Breakthrough Listen

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The Green Bank Telescope is one of the radio telescopes used by the project.

Breakthrough Listen is a science-based program to search for intelligent extraterrestrial communications in the Universe.[1][2] With $100 million in funding and thousands of hours of dedicated telescope time on state-of-the-art facilities,[3] it is the most comprehensive search for alien communications to date.[1][4] The project began in January 2016, and is expected to continue for 10 years[5]. It is a component of Yuri Milner's Breakthrough Initiatives program. The science program for Breakthrough Listen is based at Berkeley SETI Research Center[6][7], located in the Astronomy Department[8] at the University of California, Berkeley.

The project uses radio wave observations from the Green Bank Observatory and the Parkes Observatory, and visible light observations from the Automated Planet Finder.[9] Targets for the project include one million nearby stars and the centers of 100 galaxies. All data generated from the project are available to the public, and [email protected] is used for some of the data analysis. The first results were published in April 2017, with further updates expected every 6 months.[10]


The project aims to discover signs of extraterrestrial civilizations by searching stars and galaxies for radio signals and laser transmissions. The search for radio signals is carried out on the Green Bank Telescope in the Northern Hemisphere and the Parkes Telescope in the Southern Hemisphere. The Green Bank Telescope is the world's largest steerable radio telescope, and the Parkes Telescope is the second largest telescope in the Southern Hemisphere.[11][12]

Together, the radio telescopes will cover ten times more sky than previous searches and scan the entire 1-to-10 GHz range, the so-called "quiet zone" in the spectrum where radio waves are unobscured by cosmic sources or Earth's atmosphere.[13]

The radio telescopes are sensitive enough to detect "Earth-leakage" levels of radio transmission from stars within 5 parsecs,[14] and can detect a transmitter of the same power as a common aircraft radar from the 1,000 nearest stars.[15] The Green Bank Telescope began operations in January 2016, with the Parkes Telescope due to join it in October 2016.[14] The FAST radiotelescope in China also joined forces in October 2016 with the Breakthrough Initiatives to launch a coordinated search, including the rapid sharing of promising new signals for additional observation and analysis.[16]

The search for optical laser transmissions is carried out by the Automated Planet Finder of Lick Observatory.[17] The telescope has the sensitivity to detect a 100 watt laser from a star 25 trillion miles (4.25 light years) away.[15]


Physicist Stephen Hawking was among the scientists who co-signed an open letter of support for Breakthrough Listen.

Breakthrough Listen was announced to the public on July 20, 2015 (the anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing) by Milner at London's Royal Society. The event was flanked by scientists such as Frank Drake, who is known for the Drake equation that estimates the number of detectable alien civilizations, and Geoff Marcy, an astronomer who has helped find hundreds of exoplanets.[18] The announcement included an open letter co-signed by multiple scientists, including physicist Stephen Hawking, expressing support for an intensified search for alien life.[1][19] During the public launch, Hawking said:

"In an infinite Universe, there must be other life. There is no bigger question. It is time to commit to finding the answer."[1]


The project is the most comprehensive search for alien communications to date.[1] It is estimated that the project will generate as much data in one day as previous SETI projects generated in one year.[1] Compared to previous programs, the radio surveys cover 10 times more of the sky, at least 5 times more of the radio spectrum, and work 100 times faster.[20] The optical laser survey is also the deepest and broadest search in history.[20]

Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, describes that "We would typically get 24–36 hours on a telescope per year, but now we'll have thousands of hours per year on the best instruments...It's difficult to overstate how big this is. It's a revolution."[21]


As of April 2016, the targets for the radio search with the Green Bank Radio Telescope in the Northern Hemisphere include the following:[14]

The Parkes Radio Telescope will cover similar targets in the Southern Hemisphere from 1–4 GHz, and also the galactic plane and center.[14]

The targets for the Automated Planet Finder will closely match those of the Green Bank radio search, with small adjustments due to the telescope's much smaller field of view.[14]

While the telescopes are observing, the current targets of the Green Bank Radio Telescope and the Automated Planet Finder can be viewed live at the Berkeley Seti Research Center.

In January 2017, the project published its initial targets, which are the 60 nearest stars and a further 1649 stars which are the closest representatives of each spectral type[22]. The initial targets also include 123 galaxies which cover all morphological types of galaxies[22].

