Astronomy student Christina Vides wants to assure you that we have not made contact with aliens. At least not yet.
“We definitely want to emphasize that we did not find aliens,” Vides quipped. “But we did come up with a novel way to search for extraterrestrial intelligence.”
After two years of research and countless calculations, Vides has proposed new ways to use existing ground-based telescope technology, as well as a space-based telescope due to launch in the next few years, to detect potential laser signals sent to Earth by intelligent extraterrestrial civilizations, she explained.
Her research on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence will be published in “The Astronomical Journal,” a major scientific publication. Vides, a senior and the paper’s first author, collaborated with other researchers, including Bruce Macintosh, a professor of physics at Stanford University who specializes in finding planets orbiting distant stars, or exoplanets.
Scientists — such as those at the SETI Institute — have been scanning the skies for signs of intelligent communications for decades. But until recent years, the focus has primarily been on searching for radio signals, Macintosh said.
Over the past decade or so, however, stargazers have been focusing more attention on lasers as a possible method by which any potential advanced civilizations might try to send an interstellar message to humankind.
The paper authored by Vides and Macintosh proposes methods of using the existing Gemini Planet Imager (GPI) system, based on powerful telescopes in Chile and Hawaii, as well as NASA’s Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), which is slated to launch into space in the mid-2020s, to detect potential laser beams pointed toward Earth from planets orbiting other stars.
Both the Gemini system and NASA’s WFIRST are primarily designed for more traditional science, including the study of exoplanets, said Macintosh, who serves as principal investigator for the GPI. But the research paper outlines ways of looking at the same data already collected from a different perspective to detect possible laser beacons from distant star systems.
“In either case, the challenge is the same: Imaging relatively dim and tiny planets, or laser beams, next to the bright light emanated by the exoplanets’ host star from distances measured in light-years,” Macintosh explained.
Less than two decades ago, such work was impossible. The first exoplanet was confirmed in 1992, and an exoplanet wasn’t directly imaged until 2004.
Vides, a Cal Poly Pomona senior majoring in physics and astronomy, spent the last two summers participating in research at Stanford, which serves as a Research Experience for Undergraduates Site under a program run by the National Science Foundation.
The California-Arizona Minority Partnership for Astronomy Research and Education (CAMPARE) program, based at Cal Poly Pomona, sponsored her first summer in 2018, while Stanford’s Leadership Alliance Summer Research Early Identification Program sponsored her continued work the following year.
Vides said support from within CPP has also been vital.
“I’m really glad I stuck with it,” she said, adding that she’s become fascinated by exoplanets in the process. “It’s a really cool subject.”
Vides submitted the paper in 2019, when she was a junior, according to Breanna Binder, a professor of physics at Cal Poly Pomona who has been working with Vides. It is rare for undergraduates to publish research papers, let alone be listed as the first author, according to Binder.
“It is extremely uncommon for an undergrad, especially a junior,” Binder said. “Christina’s just been exceptional being able to do this at such a young age.”