Status Report

SETI Telescope Almost Ready!

By SpaceRef Editor
March 1, 2006
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Dear Members,

Our incredible All-Sky Optical SETI telescope is so close to going online that we can taste it! And when it does, it’s going to, quite literally, revolutionize the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

This unique and groundbreaking project will be the first optical observatory on Earth dedicated entirely to SETI. Project scientist Paul Horowitz and his Harvard University team have developed an innovative way to scan huge swaths of the sky — as opposed to pinpointing one small area — for possible light signals sent by intelligent civilizations elsewhere in the galaxy.

This powerful new telescope will not only be the world’s first dedicated Optical SETI observatory: with it The Planetary Society and its Members are actually bringing entirely new technology to the search!

But first, we have to finish it. As of now, the telescope itself is finished, as is the building that houses it. Most of the electronics are in and functioning, too. Much of the software is done, and the team has worked out all the operating protocols and procedures.

All that remains is the 150-pound camera, and the associated processors that will be able to crunch more raw data in less time than anyone ever dreamed we could do!

Unfortunately, as we enter this final stretch, our SETI Fund is absolutely exhausted!

Support SETI at:

Let me tell you, briefly, just what your help today will be buying.

The camera that Paul and his colleagues are building

is something that would have been in the realm of science fiction just a few years ago…literally. For example, it contains 32 computer chips — designed and programmed right on site — with a combined data processing rate of 3.5 terabits/second.

Just a big number, right? You might think of it this way: these chips could process the text of every book in print…every second!

Or think about this: our camera isn’t going to use CCDs (charge-coupled devices) — not even the fanciest cutting-edge versions of them — because they’re just not up to the work. Paul’s team is using an array of photo-multiplier tubes (about $52,000 worth, actually)… because they are approximately one million times faster at registering light than CCDs.

And the amazing thing is, much of this hardware is being hand-built by Paul’s team. For example, Curtis Moad is a third-year graduate student in applied physics…who’s writing advanced computer code for us and machining the precision parts. Jason Gallicchio, coming from the field of theoretical particle physics, is creating web code and control software.

Two brilliant undergraduates — Pratheev Sreetharan and Steve Howard — have, respectively, been creating novel circuit designs and the code for programmable logic devices, and writing the Linux software for the mini-controller. In fact, newly minted Ph.D. Andrew Howard just won a prestigious Eliahu Jury Award this year…explicitly for the design of these phenomenal computer chips.

They — like you and I — are so excited about the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, and about this approach to SETI in particular, because it represents one of the most thrilling exploratory efforts in human history…exploration that could actually transform humanity’s understanding of our place in the galaxy.

As you know, we started our first optical search a few years ago. Using the old technology, we’ve now looked at about 5,000 stars…out of approximately 400 billion in the galaxy. Slow going, indeed.

And that’s the reason for our fantastic new All-Sky Optical SETI program. For anywhere from eight to twelve hours each night — depending on the season — it will scan a strip of the sky about 1.6-degrees wide, roughly north-south. To get everything, we’ll have to hit each section of the sky about three times during the year.

And it’s all — every bit of it — because of the commitment and involvement of Planetary Society Members like you! Your gifts have gotten us this far. You got our new building up and fitted at Harvard’s property in the countryside outside Cambridge, Massachusetts. You got the telescope in and working. Now, all that remains is the critical camera and associated computer equipment.

But, as I said before, there’s a problem: our SETI reserves are completely exhausted.

We can do all these things — just as we’ve done so much work very like this on our other SETI programs — so long as we have you standing beside us.

You know, there’s an old saying in the space business: “There’s no such thing as a free launch.” The pun may make you wince, but it’s true. You can’t go to space without resources. And you can’t search for extraterrestrial intelligence without them, either.

While our search for signs of life from across the galaxy may be a bargain compared to the cost of boosting space vehicles into orbit, it can’t run on thin air. It takes money…and as always, since we won’t take government money, that can only come from you.

You know we’ll put your contribution to immediate good use, helping to pay for the camera, computer chips, the photo-multipliers, circuit board fabrication, and all the rest.

Will you help us reach the finish line with a special contribution today? Your contribution to help replenish our SETI Fund is essential to the success of this and many other Society projects.

Contribute to the SETI Fund online at:

As you give, think of the bounty of treasures that may be awaiting us: at this very instant, optical messages from an alien race — signals that could conceivably transform humanity’s view of itself — may be falling in our midst…unseen, unappreciated, wasted.

It’s time to step up our search for such signals. Please join with me on the final push to do just that.


Louis Friedman

Executive Director

P.S. In recognition of the role we’ve played, Harvard University has informed us that the new Optical SETI telescope will be named in the Society’s honor. That’s a tremendous accolade!

SpaceRef staff editor.