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Open Letter to the HST-JWST Transition Panel
Concerning Space-Based Optical SETI


Hubble Space Telescope (HST)

Hubble Space Telescope (HST)



On July 31, 2003, the Transition Panel for the Hubble Space Telescope/James Webb Space Telescope issued a report on the scientific impact of the current NASA plan for ending HST operations and beginning JWST operations.  The panel requested further comments from the scientific community. 

The open letter that follows concerns the retrofit of the HST for Optical SETI (OSETI) and the design of the JWST to incorporate the capability of undertaking OSETI.

To see why it is important to have space-based Optical SETI observatories one only has to consider the spectral window presented by Earth's atmosphere.  The atmospheric transmission chart presented here covers the approximate wavelength range of the James-Webb Space Telescope.  Not shown is the ultra-violet band between 0.3 microns and 0.1 microns which is blocked by Earth's atmosphere but is available to the Hubble Space Telescope.  These two telescopes together provide a complementary means to access a substantial and contiguous range of optical frequencies.

On a more philosophical note, it is distressing to read that NASA has given up on the idea of eventually bringing the HST back to Earth for display in the Smithsonian or parking it in a higher orbit for safety, but would rather send it crashing back to Earth in a controlled re-entry at the end of this decade.  This is pure vandalism.  It is rather like suggesting that if the original Santa Maria was on display in a museum in Spain and while towing it to the New World for display here it accidentally sank, we would make no attempt to retrieve it. 


Our descendants would not think much of this generation if we did not leave them the legacy of the Hubble Space Telescope to marvel at.  Even if we were not ready for the HST to undertake OSETI in this decade, by parking it safely in a higher orbit, we would ensure its availability later both for OSETI and its eventual display in the Smithsonian, after the Space Shuttle is replaced by a more reliable space vehicle. 

If you agree to the importance for the HST and JWST to be equipped to undertake OSETI observations, please contact Professor Bahcall and/or the NASA Administrator, Dr. Sean O'Keefe at NASA Headquarters.  In particular, you are encouraged to contact NASA about this matter, whether you are a scientist, engineer, a concerned member of the public, or just a citizen of Planet Earth.  2010 should not mark the end of the HST but a new beginning.

Dr. Sean O'Keefe
Room: 9F44,
NASA Headquarters
Washington DC 20546-0001
United States
Tel:  1-202-358-1010
Fax: 1-202-358-2810


Paragraph added on November 18, 2003
As a result of the official response to this letter (see the link near bottom of page for this correspondence) which was dated November 14, 2003, it was clear that there had been a mis-communication about the type of OSETI I was proposing.  I had not considered doing an All-Sky Diffraction-Limited Survey with either the HST or JWST.  Indeed, the necessity of conducting an All-Sky Survey was a red-herring made in 1990 by the late Bernard Oliver, then Deputy SETI Chief of NASA's SETI Office.  Dr. Oliver referred to this as being "the crux of the matter".  If professional astronomers should come across this page, perhaps they might now consider submitting proposals to NASA addressing natural fast optical phenomena!

James Webb Space Telescope (JWST)

James Webb Space Telescope (JWST)



The Letter:

November 2, 2003

Professor John N. Bahcall
Chair, HST-JWST Transition Panel
Institute for Advanced Study
School of Natural Sciences
Princeton, NJ, USA

Space-Based Optical SETI for HST and JWST


This letter recommends that the Hubble Space Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope be adapted to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence in the Optical Spectrum (Optical SETI) by equipping them with fast photon-counters.  The optical spectrum covered by the HST and the JWST provide an extraordinary wide complimentary window for the detection of ETI laser beacons signals not available to ground-based Optical SETI (OSETI) observatories.  Since 1998, major ground-based Optical SETI observatories have been set up, but as with Microwave SETI, the results to date have been negative.  It would be a major oversight not to plan conducting space-based OSETI observations with these two great telescopes, particularly if by 2010, ground-based OSETI observatories have failed to detect either monochromatic continuous wave or short pulsed laser beacon signals.


