By Marlin (Ben) Schuetz, Director of Boquete Optical SETI Observatory
Hello and greetings from the Boquete, Panama Optical SETI Observatory. I will be doing frequent blog posts about Optical SETI in general, this observatory, the upgrades, problems, solutions, and observations. This is a special year here considering the recent upgrade from a 14” Cassegrain to a 20” Newtonian telescope. It is also a special year due to the advent of METI International and the growing potential for this type of activity.
What is Optical SETI? Studies have shown that with today’s laser technology, a laser pulse could be sent from Earth and detected at other stars in our galactic neighborhood. Turning that around, a laser pulse from another star could be detected here. It may in fact be the most efficient means of interstellar communications known today. As these posts continue, I will fill in some of the technical blanks without getting too technical.
Optical SETI is a mere infant compared to radio SETI searches and has only begun to get its footing during the last 15 years. Rightfully, much has been written about the various people and factors that have lead us to where we are now. For the purposes here, however, I’m going to skip over all that and simply say that the technology in this area has only recently matched the foresight of the pioneers. It is also becoming better recognized as a possible, perhaps likely, means of making that all important first contact with another world.
What makes Optical SETI attractive to me personally is that it has been possible to privately build a capable system and be involved in serious searches. There have also been ample opportunities to be creative and explore different technical approaches and search strategies. For a retired person such as myself, these factors help to vitalize each day and night.
So, how did my wife and I wind up in Panama and build an observatory? That’s a pretty long story, but I’ll pare it down to something reasonable. We retired in 1997 in the U.S., bought a trawler and began a ten-year adventure cruising and exploring the nooks and crannies of the Caribbean. It was a wonderful life (and we still miss it), but all things have their time, and after visiting nearly every country in these latitudes, we decided that Panama had the greatest potential for our remaining years of retirement. We settled near the mountain village of Boquete in 2007.
I had a 14” Cassegrain telescope that had been in storage for nearly 25 years. It was finally time to put it to use. During 2007-2008 we built our house here in Boquete and there was enough extra material to put up a 10’ x 10’ block building to use as the observatory. Then, after being uncomfortably cold for a year during observations, I decided it was necessary to build a control room onto the little building. It was about then that I had enough experience and realized that this was really something I could put my heart into. After another couple of years, I began to take the project and myself yet more seriously.
Much of the research that I did over the years led me to believe that the 14” telescope was marginally large enough to detect the few photons expected from a laser pulse. So, plans began last year to move up to a 20” Newtonian telescope. The Cassegrain would be piggy-backed onto the 20” and used for spotting/tracking. This year, beginning in early June, work was begun on that project. All of the construction was done in the garage shop with mostly hand power tools. With the completion of the final stages of calibration and fine tuning, it promises to be a really fine set of instruments.
Panama isn’t the best place in the world for an optical observatory. We have a rainy season, mid-May through November, while the rest of the year is dry. As you would expect, the dry season is better for observations. During the rainy season, we get between 150 and 250 inches of rain. (That sounds really awful, but isn’t.) The mornings are usually sunny and there is almost always a shower in the afternoon that lasts from 1 to 3 hours. Sadly, most often the nights are overcast until about 4 AM. So, the rainy season is the time of year for dreaming up and doing project work.
During the dry season, the night sky can be spectacular. Now that the 20” telescope is ready for Optical SETI, the beginning of the dry season is greatly anticipated.
In the next post, I’ll go into some detail about how laser signals can be detected and what will be done if such a thing occurs.
Meanwhile, if you are interested in more detail about small private observatories doing optical SETI, here are the websites for the Boquete Optical SETI Observatory and for fellow researcher, Bruce Howard’s private observatory in Michigan.
Bruce and I are very pleased that METI International has chosen to take the lead in promoting the need for many small Optical SETI observatories. Even if interstellar communications via lasers are ubiquitous in our galaxy, the odds are long that we will intercept one, even if some are singularly directed at us. With a much greater number of Earthly observations those odds become more favorable.
I look forward to each night’s observations, not expectantly, but for the joy of the hunt.