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If extraterrestrial intelligence exists somewhere in our galaxy, a new MIT study proposes that laser technology on Earth could, in principle, be fashioned into something of a planetary porch light — a beacon strong enough to attract attention from as far as 20,000 light years away.

Image Caption: An MIT study proposes that laser technology on Earth could emit a beacon strong enough to attract attention from as far as 20,000 light years away. 

The research, which author James Clark calls a “feasibility study,” appears today in The Astrophysical Journal. The findings suggest that if a high-powered 1- to 2-megawatt laser were focused through a massive 30- to 45-meter telescope and aimed out into space, the combination would produce a beam of infrared radiation strong enough to stand out from the sun’s energy.

Such a signal could be detectable by alien astronomers performing a cursory survey of our section of the Milky Way — especially if those astronomers live in nearby systems, such as around Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to Earth, or TRAPPIST-1, a star about 40 light-years away that hosts seven exoplanets, three of which are potentially habitable. If the signal is spotted from either of these nearby systems, the study finds, the same megawatt laser could be used to send a brief message in the form of pulses similar to Morse code.

“If we were to successfully close a handshake and start to communicate, we could flash a message, at a data rate of about a few hundred bits per second, which would get there in just a few years,” says Clark, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics and author of the study.

The notion of such an alien-attracting beacon may seem far-fetched, but Clark says the feat can be realized with a combination of technologies that exist now and that could be developed in the near term.

“This would be a challenging project but not an impossible one,” Clark says. “The kinds of lasers and telescopes that are being built today can produce a detectable signal, so that an astronomer could take one look at our star and immediately see something unusual about its spectrum. I don’t know if intelligent creatures around the sun would be their first guess, but it would certainly attract further attention.”

Standing up to the Sun

Clark started looking into the possibility of a planetary beacon as part of a final project for 16.343 (Spacecraft, and Aircraft Sensors and Instrumentation), a course taught by Clark’s advisor, Associate Professor Kerri Cahoy.

“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 says.

He started with a simple conceptual design involving a large infrared laser and a telescope through which to further focus the laser’s intensity. His aim was to produce an infrared signal that was at least 10 times greater than the sun’s natural variation of infrared emissions. 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.”

He analyzed combinations of lasers and telescopes of various wattage and size, and found that a 2-megawatt laser, pointed through a 30-meter telescope, could produce a signal strong enough to be easily detectable by astronomers in Proxima Centauri b, a planet that orbits our closest star, 4 light-years away. Similarly, a 1-megawatt laser, directed through a 45-meter telescope, would generate a clear signal in any survey conducted by astronomers within the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system, about 40 light-years away. Either setup, he estimated, could produce a generally detectable signal from up to 20,000 light-years away.

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