Scientists seek public's help with $100 million search for aliens
Researchers from the Breakthrough Listen project have made the unprecedented data trove accessible in the hopes of finding intelligent extraterrestrials.
The search for alien life is being democratized.
The Breakthrough Listen initiative is a $100 million project that uses Earth's largest telescopes to listen for radio frequencies from outer space. Its goal? To see if they can hear an advanced alien civilization communicating with each other (or trying to communicate with us). The group just released a trove of data from their most recent listening session and are making it available to the public. Their hope is that the more people who get involved with the project, the higher the likelihood that they can find intelligent extraterrestrials.
“For the whole of human history, we had a limited amount of data to search for life beyond Earth. So all we could do was speculate," said Yuri Milner, the philanthropist behind the mission. "Now, as we are getting a lot of data, we can do real science – and, with making this data available to the general public, so can anyone who wants to know the answer to this deep question.”
When the program launched in 2015, Milner tapped the Israel-born Dr. Avi Loeb, the chair of Harvard's Astronomy department, to help lead the search. Dr. Loeb remembered the day vividly. The astronomer was on vacation at a goat farm in the mountains of Israel when he got the call. Milner was asking him a seemingly impossible question: Could Loeb come up with a plan to find aliens, and could he get a presentation ready in a matter of days?
Never one to shy away from a challenge, Loeb knew he needed to get online fast. The only place he could get connected to the internet was in the ramshackle office at the goat farm where they had a computer at the reception desk. The irony was not lost on him: here he was, the brainchild behind a bold attempt to meet aliens, and he was sitting in the dirt staring at goats.
“I basically sat at 6 a.m. in the morning working on this presentation, with my back to the wall of this office, looking at the goats that were just born the day before, and contemplating the first realistic plan to send a spacecraft to the nearest star,” he recalled. “And I’m sure that the owner of that goat farm never imagined that this would happen.”
By 2017, just two years after Breakthrough Listen launched, the project had already seen its first success. Loeb and his team discovered an odd oblong-shaped mystery item floating through space. Called Oumuamua, it’s believed to be the first interstellar object detected passing through our solar system. In 2019, Loeb spotted a second.
To keep the fast pace of discovery moving, the organization publicly releases everything it finds. In June 2019, it released all of its data up to that point, allowing scientists from across the globe to parse the findings. This month, the group has released even more information, the largest data dump of its kind. To be precise, the public is now getting access to two petabytes of data. That's about two million gigabytes of information. (This would be the equivalent of storing around 120,000 Gal Gadot movies in HD.)
What will they find?
The Green Bank Telescope weighs 16 million pounds and is about 60% taller than the Statue of Liberty. (Photo: Jamiev_03 / Flickr)
The latest batch of information released by Breakthrough Listen includes new data discovered by college student Sofia Sheikh. She and her team pointed the massive Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia – the world's largest fully steerable radio telescope – to the sky above and listened for signs of alien life. She sorted through a million radio spikes, and eliminated those caused by Earth-based signal interference. Ultimately, the last four unexplained signals turned out to be from passing satellites.
While Sheikh and her team found no signatures of civilizations, their analysis and other detailed studies conducted by the Breakthrough Listen group are gradually narrowing potential locations and capabilities of advanced civilizations that could exist in our galaxy.
“We didn't find aliens, but we are setting very rigorous limits on the presence of a technologically capable species, by screening for the first time for data between 4 and 8 gigahertz on the radio spectrum,” Siemion said. “These results notch another rung on the ladder for the next team who comes along and wants to improve on our experiment.”
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Related Topics: Space