In December 2017, Harvard University Astronomy Professor Avi Loeb, an adviser to the Breakthrough Listen Project, cited interstellar asteroid ʻOumuamua's unusually elongated shape as one of the reasons why the Green Bank Telescope would listen for radio emissions from it to see if there were any unexpected signs that it might be of artificial origin,[23] although earlier limited observations by other radio telescopes such as the SETI Institute's Allen Telescope Array had produced no such results.[24]

Data processing

Analyzing radio observations for possible signals requires intensive data analysis to cover all of the possible signal types. To carry out an in-depth search, the data recorder at the Green Bank telescope has been significantly upgraded[25]. The system records 6Ghz of bandwidth at 24GB of data per second, making it among the highest data rate recording systems in radio astronomy, and there is a plan to double its capabilities in the near future[25]. Once this data has been recorded, it is analysed for signals using a computing cluster with 64 GTX 1080 GPUs.[25]

All data generated from Breakthrough Listen project will be open to the public.[26] The data is uploaded on the initiative's Open Data Archive, where any user can download it for software analysis. Breakthrough Initiatives are developing open source software to assist users in understanding and analyzing the data, which are available on GitHub under UCBerkeleySETI.[26]

The data is also processed by the [email protected] volunteer computer network, with the first batch of data being made available to [email protected] in April 2016.[27]


The project is funded with $100 million from Yuri Milner.[28] One third of this funding will be used to purchase telescope time.[29] So far, the project has signed contracts for around 20 percent of the time on the Green Bank Telescope for the next five years, and 25 percent of the time on the Parkes Telescope.[11][30] Another third will be used for the development of new equipment to receive and process potential signals,[29] and the final third will be used to hire astronomy staff.[31]

Project leadership

  • Frank Drake, chairman emeritus, SETI Institute; professor emeritus of astronomy and astrophysics, University of California, Santa Cruz; founding director, National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center; former Goldwin Smith Professor of Astronomy, Cornell University.
  • Ann Druyan, creative director of the Voyager Interstellar Message, NASA Voyager; co-founder and CEO, Cosmos Studios; Emmy Award- and Peabody Award-winning writer and producer.
  • Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, Fellow of Trinity College; emeritus professor of cosmology and astrophysics, University of Cambridge.
  • Andrew Siemion, director, Berkeley SETI Research Center.[32]
  • Dan Werthimer, co-founder and chief scientist of the [email protected] project; director of SERENDIP; principal investigator for CASPER.
  • Pete Worden, chairman, Breakthrough Prize Foundation.


In April 2017, the project released its first set of results, covering the observations of 692 nearby stars at frequencies from 1.1-1.9Ghz (the L-band).[10][33] These observations included 11 events which passed the threshold for significance, but it was concluded that they were all consistent with radio frequency interference.[33] A summary of the observations and the raw data relating to them has been published online. The project plans to continue publishing updated results approximately every 6 months.[10]

The project has begun at lower frequencies as these have a lower frequency range which is easier to record and process, and plans eventually to observe in a wide range of frequencies from 1.15Ghz to 93Ghz.[25]

