A New Era of Optical SETI: The Search for Artificial Objects of Non-Human Origin

Imagine if you had an instrument so powerful that you could detect any unidentified, man-made object of non-human origin up to 100 million kilometers from our planet. Not only that, but validating its existence, locating it in three dimensions down to the meter and getting a chemical analysis of the object… all in real time?

Such an instrument would pique the curiosity of people around the world, open up new areas of science, and motivate space missions to bring the machine to Earth.

Today, several of the best-known teams of scientists searching for unidentified airborne objects (also known as unidentified airborne phenomena, or UAPs) employ ambitious broad programs using a variety of instruments, including radar, Geiger counters, acoustic sensors, and infrared detectors. all watch the sky. They invest heavily in training artificial intelligence algorithms to distinguish a pigeon from a pigeon, a Boeing 757 from a stealth jet, a comet from a variable star, and a Chinese surveillance balloon from a truly unidentifiable, non-human aircraft. The number of flying objects that such a sky monitoring project must encounter every day is in the hundreds of thousands, which leads to numerous false alarms.

While the number of false alarms may seem incomprehensible, these research programs undoubtedly have the potential to shed light on a rich plethora of phenomena in our atmosphere that are both expected and unexpected. But will these broad techniques of searching the unknown be effective in finding the long-sought answer to the tantalizing question, “Are they here?”

We need an innovative new solution to find unidentified non-human machines. Many readers of The Debrief will likely be familiar with the earlier work of the Vanishing & Appearing Sources during a Century of Observations (VASCO), which involved the search for vanishing stars and exploratory spacecraft (called “probes”) by extraterrestrial intelligence in ancient photographic Plate images from the Palomar Sky Survey. It all started with VASCO’s unexpected discovery of a mysterious Palomar image on April 12, 1950, in which nine point sources of light flashed in and out of an image within an hour [see Fig 1., 4]. No known astrophysical phenomena could explain the finding, nor could we identify a satisfactory instrumental explanation for the observed phenomenon. Was it real, or did we see some unusual star-shaped plate defects?

Fig. 1. The green circles show nine transients visible in an image from April 12, 1950 (left image). The same transients cannot be seen 30 years later (right image), nor in other images taken six days later or half an hour earlier. The nine transients appeared and thus disappeared within half an hour (Source: Villarroel, Marcy, Geier, et al., 2021, Scientific Reports).

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The unexpected finding made us wonder: are we seeing rapid flashes from man-made objects outside the atmosphere before humans even launched the first satellite? Such flashes could be intrinsic in nature (emission) or arise when artificial objects at high altitudes around the Earth reflect sunlight. As a follow-up, VASCO has conducted a new pilot study, celebrating its nine-month peer review. In this new study, we specifically looked for aligned multiple brief flashes of light that briefly appear in images from the early 1950s. A few possible alignments were indeed found and presented in the same publication [see Fig 2.]

Fig. 2. The green circles show several transients visible in an image from April 12, 1950 (left image). The same transients will never be seen in the same place again. Four of the transients are aligned. (Image credit: Villarroel, Solano, Guergouri, et al., reviewed in MNRAS).

The strength of the study clearly lies in the sample: the digitized images show a sky completely free of man-made satellites and space debris. This sample is very valuable for statistical studies to quantify the presence of such a potential “background population” of man-made objects of non-human origin. But the data also has a weakness: even if you identify an ideal, real-world candidate, it will be impossible to find the same individual candidate 70 years later! It will never be possible for a single candidate to validate and reproduce their location. For us, that’s just not good enough. To get around this problem, the VASCO project has teamed up with SpaceLaserAwareness for an entirely new research program called EXOPROBE. SpaceLaserAwareness has developed a system for diligently searching for interstellar communications lasers and has a record of publishing peer-reviewed articles in reputable academic journals (as does VASCO).

The research program EXOPROBE introduces a new system. This new system consists of a global network of optical telescopes [see Fig 3.]. This new network of telescopes uses carefully designed instruments with high-speed cameras that provide time resolution, spatial resolution, and spectral resolution of each discovery. Each object is located in three dimensions, allowing us to find out exactly where an alien probe is located. In the meantime we have tested prototypes of such a telescope.

