03Nov2019

Breakthrough Listen and NASA Join To Look for Signs of ET

This week, the non-profit research organization Breakthrough Listen announced that it was entering into a partnership with scientists from the NASA Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission.

Artist Illustration of TESS and its 4 telescopes. Credit: NASA/MIT

Artist concept of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite and its four wide-field cameras. Credit: NASA/MIT

This new collaboration will direct the resources of the former with data and expertise of the latter to the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI) like never before! The announcement was made during the 70th International Astronautical Congress, which took place last week in Washington, DC. This annual conference, which is hosted by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), sees scientists and experts from many nations come together to discuss the latest developments in the fields of space exploration, research, and technology.

This recently-formed collaboration brings together two powerhouses in the fields of SETI. Launched in April of 2018, the TESS mission will use its four wide-field cameras to observe 85% of the sky in search of lightcurves. In essence, this consists of monitoring thousands of stars at a time for periodic dips in brightness, which could be indications of planets passing in front of them (aka. transiting) relative to the observer.

This effort will be led by TESS Deputy Science Director and MIT Professor Sara Seager; Pete Worden, Executive Director of Breakthrough Initiatives; and Dr. Andrew Seimion, the Principal Investigator of Breakthrough Listen. “We are very enthusiastic about joining the Breakthrough Listen SETI search,” said Prof. Sara Seager. “Out of all the exoplanet endeavors, only SETI holds the promise for identifying signs of intelligent life.”

By conducting follow-up studies of exoplanets identified by TESS, Breakthrough Listen will attempt to discern “technosignatures” that are possible indications of intelligent life. These, by definition, are identifiable signatures that indicate the presence of technological activity. The most well-researched of these has been radio transmissions, but nothing definitive has been found to date.

However, as Dr. Worden remarked, that could change thanks to this new collaborative relationship:

“It’s exciting that the world’s most powerful SETI search, with our partner facilities across the globe, will be collaborating with the TESS team and our most capable planet-hunting machine. We’re looking forward to working together as we try to answer one of the most profound questions about our place in the Universe: Are we alone?”

While previous missions like the Kepler Space Telescope are responsible for the majority of the over 4000 exoplanets that have been discovered to date, TESS is expected to find as many as 10,000 new planets. This is due to TESS’ more-sensitive instruments, which are capable of measuring the lightcurves of 20,000 stars every 2 minutes.

The Parkes Telescope in New South Wales, Australia. Credit: Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis

One of the benefits that TESS brings to the table is the ability to study planets that are considerably closer to Earth than those viewed by Kepler, thus enabling the searches for fainter transmissions. Another is the fact that TESS instruments can only detect planets edge-on, which presents advantages when it comes to the search for radio transmissions.

On Earth, roughly 70% of the radio leakage is emitted from the plane of Earth’s orbit (i.e. around the equator). If the same holds true for radio transmitters that are extraterrestrial in origin, observing systems edge-on betters our chances of detecting them. Meanwhile, Breakthrough Listen will be bringing the most sensitive, comprehensive, and intensive search for advanced life to the table. Source: – Universe Today

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