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Interstellar ‘porch light’ just might help us find space aliens

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By Seth Shostak

Radio has long been the mode of choice when it comes to searching for aliens, and potentially conversing with them.

But radio’s not the only game in town. A recent paper in The Astrophysical Journal suggests a different tack. In it, two researchers at MIT argue that it might be easier for cosmic residents to be found if they mark their position with bright lights.

The idea of signaling with light is hardly new. In the 1990s, scientists involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) considered the following hypothetical setup: Step one — find the world’s most powerful laser. Step two — focus the laser with a telescope having a mirror at least 10 meters in diameter, producing a beam narrower than a twin bed. Step three — intermittently flash the laser, with each flash lasting a millionth of a second or so.

The brain-boggling result? This titanic laser pointer would produce a pulse that would outshine the sun, even when seen from light-years away. Obviously, it would do so only during that microsecond flash. And it would be visible only to someone in the laser’s beam. But the idea that a piece of 21st century technology could momentarily outshine 500 million billion watts of sunlight is a stunning factoid, sure to impress the nerd set.

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