Search for aliens started by Zuckerberg, Hawking ramps up

The Breakthrough Listen initiative to look for signs of smarts in space has dramatically expanded to include millions more stars across the Milky Way.

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Eric Mack
2 min read

An upgrade to the Parkes Radio Telescope has boosted the effort to intercept calls from E.T.

CSIRO/David McClenaghan

The Breakthrough Listen initiative, an effort backed Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to find signs of alien intelligence, just got way better hearing aids. 

The project, which also had support from legendary physicist Steven Hawking, has begun a new push to survey millions of stars in the Milky Way for signals picked up by extraterrestrial technology. The expansion takes advantage of a hardware upgrade at the Parkes Radio Telescope in Australia that lets astronomers scan larger areas of the sky quickly and in more detail. 

The Listen project has been using the Parkes telescope for observations over the past year and a half, but had been limited to targeting just a small sample of stars within a relatively short distance from Earth. 

The new hardware will allow the system to process 130 gigabits per second of observational data from deep space. The project is signed up for 1,500 hours of observation time with the Parkes telescope for 2018, which could result in the collection of almost 100 petabytes of raw data (that's over 5 million HD movies). 

All that data will then be archived, open sourced, analyzed and searched for signs of E.T. phoning home ... or anyplace else. 

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"With these new capabilities ... we are scanning our galaxy in unprecedented detail," project scientist Danny Price from UC Berkeley said in a statement. "By trawling through these huge datasets for signatures of technological civilizations, we hope to uncover evidence that our planet, among the hundreds of billions in our galaxy, is not the only where intelligent life has arisen."   

Breakthrough Listen is a $100 million effort to search the Milky Way and nearby galaxies for evidence of advanced civilizations and technology.  It was launched in 2015 by Zuckerberg, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and the late Hawking. 

The project has already looked into mysterious signals called "fast radio bursts," odd blips from a distant star system and checked that the first interstellar object to visit our solar system wasn't actually an alien ship of some sort (no signs of life were detected).

Breakthrough Listen hasn't picked up on any alien signals just yet, but perhaps that will change now that its "ear" just became much bigger and more sensitive.

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