Article image

Massive telescope array is joining the hunt for alien life

In an unprecedented effort to search for signs of extraterrestrial life, the National Science Foundation’s Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) is now participating in the hunt for techno signatures from alien life in the universe.

Located approximately 50 miles west of Socorro, New Mexico, the VLA is one of the world’s most powerful radio telescope arrays. By collecting and analyzing data for emissions that only artificial transmitters produce, researchers hope to uncover evidence of a technically advanced society beyond our own.

According to Andrew Siemion, Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI at the SETI Institute, “The VLA is the go-to instrument for radio astronomers, but this is the first time we are using it in a wide-ranging and continuous search for technosignatures.” 

The VLA, which consists of 27 antennas spread over 23 miles of desert terrain, has been engaged in a project called VLASS (Very Large Array Sky Survey) since 2017. This survey aims to provide a radio reconnaissance of 80 percent of the sky.

While conducting VLASS observations, researchers will tap into the signal distribution network, diverting a copy of the data to a specialized receiver with very narrow (approximately one hertz wide) channels. This process will allow them to identify narrow-band components in signals from deliberately constructed transmitters, differentiating them from naturally occurring signals.

The technology behind the SETI project

The new processing system for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is called COSMIC – the Commensal Open-Source Multimode Interferometer Cluster. This initiative is led by the SETI Institute, in collaboration with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and the Breakthrough Listen Initiative. 

“COSMIC operates commensally, which means it works in the background using a copy of the data astronomers are taking for other scientific purposes. This is an ideal and very efficient way to get large amounts of telescope time to search for rare signals,” said VLA expert Paul Demorest.

Unlike many previous SETI observations, the new experiment can recognize a wide variety of transmissions, including pulsed and transient signals. With an unprecedented range of frequencies to be monitored, the tally of star systems examined will be approximately ten million.

Since the beginning of 2023, the COSMIC system has been detecting signals from the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which is currently about 15 billion miles away and is the most distant human-made object. These detections have helped verify the operation of individual antennas in the array, as well as their ability to combine observations to produce clear results.

Jack Hickish, Founder of Real-Time Radio Systems Ltd., stated: “The detection of Voyager 1 is an exciting demonstration of the capabilities of the COSMIC system. It is the culmination of an enormous amount of work from an international team of scientists and engineers.” 

He went on to say that the COSMIC system serves as a testbed for technosignatures research on upcoming radio telescopes like NRAO’s Next Generation VLA.

How this addition will improve the SETI program

With the unparalleled sensitivity of the VLA combined with the COSMIC system, this SETI search will be about a thousand times more comprehensive than any previous effort. 

Historically, significant advancements in the sensitivity and range of exploratory experiments have often led to the detection of a signal. If this holds true, we may soon uncover a radio whisper that tells us we are not the only intelligent inhabitants of the Milky Way Galaxy.

Tony Beasley, Director of the NRAO, expressed enthusiasm for the collaboration, stating, “The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is proud to partner with the SETI Institute in this exciting initiative. Partnerships bringing together world-class research instruments, private research institutes, and members of the public personally committed to forefront science can enable new important discoveries.” 

The joint efforts of these organizations, along with the support and dedication of the scientific community, are essential in pushing the boundaries of our understanding of the universe.

As the VLA and COSMIC continue their search for extraterrestrial life, researchers and scientists around the world eagerly await the results. If successful, the discovery of technosignatures would mark a turning point in human history, reshaping our understanding of our place in the cosmos and opening up new avenues for scientific exploration and collaboration.

However, even if this search does not yield immediate results, the data collected will still contribute valuable information to other areas of astronomical research. 

The massive amount of data gathered from the VLA and COSMIC could potentially reveal new insights into the formation and evolution of galaxies, the distribution of dark matter, and the nature of mysterious cosmic phenomena such as fast radio bursts.

Great hopes for this collaboration

Ultimately, the search for technosignatures is not only a quest to find extraterrestrial life but also a journey to expand our understanding of the universe and our place within it. 

The collaboration between the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, the SETI Institute, and the Breakthrough Listen Initiative exemplifies the power of interdisciplinary cooperation in addressing some of the most profound questions facing humanity today.

As our knowledge and technology continue to advance, we may one day find the answers we seek, confirming or refuting the existence of other intelligent life forms in the vast expanse of the Milky Way.

 Until then, the dedicated efforts of researchers, scientists, and institutions involved in the search for technosignatures will continue to push the boundaries of our understanding and inspire future generations to explore the stars.

More about SETI and the hunt for technosignatures

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is a collective term for the scientific efforts to detect and analyze signals from potential intelligent extraterrestrial life forms. 

The concept of SETI dates back to the early 1960s when pioneering astronomer Frank Drake conducted the first radio search for extraterrestrial civilizations. Over the years, SETI projects have expanded and evolved, incorporating new technologies and methods to search for signs of intelligent life beyond Earth.

One of the primary targets of SETI research is the detection of technosignatures, which are signals or indicators of advanced technology created by extraterrestrial civilizations. Technosignatures can take various forms, such as narrowband radio signals, laser pulses, or even the waste heat generated by advanced technologies. 

The focus on technosignatures stems from the assumption that intelligent extraterrestrial life forms would develop and use technology similar to or more advanced than our own, leaving detectable traces in the electromagnetic spectrum.

Radio signals have been the primary focus of SETI research for several reasons. First, radio waves can travel vast interstellar distances with minimal attenuation or interference, making them an ideal medium for long-range communication. 

Second, the development of radio technology on Earth has provided scientists with a foundation for understanding and interpreting potential extraterrestrial signals. Finally, radio telescopes, such as the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA), have become more advanced, allowing for more sensitive and comprehensive searches for technosignatures.

How SETI searches for technosignatures

While the search for technosignatures has primarily focused on radio signals, other forms of electromagnetic radiation, such as optical and infrared wavelengths, are also being explored. 

For instance, the search for extraterrestrial laser pulses or “optical SETI” is an area of growing interest. These efforts aim to detect pulsed or continuous laser emissions that could be indicative of advanced communication or propulsion systems.

The hunt for technosignatures is a challenging endeavor, as it requires the ability to distinguish artificial signals from natural astrophysical phenomena. Researchers must account for various sources of interference, such as cosmic noise, human-made radio frequency interference, and natural signals emitted by celestial objects like pulsars and quasars.

Despite the challenges, the search for technosignatures has generated significant public interest and captured the imagination of scientists and the general public alike. While no conclusive evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence has been discovered thus far, the ongoing search for technosignatures continues to drive advancements in radio astronomy, signal processing, and our understanding of the cosmos.

In recent years, SETI efforts have expanded with the support of private organizations, such as the Breakthrough Listen Initiative, which aims to search for intelligent life on a much larger scale than ever before. 

By leveraging advanced technologies, enhanced signal processing methods, and the dedication of researchers worldwide, the search for technosignatures holds the potential to answer one of humanity’s most profound questions: Are we alone in the universe?

Image Credit: VLA/NRAO


Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day