Arthur J. Villasanta – Fourth Estate Contributor
San Francisco, CA, United States (4E) – Breakthrough Listen, the initiative to find signs of intelligent life in the Universe, has begun a survey of millions of stars located in the Galactic Plane of our galaxy using the CSIRO Parkes Radio Telescope in New South Wales, Australia.
Listen observations at Parkes began in November 2016, and targeted a sample consisting mostly of stars within a few light years of Earth. Now, observations have expanded to cover a huge swath of the Milky Way visible from Parkes. The Galactic Plane is the plane on which the majority of a disk-shaped galaxy’s mass lies.
The expanded survey is made possible by new capabilities installed at Parkes by Breakthrough Listen, specifically new digital instrumentation capable of recording the huge data rates from the Parkes “multibeam” receiver. Previous receivers used by Listen only observed a single point on the sky at a time, and were used to perform a detailed search of stars near to the Sun for evidence of extraterrestrial technology.
In contrast, the new multibeam receiver has 13 beams, enabling a fast survey of large areas of the sky, covering all of the Galactic Plane visible from the site. In addition to the plane of the Milky Way, observations also cover a region around the Galactic Center, capturing data on one of the densest neighborhoods in the galaxy.
This region contains a supermassive black hole surrounded by tens of millions of stars within just a few light years’ distance of the center. The chaotic environment at the very center of the galaxy is probably not well suited to the emergence of life as we know it. The region surveyed by Breakthrough Listen, however, covers a huge slice of the Milky Way, containing tens of billions of stars, including many that lie between us and the galaxy’s heart.
The new digital instrumentation installed by scientists and engineers from the University of California, Berkeley SETI Research Center (BSRC), expands the existing Breakthrough Listen back-end so it can now handle 130 gigabits per second — or thousands of times the bandwidth of even a fast home Internet connection. This represents over 100 million radio channels scanned for each of the 13 beams, ans is one of the most comprehensive SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) experiments carried out to date.
The survey commits the Parkes telescope to 1,500 hours of observations in 2018, resulting in raw data volumes totalling almost 100 petabytes. Data will then be searched for signals that have indications of artificial origin. The vast majority of such signals come from human-generated radio frequency interference (RFI) — satellites, airplanes, cellphones, and the like — and discriminating between RFI and signals of interest is the major challenge facing any SETI search. In addition to the search pipeline implemented by the BSRC team, Listen invites all those with the relevant technical expertise to contribute to developing signal detection and classification algorithms.
The multibeam receiver also enables better rejection of RFI by allowing signals originating from Earthbound technology (typically appearing in multiple beams at once) to be distinguished from signals of interest that may be coming from distant points on the sky. Simultaneously, the Breakthrough Listen data will be searched for signatures of fast radio bursts (FRBs), which are mysterious and powerful flashes of radio light seen by other experiments at Parkes, as well as by Listen’s instrument on the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia.
“With these new capabilities, we are scanning our Galaxy in unprecedented detail,” said Danny Price, Parkes Project Scientist with the Breakthrough Listen project at UC Berkeley. “By trawling through these huge datasets for signatures of technological civilizations, we hope to uncover evidence that our planet, among the hundreds of billions in our galaxy, is not the only where intelligent life has arisen.”
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