Dear Professor Bahcall,

My name is Dr. Stuart A. Kingsley.  Research scientists in the SETI community know me as the person who, for the past thirteen years, has been the strongest proponent for the Optical Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, otherwise known as Optical SETI or OSETI. 

Please excuse me for being a bit late in making my contribution to the debate on the plans for HST and JWST.  I was on extended leave for family reasons in the United Kingdom at the time your report on the HST-JWST Transition Panel findings was published.

To my knowledge, it appears that the idea of retrofitting the HST for Optical SETI and incorporating the capability of undertaking OSETI with the JWST has not been discussed, or at least not considered to be of sufficient priority to warrant a mention.  This is despite the fact that the father of Optical SETI, Professor Charles H. Townes, is a member of your transition panel (please see this reference: http://www.coseti.org/4273-05award.htm).

From the years 1993 through 2001,  I arranged three SPIE International Society for Optical Engineering conferences on Optical SETI.  The keynote speakers for the 1993, 1996, and 2001 conferences were Arthur C. Clarke, Ronald Bracewell, and Chandra Wickramasinghe, respectively. 

Since the early 1990s, I have made it known, both from my Web site (http://www.coseti.org) and at the OSETI conferences, that I would like to see the HST equipped for OSETI.  I have also recommended that serious thought be given to incorporating the equipment into the formerly named Next Generation Space Telescope (NGST).  

Hubble's mirror system is usable over the wavelength range of approximately 110 nm to 1100 nm.  The present specifications for the James Webb mirror system calls for a response over the wavelength band of 600 nm to > 10,000 nm.  The extended spectral range in the ultra-violet for the Hubble Space Telescope and the extended infrared range for the James Webb Space Telescope, opens up a much larger window for Continuous Wave (CW) and Pulsed-Type OSETI than is possible for ground-based observatories. 

Incidentally, my colleague, Monte Ross (http://www.coseti.org/ross_00.htm), pioneered the use of very short pulsed laser signals for both free-space laser communications and Optical SETI.  Monte literally "wrote the book" on free-space laser comms and one of the first text books in the modern field of photonics.  Monte and I are presently involved with the so-called PhotonStar Project (http://www.photonstar.org), which is an optical version of SETI@Home, but with the major difference that each individual OSETI astronomer collects his or her own data and sends data via the Internet to a central computer for correlation.  All telescopes are aimed at the same star system at the same time.

I strongly request the panel and NASA to give serious consideration to equipping both telescopes with photon-counting systems to cover as much of the spectral range as possible within the limits of the state-of-the-art in photon-counting technology with time resolution capabilities down to 1 ns.  The coincident photon-counting head approach pioneered by Professor Towne's colleagues at Berkeley, Harvard, and other OSETI groups, could share common signal processing electronics to cover the required spectral regions.  The high-resolution spectrographs already incorporated in the telescopes will do fine for the monochromatic (CW) beacon type of OSETI searches. 

Just equipping the HST and JWST with ultra-fast photon-counting capabilities is bound, by serendipity, to lead to new discoveries of natural ultra-fast phenomena occurring in the Universe.

The following references contain my quotes from two of the publications that can be found on my Web site.

The EJASA article that first promulgated the concept of OSETI on the Internet: “The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) in the Optical Spectrum" in The Electronic Journal of The Astronomical Society of the Atlantic (EJASA), Volume 3, Number 6, January, 1992 (http://www.coseti.org/ejasa_09.htm#mature).

The following statement is from page 58:

"We cannot even be sure that ETIs would want their signals to be  detected within an atmosphere or otherwise too easily.  These are prevalent assumptions among most SETI proponents.  There might be logical reasons for ETIs to think that only when a technical  civilization begins to "emerge" from its planet would it be truly mature enough, and in a culturally receptive frame of mind, to receive  signals from ETIs.  Thus, the recipients' atmosphere itself might be used as an automatic protective blanket to avoid cultural shock.  In a way, the electromagnetic search for ETI is one of the greatest hunts and detective stories ever.  Unfortunately, there are still so few clues."

