The National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank — the place where the world’s first scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence began in 1960 — will play a key role in the most powerful, comprehensive and intensive search ever undertaken for intelligent life in the universe starting in January.
The observatory’s 100-meter Green Bank Telescope, the world’s largest fully steerable radiotelescope, will team with the 64-meter Parkes Telescope in Australia in a 10-year, $100 million, privately funded search that will scan the nearest million stars in our own galaxy as well as stars in 100 other galaxies for radio signatures that would indicate the presence of an advanced civilization.
The project, called the Breakthrough Listen, is funded by the Breakthrough Prize Foundation and will channel $2 million a year for the next 10 years to the Green Bank Telescope under the terms of a recently signed contract.
The Breakthrough Prize Foundation and Project Breakthrough Listen are funded by Russian Internet entrepreneur Yuri Milner.
Breakthrough Listen will be 50 times more sensitive and cover 10 times more sky than all previous searches. In association with the search by the Green Bank and Parkes telescopes, the project will involve the world’s deepest and broadest search for optical laser transmissions — another likely indicator of extraterrestrial life — through the Automated Planet Finder Telescope at the Lick Observatory in California.
According to a release from the NRAO, the search by the GBT and the Parkes Telescope will, in addition to surveying the 1 million stars closest to Earth, scan the center of our galaxy and the entire galactic plane, and search for messages from the 100 closest galaxies beyond the Milky Way.
The $2 million a year in observation time could help the Pocahontas County facility prove to the National Science Foundation, which previously announced plans to drop financial support for the observatory in 2017, that it is progressing toward self-sufficiency and deserves consideration from the NSF for at least partial funding.
“The income from this project will put us at about $6 million a year, which shows we’re making major strides to pay our own way,” said said Mike Holstine, Green Bank’s director of operations. “I think it’s fairly clear now that the NSF doesn’t want us to go away or to entirely stop funding us.”
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