Science

Search for ET to scan millions of stars

Astronomers listen out for intelligent radio signals from across the galaxy.

Radio astronomers have started scanning millions of stars in the biggest hunt yet for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence.

Scientists from the Breakthrough Listen project will spend more than two months searching for signals transmitted by alien civilisations across our galaxy, the Milky Way.

Using a powerful multibeam receiver, they will eavesdrop on millions of stars, not merely a chosen handful within a few light years of Earth.

BFI Fear And Wonder – London
‘Aliens’ outside the British Museum (Ian West/PA)

The receiver fitted to the Parkes radio telescope in New South Wales, Australia, can “listen” in 13 directions at once.

Each beam allows more than 100 million radio channels to be scanned, generating up to 130 gigabits of data per second – thousands of times the bandwidth of a fast home internet connection.

As well as scouring the galactic plane, the telescope will also point towards the Milky Way’s centre, which is densely packed with stars surrounding a supermassive black hole.

Project scientist Dr Danny Price, from the University of California at Berkeley, said: “With these new capabilities we are scanning our galaxy in unprecedented detail.

“By trawling through these huge datasets for signatures of technological civilisations, we hope to uncover evidence that our planet, among the hundreds of billions in our galaxy, is not the only one where intelligent life has arisen.”

Breakthrough Listen was launched in London in 2015 by Russian technology tycoon and billionaire Yuri Milner.

He was supported by celebrity cosmologist Professor Stephen Hawking, who died in March.

Listen, costing 100 million US dollars (£74 million), is one of a number of Breakthrough initiatives.

They also include Breakthrough Starshot, a bold plan to send a swarm of tiny laser-driven spacecraft to Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to Earth.

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