By RONDA GREGORY
News & Journal Staff Writer
The Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in Pocahontas County is a lead player, along with the Parkes Telescope in Australia, in a reinvigorated search for signs of other intelligent life in the universe. Both are the world’s two most powerful telescopes.
This unprecedented breakthrough global initiative to search for alien life launched in June by entrepreneur Yuri Milner and cosmologist Stephen Hawking. The 10-year, $100 million international effort – “Breakthrough Listen”- is the biggest scientific project of its kind ever, all in the scientific community agree.
It’s a colossal reboot of humanity’s first attempt 55 years ago to detect signs of alien life, said Earl Scime, chair of the West Virginia University Department of Physics and Astronomy. He reported that the search started in the 1960s “in the University’s backyard” and it’s one of the only places in the world where the search can be reignited.
Scime recounted that radio astronomer Frank Drake pioneered the search for extraterrestrial intelligence when he began Project Ozma at the Green Bank Telescope in the early 1960s. “Breakthrough Listen” will continue that effort in a bigger broader manner.
Using Green Bank’s high-powered instruments, scientists will mine data from the one million stars closest to Earth. And beyond the Milky Way, they will listen for signals from the closest galaxies.
“The enormous size of the Green Bank Telescope and the advanced technology that it offers make it the most sensitive radio telescope in the world,” Scime explained. “There are very few places in the world where you can conduct this type of research, and West Virginia is one of them.”
Maura McLaughlin, WVU Eberly distinguished professor of physics and astronomy who is also co-director of the NANOGrav Physics Frontiers Center, said that using the radio telescope is the way to go if we want to find alien life.
“If we do want to find out…that would be the best way to find it,” she stated. “Those radio waves travel very, very far. Radio waves don’t get absorbed or scattered as optical light does. Radio waves travel all the way through the galaxy better than anything else. We just can’t see as far as we can hear.”
She explained that the idea of using radio waves to detect extraterrestrial life is to see if someone else is out there transmitting, just as we do – cell phones, TV, etc.
McLaughlin said she believes there very well may be other lives in other galaxies: “It actually is a possibility. We don’t know how many civilizations may be out there, so it’s hard to estimate how many, but I’m sure it’s not zero.”
The 100-meter dish glides around a 360-degree track, making it able to view nearly 85 percent of the celestial sphere, he reported. Its sophisticated detectors allow it to record even the faintest signals from space.
The program, with large amounts of dedicated time at the Green Bank Telescope, is 50 times more sensitive and will cover 10 times more of the sky than any previous programs dedicated to searching for extraterrestrial intelligence, Scime stated.
And, the program will also scan at least five times more of the radio spectrum and will do it 100 times faster than ever. For example, if a civilization located around one of the 1,000 nearest stars transmitted to Earth with the power of common aircraft radar, the Green Bank Telescope could detect it, he said.
And another way in which this 21st search initiative is bigger than its 20th Century one is that, in tandem with a radio search, Automated Planet Finder Telescope at Lick Observatory in California, USA (“Lick Telescope”) “Breakthrough Listen” will undertake the world’s deepest and broadest search for optical laser transmissions.
“WVU has had a close relationship with the Green Bank Telescope for more than 10 years,” Scime stated. “Our researchers conduct experiments, our faculty teach undergraduate and graduate students, and we collaborate on educational opportunities for children at the site.”
A second initiative Milner and Hawking announced on the same day is “Breakthrough Message,” which will fund an international competition to generate messages representing humanity and planet Earth, which might one day be sent to planet Earth.
In 2013, WVU agreed to partner with the telescope to fund operations in exchange for dedicated operating time on the instrument. WVU faculty and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, which manages the site, also created the Pulsar Collaboratory to help encourage the next generation of scientists. WVU also received a federal grant to build a new detector for the telescope to increase its field of view, allowing it to map the sky three to five times faster.
McLaughlin said she and others are very pleased the funding for the search will help keep the Green Bank Telescope open for now and to even use it for other things. But, continued and additional funding is still vital to keep it running.