Anyone out there? DUT students detect alien source

2008-08-05 00:00

A DURBAN lecturer and his students have detected a radio source, possibly from an alien source, from beyond the solar system with the aid of their specially built radio telescope.

Last week, the Indlebe Radio Telescope, situated on the Steve Biko campus of the Durban University of Technology, successfully detected its first radio source.

The Indlebe Radio Telescope is a transit instrument that operates at the Hydrogen Line frequency of 1420 MHZ and uses a very sensitive radio receiver to detect extraterrestrial radio signals.

Stuart MacPherson, project leader in Electronic Engineering at the university, said he and his students were amazed when they realised the telescope had picked up a signal.

“We had made significant changes to the receiver to increase its sensitivity.

“When we went in that morning to check the data, we found that it had detected a source,” he said.

On whether there is alien life out there, MacPherson laughed and said there is hope and a possibility that the radio signal could be generated by an alien source.

He said a strong electro-magnetic source was detected in Sagittarius A, which lies in the centre of the Milky Way.

“It’s unbelievable. It’s definitely a great relief for us because now we know that the radio telescope works. The students were excited and shocked at the same time,” he said.

MacPherson said there are plans to improve the telescope.

“It’s still early days, but we will move on to bigger things. We are going to increase the sensitivity of the system. The radio telescope will be used for years to come,” he added.

He said that the detection of the source is a significant step for the students, as all the hardware — the antenna and feed horn, the final analog and the digital converter providing a digital representation of the detected source to a PC — has been designed and constructed on campus.

“It is intended that the received data will shortly be made available in real time to interested persons who will be able to graph the data using freely available software,” he said.

MacPherson said that the Indlebe project was started in 2006 by the Department of Electronic Engineering to attract high school pupils to the department and to give undergraduate and postgraduate students an opportunity to work on a real-world, complex electronic system.

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