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UD scientist helps search for communications from alien civilizations

A University of Delaware professor is helping with a project searching for extraterrestrial communications in space. 


The Breakthrough Listenproject based in California looks for signs of intelligent life in the universe. UD astrophysicist Jamie Holder says the project has mainly searched for extraterrestrial communications in the radio range of the electromagnetic spectrum—but this year he’s helping look for optical communication. 

He says his team is scanning 120 stars for pulses of light.

“Possibly one way that civilizations might try to communicate is to produce a very brief pulse of light,” he said. “Because that means you can compress lots of energy just into a very short window, so you don’t have to be emitting all of the time and using up lots of power. It’s something we can imagine doing ourselves.” 

Holder says the pulses of light his team is looking for are just a few billionths of a second long. "There’s no way you could see them with your eyes. ”

Holder says most telescopes can’t see them either. So he uses four special telescopes with huge mirrors, together called VERITAS — or the Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System.

He says even if his equipment does detect the pulses of light he’s looking for, they won’t necessarily be messages from aliens. 

“The first thing we would do it assume that it’s not. We would assume that it’s an astrophysical process,” he said. “You would have to try to narrow down all of the possibilities and if the only possibility you’re left with is a signal from an extraterrestrial civilization, then that would be the conclusion.”

Holder started collecting data this spring. He says results will likely be ready next summer.

Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.
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