The hunt for a real (and bigger) Death Star is on

While the Kepler planet-hunting spacecraft is offline, astronomers continue parsing its data and scanning the sky not just for evidence of habitable planets, but for advanced civilizations.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
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Eric Mack
3 min read
The Keck Observatory's Laser Guide Star system in action. This month the observatory's telescopes are being used to hunt for lasers originating from other distant, advanced civilizations. W.M. Keck Observatory

Last month, NASA's planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft suffered a potentially mission-ending malfunction, prompting the eyes of many astronomers and space geeks to grow a little misty. The crippling blow came just as data from Kepler had begun to identify more distant Earth-like planets within the habitable zone.

What's not as widely known, however, is that Kepler data isn't used just to hunt for planets that could potentially support life, it's also been tapped by some intrepid explorers to search for stellar and planetary megastructures created by far-flung advanced societies. Since we've yet to send anything into space that's larger than a building ourselves, most of our conceptions of the sort of extra-planetary scale megastructures that might already exist somewhere in the universe come from science fiction.

In other words, as researchers analyze Kepler data in search of potential planets, some are also keeping an eye out for an actual Death Star or maybe something like one of the rings from the Halo universe.

And right now, even though Kepler is offline, the search for evidence of such a megastructure is continuing here on earth. From Hawaii, to be exact.

Diagram of a Dyson Sphere (click for full size image) Wikipedia / Ed629
Last year, astronomer Geoff Marcy, one of the pioneers of the search for planets beyond our own solar system, was awarded a research grant to parse Kepler data in search of evidence of hypothetical huge solar arrays orbiting distant stars to harvest solar energy for an advanced society.

The idea that such other-worldly solar power stations could already exist (or existed previously but are just now visible to us) was originally conceived by physicist Freeman Dyson decades ago. The most ambitious variant on the concept, a structure called a Dyson Sphere that would actually encapsulate an entire star, dwarfs even the Death Star in its scale.

"Kepler has now discovered over 2,000 new worlds around other stars, most of them smaller than twice the size of Earth, and many probably having water," Marcy said last year after receiving the grant. "This flood of nearly Earth-size planets offers the first opportunity for us humans to hunt for other intelligent species that may have evolved on them."

I followed up with him recently after the news broke that Kepler may never discover another planet to see how big of a setback it was to his search for civilizations beyond the pull of our own sun and the technological marvels they may have already created.

"We are still working 24/7 on the analysis of the Kepler data to extract the occurrence of Earth-like planets in the universe," Marcy wrote to me in an e-mail while traveling abroad. "Nothing will stop us."

After all, Marcy still has plenty of existing Kepler data to sort through, and the aforementioned grant also pays for time on the powerful Keck telescopes in Hawaii to search for laser emissions from other societies.

"Technological civilizations may communicate with their space probes located throughout the galaxy by using laser beams, either in visible light or infrared light," he said last year. "Laser light is detectable from other civilizations because the power is concentrated into a narrow beam and the light is all at one specific color or frequency. The lasers outshine the host star at the color of the laser."

Marcy and his team plan to work around the clock in the coming weeks via Keck (his team will utilize the observatory's powerful telescopes remotely from UC Berkeley), which itself is home to some of our civilization's more advanced lasers, scanning the skies in a sort of hypothetical inter-galactic, existential game of Laser Tag.

"We are working very hard on the search for advanced, technological civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy, and beyond," Marcy wrote to me on Saturday. "Indeed, the last two nights were successful taking data at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii."

Man, I love a dedicated geek (a term used here with absolute affection and admiration) committed to a far-out mission. I'll keep you posted on what Marcy and his team find.