Breakthrough Listen Scans Entire Galaxies for Signals From Extremely Advanced Civilizations

Breakthrough Listen has released the results of its latest survey - the center of 97 galaxies!

In 1960, Dr. Frank Drake led the first Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) experiment at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia. In the more than sixty years that have since passed, astronomers have conducted multiple surveys in search of technological activity (aka. technosignatures). To date, Breakthrough Listen is the most ambitious SETI experiment, combining data from the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, the Parkes Murriyang Telescope, the Automated Planet Finder, and the MeerKAT Radio Telescope and advanced analytics.

The program includes a survey of the one million closest stars to Earth, the center of our galaxy and the entire galactic plane, and the 100 closest galaxies to ours. In a recent paper, members of Breakthrough Listen presented the results of their radio technosignature search of the centers of 97 nearby galaxies observed by the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope. This search was one of the largest and broadest
searches for radio evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence ever undertaken, surveying trillions of stars at four frequency bands. Unfortunately, no compelling candidates were found.

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SETI Works Best When Telescopes Double-Check Each Other

The LOFAR 'superterp', part of the core of the extended telescope located in the Netherlands. Credit: LOFAR/ASTRON

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has evolved considerably in the past sixty years since the first experiment was conducted. This was Project Ozma, which was conducted in 1960 by Dr. Frank Drake and his colleagues using the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Green Bank, West Virginia. While the experiment did not reveal any radio signals from space, it established the foundation upon which all future SETI is based. Like Ozma, the vast majority of these experiments have searched for possible technosignatures in the radio spectrum.

Unfortunately, this search has always been plagued by the problem of radio interference from Earth-based radio antennas and satellites in orbit, which can potentially flood SETI surveys with false positives. In a recent study, an international team of astronomers (including researchers with Breakthrough Listen) recommended that future technosignature searches rely on multi-site simultaneous observations. This has the potential of eliminating interference from terrestrial sources and narrowing the search for extraterrestrial radio signals.

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Variable Stars can Tell us Where and When to Search for Extraterrestrials

Artist’s impression of the Gaia spacecraft detecting artificial signals from a distant star system. In this synchronization scheme, the star system's inhabitants send the signal shortly after witnessing a supernova, which is also seen by telescopes on Earth. (Credit: Danielle Futselaar / Breakthrough Listen)

The European Space Agency’s Gaia Observatory has been operating steadily at the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrange Point for almost a decade. As an astrometry mission, Gaia aims to gather data on the positions, proper motion, and velocity of stars, exoplanets, and objects in the Milky Way and tens of thousands of neighboring galaxies. By the end of its primary mission (scheduled to end in 2025), Gaia will have observed an estimated 1 billion astronomical objects, leading to the creation of the most precise 3D space catalog ever made.

To date, the ESA has conducted three data releases from the Gaia mission, the latest (DR3) released in June 2022. In addition to the breakthroughs these releases have allowed, scientists are finding additional applications for this astrometric data. In a recent study, a team of astronomers suggested that the variable star catalog from the Gaia Data Release 3 could be used to assist in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). By synchronizing the search for transmissions with conspicuous events (like a supernova!), scientists could narrow the search for extraterrestrial transmissions.

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Astronomers Scan the Skies for Nanosecond Pulses of Light From Interstellar Civilizations

Artist’s impression of Green Bank Telescope connected to a machine learning network. Credit: Breakthrough Listen/Danielle Futselaar.

In 2015, Russian-Israeli billionaire Yuri Milner and his non-profit organization, Breakthrough Initiatives, launched the largest Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project. Known as Breakthrough Listen, this SETI effort relies on the most powerful radio telescopes in the world and advanced analytics to search for potential evidence of technological activity (aka. “technosignatures”). The ten-year project will survey the one million stars closest to Earth, the center of our galaxy, the entire galactic plane, and the 100 galaxies closest to the Milky Way.

In 2018, they partnered with the Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System (VERITAS) Collaboration, a ground-based system of gamma-ray telescopes operating at the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory (FLWO) atop Mt. Hopkins in southern Arizona. In a recent paper, the VERITAS Collaboration shared the results of the first year of their search for “optical technosignatures” (from 2019 to 2020). Their results are a vital proof of concept demonstrating how future searches for extraterrestrial civilizations can incorporate optical pulses into their technosignature catalog.

