By Elton Gomes
The Breakthrough Listen Initiative, a project to scout for extraterrestrial life, received an upgrade and will now be equipped with better hearing aids. Although the project has not picked up on any signals from alien life yet, the upgrade will be of significant help as its “ears” will become larger and sensitive.
The project will benefit after an upgrade at The Parkes Radio Telescope in Australia that helps astronomers in quickly assessing larger areas of the sky in more detail will now receive a hardware upgrade. The Breakthrough Listen project has been using the Parkes telescope since the past year and a half. However, it could only scan a small sample of stars close to the Earth.
The project that received support from late theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking will surely be boosted by the new hardware. According to the CNET report, “The new hardware will allow the system to process 130 gigabits per second of observational data from deep space.”
For 2018, the project has signed up for about 1,500 hours of observation time with the Parkes telescope. This could result in data collection of almost 100 petabytes, or approximately more than 1 lakh terabytes. All this data will then be analysed to search for signs of alien intelligence.
Here’s what happened
What is Breakthrough Listen?
In July 2015, the Breakthrough Listen project was launched in London. Russian internet tycoon Yuri Milner invested $100 million into the project. Late theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking was at the centre of the project along with astronomer royal Lord Martin Rees; Geoff Marcy, also known as who discovered the most number of planets; and veteran American astronomer Frank Drake.
The project involved two of the world’s most powerful telescopes in the United States and Australia. The Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia and the Parkes Observatory in New South Wales were employed to lead the search for extraterrestrial life. Finally, the Breakthrough Listen project began searching in January 2016.
As per the official website of the Breakthrough Listen project, the current telescopes used are “50 times more sensitive than existing telescopes dedicated to the search for intelligence.” A number of agreements have been signed that allow scientists to listen to planets orbiting stars closest to Earth and the 100 nearest galaxies. The Guardian reported that both telescopes were to “scan the centre of the Milky Way and the entire length of the galactic plane.”
Hawking opined that the project raised hoped for the much-anticipated question of life on other worlds. He said in an interview with the Guardian “Mankind has a deep need to explore, to learn, to know. We also happen to be sociable creatures. It is important for us to know if we are alone in the dark.”
In the Breakthrough Listen project, rather than broadcasting signals into space, scientists give weightage to listening to life in space. Hawking warned against broadcasting signals, or “shouting into the cosmos,” as advanced alien civilisations might potentially display aggressive and violent characteristics.
What the project has found so far
In April 2017, the Breakthrough Listen project released its first set of data. Although no definite signs of extraterrestrial life were found, the analysis found 11 events that were considered significant. One of these events was the discovery of 107 Piscium, which is “an orange-red main sequence dwarf star of spectral and luminosity type K1 V.”
Unexplained signals or fast radio bursts (FRBs) are also targeted by the Breakthrough Listen initiative. CNET reported that FRBs “are bright, millisecond-long pulses of radio signals from beyond the Milky Way.” One such FRB – FRB 121102 – was discovered in 2012. FRB 121102 was targeted by the Listen project in August 2017, and the team found 15 new pulses.
Why you should care
Hawking once warned us that mankind will have to inhabit another planet in the next 100 years and with this, the search for alien life seems crucial. Locating alien life will help humans understand which planets might be inhabitable. The evidence of alien life may finally give us the answer to the much-anticipated question: are we truly alone?
Furthermore, it is believed that the holistic approach of astrobiology, which combines principles of science, astronomy, biology, geology, and planetary science and is used to search for extra-terrestrial life enhances the spirit of scientific enterprise is enhanced.