Search for alien life on 86 planets

2011-05-14 14:47

Washington - A massive radio telescope in rural West Virginia has begun listening for signs of alien life on 86 possible Earth-like planets, US astronomers said on Friday.

The giant dish began this week pointing toward each of the 86 planets - culled from a list of 1 235 possible planets identified by Nasa's Kepler space telescope - and will gather 24 hours of data on each one.

"It's not absolutely certain that all of these stars have habitable planetary systems, but they're very good places to look for ET," said University of California at Berkeley graduate student Andrew Siemion.

The mission is part of the SETI project, which stands for Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, launched in the mid 1980s.

Last month the SETI Institute announced it was shuttering a major part of its efforts - a $50m project with 42 telescope dishes known as the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) - due to a $5m budget shortfall.

ATA began in 2007 and was operated in partnership by the UC Berkeley Radio Astronomy Lab, which has hosted several generations of such experiments. It was funded by the SETI Institute and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

With ATA's dishes in hibernation for now, astronomers hope the powerful Green Bank Telescope, a previous incarnation of which was felled in a windstorm in 1988, will provide targeted information about potential life-supporting planets.

Wider range

"Our search employs the largest fully steerable radio telescope on the planet, and the most sensitive radio telescope in the world capable of undertaking a SETI search of this kind," Siemion told AFP.

"We will be looking at a much wider range of frequencies and signal types than has ever been possible before," he added, describing the instrumentation as "at the very cutting edge of radio astronomy technology."

The telescope can record nearly one gigabyte of data per second, Siemion said.

The 7.7 million kilogram telescope became operational in 2000 and is a project of the NSF's National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

"We've picked out the planets with nice temperatures - between zero and 100°C - because they are a lot more likely to harbour life," said physicist Dan Werthimer.

Werthimer heads a three-decade long SETI project in Puerto Rico, home of the world's largest radio telescope, Arecibo. However, that project could not observe the same area of the northern sky as the Green Bank telescope, he said.

"With Arecibo, we focus on stars like our Sun, hoping that they have planets around them that emit intelligent signals," Werthimer said in a statement.

"But we've never had a list of planets like this before."

The Green Bank Telescope can scan 300 times the range of frequencies that Arecibo could, meaning that it can collect the same amount of data in one day that Arecibo could in one year.

The project will likely take about a year to complete, and will be helped by a team of one million at-home astronomers, known as SETI@home users, who will help process the data on personal computers.

  • Grunk - 2011-05-14 15:30

    Why don't they just accept that there has to be life somewhere? I mean, come on, we have 1000 000 000 stars in our own Galaxy alone. Why not spend all the money involved in this and other similar projects and get on with building some decent interstellar or at least spacecraft which can get us to the next planet for a start. If we can get to that stage, by then surely we should be technically advanced enough to identify 10's of 1000's of potential targets - not just a measly 1000 or so.

      cj - 2011-05-16 01:09

      Interstellar travel is not technically possible now and will not be for at least decades and probably centuries. It's difficuilt to grasp the distances involved. The closest start to us is 4.2 light years away. That is 39 732 000 000 000km. The fastest thing we ever built was the Helios 2 Probe travelling at 73000km/h. That gives us 62 000 years of travel time to the closest star with the fastest man made thing we ever built. To put it in perspective. If Alexander the Great (in 350BC) would have launched a spacecraft capable of travelling at 73000km/h, it would now be a 26th of the way to the closest star. Even if we would be able to build a ship now that would take 1000 years, chanches are in 100 years time we will build one that will take 800 years, arriving 100 years before the first ship. Best to wait till technology catches up. The best we can do for now is listen, watch and wait.

      stephen scott - 2011-05-16 15:20

      good idea to listen first, so we can go to the right, one, if inter stellar travel is ever possible. It might not be.

      cromagnon - 2011-05-16 16:25

      Science mate, without proof, unfortunately, we are as good as alone.

      charles.ash - 2012-07-03 18:50

      I think that when we reach the point of the technological singularity, concepts like time, distance and the like will become moot points as man will have the possibility of becoming immortal (I'm talking consciousness uploading, greater-than-human-intelligence machines, etc...). Go to and search for "The technological singularity" fiction is on the verge of becoming science fact.

  • kidblack - 2011-05-14 16:25

    there is definitely life out there. but is it intelligent? is it communicating? I think this approach is much better since they first identify probable systems then listen for comms... unlike the old (now shut down) SETI project that just scanned endlessly in general locations.

      Grunk - 2011-05-14 16:55

      |'m not really interested in whether its intelligent or not as much as whether there's somewhere else which man can use as a back up sometime along the line.

  • AntiGerman - 2011-05-14 23:31

    even if we do find another planet that can support life, we will never be able to travel fast enough to get there. Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, so even if we could reach that speed, it would stil take five years to reach the nearest star to the earth, and then it would take another five years for the radio signal to reach earth to tell them that we got there

      CapeTownJunk - 2011-05-16 09:01

      It's not just about going fast. The faster you go, the harder it is to slow down and stop. So speed is a double-edged sword.

  • Carolyn - 2011-05-15 17:03

    Pity they dont look closer to home, they are living here with us already.

  • Jakob - 2011-05-15 20:14

    i found 3, they called zuma, malema, and obama . rare races, but when getting contact with any living being it multiply x 666 . kill on site.

  • cj - 2011-05-16 01:12

    If we do find intelligent life, and they observe us for a while, will the see us as intelligent?

      stephen scott - 2011-05-16 15:21

      let's search for intelligent life on earth first.

  • cromagnon - 2011-05-16 16:24

    Pity they can only search for life that has the abaility to produce radio waves. The difference between being intelligent and technologically advanced may be a problem, they are probably looking for the latter.

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