Fig. 3. A proposed global network of telescopes capable of accurately locating the ET probe. Presented in talk by B. Villarroel at the Limina UAP Symposium on February 4, 2023.

Compared to other projects, the new design of EXOPROBE allows us to detect, locate, verify and reproduce the finding in real time. All of this becomes possible when we don’t focus on searching for the “unknown” among millions of objects crossing the sky (“UAP science”), but on searching for an identifiable signature of the unidentified object focus: in our case, bright, short flashes that occur outside the Earth’s atmosphere. An important aspect of our design is that we use a technique to remove man-made objects and space debris, minimizing the number of false positives.

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We want to do everything we can to locate the unknown object with an accuracy of one meter. This is also where the second phase of our project comes in. After discovering such a probe, we plan to bring it to Earth. What could we humans not learn by placing in our hands the masterful creation of another intelligent civilization? What mysterious secrets does a small ET box hold? Any organization that lays its hands on an ET probe, especially an active one, will fuel the expansion of human knowledge beyond our imaginary limits. Instead of waiting for a government agency, why shouldn’t we do this program ourselves?

This ambitious goal of bringing down a non-human surveillance probe is not without its problems. If the probe is spotted, it may have enough time to deorbit or go into hiding before a government mission to get it is approved in a long bureaucratic struggle. Government missions of this type typically last a decade or two. But time is precious when dealing with such a probe. Ideally, a space mission to retrieve it can’t wait more than a few days – a window of time needed for reproducing and validating the authenticity of the find, but also minimizing the risk of the probe “disappearing”. There are multiple ways to travel a few million miles to reach the probe, and the biggest challenge will be finding the right path to collect.

The EXOPROBE project is looking for private and government partners interested in collaborating with us on this mission. We’re taking the scientific method to the extreme and bringing this extraordinary evidence to Earth. Our project management prepared detailed plans for technical design, data analysis and deployment of the global network of telescopes. We draw on a track record of scientific awards in astrophysics and SETI. After five years, the VASCO project has also completed its search for vanishing stars, both through automated searches and through a citizen science project (an upcoming paper focusing on the results is currently in the works).

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SpaceLaserAwareness generates a stream of results searching for unidentified laser communications in space and unidentified surveillance balloons. Our new target is therefore contemporary and has a team with decades of experience in space observation. We even have an astronaut on our team who volunteered for the space mission.

It has been 28 years since the first exoplanets were discovered around normal stars like the sun. We’ve since learned from NASA’s Kepler mission that, much like our Sun, more than 20% of stars have an Earth-sized planet in their habitable zone where liquid water can exist. This implies that our home galaxy, the Milky Way, contains about 40 billion warm, Earth-sized planets. We learned that asteroids and meteors contain amino acids, the basic building blocks of proteins. Voyager and Pioneer’s entry into interstellar space has removed any doubt that humans can send a spacecraft to other stars. Other civilizations would certainly send probes into our solar system to study our pale blue dot with its telltale oxygen-rich atmosphere.

Sixty years of intense radio searching with giant telescopes like the Green Bank Telescope and the Allen Telescope Array have yielded no viable candidate among more than 300,000 stars. It’s time to look for a new way forward in SETI research. One way could be to study the wide array of unidentified objects in our sky. But such an attempt still suffers from the age-old search for a needle in a haystack with hundreds of thousands of false positives.

As Internet providers launch many tens of thousands of satellites in the coming years, our window of opportunity will become ever narrower. If we’re to retrieve the probe, these searches must begin now. With our science program, the new generation of the optical search for extraterrestrial intelligence has just arrived and combines the most important questions of UAPscience. With the EXOPROBE program, Fermi’s old question, “Where are they?” expands into a new dimension.

To all space companies, astronauts, engineers, private actors and experts who wish to join us on our ambitious adventure… your moment is now.

Beatriz Villarroel is the leader of the VASCO project, which has more than 40 members in different countries. She is a researcher at Nordita and has an international postoc from the Swedish Research Council.

Geoff Marcy is a pioneer in the search for exoplanets and was involved in the discovery of 70 of the first 100 exoplanets ever discovered, including the first planet in a Newtonian eccentric orbit.