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Alien hunters, NASA team up to scan planets for signs of intelligent life

The teams behind TESS and the Breakthrough Listen SETI search are collaborating to look for nearby "technosignatures."

NASA's TESS scans the sky to find planets and now the worlds it finds will be checked for "technosignatures."

Hundreds of the nearest, newfound exoplanets will soon be scanned for evidence of intelligent life, thanks to a collaboration between leading SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) scientists and NASA's newest planet-hunting satellite. 

The Breakthrough Listen SETI initiative, based out of the University of California, Berkeley, announced Wednesday that it'll be teaming up with scientists working on the Transiting Expolanet Survey Satellite, the successor to the Kepler Space Telescope that launched in 2018.

"We are very enthusiastic about joining the Breakthrough Listen SETI search," TESS Deputy Science Director and MIT Professor Sara Seager said in a release. "Out of all the exoplanet endeavors only SETI holds the promise for identifying signs of intelligent life."

The collaboration will add over a thousand new "objects of interest" identified by TESS to the Breakthrough Listen target list. Breakthrough Listen's search then makes use of some of the most advanced observatories around the world including the Green Bank and Parkes radio telescopes, MeerKAT and the SETI Institute's Allen telescope array. 

Listen's observations will then be analyzed to check for signs of "technosignatures" -- signals generated by technologies from advanced civilizations such as transmitters, propulsion devices or other forms of intelligent engineering. 

Breakthrough Listen has already checked a number of intriguing targets for signs of smarts, including the interstellar visitors Oumuamua and Borisov, as well as weird dimming stars where some have suggested alien megastructures could exist. So far, all targets have come back negative.

"The discovery by the Kepler spacecraft of Boyajian's Star, an object with wild, and apparently random, variations in its lightcurve, sparked great excitement and a range of possible explanations, of which megastructures were just one," said Dr. Andrew Siemion, leader of the Breakthrough Listen science team. "Followup observations have suggested that dust particles in orbit around the star are responsible for the dimming, but studies of anomalies like this are expanding our knowledge of astrophysics, as well as casting a wider net in the search for technosignatures."

TESS is expected to find up to 10,000 new planets, many of them considerably closer to Earth than those spotted by Kepler. This means that Listen's technosignature searches could be able to identify more faint transmissions than on more distant planets.

So keep your earbuds handy, we could soon be listening to alien low-power FM broadcasts. 

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Originally published Oct. 23, 10:35 a.m. PT.