Thursday, August 6, 2015

Breakthrough Listen - Search for Aliens

"Is there an intelligent life beyond Earth? " this question has been bothering the human race as far as 19th century. The Serbian-American Scientist Nikola Tesla proposed to send signals to Martians (1890); he claimed to have received unusual signals, calling them to be from "another world". The project, Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, SETI, 1960 by Frank Drake, USA was to look for radio signals sent out by intelligent life in the universe.

The declaration of 100-million dollars fund by the Russian investor Yuri Milner with a surprise addition of Stephen Hawking in his team, the project "Breakthrough Initiatives" would certainly change the fate of SETI search. Milner, a physics graduate turned investor is known for turning coal into gold, with his investments bringing a new tide into the businesses (e.g. facebook, twitter, alibaba, xiomi, flipkart....); lets hope the same for SETI.

How is it done??
First strategy: Search for the radio signals in the nearby 100 million stars hoping that civilization living in their planetary system may be intelligent enough to have a radio active utility in their routine works, e.g. air traffic control or any other communications.

Since the past studies of SETI have strongly suggested that the radio signals from extra-terrestrial signals could come only from the far away sources and they could be extremely strong, an alternative hunt would also be planned.

Second strategy: Here the entire plane of milky-way galaxy (where we live) and the central zone will be studied in detail to cover more than 100-billion stars in the shallow region (meaning far away). Apart from this, the survey would also stare at 100-galaxies  comprising of 10s of trillions (1000-billion or million-million) of stars, each star having its own planetary system.

To accomplish the above said goals; the plan is to spend one-third of the funding in buying 20% of the 100-meter diameter Green Bank radio telescope at West Virginia and a substantial amount of time on Parkes 64-meter telescope in Australia for 10-years.

100-meter Green Bank radio telescope
Another one-third amount of funds are planned to develop very high sensitive receivers to listen to billions of narrow frequency channels in 1-10 GHz, a  region which covers best of the radio signal regimes which passes through the earth's atmosphere and also clean from the cosmic background . 

Breakthrough Listen will also be taking up observations in visible light region on the 2.4-meter Lick observatory's  planetary finder telescope. This would serve as an additional tool to support and confirm the region from where one hopes to pick POSITIVE signs of civilization.

Example: As per a rough estimate, the present studies (at Green Park) can pick up signals: "If an alien civilization living on a planet orbiting around any of the 1000 stars closest to us from a common air traffic kind of communication signals". 2. The optical signals monitored at Licks observatory would be able to pick 100-watts of light from the planets of stars which are within 4-light years away from ours.

Prominent SETI attempts:
A British radio astronomer, Antony Hewish and his post doc Jocelyn Bell studying the inter planetary scintillations of compact radio sources came across a set of radio sources displaying very regular and fast packet of signals. Unable to identify the source they went on to name them "little green men". Later the team went on to discover a new set sources called Pulsars; Anotny Hewish getting a noble prize (1974) for this discovery.

The famous ISRO-Balloon experiment, where the Indian scientists lead by Dr. Jayant Narlikar have successfully found bacteria in the stratosphere of earth, at an altitude of 20-40 kms. The three group of bacteria to be identified after the gene sequencing technique have been found for the first time (Reference). Though the Indian experiment may not fall under the LISTEN category, it does stand out as an outstanding effort of humans to reach out extra terrestrial life. India can certainly play a big role in this project; Milner goes on record to say that the idea of pumping this money is to instigate young minds towards science... is any body listening????

Bottom line!!
Though the present initiative may increase the SETI search by 100-times in the form of more sensitive tools (a rough estimate); it may take even generations to get to listen to the super civilization living away from our world. But surely enough... Milner has certainly initiated a giant step towards SETI...

Like to give credit to few press reports appearing in the internet after the declaration of Breakthrough Initiatives project on 20th July at the Royal Society, London, particularly to a good piece of article appearing in the Sky and Telescope by Alan MacRobert.


  1. Hi! What about the huge radio telescope that China is building (or built)? Can it not pick up ET signals?

  2. Yes, the Chinese radio telescope called as FAST (Five hundred meter Aperture Spherical Telescope) will certainly improve the detection ability by another few 100 times as surface are increase with the square of the increase in the diameter. But, it can NOT right away pull out one planet with an intelligent civilization. The hard work of scanning different regions is always there.


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