Plasma physicist James Benford, CEO of Microwave Sciences, is well known here on Centauri Dreams. Today he is joined by his son Dominic, whose work focuses on the development of ultrasensitive technologies for far-infrared through millimeter-wave astronomy. The younger Dr. Benford is Program Scientist for NASA’s WFIRST mission, which is designed to conduct major surveys in the near-infrared to answer fundamental questions on the nature of dark energy, the distribution of dark matter, the occurrence of planets around other stars, and even to enable the direct imaging of planetary systems. Previously, Dominic was Chief Scientist for the Cosmic Origins Program Office, as well as Deputy Mission Scientist for WISE, the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer. In today’s entry, the Benfords look at the SETI Institute’s recent observations of KIC 8462852 and analyze the detectability of power beaming at these distances.

by James and Dominic Benford


The recent report from the SETI Institute of radio observations of the anomalous star KIC 8462852 has immediate implications. That report concluded that, using the Allen Array, no narrowband radio signals were found above a few hundred Janskys in 1 Hz channels and no “wideband” signals above 100 Janskys are seen in 100 kHz channels. This is for observations taking place for 2 weeks, observing half the time. This implies about 180 hours of observations, although only about 1% of the time is spent at any individual frequency.

The purpose of the observations is to see whether the anomalous star is the site of a super-civilization that might be incidentally radiating sufficient power that we can observe, i.e., leakage radiation. They might even be intentionally producing signals for us to detect. The easiest way to do that is to ‘piggyback’, to put a message onto the power beams.

The thresholds they have reported, above which no signals are present, have implications for the presence of power beams in the anomalous star system. Beaming power on astronomical scales has been a frequent topic on this site and it has long been pointed out that the beaming of power for various purposes could be observable at astronomical distances.

The missions suggested for power beaming involve Earth–to–space applications such as launching spacecraft to orbit or raising satellites from a lower orbit to a higher one. Several workers have studied interplanetary missions, meaning space–to–space transfers of cargo. Finally, launch into the outer solar system and for interstellar precursors and ultimately for starships has also been quantified.

We have examined the thresholds in light of concepts proposed for beaming power in and around our solar system. By comparing the reported thresholds set by the SETI Institute, the non-observation of leakage signals at their stated thresholds implies the following:

  • Orbit raising missions, which require lower power, are not detectable at the thresholds of the Allen Array.
  • Launch from a planetary surface into orbits would be bright enough to be seen by the 100 kHz observations. However, the narrow bandwidth 1 Hz survey would not see them.
  • Interplanetary transfers by beam-driven sails should be detectable in their observations, but are not seen. This is for both the narrow 1 Hz and for the “wideband” 100 kHz observations.
  • Starships launched by power beams with beamwidths that we happen to fall within would be detectable, but are not seen.

These results must be qualified by noting:

  • Power beaming is not an isotropic endeavor, and so the geometry of the transmitter and the intended recipient will produce a conjunction from our point of view only episodically. The observations were conducted for only a limited time and further observations would provide a more stringent constraint.
  • Even the “wideband” observation is actually quite narrow compared with the kinds of sources that would be used in power beams, based on our current understanding of microwave physics. For the applications discussed here, the 100 kHz bandwidth observed would be about 10 to 100 millionths of the center frequency of the Beamer. But high-power devices are inherently not designed for such narrow bandwidths.
  • The frequencies we would use for power beaming are in the millimeter band, so are outside the microwave range the Allen Array observed.

Therefore the observations by the Allen Array are not sufficiently broad to produce firm conclusions about realistic Beamers.

Readers are encouraged to consult the original paper: Harp et al., “Radio SETI Observations of the Anomalous Star KIC 8462852” (preprint). Previous discussions on this matter can be found in the following reports:

“A Path Forward for Beamed Sails”:

“Seeing Alien Power Beaming”:

“Microwave Beaming: A Fast Sail to Mars”:

“The Case for Beamed Sails”: