Breakthrough Listen Expands Search For Alien Life

The Breakthrough Listen project has announced the launch of an expanded survey of stars in the Milky Way. The initiative was launched to collect massive amounts of deep space data and make it public in an open effort to identify signals pointing to alien life. Researchers will analyze the data “for signals that have indications of artificial origin,” according to the project’s announcement.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Russian investor Yuri Milner, and British scientist Stephen Hawking debuted Breakthrough Listen in 2015. The company began using Australia’s Parkes Radio Telescop, located in New South Wales, in late 2016. A $100 million donation by Milner will fund the new alien-seeking initiative.

A new “multi-beam” receiver installed on the Parkes telescope will rely on 13 beams to scan a huge swath of space, allowing astronomers to scan the galaxy like never before. The 13 beams enable a fast survey of large areas of the sky, letting researchers create one of the most comprehensive experiments carried out to date. The new digital instrumentation was installed by scientists and engineers from the University of California, Berkeley SETI Research Center (BSRC).

With the new digital instrumentation, the device can now handle 130 gigabits per second. According to the project, the telescope is scheduled to log 1,500 hours of observations this year, resulting in raw data volumes totaling almost 100 petabytes. Data compiled during those hours will later be archived and analyzed for signals stemming from extraterrestrial technology.

The new receiver will also help sift through white noise to find relevant signals. The vast majority of signals come from human-generated radio frequency interference (RFI). Being able to tell which ones are signals of interest is the major challenge facing any search for extraterrestrial life.

Danny Price, Breakthrough’s Parkes Project Scientist at UC Berkeley, said in a statement, “By trawling through these huge datasets for signatures of technological civilizations, we hope to uncover evidence that our planet, among the hundreds of billions in our Galaxy, is not the only one where intelligent life has arisen.” The observations will cover a region around the Galactic Center, one of the densest neighborhoods in the galaxy containing a supermassive black hole surrounded by tens of millions of stars.