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Breakthrough Listen adds southern hemisphere telescope to extraterrestrial listening campaign

Breakthrough Listen has added the MeerKAT telescope in South Africa to its extraterrestrial listening campaign, thereby expanding the campaign to cover almost the entire sky.

Breakthrough Listen’s MeerKAT survey will examine a million individual stars – 1,000 times the number of targets in any previous search – in the quietest part of the radio spectrum, monitoring for signs of extraterrestrial technology. With the addition of MeerKAT’s observations to its existing surveys, Listen will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in parallel with other surveys. “Collaborating with MeerKAT will significantly enhance the capabilities of Breakthrough Listen”, said Yuri Milner, founder of the Breakthrough Initiatives. “This is now a truly global project.”

Built and operated by the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), and inaugurated in July 2018, MeerKAT is a powerful array of 64 radio antennas in the remote Karoo Desert of South Africa. By partnering with SARAO, Breakthrough Listen gains access to one of the world’s premier observing facilities at radio wavelengths. Signals from the 64 dishes (each 13.5 meters in diameter) are combined electronically to yield an impressive combination of sensitivity, resolution and field of view on the sky. MeerKAT also serves as a precursor for the Square Kilometre Array, which will expand and enhance the current facility in the coming decades, eventually spanning a million square meters across South Africa and Australia to create by far the world’s largest radio telescope.

They have also widened their approach. They are not simply looking for intelligent radio communications, they are looking for any signs of technology.

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  • Nick P

    How does this compare to the SETI project?

  • Andrew

    I used to run SETI analytics software on my computer. Back in the 90s it sounded like fun to run it and see what it could find in all that white noise generated by the universe at large.

    Then I saw this.

    This article was not the first time I heard of this. In the above article, the scientists is noted for having been involved with this study for 17 years. My first exposure to the idea was around 2000.

    So here is the essential problems with listening for radio wave evidence of alien civilizations.
    At best all we will see is a snap shot of some civilization from decades or even centuries earlier. Very Old News indeed. Second, The quantum entanglement aspect of all of this does create the very real possibility of Faster Than Light Communications. Better than that, since all you need to transmit are two states, one state for ZERO and the other for ONE, you have the foundations for DIGITAL FTL communications. Other articles are appearing, such as this,

    Teleportation is mis-used here horribly but it makes the point that this is no longer theory. It is experimentally demonstrated and usable tech.

    Humanity has been using radio waves for communications since 1874. Less than 150 years, and we are already beginning the transition to FTL comms. This is largely driven by two problems. The Speed of Light has become a barrier to building faster desktop computers. It just takes too danged long for an electrical impulse to travel from one side of a motherboard to the other. The second issue is controlling deep space probes and roves. As close as Mars is, astronomically speaking, it takes Twenty Minutes to get a signal to Mars, and another Twenty Minutes to get the confirmation that the signal was received. Way too long.

    Thus, FTL comms will, and I’ll make the prediction, be a reality by 2074, just two hundred years after Marconi’s first signals were broadcast.

    This is what it means to SETI, Picture and expanding annulus of radio wave communications only two hundred light years wide. Now picture that going by the Earth 300 years ago. Yep… OOPS we missed it. Let’s just imagine that it is quite normal to have FTL comms. with two hundred years of inventing radio communications. This would mean that radio communications will only be available from any given civilization for two hundred years. In the long existence and distances of the Milky Way Galaxy alone that is the equivalent of an eye blink.

    So as far as I can figure, SETI is really silly. They are spending a fortune in order to listen for or watch for an “eye blink”. Worse: that “eye blink” is so transitory that catching it happen might even be more unlikely than actually finding the God Particle.

    Conclusion: Listening for radio wave communications from Aliens is a complete waste of time and money. It is a totally useless endeavor that will never produce anything other than a conclusion that, “Once upon a time there was a Civilization in the universe that used radio wave communications like Human Beings do.”

  • wayne

    very interesting stuff.

    -I would however, quibble with you, over the faster-than-light thing’; entanglement doesn’t lead to FTL communications.
    (Can’t readily find exact relevant links, but I’m thinking it’s covered in “Susskind, ER=ERP,” (?) and others.)

    -It is possible however, for space itself, to expand faster than light.
    (In the distant future, the only galaxy we will be able to see is M31 cuz’ it’s heading right for us, everything else will eventually escape beyond our light horizon and we won’t be able to see it.)

    I do think the search is worthwhile (to a degree), however at best we could only detect the carrier-waves and will never be able to extract any content. ( from our end, no aliens are watching the Lucy Show, at best they could only detect carrier waves and not content, and since we’ve essentially cut drastically down on high-power TV broadcasting, it’s going to be confined to radio carrier waves from 50K watt “blowtorches.”

