Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia

Credit: National Radio Astronomy Observatory

The Breakthrough Listen project, backed by Stephen Hawking, Mark Zuckerberg,  CEO of Cosmos Studios Ann Druyan and funded by physicist billionaire Yuri Milner, was launched just a little over two years ago. Breakthrough Listen is utilizing two of the world’s most powerful telescopes, the 210 feet Parkes Telescope in Australia and the 330 foot Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia. The powerful telescopes enables detecting at least five times more of the radio spectrum and doing so 100 times faster, while screening 10 times more of the sky than previous SETI programs. The project is also using the Automated Planet Finder (APF) Telescope at Lick Observatory in California to search for laser transmissions. The APF telescope is using techniques 1,000 times more effective than previous efforts to detect interstellar laser signals. Still with all this technology and manpower at work including crowdsourcing from SETI@home the vastness of space makes this an almost needle in haystack type search. But the $100 million, 10-year search for intelligent life in the universe has just detected 15 mysterious signals emanating from a dwarf galaxy 3 billion light-years away.

The signals from the dwarf galaxy, which hosts a radio source known as fast radio bursts FRB 121102, were detected by the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia on Aug. 26, as part of the Breakthrough Listen effort. FRBs last just a few milliseconds, but by monitoring and tracking the repeating bursts that are currently in a “heightened activity state,” the scientists were able to trace it back to the dwarf galaxy in the constellation Auriga. FRB 121102, was first discovered five years ago, and is the first FRB ever known to repeat. According to the scientists at Breakthrough Listen, via their report in The Astronomer’s Telegram, the discovery confirms that this is the first time FRBs have been detected at higher frequencies.

Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center and the Breakthrough Listen program, said in the news release: “Bursts from this source have never been seen at this high a frequency. Whether or not fast radio bursts turn out to be signatures of extraterrestrial technology, Breakthrough Listen is helping to push the frontiers of a new and rapidly growing area of our understanding of the universe around us.”

While there isn’t a good explanation yet for how these FRB’s are being generated the possibility of the signals coming from an advanced alien civilization has been mostly eliminated.