Search for extraterrestrial life with the world’s largest telescope

Astronomers searching for radio signals that could be signs of extraterrestrial life have just been approached by South Africa’s MeerKAT telescope, one of the world’s largest.

Since 2016, the Breakthrough Listen project has been quietly using radio telescopes to listen for unusual radio signals or technical signatures from potentially advanced extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way. .

The project, partly initiated by the late Stephen Hawking and funded by Israeli businessman Yuri Milner, used the Green Bank Telescope (GBT) in West Virginia, US, and the Parkes Telescope in New South Wales, Australia, as well as other telescopes.

Radio telescopes from around the world are used to scan nearby stars. Now, the MeerKAT Telescope – a single telescope in South Africa and currently the largest radio telescope in the Southern Hemisphere – has joined the project.

After more than two years of integrating their programs into the MeerKAT system, Breakthrough Listen scientists have finally begun using data collected by the dish array to search for unusual signals from stars near.

The inclusion of MeerKAT will expand the number of targets searched by a factor of 1,000, Breakthrough Listen representatives said. This would greatly increase the chances of detecting extraterrestrial signals.

MeerKAT significantly improves the number of targets that Breakthrough Listen can analyze because its dishes can lock on to up to 64 different targets at once, while other telescopes can only focus on one target at a time.

“MeerKAT can see an area of the sky 50 times larger than the GBT can see at once. Such a large field of view often containing many stars is an interesting engineering target,” said investigator Andrew Siemion Principal of Breakthrough Listen and director of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Research Center at the University of California Berkeley, USA said.

Breakthrough Listen will access a continuous stream of data from MeerKAT without interfering with scheduled astronomy research. Instead, data collected from other studies will be fed into a supercomputer, which uses a special algorithm to scan for signals that it does not recognize as coming from the phenomena. known universe as pulsars, stellar flares or supernovae. When a strange signal is detected, researchers can analyze it.

Using MeerKAT, Breakthrough Listen will be able to scan more than 1 million stars in the next two years, which is very exciting, said Cherry Ng, an astrophysicist at the University of Toronto, Canada, and project scientist at Breakthrough. Listen, said.

One of the first stars that will be studied in more detail by MeerKAT and Breakthrough Listen will be Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our solar system, where two exoplanets reside, researchers say. habitable area.

In June, Chinese astronomers using the giant “Sky Eye” telescope in Guizhou, China—the largest radio telescope on Earth—announced that they had detected a signal possible alien presence. However, this was quickly debunked by one of the study authors, who revealed the signal was almost certainly human radio interference.

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