.

The research suggests that a laser, 1 to 2 megawatts in strength and coming from a telescope at least 100 feet in length, aimed into space, could get the attention of civilizations as far as 20,000 light years from Earth.

The technology to build such a system is still a bit out of reach, though.

And the largest telescope on the market today, the Gran Telescopio Canarias in the Canary Islands, stretches only 10 meters in diameter. A telescope of that size does not now exist but there are plans to build one in Chile.

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But just because the technology technically exists or is in the works, doesn't mean the project would be safe, easy or even work. Simply shining that laser upward isn't going to get the job done, though. MIT warns that the "beam would produce a flux density of about 800 watts of power per square meter, which is approaching that of the sun, which generates about 1,300 watts per square meter".

Potential issues with this plan include that despite that the IR beam is invisible, it would damage people's vision if they looked directly at the beam.

Plus, there's no guarantee that a neighboring planet would ever detect our monstrous beam.

He says the lasers needed for the project have already been invented, but they still need a large enough telescope. "In general, this was a feasibility study".

Clark says that if the tables were turned, we would be able to detect a signal sent from nearby stars but only if our telescopes were pointed directly towards the source, which would take an huge amount of luck.

The idea is admittedly far off, but Clark hopes that his concept will drum up talk about the laser's sci-fi-like possibilities, and initiate more research into infrared technologies.

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