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New Frontiers in SETI Research

Gerry Harp, who has taken over Jill Tarter’s job as research director at the SETI Institute, has high hopes for the hunt for alien life

7 min read
Photo of telescope dishes.
Photo: Randi Klett

23 July 2012—In 1960, astronomer Frank Drake pointed a single radio dish at two nearby stars to hunt for signals from extraterrestrial civilizations. Since then, the search has gotten considerably more high-tech. Among those leading the charge is IEEE Member Gerry Harp, who in May took over as director of research at the SETI Institute, a position most recently held by famed signal hunter Jill Tarter. IEEE Spectrum Associate Editor Rachel Courtland talked to Harp about the track record of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) so far and what can be done to improve the search. 

IEEE Spectrum: The Allen Telescope Array is the only telescope designed specifically to search for signals made by an extraterrestrial intelligence. How does it work?

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Economics Drives Ray-Gun Resurgence

Laser weapons, cheaper by the shot, should work well against drones and cruise missiles

4 min read
In an artist’s rendering, a truck is shown with five sets of wheels—two sets for the cab, the rest for the trailer—and a box on the top of the trailer, from which a red ray is projected on an angle, upward, ending in the silhouette of an airplane, which is being destroyed

Lockheed Martin's laser packs up to 300 kilowatts—enough to fry a drone or a plane.

Lockheed Martin

The technical challenge of missile defense has been compared with that of hitting a bullet with a bullet. Then there is the still tougher economic challenge of using an expensive interceptor to kill a cheaper target—like hitting a lead bullet with a golden one.

Maybe trouble and money could be saved by shooting down such targets with a laser. Once the system was designed, built, and paid for, the cost per shot would be low. Such considerations led planners at the Pentagon to seek a solution from Lockheed Martin, which has just delivered a 300-kilowatt laser to the U.S. Army. The new weapon combines the output of a large bundle of fiber lasers of varying frequencies to form a single beam of white light. This laser has been undergoing tests in the lab, and it should see its first field trials sometime in 2023. General Atomics, a military contractor in San Diego, is also developing a laser of this power for the Army based on what’s known as the distributed-gain design, which has a single aperture.

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