What is your experience with Project Breakthrough?

Everyone can now search for signals from aliens in a new data set

The Breakthrough Listen initiative aims to find intelligent extraterrestrial life in space. To do this, she uses radio telescopes to listen for signals in the cosmos. Now the initiative has released two petabytes of raw data. This means that everyone can help with the analysis.

From Michael Förtsch

Behind the breakthrough list project, launched in 2015, is the Russian billionaire Yuri Borissowitsch Milner, who once co-founded the tech company Mail.Ru. But researchers such as Stephen Hawking, Frank Drake and Geoffrey Marcy have also supported the private initiative, which uses the Green Bank Observatory, the Automated Planet Finder and the Parkes Observatory to listen to the Milky Way for possible radio signals from intelligent extraterrestrial beings. The SETI Institute, founded in the 1980s, and the Berkeley SETI Research Center, which has existed since 2012, are pursuing very similar efforts.

"This is the largest ever release of SETI data in history," said Breakthrough List Chief Scientist Andrew Siemion. The data now released come from the radio spectrum between 1 and 12 gigahertz and were intercepted from the area that is most densely covered by stars in the galactic center of the Milky Way. It is precisely there, argues Siemion, that advanced civilizations could possibly exist, for example using the energy of a supermassive black hole to “signal their existence”.

Help through SETI @ Home

Breakthrough Lists published their first, but smaller, data set last year. The evaluation of all the data is now the real challenge in the search for possible signals from other civilizations. The initiative hopes, among other things, for support from developers of artificial intelligence who could find ways to work through the mountains of data quickly and without too much human involvement, to locate fluctuations and automatically compare them with known astrophysical phenomena.

Some of the data can already be loaded and analyzed via the crowdsourcing research project SETI @ Home of the University of California. The project at the University of California, Berkeley, has existed since 1999. Large blocks of data are split up into small individual parts, which are then loaded onto the home computer and examined for conspicuous fluctuations that deviate from the cosmic background noise. Corresponding findings are then forwarded to the scientists, who then check them by hand.

However, the SETI researchers do not only hope for possible evidence of extraterrestrial life. The huge amounts of data could also reveal known as well as completely unknown cosmic phenomena. These could include so-called pulsars, rapidly rotating neutron stars that emit recurring signals into space. Ultimately, says Breakthrough Listener Matt Lebofsky, "something new and interesting" is to be found in the noise of radio and space.

The data cannot simply be downloaded. However, if you want to help with the analysis outside of SETI @ Home, you can contact the initiative directly.

Teaser Image: Getty Images / Yuga Kurita