Mysterious signal detected possibly coming from Proxima Centauri

The uncertainty of science: Breakthough Listen, the project funded to the tune of $100 million by billionaire Yuri Milner with the goal of listening for alien radio signals, in 2019 detected a single radio tone that appeared to be coming from the nearest star, Proxima Centauri.

A team had been using the Parkes radio telescope in Australia to study Proxima Centauri for signs of flares coming from the red dwarf star, in part to understand how such flares might affect Proxima’s planets. The system hosts at least two worlds. The first, dubbed Proxima b upon its discovery in 2016, is about 1.2 times the size of Earth and in an 11-day orbit. Proxima b resides in the star’s “habitable zone,” a hazily defined sector in which liquid water could exist upon a rocky planet’s surface—provided, that is, Proxima Centauri’s intense stellar flares have not sputtered away a world’s atmosphere. Another planet, the roughly seven-Earth-mass Proxima c, was discovered in 2019 in a frigid 5.2-year orbit.

Using Parkes, the astronomers had observed the star for 26 hours as part of their stellar-flare study, but, as is routine within the Breakthrough Listen project, they also flagged the resulting data for a later look to seek out any candidate SETI signals. The task fell to a young intern in Siemion’s SETI program at Berkeley, Shane Smith, who is also a teaching assistant at Hillsdale College in Michigan. Smith began sifting through the data in June of this year, but it was not until late October that he stumbled upon the curious narrowband emission, needle-sharp at 982.002 megahertz, hidden in plain view in the Proxima Centauri observations. From there, things happened fast—with good reason. “It’s the most exciting signal that we’ve found in the Breakthrough Listen project, because we haven’t had a signal jump through this many of our filters before,” says Sofia Sheikh from Penn State University, who helmed the subsequent analysis of the signal for Breakthrough Listen and is the lead author on an upcoming paper detailing that work, which will be published in early 2021. Soon, the team began calling the signal by a more formal name: BLC1, for “Breakthrough Listen Candidate 1.”

The data so far does not suggest this signal was produced by an alien technology. Instead, it likely is a spurious signal from some natural or human source, picked up by accident, as was the SETI “Wow” signal that for years puzzled astronomers until they traced it to a comet.

However, as they do not yet have an explanation, it is a mystery of some importance.

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.

Initial analysis of radio observations of Oumuamua detect no artificial signals

The initial analysis of the first set of radio observations of Oumuamua by Breakthrough Listen has so far not detected any artificial signals.

No such signals have been detected, although the analysis is not yet complete. So far, data from the S-band receiver (covering frequencies from 1.7 to 2.6 GHz) has been processed, and analysis of the remaining three bands is ongoing. A subset of the S-band data is now available for public inspection in the Breakthrough Listen archive3, and additional data will be added as it becomes available.

The data is stored in specialized formats, and analyzing it may be challenging for non-experts. We invite those who are interested to study the tutorial material provided by the Breakthrough Listen science team at the University of California, Berkeley, SETI Research Center and to assist with the analysis not only of this intriguing object, but of the entire Breakthrough Listen dataset.

They still plan three more observation sessions.

Breakthrough Listen to observe Ourmuamua

Breakthrough Listen, one of billionaire Yuri Milner’s Breakthrough initiatives, is going to do an observation campaign of the interstellar object Ourmuamua using the Green Bank Radio telescope.

It has a highly unusual structure for an asteroid – an elongated cigar shape, hundreds of meters in length but with width and height perhaps only one tenth as long.

Researchers working on long-distance space transportation have previously suggested that a cigar or needle shape is the most likely architecture for an interstellar spacecraft, since this would minimize friction and damage from interstellar gas and dust. While a natural origin is more likely, there is currently no consensus on what that origin might have been, and Breakthrough Listen is well positioned to explore the possibility that ‘Oumuamua could be an artifact.

Listen’s observation campaign will begin on Wednesday, December 13 at 3:00 pm ET. Using the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, it will continue to observe ‘Oumuamua across four radio bands, from 1 to 12 GHz. Its first phase of observations will last a total of 10 hours, divided into four “epochs” based on the object’s period of rotation.

If anything, this observation will provide us more information about Ourmuamua itself, which unfortunately is very limited because the object was already on its way out when it was discovered.

First results from Breakthrough Listen’s search for alien radio signals

Breakthrough Listen has released its first results from its search for extraterrestrial radio signals using the Greenbank Observatory in West Virginia.

Breakthrough Listen – the initiative to find signs of intelligent life in the universe – has released its 11 events ranked highest for significance as well as summary data analysis results. It is considered unlikely that any of these signals originate from artificial extraterrestrial sources, but the search continues. Further, Listen has submitted for publication (available April 20) in a leading astrophysics journal the analysis of 692 stars, comprising all spectral types, observed during its first year of observations with the Green Bank Telescope.

The press release tries to make a big deal about this data, but essentially what it boils down to is that so far they have found nothing that could indicate artificial radio signals coming from any of these stars.