February 5, 2023

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The search for ET among a million stars has begun

The search for ET among a million stars has officially begun thanks to the Southern Hemisphere’s largest radio telescope, MeerKAT in South Africa. The announcement was made by the Breakthrough Listen initiative, at a conference organized by the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO).

It took the astronomers and engineers on the Breakthrough Listen team three years to develop and install the most powerful digital tool ever used to search for technology signatures, or signals of technologies produced by extraterrestrial intelligence. The equipment is integrated with the control and monitoring systems of the MeerKAT radio telescope in cooperation with SARAO engineers. The new system will integrate research already underway with the Green Bank Telescope in the United States, the Parkes Telescope in Australia and other telescopes around the world. “MeerKAT consists of 64 dishes, which can see 50 times more of the sky than the Green Bank telescope can see in a single shot,” explained Andrew Simeon, Breakthrough Listen program lead. “This large field of view typically contains many stars that are interesting targets for technical signatures. Our new supercomputer allows us to combine the signals from 64 dishes to obtain a high-resolution scan of these targets with excellent sensitivity, all without affecting the searches of other astronomers using radio telescope”.

“I am delighted to be able to conduct a technical fingerprint search using one of the most sensitive telescopes in the world,” said Cherry Ng, who works on Breakthrough Listen at MeerKAT. “It will take just two years to search among more than a million nearby stars. MeerKAT will give us the ability to locate a transmitter similar to the brightest radio beacons on Earth at a distance of 250 light-years in a routine monitoring mode.” One of the first targets is our nearest star, Proxima Centauri. It hosts two small, rocky planets in the habitable zone,” concluded S. Pete Worden, Executive Director, Breakthrough Initiatives.

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