On August 30, 2017, Breakthrough Listen said it picked a series of 15 radio bursts coming from a dwarf galaxy about 3 billion light years away.[34] Breakthrough Listen researchers said the possibility of source being extraterrestrial life can't be ruled out as yet. The radio emissions were detected by the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia. The source is FRB 121102 which was already known but the activity was vastly different in the latest findings.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f Merali, Zeeya (20 July 2015). "Search for extraterrestrial intelligence gets a $100-million boost. Russian billionaire Yuri Milner announces most comprehensive hunt for alien life". Nature News. Retrieved 20 July 2015.
  2. ^ Rundle, Michael (20 July 2015). "$100m Breakthrough Listen is 'largest ever' search for alien civilisations". Wired. Retrieved 20 July 2015.
  3. ^ "Breakthrough detects 15 radio bursts from dwarf galaxy; might be from 'alien' spacecraft".
  4. ^ Rundle, Michael (20 July 2015). "$100m Breakthrough Listen is 'largest ever' search for alien civilisations". Wired. Retrieved 20 July 2015.
  5. ^ "Breakthrough Initiatives". Retrieved 2017-06-09.
  6. ^ "Berkeley SETI". Retrieved 2017-09-21.
  7. ^ "Breakthrough Initiatives". Retrieved 2017-09-21.
  8. ^ "Breakthrough Listen Initiative - News from Department of Astronomy". Retrieved 2017-09-21.
  9. ^ Sample, Ian (20 July 2015). "Anybody out there? $100m radio wave project to scan far regions for alien life". The Guardian. Retrieved 20 July 2015.
  10. ^ a b c "Breakthrough Listen Initiative Publishes Initial Results".
  11. ^ a b "Green Bank Telescope Joins 'Breakthrough Listen' - NRAO: Revealing the Hidden Universe". Retrieved 2016-04-14.
  12. ^ "Breakthrough Initiatives". Retrieved 2016-04-14.
  13. ^ "A Russian Tycoon Is Spending $100 Million to Hunt for Aliens". WIRED. Retrieved 2016-04-14.
  14. ^ a b c d e "Breakthrough Initiatives". Retrieved 2016-04-14.
  15. ^ a b Brodkin, Jon. "$100 million search for aliens will listen for messages from 100 galaxies". Ars Technica. Retrieved 24 July 2015.
  16. ^ "National Astronomical Observatories of China, Breakthrough Initiatives Launch Global Collaboration in Search for Intelligent life in the Universe". Breakthrough Initiatives. Astrobiology Web. 12 October 2016. Retrieved 2016-10-14.
  17. ^ "Listen". Breakthrough Initiatives. Retrieved 24 July 2015.
  18. ^ Zhang, Sarah. "A Russian Tycoon Is Spending $100 Million to Hunt for Aliens". Wired. Retrieved 11 August 2015.
  19. ^ Vella, Matt (21 July 2015). "Read the Inspiring 'Questions of Existence' Letter from the World's Greatest Thinkers". Time. Retrieved 21 July 2015.
  20. ^ a b "Breakthrough Initiatives". Retrieved 2016-04-14.
  21. ^ "Search for extraterrestrial intelligence gets a $100-million boost". Nature News & Comment. Retrieved 2016-04-14.
  22. ^ a b "The Breakthrough Listen Search for Intelligent Life: Target Selection of Nearby Stars and Galaxies" (PDF).
  23. ^ Ian Sample (Science editor) (December 11, 2017). "Astronomers to check interstellar body for signs of alien technology". The Guardian. Retrieved December 12, 2017. Green Bank telescope in West Virginia will listen for radio signals from ‘Oumuamua, an object from another solar system ... "Most likely it is of natural origin, but because it is so peculiar, we would like to check if it has any sign of artificial origin, such as radio emissions," said Avi Loeb, professor of astronomy at Harvard University and an adviser to the Breakthrough Listen project. "If we do detect a signal that appears artificial in origin, we'll know immediately." ... While many astronomers believe the object is an interstellar asteroid, its elongated shape is unlike anything seen in the asteroid belt in our own solar system. Early observations of ‘Oumuamua show that it is about 400m long but only one tenth as wide. "It's curious that the first object we see from outside the solar system looks like that," said Loeb.
  24. ^ Billings, Lee (11 December 2017). "Alien Probe or Galactic Driftwood? SETI Tunes In to ʻOumuamua". Scientific American. Retrieved 2017-12-12. So far limited observations of ‘Oumuamua, using facilities such as the SETI Institute's Allen Telescope Array, have turned up nothing.
  25. ^ a b c d "The Breakthrough Listen Search for Intelligent Life: A Wideband Data Recorder System for the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope" (PDF).
  26. ^ a b "Breakthrough Initiatives". Retrieved 2016-04-14.
  27. ^ "Breakthrough Initiatives". Retrieved 2016-04-14.
  28. ^ Toor, Amar. "Yuri Milner will spend $100 million to look for aliens". The Verge. Retrieved 24 July 2015.
  29. ^ a b ""Breakthrough Listen": Giant Leap for SETI - Sky & Telescope". Sky & Telescope. Retrieved 2016-04-14.
  30. ^ CSIRO. "CSIRO and Internet investor Yuri Milner strike deal for ET search". Retrieved 2016-04-14.
  31. ^ Overbye, Dennis (2015-07-20). "Stephen Hawking Joins Russian Entrepreneur's Search for Alien Life". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2016-04-14.
  32. ^ "Breakthrough Initiatives". Breakthrough Initiatives. Retrieved 24 July 2015.
  33. ^ a b "The Breakthrough Listen Search for Advanced Life: 1.1-1.9Ghz Observations of 692 Nearby Stars" (PDF).
  34. ^ "Alien-hunting Breakthrough Listen project tracks strange series of 15 radio bursts". GeekWire. 2017-08-30. Retrieved 2017-09-01.

External links

  • Breakthrough Listen, Breakthrough Initiatives website
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