Harvard scientist reveals a plan to listen for aliens Wednesday afternoon
After discovering a mysterious object hurtling through space, the world's largest telescope is tuning in at 3 p.m. EST. And the world will be listening.
Shh!! Put your phone on vibrate, close your office door and please be very quiet this Wednesday afternoon. At 3 p.m. EST, your silence is greatly appreciated. At that exact moment, some of the world's leading astronomers will attempt to listen for alien life.
Yes, you read that right.
It all began a few weeks ago when a University of Hawaii student sifting through telescopic data discovered a highly unusual asteroid in space. Shaped like an elongated cigar and hundreds of meters in length, it was seen hurtling past the sun at 196,000 mph. Scientists were baffled by it. It marked the first time ever that astronomers were able to study an asteroid that has entered our solar system from interstellar space.
Avi Loeb, an Israeli theoretical physicist, is the chair of the Harvard Astronomy Department. "When I first learned about it I started wondering whether it might be an artificially made probe which was sent by an alien civilization," Loeb told From The Grapevine, adding that it's "a very peculiar object indeed."
The object has a rapid escape trajectory and will soon no longer be visible, heading back into deep space. "We had to act quickly," explained team member Olivier Hainaut from the European Southern Observatory in Garching, Germany.
Loeb is the chairman of the Breakthrough Starshot Advisory Committee, a project funded by Russian philanthropist Yuri Milner with the goal of finding other planets and civilizations. Loeb met with Milner on the sidelines of the Breakthrough Prize celebrations last weekend in Palo Alto, Calif., and had an hour-long discussion about the asteroid, now dubbed 'Oumuamua. Milner suggested they try to listen in and attempt to hear alien communications coming from the mysterious floating object.
And that's what brings us to Wednesday's listening session, when all eyes in the astronomy community will be focused on the Green Bank Telescope. Nestled in a barren open field amid the Allegheny Mountains, it's the world's largest fully steerable radio telescope and the world's largest land-based movable structure. It is one of the only telescopes on our planet that could listen in on possible alien conversations.
Loeb is an alumnus of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, a school that was founded by one of his heroes, Albert Einstein. Like the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Loeb shares a sense of unbridled excitement about the possibilities of our universe. "Perhaps the aliens have a mother ship that travels fast and releases baby spacecrafts that freely fall into planetary system on a reconnaissance mission," he told us. "In such a case we might be able to intercept a communication signal between the different spacecrafts."
The potential evidence of intelligent life beyond Earth is racking up at a steady clip since the various Breakthrough initiatives have begun employing the Green Bank Telescope. In August, scientists detected 15 brief but powerful radio pulses emanating from a mysterious and repeating source far across the universe.
Loeb sees this week's listening session as perhaps the beginning of something bigger. "If this object is natural in origin, there should be many more like it in the solar system," he explained. "Therefore we should find many more ... and even if most of them are natural, perhaps one of them will be found to be of artificial origin, some space device or junk from an alien civilization, the exceptional 'needle in the haystack' that we all hope to find one day."
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