Is it a multimedia art project? Or a rehearsal for alien contact? Let’s call it both: Researchers specializing in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, are working with a media artist to stage the receipt of an interstellar message — and a global effort to decode the message.
Everyone loves taking pictures of the Moon. Whether it’s with their phones or through the wonders of astrophotography, photographing the Moon reminds us about the wonders and awesomeness of the universe. But while we can take awesome images of the whole Moon from the Earth, it’s extremely difficult to get close-up images of its surface given the enormous distance we are from our nearest celestial neighbor at 384,400 km (238,855 mi). This is because the closer we try to zoom in on its surface, the blurrier, or more pixelated, the images become. Essentially, the resolution of the images becomes worse and worse. But what if we could take high-resolution images of the Moon’s surface from Earth instead of relying on satellites presently in lunar orbit to take them for us?
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.
Black holes are gluttonous behemoths that lurk in the center of galaxies. Almost everybody knows that nothing can escape them, not even light. So when anything made of simple matter gets too close, whether a planet, a star or a gas cloud, it’s doomed.
But the black hole doesn’t eat it at once. It plays with its food like a fussy kid. Sometimes, it spews out light.
When the black hole is not only at the center of a galaxy but the center of a cluster of galaxies, these burps and jets carve massive cavities out of the hot gas at the center of the cluster called radio bubbles.
In the near future, CHIME will be getting an expansion that will help it more accurately identify where FRBs are coming from. This will consist of a new radio telescope outrigger located at the SETI Institute’s Hat Creek Radio Observatory (HCRO), new outriggers near Princeton, British Columbia, and at the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia. These will work with the main CHIME telescope to localize CHIME-detected FRBs precisely in the night sky.
In February 2016, Gravitational Waves (GWs) were detected for the first time in history. This discovery confirmed a prediction made by Albert Einstein over a century ago and triggered a revolution in astronomy. Since then, dozens of GW events have been detected from various sources, ranging from black hole mergers, neutron star mergers, or a combination thereof. As the instruments used for GW astronomy become more sophisticated, the ability to detect more events (and learn more from them) will only increase.
For instance, an international team of astronomers recently detected a series of low-frequency gravitational waves using the International Pulsar Timing Array (IPTA). These waves, they determined, could be the early signs of a background gravitational wave signal (BGWS) caused by pairs of supermassive black holes. The existence of this background is something that astrophysicists have theorized since GWs were first detected, making this a potentially ground-breaking discovery!
Observational astronomy is dependent on its data, and therefore also dependent on the instruments that collect that data. So when one of those instruments fails it is a blow to the profession as a whole. The collapse of the Arecibo Telescope last year after it was damaged by Hurricane Maria in 2017 permanently deprived the radio astronomy world of one of its primary observational tools. Now a team at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) hopes to upgrade an existing telescope at the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia to replace the failed Puerto Rican one and provide even more precise images of near Earth objects in the radio spectrum.
When a star reaches the end of its life cycle, it will blow off its outer layers in a fiery explosion known as a supernova. Where less massive stars are concerned, a white dwarf is what will be left behind. Similarly, any planets that once orbited the star will also have their outer layers blown off by the violent burst, leaving behind the cores behind.
For decades, scientists have been able to detect these planetary remnants by looking for the radio waves that are generated through their interactions with the white dwarf’s magnetic field. According to new research by a pair of researchers, these “radio-loud” planetary cores will continue to broadcast radio signals for up to a billion years after their stars have died, making them detectable from Earth.
In 2016, Russian-Israeli billionaire Yuri Milner launched Breakthrough Initiatives, a massive non-profit organization dedicated to the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI). A key part of their efforts to find evidence of intelligent life is Breakthrough Listen, a $100 million program that is currently conducting a survey of one million of the nearest stars and the 100 nearest galaxies.
In keeping with their commitment to making the results of their surveys available to the public, the Listen team recently submitted two papers to leading astrophysical journals. These papers describe the analysis of Listen’s first three years of radio observations which resulted in a petabyte of radio and optical data, the single largest release of SETI data in the history of the field.
In July of 2015, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner announced the creation of Breakthrough Listen, a decade-long project that would conduct the largest survey to date for signs of extra-terrestrial communications (ETI). As part of his non-profit organization, Breakthrough Initiatives, this survey would rely on the latest in instrumentation and software to observe the 1,000,000 closest stars and 100 closest galaxies.
Using the Green Bank Radio Telescope in West Virginia, the Listen science team at UC Berkeley has been observing distant stars for over a year now. And less than a week ago, they observed 15 Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) coming from a dwarf galaxy located three billion light-years away. According to a study that described their findings, this was the first time that repeating FRBs have been seen coming from this source at these frequencies.
To clarify, FRBs are brief, bright pulses of radio waves that are periodically detected coming from distant galaxies. This strange astronomical phenomena was first detected in 2007 by Duncan Lorimer and David Narkovic using the Parkes Telescope in Australia. To honor their discovery, FRBs are sometimes referred to as “Lorimer Bursts”. Many FRB sources have been confirmed since then, some of which were found repeating.
The source known as FRB 121101 was discovered back on November 2nd, 2012, by astronomers using the Arecibo radio telescope. At the time, it was the first FRB to be discovered; and by 2015, it became the first FRB to be seen repeating. This effectively ruled out the possibility that repeating FRBs were caused by catastrophic events, which had previously been theorized.
And in 2016, FRB 121102 was the first FRB to have its location pinpointed to such a degree that its host galaxy could be identified. As such, the Listen science team at UC Berkeley was sure to add FRB 121102 to their list of targets. And in the early hours of Saturday, August 26th, Dr. Vishal Gajjar – a postdoctoral researcher at UC Berkeley – observed FRB 121102 using the Green Bank Radio Telescope (GBRT) in West Virginia.
Using the Digital Backend instrument on the GBRT, Dr. Gajjar and the Listen team observed FRB 121102 for five hours. From this, they accumulating 400 terabytes of data in the entire 4 to 8 GHz frequency band which they then analyzed for signs of short pulses over a broad range of frequencies. What they found was evidence of 15 new pulses coming from FRB 121102, which confirmed that it was in a newly active state.
In addition, their observations revealed that the brightest of these 15 emissions occurred at around 7 GHz. This was higher than any repeating FRBs seen to date, which indicated for the first time that they can occur at frequencies higher than previously thought. Last, but not least, the high-resolution data the Listen team collected is expected to yield valuable insights into FRBs for years to come.
This was made possible thanks to the Digital Backend instrument on the GBRT, which is able to record several GHz of bandwidth simultaneously and split the information into billions of individuals channels. This enables scientists to study the proprieties and the frequency spectrum of FRBs with greater precision, and should lead to new theories about the causes of these radio emissions.
So even if these particular signals should prove to not be an indication of extra-terrestrial intelligence, Listen is still pushing the boundaries of what is possible with radio astronomy. And given that Breakthrough Listen is less than two years into its proposed ten-year survey, we can expect many more sources to be observed and studied in the coming years. If there’s evidence of ETI to be found, we’re sure to find out about it sooner or later!
And be sure to check out this video of the Green Bank Telescope and the surveys it allows for, courtesy of Berkeley SETI: