SETI alive and kicking?


The 100 metre radio telescope at Green Bank, West Virginia, USA. (Geremia/Wikipedia)

Breakthrough Listen

A major initiative to intensify SETI research is under way. Russian billionaire Yuri Milner spends $100 million during ten years to support monitoring a million of the stars closest to Earth, as well as the hundred nearest galaxies. Two of the world's largest radio telescopes will be used, the 64 m Parkes telescope in Australia and the 100 m telescope at Green Bank, West Virginia, USA. The entire plane of the Milky Way will be examined, as well as its central parts. In these fields there are billions of stars.

At the press conference, which was held on July 20 2015 at the Royal Astronomical Society in London, Yuri Milner outlined the project. Present at the podium were major names like Stephen Hawking, world famous cosmologist, Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, Frank Drake, SETI pioneer, Ann Druyan, widow of Carl Sagan and Geoff Marcy, leading exoplanet researcher.

Yuri Milner at the press conference in London.The project, which is launched as a Breakthrough Initiative, is backed by many of the leading personalities in SETI research. In an open letter from Breakthrough Initiative, the background and reasoning behind initiating this grand project is given. Among the signatories are well-known SETI researchers such as Seth Shostak, Jill Tarter, Nicolai Kardachev and Paul Horowitz, as well as several astronauts and well-known personalities from other fields. 

The new initiative will lead to substantially increased sensibility to catch distant and weak signals. The amount of data collected during a single day will correspond to a full year of previous SETI efforts.  The huge amount of data will be made available to the general public via so called Citizen Science.  An early example of this is SETI@home, a screen-saving computer programme which, in order to help cover the enormous demand for computation, millions of users have downloaded to their PCs during later years. Software of this type will now be further developed for the project.

A few facts, so far known about the project:

  • 10 billion frequencies will be monitored simultaneously.

  • The received data stream is estimated to contain about 1 Gb/s. This amount of data, received during ten years cannot be stored but have to be analysed in real-time. This analysis aims at identifying potentially interesting signals for further study offline. Modern and cheap computer hardware in the form of  GPUs- och FPGAs are expected to facilitate the extensive analysis necessary to sift through the enormous amount of data collected.

  • Long integration times (up to an hour) will be used in order to look for very weak signals.

  • Optical SETI, i.e. search for optical laser-based signals will also be part of the project.


Breakthrough Message

A separate project, "Breakthrough Message", is aimed at finding the optimal way of sending a message from Earth. This project has the form of an international competition, with the goal of formulating a message which can represent humanity and the planet Earth. The total prize money amounts to 1 million dollars. The intention is not to actually broadcast a message, something which is considered controversial by many. Stephen Hawking has warned against it, although opinions differ also among astronomers and others. "Breakthrough Message"  focuses on analysing the best way to formulate a message and to illuminate the ethical and philosophical aspects of communicating with an alien civilisation beyond Earth.


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