On the prowl and cupping a high-tech ear to eavesdrop on ET – a new signal search is underway using the Southern Hemisphere’s biggest radio telescope.

Breakthrough Listen – the initiative to find signs of intelligent life in the universe – announced today the start of observations using a powerful new instrument deployed to the MeerKAT radio telescope in the remote Karoo region of South Africa.

This is a new search for technosignatures – indicators of technology developed by extraterrestrial intelligence – and expands the number of targets searched by a factor of 1,000, according to a Breakthrough Listen statement.

New approach

The new approach complements Breakthrough Listen’s ongoing searches using the Green Bank Telescope (GBT) in the USA, the Parkes Telescope in Australia, and other telescopes around the world.

But there’s a difference. While those GBT and Parkes facilities involve moving thousand-ton-plus dishes to point at targets all over the sky, the program on MeerKAT typically won’t mechanically move the antennas.

The use of MeerKAT for the ET search was announced at a conference organized by the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO).

Image credit: SARAO

Receptors

The South African MeerKAT radio telescope is situated over 50 miles (90 kilometers) outside the small Northern Cape town of Carnarvon.

MeerKAT was originally known as the Karoo Array Telescope (KAT) that would consist of 20 receptors. When the South African government increased the budget to allow the building of 64 receptors, the team re-named it “MeerKAT” – that is, “more of KAT.” The MeerKAT (scientific name Suricata suricatta) is also a much-loved small mammal that lives in the Karoo region, explains the MeerKAT website.

Large field of view

“MeerKAT consists of 64 dishes, which can see an area of the sky 50 times bigger than the GBT can view at once,” said Andrew Siemion, a Breakthrough Listen Principal Investigator.

Credit: Breakthrough Listen

 

“Such a large field of view typically contains many stars that are interesting technosignature targets. Our new supercomputer enables us to combine signals from the 64 dishes to get high resolution scans of these targets with excellent sensitivity, all without impacting the research of other astronomers who are using the array,” Siemion said.

Using a “commensal” mode, the Breakthrough Listen initiative gains access to the MeerKAT sensitive radio telescopes almost 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Processing pipeline

The ability to scan 64 targets at a time within the main field of view also improves Listen’s ability to reject interfering signals from human technology, such as squawking Earth-orbiting satellites, according to a statement.

The Listen team has developed targeting and scheduling software, as well as an automated data processing pipeline that scans through the information-gleaned in near-real-time to look for interesting signals.

Notes Cherry Ng, Breakthrough Listen’s Project Scientist for MeerKAT: “It will take us just two years to search over one million nearby stars. MeerKAT will provide us with the ability to detect a transmitter akin to Earth’s brightest radio beacons out to a distance of 250 light years in our routine observing mode.”

Artist’s conception of the surface of Proxima Centauri b. The Alpha Centauri binary system can be seen in the background, to the upper right of Proxima.
Credit:ESO/M. Kornmesser

First targets

“One of the first targets we’ll be observing is our nearest neighbor star, Proxima Centauri, which appears to host two small rocky planets in the star’s habitable zone,” said Breakthrough Initiatives Executive Director, S. Pete Worden.

“Routine observations with the Listen backend on MeerKAT are now underway,” Worden said, “and the team looks forward to sharing the first science results in the coming months.”

According to Daniel Czech of the Department of Astronomy, University of California Berkeley, simulations predict that the Breakthrough Listen survey on MeerKAT “will significantly improve on prior surveys, with the potential to become the most comprehensive SETI survey of its type yet conducted,” Czech and colleagues explain in their research paper – “The Breakthrough Listen Search for Intelligent Life: MeerKAT Target Selection” – at:

https://arxiv.org/pdf/2103.16250.pdf

One Response to “Listen Up! New SETI Signal Hunt Underway”

  • Steve says:

    Do you think there’s anything to technosignatures being detected by the Chinese Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope, nicknamed Tianyanin (Heaven’s Eye)? Will there be close coooerTion with this new SETI initiative?

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