NC tele­scope look­ing for ET


THE MEERKAT tele­scope, sit­u­ated in the heart of the North­ern Cape, is set to as­sist the world’s big­gest Search for Ex­trater­res­trial In­tel­li­gence (SETI) pro­gramme in its search for ex­trater­res­trial sig­nals and tech­nosig­na­tures.

Ex­pand­ing its global net­work to the African con­ti­nent, Break­through Lis­ten (the world’s big­gest SETI pro­gramme) will em­ploy the North­ern Cape’s MeerKAT tele­scope in a pow­er­ful new search of a mil­lion nearby stars.

Break­through Lis­ten, the global ini­tia­tive to seek signs of in­tel­li­gent life in the uni­verse, has an­nounced at the In­ter­na­tional Astro­nau­ti­cal Congress the com­mence­ment of a ma­jor new pro­gramme with the MeerKAT tele­scope in part­ner­ship with the South African Ra­dio As­tron­omy Ob­ser­va­tory.

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,” Yuri Mil­ner, founder of the Break­through Ini­tia­tives said.

“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 the North­ern Cape.

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 me­tres 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 me­tres across South Africa and Aus­tralia to cre­ate by far the world’s largest ra­dio tele­scope.

The Break­through Ini­tia­tives’ ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, Pete Wor­den, com­mented that “Break­through Lis­ten and MeerKAT are de­vel­op­ing next-gen­er­a­tion tech­nol­ogy and tech­niques that will ul­ti­mately lead to pro­pos­als for searches with the Square Kilo­me­tre Ar­ray. This is an ex­cit­ing mo­ment for SETI and ra­dio as­tron­omy in gen­eral”.

Break­through Lis­ten’s in­volve­ment adds the ca­pa­bil­ity to search for tech­nosig­na­tures – sig­nals that in­di­cate the pres­ence of tech­nol­ogy on an alien world, and hence pro­vide ev­i­dence that in­tel­li­gent life ex­ists else­where.

MeerKAT was con­structed in pur­suit of a num­ber of key sci­ence goals, from sur­vey­ing dis­tant gal­ax­ies, study­ing ex­plo­sive events such as su­per­novae and map­ping the dis­tri­bu­tion of hy­dro­gen gas in the early uni­verse.

As at other fa­cil­i­ties un­der­tak­ing Lis­ten’s ra­dio search, the new ca­pa­bil­i­ties have been en­abled by the lat­est dig­i­tal in­stru­men­ta­tion in­stalled by sci­en­tists and en­gi­neers from the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley SETI Re­search Cen­ter (BSRC).

Un­like the case with the Green Bank and Parkes te­le­scopes, how­ever, the Break­through Lis­ten team will rarely use MeerKAT as its sole ob­server. Rather, observations will oc­cur in a com­men­sal mode – at the same time as other as­tro­physics pro­grammes.

Us­ing so­phis­ti­cated pro­cess­ing, Break­through Lis­ten sci­en­tists will dig­i­tally point the tele­scope at tar­gets of in­ter­est. This means that the Break­through Lis­ten in­stru­ment at MeerKAT will be op­er­at­ing al­most con­tin­u­ously, scan­ning the skies for signs of in­tel­li­gent life.

“With this new in­stru­ment we’ll be able to form many beams at the same time, ob­tain­ing high res­o­lu­tion data for mul­ti­ple ob­jects si­mul­ta­ne­ously,” Break­through Lis­ten’s prin­ci­pal in­ves­ti­ga­tor, Dr An­drew Siemion, said.

“This com­ple­ments and ex­tends our ca­pa­bil­i­ties at other te­le­scopes, en­abling us to sur­vey our cos­mic neigh­bour­hood for tech­nosig­na­tures faster than ever be­fore.”

Justin Jonas, chief tech­nol­o­gist at SARAO, said: “We de­signed MeerKAT to be a flex­i­ble in­stru­ment that would pro­vide stan­dard in­ter­faces to user-sup­plied equip­ment and also al­low for com­men­sal ob­serv­ing. It is very sat­is­fy­ing that th­ese two de­sign el­e­ments have made the Break­through Lis­ten project pos­si­ble, al­low­ing for a sig­nif­i­cant ex­pan­sion of the orig­i­nal MeerKAT func­tion­al­ity.”

“Our new sys­tem is a small su­per­com­puter,” ex­plained Dr Grif­fin Fos­ter, project sci­en­tist for Break­through Lis­ten on MeerKAT.

“The pow­er­ful Break­through Lis­ten hard­ware will en­able us to look for in­ter­est­ing sig­nals in real time and save the rel­e­vant data prod­ucts to our on-site data archive.”

The Break­through Lis­ten sys­tem on the MeerKAT tele­scope will have a to­tal in­put data rate of about four ter­abits per sec­ond (4 000 gi­ga­bits per sec­ond), which is about 40 thou­sand times faster than a typ­i­cal home in­ter­net con­nec­tion.

Pro­fes­sor Michael Gar­rett, di­rec­tor of the Jo­drell

Bank Cen­tre for As­tro­physics (JBCA) in the United King­dom (a Break­through Lis­ten part­ner fa­cil­ity) and a co-in­ves­ti­ga­tor on Break­through’s MeerKAT Pro­gram, re­marked: “This de­vel­op­ment rep­re­sents a step-change for SETI re­search. Em­ploy­ing a large dis­trib­uted ar­ray of highly sen­si­tive ra­dio te­le­scopes like MeerKAT is re­ally a no-brainer, of­fer­ing many ad­van­tages over large sin­gle dish sur­veys.

“The Break­through Lis­ten MeerKAT project can be a pow­er­ful new tool for SETI with the po­ten­tial to com­pletely trans­form the field.”

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