Is there intelligent life on other planets? And if so, how can we detect it in the vastness of space? For the research project “Breakthrough Listen”, data from a space telescope are now being searched for signals from extraterrestrial beings. The alien search is financed by the Israeli investor and billionaire Yuri Milner and his wife Julia, the project is said to cost 100 million US dollars (about 95 million euros). Breakthrough Listen uses the technology of the MeerKAT radio telescope in South Africa. The telescope and a special “supercomputer” will be used to pick up signals that indicate the presence of another form of intelligence on distant planets.
The MeerKAT telescope is located in the Karoo region, a sparsely populated semi-desert landscape. It consists of 64 large antennas that receive electromagnetic waves from space. These can be converted into high-resolution images of distant galaxies. The MeerKAT was not built to search for extraterrestrials, but to explore space and its formation more closely. According to a statement from the initiative, the researchers at Breakthrough Lists have spent the past three years developing a new technical instrument. This should allow the data received by MeerKAT to be specifically evaluated for signs of extraterrestrial life.
These could be indications of technologies in space that are not of human origin: such as artificial light and energy sources on another planet or alien satellite technology. Or even a “first contact” signal that was deliberately sent by another intelligence in order to make itself felt by us. Such possible traces in space are called technosignatures.
Research has shifted to the private sector
The data from other space telescopes are already being scanned for technological signatures as part of “breakthrough lists”, attempts are being made to detect laser radiation in space or to listen to messages from extraterrestrials. According to one of the leading researchers, Andrew Siemion, one of the leading researchers expects a lot from the MeerKAT data opinion. With its 64 antenna dishes, the MeerKAT telescope can capture a section of the sky that is 50 times larger than, for example, the “Green Bank Telescope” in the USA. “Such a large area usually contains many stars, which are interesting targets for the search for technosignatures,” says Siemion. 1000 times more objects than before could now be examined, shared “Breakthrough Listen”. In just two years, it will be possible to study more than a million stars at a distance of up to 250 light-years from Earth.
There is something fantastic about the search for techno signatures. The big space agencies are also looking for traces of life on Mars or the moon. However, it is mostly about biological signatures: indications that some form of life was or is possible there. In contrast, the search for a technosignature assumes that intelligent extraterrestrial beings exist, just like in a science fiction movie. The search for techno signatures is therefore also referred to as the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (Seti).
Anyone who believes that an extraterrestrial intelligence uses technologies similar to ours also assumes that the extraterrestrials themselves must be very similar to us. This is one of the reasons why Seti research, which has existed since the 1960s, has increasingly shifted to the private sector. It no longer plays a major role in the work of the major space agencies. In 1992, Nasa had planned the last major Seti project, but this was canceled by the American Senate a year later.
Signal caused a false alarm
No evidence for the existence of intelligent extraterrestrials has been found since the beginning of Seti research in the 1960s. But there were false alarms. In 1965, for example, the Russian astronomer Nikolai Kardashev used a radio antenna to detect an unusual signal that was later named “CTA-102”. Kardashev suspected that it could have come from aliens. “It appeared as if it was trying to draw attention to itself,” the astronomer reportedly noted at the time. The Russian news agency TASS announced that extraterrestrial intelligence had been discovered, and a press conference was even held. In fact, two American astronomers had already identified the signal a year earlier as a quasar – the active nucleus of a distant galaxy radiating large amounts of energy.
In 1977, as part of a Seti research project, a powerful and absolutely unusual signal was received from space using Ohio State University’s “Big Ear” telescope. The astrophysicist Jerry R. Ehmann, who was the first to discover it, spontaneously wrote a “wow” next to the data series, which is why the signal is still called the wow signal today. Ehmann and some other Seti researchers thought it possible at the time that Wow contained an encrypted message from extraterrestrials. However, they could not break it down and the origin was never clarified.
Decades later, the theory emerged that the signal was caused by comets flying past the Earth particularly quickly. However, there are still researchers who believe it could have been sent by extraterrestrial beings. One just came out this year new studyaccording to which there could be Earth-like planets in the direction from which the wow signal came, but 1800 light-years from Earth.
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There have been no successes so far
Since there has been no real success in the search for techno signatures, some Seti researchers are calling for sending messages into space themselves. Similar to Seti research, the science is called Meti (Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence). As early as 1974, the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico sent a signal from Earth into space containing encoded information about people and life on Earth. Since the signal from 1974 has so far remained without feedback, there is currently a new attempt.
An international team led by NASA researcher Jonathan H. Jiang has jointly developed a new message that they would like to send into space. The message should be written in binary code. Among other things, it should contain information about life on Earth and the position of our solar system in the Milky Way, as well as digitized images of humans and a request for extraterrestrials to respond to our message. The researchers have dubbed their signal “The Beacon in the Galaxy” (BITG).
However, the sending of Meti messages is controversial. For example, star physicist Steven Hawking, who died in 2018 and a supporter of Seti research, always warned against sending such messages. It is to be feared that another form of intelligence that is too similar to humanity will become aware of us. This could then come up with the idea of flying to Earth to exploit it, according to Hawking.