Groundbreaking hardware starts hunt for alien life among billions of stars

8 May 2018

The CSIRO Parkes Radio Telescope. Image: TonyNg/Shutterstock

The Breakthrough Listen project is hoping that its latest hardware upgrade will allow it to hear signs of alien life among billions of stars in the universe.

With backing from billionaires such as Yuri Milner as well as philanthropic groups, Breakthrough Initiatives is hoping to finally answer a classic question: are we alone in the universe?

Until now, much of the work has been undertaken by the SETI Institute and other, smaller groups, scanning the stars for a signal that would be irrefutable proof of the existence of alien life with an intelligence equal to or greater than our own.

Now, the Breakthrough Listen project has announced that it has started a survey of an enormous number of stars located in the plane of our galaxy, using the recently upgraded CSIRO Parkes Radio Telescope in New South Wales, Australia.

Billions of stars in one sweep

While Parkes has been used by the organisation since November 2016, it has so far only been able to target samples of stars mostly within a few light years of Earth.

With a new hardware upgrade, Parkes is now able to searches swathes of the night’s sky – totalling tens of billions of stars – and is capable of recording huge data rates from its multibeam receiver.

The previous receivers used by Listen only observed a single point on the sky at a time, and were used to perform a detailed search of stars near the sun for evidence of extraterrestrial technology. In contrast, the multibeam receiver has 13 beams, enabling a fast survey of large areas of the sky, covering all of the galactic plane visible from the site.

The survey will also cover a region around the galactic centre that contains a supermassive black hole, surrounded by tens of millions of stars within just a few light years’ distance of the centre.

Petabytes of data

To get a sense of how much data will be processed, the new hardware will be capable of handling streams of 130Gbps originating from more than 100m radio channels.

Over the course of the survey, 100 petabytes of data are expected to be harvested, and will need to be filtered out to eliminate signals originating from Earth as well as other natural, cosmic phenomena.

“With these new capabilities, we are scanning our galaxy in unprecedented detail,” said Danny Price, Parkes project scientist with the Breakthrough Listen project at University of California, Berkeley.

“By trawling through these huge datasets for signatures of technological civilisations, we hope to uncover evidence that our planet, among the hundreds of billions in our galaxy, is not the only where intelligent life has arisen.”

The CSIRO Parkes Radio Telescope. Image: TonyNg/Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic