Yuri Milner’s Breakthrough Listen and MeerKAT Observatory Target One Million+ Stars in Technosignature Search

Are we alone in the Universe? Or is there life out there amongst the stars? Yuri Milner’s Breakthrough Listen is looking for answers, and, now, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has grown even larger thanks to the programme’s collaboration with the MeerKAT Observatory.

Listen is one of the Breakthrough Initiatives, a suite of ground-breaking science projects that represent part of Yuri Milner’s Giving Pledge commitment. The billionaire science philanthropist (and the mind behind Eureka Manifesto: The Mission for Our Civilisation) hopes this push to explore our Universe could help unite humanity towards a common goal.

Listening for a Sign

Since launching in 2015, Breakthrough Listen has been searching the skies for signs of alien life. Scientists hope to pick up a “technosignature,” a radio signal that could only be extraterrestrial in origin.

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While the programme already uses some of the world’s best telescopes, MeerKAT will increase Listen’s reach 1,000-fold. Stationed in a remote South African region, MeerKAT has a 64-dish array and is the largest telescope in the Southern Hemisphere. All this means a lot more sky and a lot more targets for Listen’s search.

“Such a large field of view typically contains many stars that are interesting technosignature targets,” Breakthrough Listen Principal Investigator Dr. Andrew Siemion explains.

He adds: “Our new supercomputer enables us to combine signals from the 64 dishes to get high-resolution scans of these targets with excellent sensitivity, all without impacting the research of other astronomers who are using the array.”

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It will take Listen two years to search over one million of our closest stars. The team has already decided that our nearest neighbour star, Proxima Centauri, will be amongst the first targets of the new search.

 

Exploring Our Universe

This isn’t the first time that the Breakthrough Initiatives’ scientists have shown interest in Proxima Centauri. In 2021, Breakthrough Watch announced the launch of a mission to monitor the star. Watch’s wider mission is to identify and examine planets in Alpha Centauri and other nearby star systems for “biosignatures” or signs of primitive life.

Watch acts as a bridge between Listen and another of the Breakthrough Initiatives, Starshot. The research and engineering project is developing a proof-of-concept fleet of interstellar probes capable of travelling 4.37 light years to Alpha Centauri.

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Aside from these research programmes, other Breakthrough Initiatives include Message, a competition to create communications that aliens could understand, and Discuss, an annual conference for academics.

Supporting Science Through the Giving Pledge

The Breakthrough Initiatives receive funding from the Breakthrough Foundation, an organisation that Yuri Milner and his wife Julia founded to follow through on their Giving Pledge commitment. The Milners joined the Giving Pledge back in 2012, promising to donate at least half of their wealth to important scientific causes.

Science is a subject close to Yuri Milner’s heart. In 2021, he published his Eureka Manifesto, a short book about humanity’s place in the wider Universe. In Eureka Manifesto, Yuri Milner describes how his fascination with the possibility of intelligent aliens began in his childhood.

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While Eureka Manifesto suggests that “somewhere out in the blackness of space, there may be eyes that see us,” we have to wait for Listen to discover alien signals to be sure. If all remains quiet, we may need to accept the idea that humanity is alone in the cosmos. As science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke said: “In either case the idea is quite staggering.”

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