    Not a computer engineer (at all!), but if I recall correctly (?), a Cray supercomputer for example, doesn’t have any individual wires longer than something like 6-8 inches (?) which roughly equates to a nanosecond of light-travel time (?) {I’m mangling this, I know}
    The major problem with super-small architecture microchips– is quantum tunneling of the electrons. When you get below something like 10-20 nanometers (?), tunneling starts to happen randomly. (which leads to a whole different approach to error-correction)

    again— very interesting stuff! And i’d love to hear more about all of this.
    (take care!)


    A nice little short
    “How a Klystron Tube Works”

    “Developer of this model klystron tube Rudy Dehn explains how the high powered microwave device works. Dehn and others developed a better tube at GE Schenectady. This short video is an excerpt from a full video talking about the development of the device from 1936-1976.”

  • wayne

    tangential…but very interesting

    WLW’s 50,000 Watt Transmitters

    (last time they ran was during the millennium– no micro-chips or software to fail)

  • wodun

    Good points Andrew.

    It is tough to say for sure that it is a waste of time. We have detected gravitational waves, which are also time sensitive and looking at different human societies we can see either stagnation or failure to discover something other humans have. For example, not everyone that uses bows knew about fletching. But in any case, the discovery of alien life from this type of listening does look like a long shot.

    When it comes to wasting money, it is often subjective whether or not something is a waste. For me, it largely depends on where the money is coming from. I don’t care how other people spend their money. I care how other people spend my money ;-)

    Andrew, if you read this comment, could you tell us if SETI has had any unintended effects on research or business due to the technological, organizational, or some other “thing” that sprouted up out of SETI’s work?

  • Col Beausabre

    OK, so they’re going to run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, looking at 1 million stars. So when is their survey expected to end and give results?

    I’m a little bit slow here, how do you detect “technology” as opposed to background from thousands of light years away?

  • Andi


    Pretty close: c = 186,000 mi/sec (approx) * 5280 ft/mi * 1 sec/10^9 ns = 0.982 ft/ns

    I remember a Grace Hopper presentation where she displayed a wire about a foot long, saying “this is a nanosecond”, and a large coil of wire, “this is a microsecond”

  • Andi

    Col Beausabre,

    I think they are looking for patterns that do not correlate to the background noise, and assuming that said patterns, if found, were artificially generated.

  • Richard Malcolm

    While I am also deeply skeptical about the odds that SETI in anything like current form will discover anything, I also think we too readily model hypothetical alien civilizations on our own experience. It may well be that human technological development in the modern era is much faster than might be the case for others, not least thanks to our proclivity for massively destructive wars. At the risk of solipsism, I still marvel over the fact that we somehow went from the first powered flight to kicking up lunar regolith a quarter million miles away in just 66 years. Perhaps on Tau Ceti this kind of progression takes several millennia – though I concede that even *that* would be a kind of blink, just a moderately longer one, in context of the time frames we’re ultimately talking about.

  • Col Beausabre

    Ok, I’m gonna rain on this parade or to use a metaphor from my previous life, throw a bomb.

    SETI is NOT scientific, it is pseudoscience – a cult dressed up as science.

    What! You scream. Please allow me to explicate.

    Sir Karl Popper was a great philosopher of science

    One of his great insights was that for a theory to be scientific, it must be falsifiable. Example, there might be a Supreme Being, but no one knows how to prove there isn’t so belief in such an entity is the domain of religion or philosophy, not the sciences.

    We face the same problem with SETI, given the number of stars in the universe, searches can go on for decades, centuries, millennia (I’m reminded of the search for “The Meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything” in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy) with no positive result. At what point does someone conclude that the theory that extra-terrestrial life exists that is communicating in a way we can detect has been falsified ? It’s that arbitrary decision that makes the search unscientific .

    Ok, I asked for it. Let fly

  • Chris

    Have we reached the “Singularity” of … agreement?

  • wayne

    thank you! I knew it was some thing, like that.

  • Edward

    Col Beausabre wrote: “Ok, I asked for it. Let fly

    One of the main similarities is that neither God nor ET are theories. We tend to believe that they exist because we have a hard time imagining a universe without them. Since life started on our planet, we assume that there must also be other life somewhere else in the vast universe. Since the miracle of life started on our planet, we assume that there must be something (anthropomorphized) that is responsible.

    Since they are not theories but beliefs, falsifiability is not required. At best, these are hypotheses.

    I think that the main difference is that we believe that we might be able to find signs of ET, proving their existence scientifically, but until God pops ’round and introduces himself, he remains a mystery. At this point, how would we distinguish God from ET, or from any other being for that matter.

    By the way, as someone who identifies as a major deity (my gender identity from my teenage years, before it was fashionable to have a gender identity), let me introduce myself …

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