ET Life In Focus:
New Powerful Telescopes Will Search For Alien Intelligence

20 October, 2012

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Follow us: - Is anyone out there? Equipped with new, big instruments, astronomers can now look for signs of ET life in unexplored parts of the Universe. These telescopes are so powerful that they possess the ability to detect unintentional radio signals.

Astronomers still have a number of unanswered questions.

How do planetary systems form? What do the surfaces of stars look like? Does life exist elsewhere in the Universe? Astronomers have developed many theoretical models, but until now the ability to validate these with observations has been severely constrained by the telescope capabilities available.

This can all change in the near future. Cambridge astronomers are now developing bigger and better telescopes to open new windows onto the Universe.

The goal is to probe the Universe at a level of detail far beyond the capabilities of any telescope currently in existence. Each telescope will detect light at a different wavelength and help to build a fuller picture of exactly what is out there.

"When we look at regions of star formation with the best existing high-frequency radio telescope, we see blobs.

We can learn a lot by looking at the radio waves that come out of these, but inside there will be all sorts of complicated structures that the telescope can't resolve," said Dr John Richer, astrophysicist at the Cavendish Laboratory and the Kavli Institute for Cosmology.

"ALMA (Atacama Large Millimetre Array) is an incredible piece of engineering that will enable us to zoom in to take pictures with a thousand times better resolution than we can now, so we'll actually see all the detailed structure instead of blobs," said Professor Richard Hills, who is currently on secondment in Chile.

"We're hoping to unlock the secret of how planetary systems form, and to look back in time at the very early Universe."

With 33 of the antennas currently operational, the telescope is already returning stunning images. "The whole astronomical community wants to use ALMA because it's unique, and a huge breakthrough in capabilities," said Richer. "There's an unprecedented level of oversubscription, because nearly everything in the Universe has some emission at these radio wavelengths that is interesting and not well understood."

This picture of the ALMA antennas on the Chajnantor Plateau, 5000 m above sea level, was taken a few days before the start of ALMA Early Science. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/ J. Guarda (ALMA)

The Square Kilometer Array (SKA), will be the largest and most sensitive radio telescope ever, and its design involves astronomers, engineers and industry partners from 20 countries.

Involving a 'sea' of antennas - over half a million in the first phase - acting as one enormous interferometer covering 1 km2, the concept calls for a very simple design with low unit cost.

With one of its design goals being "to maximise the ability to explore the unknown", SKA will enable astronomers to see incredibly faint signals.

"With SKA we will be able to look back to the time when the first objects formed in the Universe, and try to understand how we got from there to what we have now," explained Alexander. "

A second experiment will use pulsars, originally discovered by Antony Hewish and Jocelyn Bell-Burnell in Cambridge, as extremely accurate natural clocks.

Finding a pulsar in orbit around a black hole will enable us to properly test Einstein's gravitational theory."

This extremely powerful telescope also provides an exciting new approach to the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI).

The Square Kilometer Array (SKA)

"The trouble with most SETI searches is that they rely on someone communicating with you just at the time when you're listening," said Alexander.

"SKA is so much more sensitive than anything we've had before. We'll be able to look for evidence of unintentional radio emissions, the equivalent of airport radar, from our nearby stars and planetary systems that may indicate intelligent life."

These powerful will be able to answer the intriguing question: "Is anyone out there?"

See also:

Aliens Living On Methane Worlds

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