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Breakthrough Listen to Collaborate with NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) Team to Look for Signs of Advanced Extraterrestrial Life

Press Release From: Breakthrough Initiatives
Posted: Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Breakthrough Listen, the initiative to find signs of intelligent life in the universe, announced today, at the International Astronautical Congress in Washington, DC, a new collaboration with scientists working on NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).

 

The new collaboration will be led by TESS Deputy Science Director, MIT Professor Sara Seager; S. Pete Worden, Executive Director of the Breakthrough Initiatives; Dr. Andrew Siemion, leader of the Breakthrough Listen science team at the University of California, Berkeley’s SETI Research Center (BSRC); and will engage Listen partners and collaborators worldwide.

 

The TESS and Listen collaboration will expand Breakthrough Listen’s target list (adding over 1000 “objects of interest” identified by TESS); refine Listen’s analysis strategy (for example, utilizing new knowledge about planetary alignments to predict when transmissions might be more likely to occur); and provide more meaningful statistics in the event of non-detections.

 

Observations will take place using Listen’s primary facilities (the Green Bank and Parkes Telescopes[1],[2], MeerKAT[3], and the Automated Planet Finder), as well as partner facilities including VERITAS[4], NenuFAR, FAST[5], the Murchison Widefield Array, LOFAR stations in Ireland and Sweden, Jodrell Bank Observatory and e-MERLIN[6], Keck Observatory, and the Sardinia Radio Telescope, along with the SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array[7].

 

“It’s exciting that the world’s most powerful SETI search, with our partner facilities across the globe, will be collaborating with the TESS team and our most capable planet-hunting machine,” remarked Dr. Worden. “We’re looking forward to working together as we try to answer one of the most profound questions about our place in the Universe: Are we alone?”

 

The TESS mission measures “lightcurves” (how the brightness of stars changes over time) to look for telltale dips caused by “transits” - where a planet passes in front of the star as viewed from Earth. The cutting-edge instruments on TESS are sensitive enough to detect small, rocky planets similar to Earth. Such planets are prime targets for follow-up by NASA programs, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, that seek to measure planetary atmospheres. Careful measurements of atmospheric composition could result in the detection of “biosignatures” - indicators that biological processes may be taking place on worlds other than Earth.

 

As well as looking for biosignatures, astrobiologists search for “technosignatures” - indicators of technology that may have been developed by advanced civilizations. Also known as SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), technosignature searches use powerful telescopes to look for signals coming from space that appear to have arisen from transmitters, propulsion devices, or other engineering. No unambiguous technosignatures have been seen to date, but the chances of detection are higher than they have ever been, in large part due to Breakthrough Listen - the most sensitive, comprehensive, and intensive search for advanced life on other worlds ever performed[8]. Listen is using facilities across the globe, including cutting-edge optical telescopes, to search for powerful lasers, and the world’s most capable radio telescopes to search for signals over a wide range of the radio spectrum.

 

In the past three decades over 4,000 exoplanets have been discovered - many by TESS’s predecessor, the Kepler spacecraft. According to recent estimates, the average number of planets per star is greater than one. As a result, technosignature searches operate in a “target-rich” environment, observing stars whether or not confirmed planets are known to exist around them. Nevertheless, as the haul of confirmed exoplanets continues to grow, the additional information about these systems is very useful for optimizing SETI strategies.

 

Launched in April 2018, TESS has four wide-field cameras, each monitoring a region of sky 24 degrees across (about the width of the span of your hand when held at arm’s length). Lightcurves for 20,000 stars are measured every 2 minutes, and in addition, the brightness of every pixel in the cameras is recorded every 30 minutes.

 

TESS will observe over 85% of the sky - around 400 times more than Kepler - and is predicted to find as many as 10,000 new planets. Most of the TESS targets are considerably closer to Earth than those viewed by Kepler, enabling technosignature searches to probe for fainter transmitters. And because TESS only sees planets that pass in front of their host star as viewed from Earth, all the planetary systems it detects will be edge-on. A large fraction (roughly 70%) of radio leakage from Earth-based transmitters is emitted in the plane of Earth’s orbit; if the same is true for any transmitters developed by extraterrestrial intelligence, observing the systems edge-on will offer the best chance of detection.

 

In addition to targeting of TESS planets with Listen facilities, the TESS lightcurves themselves will be searched for anomalies. A planet transit produces a well-understood variation in detected light from the star, but large-scale engineering projects (for example, “megastructures” constructed in orbit) could block the stellar light in more complex ways. The TESS analysis pipeline is in essence a wide-field anomaly detector, and stars that behave strangely are interesting not just as technosignature candidates, but as potential laboratories for studying interesting astrophysics.

 

“The discovery by the Kepler spacecraft of Boyajian’s Star, an object with wild, and apparently random, variations in its lightcurve, sparked great excitement and a range of possible explanations, of which megastructures were just one,” said Dr. Siemion. “Follow-up observations have suggested that dust particles in orbit around the star are responsible for the dimming, but studies of anomalies like this are expanding our knowledge of astrophysics, as well as casting a wider net in the search for technosignatures.”

 

“We are very enthusiastic about joining the Breakthrough Listen SETI search,” said Prof. Sara Seager. “Out of all the exoplanet endeavors only SETI holds the promise for identifying signs of intelligent life.”

 

Breakthrough Listen is a scientific program in search for evidence of technological life in the Universe. It aims to survey one million nearby stars, the entire galactic plane and 100 nearby galaxies at a wide range of radio and optical bands.

 

The Breakthrough Initiatives are a suite of scientific and technological programs, founded by Yuri Milner, investigating life in the Universe. Along with Breakthrough Listen, they include Breakthrough Watch, an optical search for Earth-like planets in the habitable zones of nearby stars; and Breakthrough Starshot, the first significant attempt to design and develop a space probe capable of reaching another star.

https://breakthroughinitiatives.org/

 

Yuri Milner founded DST Global, which has become one of the world’s leading technology investors and its portfolio has included some of the world's most prominent internet companies, such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Airbnb, Spotify, Alibaba, and others.

 

Yuri lives in Silicon Valley with his family. He graduated in 1985 with an advanced degree in theoretical physics and subsequently conducted research in quantum field theory. Yuri and his wife Julia have partnered with Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, Pony Ma, and Anne Wojcicki to fund the Breakthrough Prizes – the world’s largest scientific awards, honoring important, primarily recent, achievements in Fundamental Physics, Life Sciences and Mathematics. In July 2015, together with Stephen Hawking, Yuri launched the $100 million Breakthrough Listen initiative to reinvigorate the search for extraterrestrial intelligence in the Universe; and in April 2016 they launched Breakthrough Starshot – a $100 million research and engineering program seeking to develop a technology for interstellar travel.

 

More information about TESS: https://tess.mit.edu/

Berkeley SETI: http://seti.berkeley.edu

Breakthrough Initiatives: https://breakthroughinitiatives.org/

 

For media inquiries:  media@breakthroughprize.org

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