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Astronomers are Searching for a Galaxy-Wide Transmitter Beacon at the Center of the Milky Way

Artist's impression of a Dyson Sphere, an proposed alien megastructure that is the target of SETI surveys. Finding one of these qualifies in a "first contact" scenario. Credit: Breakthrough Listen / Danielle Futselaar
Artist's impression of a Dyson Sphere, an proposed alien megastructure that is the target of SETI surveys. Finding one of these qualifies in a "first contact" scenario. Credit: Breakthrough Listen / Danielle Futselaar

It has been over sixty years since the first Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) survey occurred. This was Project Ozma, a survey led by Dr. Frank Drake (who devised the Drake Equation) that used the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Green Bank, West Virginia, to listen for radio transmissions from Epsilon Eridani and Tau Ceti. While the search revealed nothing of interest, it paved the way for decades of research, theory, and attempts to find evidence of technological activity (aka. “technosignatures”).

The search continues today, with researchers using next-generation instruments and analytical methods to find the “needle in the cosmic haystack.” This is the purpose behind Breakthrough Listen Investigation for Periodic Spectral Signals (BLIPSS), a collaborative SETI project led by Cornell graduate student Akshay Suresh to look for technosignatures at the center of the Milky Way. In a recent paper, Suresh and his team shared their initial findings, which were made possible thanks to data obtained by the Greenbank Observatory and a proprietary algorithm they developed.

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A Lack of Alien Signals Actually Tells Us a Lot

Credit: iStock

In a  recent study published in The Astronomical Journal, a researcher from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) discusses the potential reasons why we haven’t received technoemission, also called technosignatures, from an extraterrestrial intelligence during the 60 years that SETI has been searching, along with recommending additional methods as to how we can continue to search for such emissions.

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How Many Intergalactic Radio Stations Are Out There?

The Stephans Quintet captured by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Credit: NASA/ESA/CSA

It has been over sixty years since Dr. Frank Drake (father of the Drake Equation) and his colleagues mounted the first Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) survey. This was known as Project Ozma, which relied on the “Big Ear” radio telescope at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Greenbank, West Virginia, to look for signs of radio transmissions in Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani. Despite the many surveys conducted since then, no definitive evidence of technological activity (i.e., “technosignatures”) has been found.

This naturally raises the all-important question: are we going about the business of SETI wrong? Instead of looking for technosignatures within our galaxy, as all previous SETI surveys have done, should we look for activity beyond our galaxy (from possible Type II and Type III civilizations)? This premise was explored in a recent paper led by researchers from the National Chung Hsing University in Taiwan. Using data from the largest SETI project to date, Breakthrough Listen, the team looked for potential radio technosignatures from extragalactic sources.

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More Data and Machine Learning has Kicked SETI Into High Gear

Artist’s impression of Green Bank Telescope connected to a machine learning network. Credit: Breakthrough Listen/Danielle Futselaar.

For over sixty years, astronomers and astrophysicists have been engaged in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). This consists of listening to other star systems for signs of technological activity (or “technosignatures), such as radio transmissions. This first attempt was in 1960, known as Project Ozma, where famed SETI researcher Dr. Frank Drake (father of the Drake Equation) and his colleagues used the radio telescope at the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia to conduct a radio survey of Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani.

Since then, the vast majority of SETI surveys have similarly looked for narrowband radio signals since they are very good at propagating through interstellar space. However, the biggest challenge has always been how to filter out radio transmissions on Earth – aka. radio frequency interference (RFI). In a recent study, an international team led by the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics (DIAA) applied a new deep-learning algorithm to data collected by the Green Bank Telescope (GBT), which revealed eight promising signals that will be of interest to SETI initiatives like Breakthrough Listen.

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Astronomers Scanned 12 Planets for Alien Signals While They Were in Front of Their Stars

TOI 1338 b is a circumbinary planet orbiting its two stars. It was discovered by TESS. Image Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Chris Smith

The Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT), part of the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia, is the world’s premiere single-dish radio telescope. Between its 100-meter dish (328-foot), unblocked aperture, and excellent surface accuracy, the GBT provides unprecedented sensitivity in the millimeter to meter wavelengths – very high to extremely high frequency (VHF to EHF). Since 2017, it also became one of the main instruments used by Breakthrough Listen and other institutes engaged in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).

Recently, an international team of researchers from the SETI Institute, Breakthrough Listen, and multiple universities scanned twelve exoplanets for signs of technological activity (aka. “technosignatures”). Their observations were timed to coincide with the planets passing in front of their sun relative to the observer (i.e., making a transit). While the survey did not detect any definitive evidence of technosignatures, they did identify two radio signals of interest that warrant follow-up observation. This new technique could vastly expand the field of SETI and create all kinds of opportunities for future research.

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One of the World's Biggest Radio Telescopes is Hunting for Signals From Extraterrestrial Civilizations

Breakthrough Listen, a privately funded project seeking evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence, has started operations on the MeerKAT radio telescope array in South Africa. Over the next two years, the team will search over a million nearby stars, expanding the number of targets observed by a factor of 1000.

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