The second reference quote comes from the OSETI II conference, "A Prototype Optical SETI Observatory," Proceedings of SPIE's 1996 Symposium on Lasers and Integrated Optoelectronics, Photonics West '96, The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) in the Optical Spectrum II, Vol. 2704, San Jose, California, January 27-February 2, 1996, pp. 102-116 (http://www.coseti.org/paper_05.htm):

"It is the author's present belief that as far as interstellar electromagnetic communications are concerned, only targeted free-space laser communications can sustain the signal-to-noise ratio, and the low interstellar dispersion and scintillation effects, so as to convey wideband, Gbit/s type data links over hundreds or thousands of light years.  Using microwave transmitters to "broadcast" signals across interstellar space is very inefficient, and cannot support wideband communications due to insufficient signal-to-noise ratio, and significant interstellar dispersion and scintillation effects.

A negative outcome of a visible SETI search would not imply that ETIs do not exist or use lasers, but merely that their laser transmissions may be in the infrared or far-infrared, even at wavelengths to which the atmosphere is not transparent.  It may well be that space-based receivers will be required for successful reception of SETI signals.  The atmospheres of the intended targeted planets might be used as a safety blanket to delay successful reception of the signals until the targeted civilization was mature enough to have developed space-based technologies, and presumably, be in a better condition to avoid catastrophic effects from too early a cultural contamination."

There is a further comment in the chair and co-chair's introduction to the 1996 OSETI II proceedings, which may be found at http://www.coseti.org/2704-int.htm.  Space-Based Optical SETI is described on page 89 of my paper "Optical SETI Observatories in the new Millennium: A Review," The Proceedings of SPIE's 1996 Symposium on Lasers and Integrated Optoelectronics, Photonics West '96, The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) in the Optical Spectrum III, Vol. 4273, San Jose, California, January 22-24, 2001, pp. 72-91.  A link to a PDF file of the full paper may be found on the abstract page http://www.coseti.org/4273-08.htm.  One concept not discussed in that paper is the possibility that the International Space Station (ISS) could also deploy relatively small telescopes to conduct space-based Optical SETI.

Information related to promoting space-based OSETI may also be found on my Web site on the following pages:


        http://www.coseti.org/4273-20.htm.  Paper by Steven Kilston & David L. Begley of Ball Aerospace, solicited for the OSETI III conference held in 2001.  A link to a PDF file of the full paper may be found on that abstract page.  The citation for that paper is as follows: "Next-Generation Space Telescope (NGST) and Space-Based Optical SETI," The Proceedings of SPIE's 1996 Symposium on Lasers and Integrated Optoelectronics, Photonics West '96, The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) in the Optical Spectrum III, Vol. 4273, San Jose, California, January 22-24, 2001, pp. 136-143.

The discoveries that HST has yet to make may well exceed the discoveries made to date.  The Electromagnetic Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence is surely an important component of NASA's "Origins Program".  Wouldn't be ironic if the HST was the first telescope to discover intelligent life elsewhere in the Cosmos.  It is surely a concept that would re-invigorate the public's interest in the HST and astronomy and space exploration in general.

It has taken eight years of lobbying on my part, mainly through a series of OSETI conferences and the COSETI Web site, to get the mainstream SETI community to rethink the rationale for Microwave SETI and realize that the Optical approach also has considerable merit. It has taken nearly forty years for Schwartz and Townes classic paper to be recognized by the scientific community as a major milestone in the search for ETI.  Let us hope that it will not take nearly as long for NASA to realize that space-based OSETI's time has come.

I look forward to receiving your responses on this matter.  I would be glad to expand further on these OSETI concepts for the two telescopes at your request.


Dr. Stuart A. Kingsley
Director, The Columbus Optical SETI Observatory & The Bournemouth Optical SETI Observatory (UK)
SPIE's Optical SETI Conference Chair


This open letter has been posted to the COSETI Web site at: www.coseti.org/hst-jwst.htm


NASA's Reply



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Dr. Stuart A. Kingsley
Director, The Columbus Optical SETI Observatory
Version 1.0
First Upload: November 2, 2003
Preface Revised: November 23, 2003

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