The Breakthrough Prize Foundation has signed a multi-million dollar agreement with CSIRO to use the organisation’s 64-m Parkes radio telescope in eastern Australia to search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
The search will use 25 per cent of the telescope’s time for five years from July 2016 and will return CSIRO the cost of operating the telescope during the observations as well as contributing to an upgrade of the data systems used for this and other science.
The deal was announced in London today [Monday 20 July] at a ceremony involving cosmologist Stephen Hawking, Astronomer Royal Lord Martin Rees, SETI pioneer Frank Drake, Ann Druyan and Internet investor Yuri Milner, who is funding the project through the Milner Global Foundation. The Breakthrough Prize Foundation will administer the project.
“Parkes is one of the world’s premier big dishes, with the outstanding ability to detect weak signals that a search like this requires,” said Dr Lewis Ball, Director of CSIRO’s Astronomy and Space Science division.
“We are thrilled to be part of this global effort, which exploits the huge advances that have been made in computation and signal processing since people first started hunting for ET.
“By taking part we’ll also free up other funding to ensure the continuation of Parkes’s world-leading research on gravitational waves and the new-found ‘fast radio bursts’.”
The Parkes observations are part of a larger set of initiatives to search for life in the Universe to which the Milner Global Foundation is committing US$100 million over ten years.
The ET hunters will also use time on the Green Bank telescope in West Virginia, operated by the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory, and a telescope at the University of California’s Lick Observatory. More telescopes may join the project in future.
The search will target the nearest million stars in our galaxy, the plane of our galaxy, and another 100 galaxies.
It will be 50 times more sensitive than previous searches for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), covering ten times more sky and scanning at least five times more of the radio spectrum – and doing so 100 times faster than previously possible.
Parkes has contributed to SETI searches before. In 1995 the California-based SETI Institute used the telescope for six months for its Project Phoenix search.
In another project requiring significant telescope time, Parkes was contracted to track spacecraft around Mars in 2003 and 2004 when NASA needed extra receiving facilities.
“That project reduced the time available to other observers but resulted in upgrades to some of the telescope’s systems, upgrades that have benefited all Parkes users since,” Dr Ball said.
Professor Matthew Bailes, ARC Laureate Fellow at the Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, will be the Australian lead of the SETI observing team using the Parkes telescope.
“The petaflop signal processing system we’ll develop in partnership will our collaborators at Berkeley and CSIRO will use the latest technologies to harness the power of the huge radio spectrum available to us,” he said.
“It will be possible to not only search for aliens, but also naturally-occurring astrophysical phenomena at the same time. We’re thrilled to be part of this extraordinary project.“
Citizen-science project [email protected] will help to process the data and a team from the University of California Berkeley will analyse it.
All data will be shared with the public, making this the largest data-sharing science project in the world.
The Breakthrough Prize Foundation’s connection with Australia began last year, when the Australian National University’s Professor Brian Schmidt and colleagues were awarded the $3m 2014 Breakthrough Prize for their discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe, work that had also netted them the 2011 Nobel Prize.
“The discovery of life on extrasolar planets would fundamentally change how humanity views its place in the Universe,” Professor Schmidt said.
“The Breakthrough Prize Foundation’s investment in the Parkes radio telescope will not only enable a search for extraterrestrial intelligence, it will also keep ‘the Dish’ at the forefront of international astronomy research for many years to come.
“I’m really excited that Australia can contribute so significantly to this endeavour.”