Breakthrough Listen, the largest scientific alien-hunting research program in the world, has just begun using a powerful new telescope to monitor what’s far beyond Earth.

The team announced the very first observations from the Parkes Radio Telescope in New South Wales, Australia, which joins two other telescopes operated by Breakthrough Listen (one’s in California and the other’s in West Virginia)

This new, third telescope is an instrument uniquely positioned to help us pinpoint signs of extraterrestrial civilizations that might resemble our own. “First light” for the Parkes telescope was an observation of red dwarf Proxima Centauri, of recent Proxima b fame.

Shining brightly in this Hubble image is our closest stellar neighbour: Proxima Centauri.
Shining brightly in this Hubble image is our closest stellar neighbour: Proxima Centauri.

“The chances of any particular planet hosting intelligent life-forms are probably minuscule,” Andrew Siemion, director of UC Berkeley SETI Research Center, told Breakthrough Initiatives. “But once we knew there was a planet right next door, we had to ask the question, and it was a fitting first observation for Parkes. To find a civilization just 4.2 light years away would change everything.”

The Parkes radio telescope
The Parkes radio telescope

Searching for Life from Down Under

Parkes is the third such telescope to be used for Breakthrough Listen, and has the advantage of a Southern Hemisphere perspective that its peers, both located in the United States, do not. Now that Parkes has been added to the Breakthrough roster and is officially, functionally up and running, the search for alien life is only ramping up. In the southern sky, it will search the centers of 100 nearby galaxies and 1,000 stars, including all 43 within five parsecs. As with the other telescopes, all the data Parkes gathers will be available to the public for free.

Since theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and entrepreneur Yuri Milner launched the project in 2015 with a 10-year projection and a budget of $100 million, Breakthrough Listen has leapfrogged to the very front of the search for extraterrestrial life. It plans to survey the 1 million stars closest to Earth. The Breakthrough Initiatives also include Breakthrough Message, a mission to design communication that could be understood by alien species, and Breakthrough Starshot, which aims to get an unmanned flight to Alpha Centauri.

Photos via ESA/Hubble & NASA,  Australia Telescope National Facility, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization